Polar Research Today


Robert Bryce and his Hysterical Polar History

The junior college librarian as a self-proclaimed polar authority ignores the work of others with pronouncements from his reference desk armchair

by Ted Heckathorn

Most history consists of dates, facts and information that are a matter of record and not the subject of debate. There are, however, a few disputed events that have generated heated historical disputes for decades such as Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy Assassination, and the North Pole Controversy. For over 45 years my goal had been to collect all pertinent data on the polar issue to determine if it could be resolved. Ten years ago, with the demise of Robert E. Peary's 1909 polar claim, I expressed the hope that scientists, explorers and historians would now be able to examine Dr. Frederick Cook's 1908 claim in a dispassionate manner to arrive at areas of agreement. Unfortunately I neglected to anticipate and factor one hysterical librarian's ego into the equation, which leads us to the current situation.

Recently Russell Gibbons, the editor of Polar Priorities, advised me that librarian Robert Bryce had written a vituperative, personal attack on me in DIO & The Journal of Hysterical Astronomy. This came as a surprise because I had known and frequently shared Peary polar research material with DIO's publisher Dennis Rawlins for over 25 years. Rawlins had sent me no advance notice, opportunity to respond, or a copy of the article as is customary with reputable periodicals and newspapers. The librarian included similar ugly personal attacks on the Frederick A. Cook Society, Russell Gibbons, and Sheldon S.R. Cook. Apparently our collective crime had been to question some of Bryce's pet theories and write semi-critical reviews of his 1133-page opus, Cook & Peary: The Polar Controversy Resolved. In my case, I had praised his research efforts in finding obscure archival material, pointed out some factual errors and disagreed with several of his conclusions that were refuted by data that I found during many years of archival and field research.

Bryce Bloopers

The list of Bryce bloopers continues to infinity and it is useless to point them out to him because he has a rationalization for each one. As an example, from Bryce's book bungles, I mentioned that Gonnason and I laughed about how much he had shrunk since 1956. Bryce claimed that he was 6"4' tall. Of course it was not Bryce's fault at all (according to him) because he was just quoting someone else. Now that really does become a problem when you use information from someone else without giving reference credit. It might come back to bite you! Would you believe that this is the same Bryce who hypocritically castigated Dr. Cook because he had erroneously recorded Peary's height at 6"4' on one of his documents! Since Bryce has become such an expert on photographic analysis, one wonders why he did not compare the heights of Heckathorn and Gonnason from a 1994 photo in Polar Priorities or the 1996 edition of To the Top of the Continent.

Of course the easiest solution to Bryce's dilemma would have been to accept a trip to Seattle in 1996 at FACS expense where he could have met Gonnason in person, as well as others who were the leading experts on Mount McKinley's East Ridge. Bryce's claim that he would have learned nothing from such an event tells much about his mental processes. He boasted of his quest to obtain first-hand data from experts. Yet, when he had a unique opportunity to do so regarding Mount McKinley in 1996, it suddenly became a waste of his time. Note that this is the same researcher who wasted time writing and calling the Filson Club in Kentucky, the Golden Spike Monument in Utah, and other places on irrelevant issues in his rather unbalanced effort to trash Heckathorn.

'Heckathorn is a person of rigorous integrity, and his knowledge of the controversy in even more encyclopedic than his massive polar library.'

Dennis Rawlins, 'DIO,' vol. 6, 1992

'Heckathorn's unfounded suggestions of wrong-doing are typical of amateur researchers (in this field).'

Robert Bryce in 'DIO,' vol. 9, 1999

As with most of Bryce's other complaints about what I have reported from my field investigations, if he really wanted accurate information he could have called me to obtain clarification instead of making wild assumptions. For example, by his own admission, he talked to Sheldon S.R. Cook for two hours to get major details about my 1994 expedition's field operations. Now I did bring Sheldon into our base camp for one night, but he was not part of our climbing team, and had left the Ruth Glacier before we even started our journey up the North Fork. There are things he never knew and did not experience while we were on the ice. In this regard, Sheldon would not be a primary source of information. It is most interesting that Bryce avoided contacting any members of the actual climbing team, and it is obvious that he did not want to hear anything from us that might disturb his already-formed conclusions. This blunder led to a number of his errors going into print. It also puts to rest his spurious claim that he honestly tried to use primary sources for his book. In contrast, Brad Washburn came to my home in November 1994 to discuss the expedition, and also he had a personal meeting with Vern Tejas in Alaska.

