Fakin’ It: Exploration Hoaxes, Part I

In exploration, hoaxes are acts of deception for personal gain. People want fame, money or the trappings, so they claim to have achieved a milestone, despite falling short. Often they really tried; sometimes they set out to deceive from the start.

Exploration history is rife with deception. Centuries ago, travelers simply reported wild rumors, perhaps embellishing to create a better story. But hoaxes aren’t the same as falsehoods or errors. They are more conscious and usually more elaborate. Here are some classics:

  1. Robert Peary reaches the North Pole

Robert Peary died in 1920 at age 65, after spending his last years maintaining a lie: that he was the first person to reach the North Pole.

Nowadays, the North Pole is often considered the first of the frivolous exploration goals. “Discovering” it doesn’t let a country claim new land, since it lies in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. You don’t see anything when you get there, apart from the same sea ice that stretches 700km or more in every direction. It is just a mathematical point. Nevertheless, as the top of the world, it became a symbol of achievement, and ambitious explorers struggled for centuries to reach it.

American Robert Peary started his arctic expeditions in the 1880s but he became famous in 1891, when he claimed to have reached the north end of Greenland, proving that this great arctic mass was actually an island. Before this, it wasn’t clear whether Greenland was connected to North America at its north end. This first big expedition of Peary’s was also a hoax: He’d only reached Independence Fiord, well short of the north end of the island. That Peary knew this has only become clear in recent decades, with the discovery of a suppressed page from his journal. But Peary’s goal, which he stated in a letter to his mother early in his career, was to become famous, and he was determined and ruthless enough not to let failure stand in his way.

Soon after Greenland, he became fixated on the North Pole, which had already foiled many great explorers. This became his focus for the rest of his career. An excellent fundraiser who moved in high business and political circles, he launched siege-style expeditions similar to early Himalayan ventures decades later.

The public admired his steely attitude.  When he lost seven toes to frostbite, he shrugged it off as a small price to pay for the Pole. Nevertheless, after this disaster, he rode the dogsled as a passenger rather than trekked. Even before, in 1895, he wrote candidly, “I am too old to snowshoe 25 to 30 miles a day for weeks, and to carry a heavy load during most of the time. For that work, one should be a trained man, a thorough athlete, and that I am not.”

In 1909, he left northern Ellesmere Island, bound for the North Pole, accompanied by several Greenland Inuit, a few white helpers and his long-time African-American assistant, Matthew Henson. He sent all the white men back partway. They were the only others, besides himself, who could verify their position. His speed thereafter increased dramatically, almost unbelievably, over that broken ice surface, and kept getting faster and faster.

After the expedition, he returned to the ship and shut himself in his cabin for a few days — not the behavior of someone who has just achieved his life’s goal. Eventually he emerged and declared that he had reached the North Pole.

When he returned south and sent off a triumphant telegram announcing his discovery,  he discovered to his horror that a rival explorer, Frederick Cook, claimed to have reached the Pole a year earlier.

Peary and Cook weren’t strangers to each other. Cook accompanied Peary on one of his early expeditions as surgeon. Cook was a different personality than Peary. He was much more likeable. He was also more an individualist and less an establishment figure who hobnobbed with U.S. presidents and captains of industry, like Peary. And while Peary’s deception was calculated, Cook seems to have been one of those people who could lie without really thinking of it as lying. But as with Peary, this wasn’t his first or only hoax. (See below.)

Cook’s claim was largely discredited. Indeed, he made a great journey but did not venture far out on the Arctic Ocean before turning around. But Peary, whose dubious proofs were carefully sheltered for decades by powerful friends and organizations, became known as the discoverer of the North Pole. It was only in the 1970s that doubt began to resurface.

How close Peary got to the Pole remains unclear — maybe 100km, maybe considerably more. But what has become clear, with modern scholarship scrutinizing papers that had been suppressed for decades, is that neither reached it, and both knew it. There are still people who claim otherwise; but there are also people who still claim that the earth is flat.


Frederick Cook was discredited and his name stricken from even his genuine discoveries.

  1. Frederick Cook’s Denali Summit

Branded “a hero in disgrace” after his fake North Pole expedition, Cook became known as a con man, in both exploration and in business. His 1906 first ascent of Denali became a second exploration hoax later cast into the spotlight.

In his early years, Cook’s exploration feats were commendable. His heroic role in the 1897-99 Belgian Antarctic expedition won him the lifelong friendship of no less than Roald Amundsen, who stuck by Cook through all his later tribulations. The polar titan praised Cook as “the one man of unfaltering courage, unfailing hope, endless cheerfulness and universal kindness.”

