Polar Research Today:

Sir Wally Herbert: he followed Cook and Peary 


British polar icon Wally Herbert died June 12 at age 72. The third expedition to walk to the North Geographic Pole, Wally and his men continued across the Arctic Ocean in a monstrous trip that included overwintering on the ice in 1968-69. 

Wally’s polar life was marked by human ambition and controversy typical for Arctic explorers of the time. In 1908, American-born Frederick Cook claimed to be the first to have reached the North Pole. Fellow American Robert E Peary said he reached the pole the next year, disputing Cook and claiming the first for himself. Next to reach the spot was Wally Herbert in 1969, soon disputing Peary. With that the North Pole “first” got its third contestant (not including a number of accompanying team members and local Inuits). 

The will to be the first 

With a Norwegian first to ski to the South Pole, Nepal/New Zealand first to summit Everest, Soviets first to fly to space and Americans first to walk on the moon - Wally’s dispute of Peary gained many fans among his countrymen (often with inflated claims) and the North Pole debate rages to this day.  


Wally was a doubter as far as the North Pole 
was concerned.  He did not believe that either Cook or Peary got there, but his earliest
opinions were decidely for Cook, as in his 
1970 book, The North Pole.

British press releases have lately had Herbert as the first man to walk to the North Geographic Pole, and the first team in history to reach the North Pole by surface travel without the assistance of airlifts.  

Historians however seldom debate Wally; the issue stands between Cook and Peary. Wally’s name only entered the picture after he was assigned by National Geographic to scrutinize Peary’s trip vs. Cook’s. The unfortunate consequence in this choice of “judge” was that if Peary’s claims were found without ample proof Wally himself would get the honor. 

Wally concluded that Peary’s log showed improbable distances and ice drifts. Both conclusions were later disputed by other polar explorers, who experienced the same type of drift that Peary described. In spring 2005, an expedition also matched Peary’s reported 37 day record using exact replicas of Peary’s sleds. There is neither any conclusive proof that Cook didn’t make it and thus the throne remains divided between the two. 

All three polar explorers used dogs, while Wally also used airdrops, including an 11 tonnes drop before the pole.  

The first team to actually walk to the pole (not riding dogsleds) was the1979 Russian expedition led by Dmitri Shparo who used four air drops to manage the distance. In 1994, Norwegian Borge Ousland soloed the trek, proving it possible to walk to the North Pole without assistance. There are of course no records of local Inuits who, although unlikely, might have done hunting expeditions to the region even before all the western explorers. 

Brits first to cross, Russians repeat without dogs  

Where Cook and Peary went to the North Pole and back, Herbert’s expedition started out from Point Barrow (Alaska) and continued towards Svalbard after the pole. It’s a pity that the quest for a North Pole first, along with the erroneous statements that Wally didn’t use airdrops overshadow the true achievement of the expedition: They were the first to do a crossing of the Arctic ice.  

Arctic walks require little technical skill; the difficulty instead lies in pulling weight in bitter cold over large distances of crumbling ice. This takes experience, ingenuity and resistance to pain. Some 20 years after Herbert’s expedition, in 1988 Russian Dmitri again upped the bar by crossing from Cape Arktichevski to Cape Columbia; using four airdrops but no dogs to help with the haul. 

A number of other expeditions followed, many on snowmobiles and most including assistance of some kind. Richard Weber and Mikhail Malakhov stood out in 1995 by skiing to the pole and back without dogs or external support; using only caches they placed out enroute for the return. Also Cook and Peary used caches, but they hired Inuits for the job. 

1967 was ‘The Last Great Journey in the World’

Norwegians first to cross unsupported 

The first and only people to have crossed the entire Arctic Ocean fully unsupported (no dogs, kites, caches or airdrops) were Norwegians Rune Gjeldnes and Torry Larsen, in 2000. They started out in Russia and stepped on the ice during the pitch black Arctic winter. By the end of the journey, they had lost almost everything - their sleds, their gear - and were finally picked up by the Canadian coast wearing only a backpack. Where Wally’s expedition took 16 months, including 3 months overwintering on the ice cap, the two Norwegians made it in only 108 days.  

Meanwhile, Wally Herbert has forever left his mark on earth. He has had a mountain range and a plateau named after him in the Antarctic, and the most northerly mountain in Svalbard named after him in the high Arctic.

He was awarded the Polar Medal for his Antarctic Research (1960-62) and another Polar Medal for his crossing of the Arctic Ocean (1968-69); and Gold Medals by the Royal Geographical Society and Royal Scottish Geographical Society, as well as the Explorers Medal by the Explorers Club (New York). Wally Herbert was made a Knight Batchelor by Queen Elizabeth on the last day of the old millennium, as “one of the British 20th Century icons.”

Amundsen and Nobile flew a dirigible to the North Pole in 1926. American Ralph Plaisted and his team used snowmobiles to reach the North Pole the year before Herbert. Some believe Plaisted is the first to reach the North Pole over the surface. 

Sir Wally Herbert, dead at the age of 72, is regarded as the doyen of polar explorers, and one of the few remaining links we now have to that period of history known as the ‘Heroic Age’ of polar exploration. As both a pioneer and as a visionary he has the empathy to relate to history. As a prize-winning author and an artist of great talent he is, without question, the man best suited (through his lyrical text and his evocative images) to capture the spirit of the polar world, its wildlife and its native people.  As a polar traveller in particular his record is outstanding and totally unique. He is ‘the greatest polar explorer of our time’ according to Sir Ranulph Fiennes; a ‘phenomenon’ according to the late Lord Shackleton, and a man whose ‘determination and courage’, according to The Prince of Wales, ‘are of truly heroic proportions’. In the new millennium, Wally Herbert was knighted in recognition of his achievements.