While Brad and I disagree about Dr. Cook, he made a genuine effort to obtain accurate, first-hand information, and we have had interesting discussions on several occasions. In Bryce's case, he never made even a token effort, then resorted to name-calling to compensate for his deficiency (D108). Bryce quips, "this is especially so when you consider the lightweights he [Washburn] is up against in the three Cookites." In his new 2001 book, The Disreputable Dr. Cook, Washburn provided details about our 1994 expedition and his index includes references for four members of our climbing team. On the other hand, there is no mention of either Bryce or his book. Perhaps this provides a clue about who Washburn considers is the "lightweight" in the Mount McKinley Controversy. Once again, in Bryce's ugly name-calling, he appears to have accurately described himself.

There is neither time nor space to go into all of Bryce's other 100+ pages of rants, complaints and bungles. Many of his complaints are so trivial that they border on the ridiculous, but I will provide a random sampling of them. For example, he makes all sorts of assumptions about my omission on a 1998 map of a segment of Cook's 1908 journey. This was where Cook passed and then returned back to Cape Sparbo on Devon Island. I deliberately omitted this loop because it was near the edge of the map, and would have caused confusion about the year it occurred, 1908 or 1909. Since the map was not in color, I could not use different colors to distinguish the year, and there was insufficient space for detailed explanatory notes. Additionally, to avoid unnecessary confusion on the same map, I also did not include all of the looping 1908 boat journey track in western Jones Sound, or the 1907 journeys along the coast of Greenland.

Another example wild accusations/sloppy Bryce research was his attempt to ridicule Russ Gibbons (D53). Bryce cited a testy 1956 correspondence exchange Gibbons had with Ted Leitzell (a Cook advocate in the 1930s), where Leitzell claimed that "the supposed crony of Peary [MacMillan] was not and never had been an officer or director at Zenith." Bryce in his eagerness to snipe at Gibbons never bothered to verify Leitzell's allegation. The fact of the matter is that the "crony" in question [Eugene F. McDonald] was not only the first president of Zenith Corporation, but also the guiding force in the firm until his death in 1958. McDonald also had served as second-in-command of MacMillan's 1925 expedition to North Greenland. All of this information was available to librarian Bryce in the published history of Zenith Radio (unless he forgot how to use inter-library loans)

Although I have already pointed out a host of errors in Bryce's book and DIO writing, Bryce claims I cannot find any (D109). Then, just two paragraphs below, he blunders into another one when he claims that the buying power of Barrill's 1909 bribe was only $24,000, as opposed to my estimate of $250,000. Barrill's daughter and his great grandson told me that he used the bribe money to obtain a new five-bedroom home in Darby, Montana, and one of those new contraptions called an auto mobile (the first in Darby), among other things. Does Bryce seriously believe that today one can buy a new five-bedroom home and a better-grade new car for a total of $24,000? He obviously has not priced real estate in Montana lately, or automobiles, either. Perhaps if the psychic-librarian had gained some actual hands-on experience in real estate work he would not have displayed such a fundamental ignorance of property values.

As to other errors in Bryce's book, he claims that Borchgrevink was the first to set foot on the Antarctic Continent (p. 1012), that some if not all of the human bones that Rudolph Franke saw at Cape Sabine in 1908 were from Greely's expedition (p. 1029), along with many others. Apparently for all of his proclaimed brilliance as a polar historian, Bryce has never bothered to read an account of Greely's expedition, primary source or otherwise. Had he done so, he would have learned that Commander Schley (The Rescue of Greely) collected all the corpses and placed them in sealed metal caskets for return to the United States. When the caskets were opened, one of the biggest "stinks" in polar history ensued.

The Tissue Paper Lions of Mount McKinley

Some years ago George Plimpton wrote his famous book, Paper Lion, about the dream of a middle-aged guy to get down on the field with real pro football players of the Detroit Lions. He actually had the guts to try it, and fortunately didn't get his head bashed in by Alex Karras. On the other hand, Bryce claims that anybody can fly into the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier. Bryce personally was willing to travel "tens of thousands of miles" to almost everywhere except Mount McKinley and the Arctic. His excuse is that "he does not have to, he can get everything he needs from libraries and archives." He wants everyone to regard him as an "expert" in this field of endeavor, but without having to get his hands dirty (or frozen) by actually going out on the ice, crossing crevasses and climbing ice walls. Plimpton realized that if he wanted to gain a greater understanding of football and football players he would need some hands-on experience. Bryce has never progressed to that point. If Plimpton refers to himself a "Paper Lion" for going down on the field of action, then consider him at least heavy grade wrapping paper, while Bryce would resemble something along the lines of a Kleenex tissue.