But soon Cook became obsessed with his public image; the catalyst for concocting extravagant hoaxes.

In 1906, Cook attempted to be the first to summit Denali, with partners Herschel Parker and Belmore Browne. Initially, they were unsuccessful and returned to the Pacific coast, intending to leave Alaska. But after Parker and Browne were gone, Cook decided to return to Denali with his horse packer, Edward Barrill.

Barely a month later, they reappeared in civilization with a photograph that supposedly showed Barrill holding the American flag on the summit. Browne is said to have been immediately suspicious, although for a time he kept his disbelief to himself.

But later, when the North Pole controversy broke, Cook’s Denali summit also came under scrutiny. It turned out that the photograph that Cook had taken on the alleged summit was posed on a ridge beside the Ruth Glacier.

Cook was eventually convicted of fraud for business-related matters in 1923 and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He died in 1940, having never admitted to his exploration hoaxes.

Richard Byrd actually turned back short of the North Pole.


3. Richard Byrd Flies Over the North Pole

What is it about the North Pole that is so conducive to hoaxes? Maybe it’s because you can’t lay a flag on the drifting ice for later verification. Richard Byrd’s flight over the North Pole was celebrated as a first, until the truth was uncovered in his diary some 70 years later. It’s one reason why careful hoaxsters like Cook always left their journal entries deliberately vague.

Byrd had had a respectable career. He’d served in the Navy with distinction during World War I and later helped in the first transatlantic flight in 1919.

On May 9, 1926, flying a triple-engine Fokker monoplane called Josephine Ford, Byrd and copilot Floyd Bennett set off from Spitsbergen, Norway. They reportedly flew 2,500km to the Pole and back in 15 hours 30 minutes.

The flight was heralded as a great success, despite several disquieting elements, some of which only emerged years later.

Weather records of the day did not agree with Byrd’s report of a convenient tailwind that helped them make the round-trip journey much faster than that clunky plane should have done. Byrd damaged his sextant during the flight, so could take no readings during much of it that would have solidified his claim.

Most damaging, another pilot revealed that Byrd’s copilot, Bennett, had confessed to him that the Pole flight was a fake. Bennett died in 1928, so his confession could not be verified later.

The diary that Byrd kept during the flight turned up among his papers in 1996. They indicate that Byrd turned back about 250km short of the Pole when oil began to leak from one of the engines. But Bennett told their pilot colleague that the leak had occurred early in the flight and that they had made no real attempt for the Pole, just cruised around long enough to simulate a marathon flight.


When Donald Crowhurst could no longer endure the lies and his mounting debts, he threw himself overboard.


4. Donald Crowhurst

Madness at sea has long fascinated psychologists and adventurers alike. But perhaps one of the most tragic examples is that of the amateur British sailor, Donald Crowhurst.

In 1969, Crowhurst was one of just nine participants in a race to become the first person to sail nonstop around the world.

The rules were brief: Sailors had to begin their race between June and October 1968 and arrive back at the same British port from which they had departed.

Crowhurst was an unlikely competitor for such a formidable contest. He knew little about sailing, but he was persuasive, charismatic and had the gift of the gab. His widow, Clare, later said “Donald…would say the most amazing things, but then no matter how crazy they seemed, he’d be clever and ingenious enough to make them come true. Always.”

Indeed, Crowhurst undertook several crazy and ambitious business ventures and seemed to be a conman of sorts. But contrary to his wife’s faith in his ability to bring off his boasts, Crowhurst fell deeply into debt from failed businesses during the years leading up to the race.

Crowhurst’s lending, borrowing, wheeling and dealing put grave stress on him. Besides Clare, he had four children to support. Crowhurst figured that by winning this so-called Golden Globe Race, he could reinvent himself and repay some of the debt with the £5,000 prize.

Unfortunately, his boat, the Teignmouth Electron, was a disaster. It wasn’t completed until the last minute, long after some of the other competitors had set sail. He began the race just hours before the cutoff time of October 31, his boat still unfinished.

Crowhurst had been at sea for only two days when the Teignmouth Electron began to break down. In his log book, he noted a long list of jobs required to repair it satisfactorily, and that at best, he had a 50-50 chance of survival if he continued.

Hints of madness pop up in the life of Crowhurst long before this race. But once at sea, deception began to take precedence. He had the idea to create false entries in his logbook that would position him favorably among the competitors.

