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The Dishonorable Dr. Cook: Debunking the Notorious Mount McKinley Hoax

The Dishonorable Dr. Cook: Debunking the Notorious Mount McKinley Hoax. Bradford Washburn and Peter Cherici. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2001.192 pages, 80 BLACK-AND-WHITE PHOTOS, 8 PAGES DUOTONE INSERT, 6 MAPS, HARDCOVER. $29.95.

I ask you to read once again Galen Rowell’s review of Washburn’s Mountain Photography from last year’s AAJ. There Rowell painted a clear portrait of the character of Washburn, which he saw realized in that beautiful volume. Washburn’s newest book with Peter Cherici also represents a wonderful effort from this “single most exacting human being” that Rowell has ever known. In fact, the superb demonstration of scholarship, proper research, attribution, and documentation pales before the passion that gave birth to this completed volume, and all in his 92nd year.

I am very much reminded of Douglas Freshfield and his 50-year scholarly battle to determine which Alpine pass that Hannibal crossed with his elephants. Freshfield began his published comments in the 1870s, stating, “I found that my alpine and geographical sense were both outraged.” He continued a lifelong battle with Latin scholars who had limited climbing experience or ability, publishing again in 1914 and continuing to write privately until his death. A holograph letter from 1923 is vibrant with his considerable disgust with the continuing controversy and states that he is not likely to “plunge again” into the controversy in public. It was never far from his mind.

I sense a similar purity of vision and outrage in an alpine and geographical sense from Brad Washburn with regard to Dr. Cook and his claims, especially as published in To the Top of the Continent. Most of us who have spent time in the Ruth Gorge and at Mt. McKinley have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Dr. Cook never came within miles of the summit. The Cook controversy strikes us as an oddity of human behavior that the absurd argument that Cook summited could be taken seriously in this day and age. Yet it is believed by a few, and that fact clearly offends the sensibilities of Washburn. The passion and precision that the Cook Hoax has generated is wonderful to behold, and has produced a book that the Cook Society will find quite painful to read and ponder. A glorious Washburn photograph of the “Fake Peak” (facing page 162) is worth the price of the book alone. There you can barely see a pimple of a protuberance named “Fake Peak” lost among the magnificence of countless other peaks of the Alaska Range all dominated in the background by Mt. McKinley.

Washburn and Cherici provide a solid historical background to Dr. Cook and the Alaska Range. They outline the traditional arguments and evidence, but the greatest value is a complete analysis of the photographic “evidence” as presented in To the Top of the Continent. As Dr. Cook kept the negatives of his original photos unpublished during his lifetime, and as they have never been discovered or apparently examined by a competent third party, Washburn went to great efforts to duplicate each of the Cook photos. The narrative of the discovery of each place where each photo was taken is precise in detail and offers an explanation of the particular omission or commission that Cook undertook to maintain his hoax. Even more impressive is Washburn’s analysis of the photo equipment used by Cook and then the duplication of photos using similar equipment himself. This approach makes this volume bibliographically significant in and of itself. As technology has progressed to a point where any tyro with very few bucks can fake any photograph today, this book may be the last where actual photos and negatives handled traditionally are used evidentially with certainty. (Editor’s note: the authors relied on the seminal reference, Robert M. Bryce’s Cook & Peary:The Polar Controversy Resolved [Stackpole Books, 1997] for important factual information. Students of this controversy will want to refer to Mr. Bryce’s thorough and insightful account.)

There is a rich history of travel lies and travel liars, as well as a long list of fakes in publishing. For example, in late 17th and early 18th century in London there was a well-developed industry of publishing 400+ page books concerning purported voyages, all written by people who had never traveled more than 20 miles from St. Paul’s Cathedral. A typical example is the following title: The Voyages, Dangerous Adventures and Imminent Escapes of Captain Richard Falconer. Containing the Laws, Customs, and Manners of the Indians in America, His marrying an Indian Wife, His shipwrecks, and His narrow Escape from the Island of Domenico? Written By Himself NOW ALIVE. London 1720.

Capt. Falconer and Dr. Cook shared one significant point in common: they never suspected that any of their readers would make the voyage themselves and then publish their own rebuttal and commentary.

The layout of The Dishonorable Dr. Cook is also noteworthy. Whereas To the Top of the Continent repeats its title on the top of each page of text in large type, about 300 times, thus reinforcing the impact of the title, Washburn and Cherici reinforce their view at the bottom of the page. The symbolism of the location quite tidily sums up the thesis of each book. Lastly, The Dishonorable Dr. Cook is 10 inches wide by 8 and 5/8 inches tall. While the layout might better display the book’s photographs, it does not sit comfortably on a shelf, especially next to a copy of To the Top of the Continent. The resulting aggravation to any Cook Society bibliophile who finds it necessary to refer to both volumes could be considered an unexpected benefit.

William C. Lorch