The Pegasus Peak Sketch and the Verdict of History

Our 1994 Ruth Glacier Expedition appears to be the first since 1910 (and only the second after Cook) to ascend the North Fork of the Ruth Glacier. Bryce deliberately ignored this fact and claimed that we did nothing beyond what Gonnason achieved in 1956. On this feeble excuse, he relegated our entire expedition to an obscure footnote (not indexed) on page 1089 of his book, and in typical Bryce fashion, even expunged me from the leadership of our group. Gonnason in 1956 never went up the North Fork to reach the East Ridge, and as a result, failed to understand how Cook proceeded from the Gateway. Gonnason, from his own observations and Cook's description, knew that the East Ridge was the correct route, but he could not determine Cook's starting point on the ridge since he did not have the information from Cook's 1906 diary.

Pegasus Peak that Dr. Cook saw when he ascended the East Ridge.  The photo also includes an overlay of the sketch on page 52 of Cook's 1906 diary.

What Bryce cannot handle with any semblance of logic is the fact that in 1994 we found the sketch on page 52 of Cook's 1906 diary almost exactly matches with the view of Pegasus and Gunsight Peaks that one sees from atop the East Ridge. We photographed the two peaks from the East Ridge and in aerial views. The East Ridge rises to 9,000-11,000 feet at the head of the Ruth Glacier. Pegasus Peak cannot be seen from the floor of the Ruth Glacier (about 5,000 feet) or from Browne's Fake Peak (about 5,800 feet) further to the south because the East Ridge obstructs the view. The face of Gunsight Peak, as illustrated in Cook's sketch, is not visible from the south at the Gateway or Fake Peak. It only appears in that orientation from atop the East Ridge. 

Now Bryce and other Cook critics can gyrate, postulate, calculate, pontificate and eructate as much as they please, but anyone who goes to the East Ridge in future years will see exactly what Cook sketched in his 1906 diary and described in his book. Gonnason in 1956, Dr. Joseph Davidson's expedition in 1969, Galen Rowell in 1978 and our expedition in 1994 all concluded that Cook and Barrill were on the ridge in 1906. This also is the reason why Brad Washburn carefully ducks this issue in his new 2001 book about Dr. Cook. His own photographs clearly substantiate Cook's sketch and Brad has known this since 1983, when Hans Waale sent him a copy of Cook's sketch.

Bryce's defense of the accuracy of the 1909 Barrill affidavit is ludicrous. This is especially so regarding Barrill's alleged reason for turning back at the Gateway because of bad crevasses. Cook's photographs at the Gateway in 1906, Browne's in 1910, Washburn's in 1956, and ours in 1994 and 1996, do not show crevasses at the Gateway that would prevent anyone from proceeding higher on the Ruth Glacier. Browne had no problem proceeding in 1910 until he reached those next to the East Ridge. There is absolutely no question that Barrill provided his affidavit in exchange for a substantial amount of money (Bryce only quibbles about the amount, like the tale about the tycoon negotiating the price with a female movie star). That is why the affidavit omits the standard legal terminology about financial or other "considerations." Photographs of Mt. Barrille taken in 1906, 1910, 1956, 1994 and Washburn's 2001 statement all refute Bryce's nonsensical contention that the crevasses disappeared because the ice level of the Gateway changed between 1906 and 1996.

Dr. Frederick Cook's enemies have focused their heavy artillery on photograph and caption barrages on the lower Ruth Glacier. They cannot dispute that Cook continued up the Ruth Glacier beyond last of Browne's Fake Peaks to the Gateway. There is absolutely no doubt about that because Cook published a photograph of Mt. Barrille. Cook's enemies shrilly trumpet that he returned from that point. Since 1994; however, they have been firing duds, because we found objective evidence that he reached the top of the East Ridge. Additionally, his route description across the East Ridge, through the Thayer Basin, and to the summit is borne out by film and photographic evidence in 1994 and 1996. Bryce's spurious allegations that Cook could see into the Thayer Basin from the Ruth Glacier or any of Browne's Fake Peaks are as wild as many of his other speculations. In 1996, from an airplane I could not see into the basin until we were above 13,000 feet. I am sure Washburn will agree that Dr. Cook did not have an airplane in his 1906 gear list.

If interested readers wish to obtain further (and accurate) details about what I wrote, I strongly recommend reading the 1996 edition of To the Top of the Continent, and the 19941999 issues of Polar Priorities, to learn what I actually found and reported. If you still have any unresolved questions about Cook's ascent, be bolder than the psychic-librarian Bryce (who talks really ugly talk but hasn't the guts to walk the walk); take a trip to Mount McKinley and fly up the Ruth Glacier. Proceed along the East Ridge, through the Thayer Basin to the summit. Then you will see what Dr. Cook sketched and described, and what my expedition and others have verified between 1956 and 1996.


Copyright 2005 - The Frederick A. Cook Society