The effort to falsify his race position back in 1969 was not easy. Crowhurst needed to note the conditions and celestial movement of the position he was saying he was at, without being there at all.

His plan was to create a quick enough false time to finish in second place, since first place, he felt, would arouse too suspicion. Second place wouldn’t win him the prize money but it would give him respect and the possibility of reinvention. Crowhurst’s first fake press release claimed he’d sailed 391km in 24 hours, a new world record for a single-handed sailor. In fact, he’d sailed only 257km.

He also needed to ensure that his radio signal wasn’t picked up, so he stayed silent for three weeks. He broke it only to send a now-infamous message:  “HEADING DIGGER RAMREZ”. It suggested that he was approaching Diego Ramirez, a small island near Cape Horn, Chile — ahead of the pack. In reality, he was just off Buenos Aires.

The irony with Crowhurst’s grand plan was a fellow competitor, the one who was actually in first place, had heard of Crowhurst’s false position. Assuming it was true, he sped up so much that his boat began to break up. It sank just 1,770km from Britain.

At this point, Crowhurst panicked, since his competitor’s demise now placed Crowhurst in first place. He knew now that he was in too deep, and that his lies were going to catch up with him.

His final journal entry on July 1 can be interpreted as a philosophical or poetic rant of sorts. At least, it was a clear indication of his mental state:

‘I will only resign this game / if you agree that / the next occasion that this / game is played / it will be played / according to the / rules that are devised by / my great god who has / revealed at last to his son / not only the exact nature / of the reason for games but / has also revealed the truth of / the way of the ending of the / next game that / It is finished / It is finished / IT IS THE MERCY’

That same day, his boat was found by a passing ship, with both the real and fake log books on board. It is assumed that he jumped overboard and died. The winner, Robin Knox-Johnston, donated the £5,000 prize to Crowhurst’s widow.


Cerro Torre.

  1. Cesare Maestri’s 1959 climb of Cerro Torre

Sinister tales often accompany a great hoax, and in the case of Cesare Maestri’s 1959 ascent of Cerro Torre in Patagonia, there is certainly a sinister tone.

Nicknamed the Spider, Maestri mastered climbing in the Dolomites near where he grew up and first found notoriety creating difficult new routes in the region. Some of his solo climbs prior to Cerro Torre included Civetta’s Solleder route, and Marmolada’s Solda-Conforto route.

But in the era of Maestri’s Cerro Torre climb, the lack of technology often kept even competent climbers from reaching grand summits. Some claim that this absence of specialized gear made parts of Cerro Torre impossible to climb, not only in the 1950s, but for some decades afterward.

In 1959, Maestri, Toni Egger and Cessarino Fava went to Patagonia to attempt the first ascent of Cerro Torre’s northeast ridge. At 3,128m, the peak is challenging not just because of its imposing needle shape but also because of the formidable Patagonia weather.

Maestri’s later account raised many doubts. He claimed that the group left base camp together but split up shortly after the Col of Conquest. Fava, playing a supportive role by helping shuttle equipment, stayed behind to await their safe return. Three days after the group split up, Fava found Maestri face down in the snow, near death and frostbitten. Maestri told Fava that Egger had fallen to his death after an ice avalanche slashed through their rope.

Lost in the accident, according to Maestri, was also the camera containing their summit photo. The ascent should have made history but was quickly discredited.

Maestri maintained that proof of their climb would be found by the next climbers on the route. But when Jim Donini redid it in 1976, he discovered just 300m of pitons, wedges and five bolts, but “nothing, zero, zip, nada”, as he put it, during the remaining 1,500m to the summit, although Maestri claimed to have drilled 60 bolts on that section. It appeared that they had abandoned the attempt long before the summit.

Evidence mounted that the route they had actually taken in 1959 was the easier West Face.

In one of Maestri’s books, a photo of Egger on “the lower slabs of Cerro Torre’s wall” has since been identified as the opposite side of the wall they claimed to have been climbing.

In 1974, cameraman Mario Fulvio tried to find further evidence while working on an early Werner Herzog documentary called Scream of Stone. He didn’t find anything to support the climb that Maestri says he made, but instead found ropes and pitons in abundance down a West Face route.

More questions surround the length of time that it takes to drill 60 bolts. Many don’t believe that this could be done in 1959 in the time that Maestri claims it took.

Toni Egger’s remains were found 15 years later, after he melted out of the glacier that had entombed him. He was found at the avalanche-prone slopes that feed into the bottom of the Upper Torre Glacier, further suggesting that the pair had instead taken the easier West Face.