In the Antarctic in the late 1950s and early 60s he mapped on foot some 45,000 square miles of new country, and came within only 200 miles of achieving his first great burning ambition of reaching the South Pole with sledges and dogs. Since then he has sledged several thousands of miles with some of the finest long-range hunters of the world’s most northerly Eskimo tribe; retraced the routes of some of the greatest polar explorers (Shackleton, Scott, and Amundsen in the Antarctic - Peary, Sverdrup and Cook in the Arctic), and earned his own place in polar history with his epic 3,800 mile trek with three companions and forty dogs - the first surface crossing of the Arctic Ocean, which most historians now record as “The Last Great Journey on Earth.”

Sir Wally Herbert, Explorer of the Iciest Corners 

Sir Wally Herbert, the first man to walk across the icebound Arctic Ocean and, some contend, the first to reach the North Pole on foot, died from diabetes, said his daughter, Kari Herbert. Sir Wally was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000 and lived near Inverness.  

“It seemed like conquering a horizontal Everest,” Sir Wally said of the 3,620-mile trek across treacherous ice floes that ended May 30, 1969. He led a four-man team on the 476-day expedition from Point Barrow, Alaska, to a tiny island near Spitsbergen, Norway.

On April 4, 1969 — 407 days into the journey —the team stopped at the North Pole, planted a Union Jack and ate beef stew from supplies hauled there by its 40 sled dogs. “It was too cold and too windy to hold any other celebrations,” Sir Wally radioed to London. 

Sixty years earlier, on April 6, 1909, Robert Peary claimed to be the first man to reach the pole on foot. The news went out to the world five months later when Admiral Peary and his team arrived at Indian Harbor, Labrador, and sent a wire to The New York Times, which had exclusive rights to the story. The message read in part, “I have the Pole, April Sixth.” 

Wally was a doubter as far as the North Pole was concerned. He did not believe that either Cook or Peary got there, but his earliest opinions were decidedly for Cook, as in his 1970 book, The North Pole (London: Sackett and Marshall): “Of the two claims, Peary is the weaker. Cook’s claims, on the other hand, are perfectly feasible. Of the two, the more remarkable journey without any doubt, was Cook.”

Cook’s journey was praised by Herbert in 1978

Sir Wally Herbert at the commemoration honoring 
his work by the Royal Geographical Society. 
He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth on the last 
Day of 1999 as “one of Britain’s 20th century icons.”


Later, in his 1989 book that dissected both accounts, Noose of Laurels, he essentially placed the American dispute to that in his own Great Britain, declaring that “Peary and Cook, though enemies and rivals as Polar explorers- were essentially a part of each other as were Shackelton and Scott.” He was the focal point in the 1993 Society conference on “Frederick Cook Reconsidered: Discovering the Man and his Explorations” held at the Byrd Polar Research Center in Columbus, Ohio.  

He repeated his assertions then, in the company of internationally-famous field explorers and research scientists. Later he retired from the “Arctic circuit” and devoted much of his time to painting, including images of Peary and Cook as well as of the Inuit whom he had lived with in Greenland.  

Then, in 1985, Sir Wally, who wrote nine books on polar exploration, was invited to examine Admiral Peary’s diary and astronomical observations. The documents had not been made public since 1911.  

In September 1988, the National Geographic Society, which had sponsored Admiral Peary’s expedition, published an article by Sir Wally in its magazine detailing navigational errors, suspect distance records and inexplicably blank pages in the admiral’s diary.  Drawing on new knowledge of Arctic Ocean weather, currents and ice drift, he concluded that those factors and navigational mistakes had left Peary 30 to 60 miles from the pole.  

Sir Wally was particularly concerned that Admiral Peary’s handwritten diary offered no record of his 30 hours near the pole. Several pages were blank, and the entry for April 6 made no mention of the pole.  Instead, a loose leaf had been inserted, declaring, “The Pole at last!!!” Whether Peary actually made it to the pole, Sir Wally wrote, “can never be anything more than a probability.”  


In 1989, however, the National Geographic Society commissioned the Navigation Foundation, a private society, to examine the evidence. Based on an analysis of photographs, celestial sightings, ocean depth readings and other records, the Foundation, in a 230-page report, concluded that Peary’s final camp had been within five miles of the pole.  

Wally Herbert was born in York, England, on Oct. 24, 1934, into a family with a long tradition of military service. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Marie.

Sir Wally did not attend college but acquired surveyor skills while a member of the Royal Engineers in the Middle East from 1951 to 1954. He later joined the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, the forerunner of the British Antarctic Survey. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, while traveling on foot and dog sled, he mapped 45,000 square miles of the Antarctic. With Inuit people, he later roamed thousands of miles in the Arctic. An Antarctic mountain range and an Arctic mountain are named for Sir Wally, according to the Royal Geographical Society.  

“As well as his superhuman physical achievements, his expeditions laid the foundations for modern polar science and our understanding of the thinning Arctic ice from climate change,” said the director of the Royal Geographical Society, Rita Gardner.

For the Arctic crossing, Sir Wally was joined by Maj. Kenneth Hedges of the Royal Army Medical Corps; Allan Gill, a photographer; and Roy Koerner, a Canadian glaciologist. They made two long stops: two months in the summer and five months in the winter.  In winter, the four-man team lived in total darkness.  For Dr. Koerner, the most harrowing moments came in the first week, in February 1968.  

Dr. Koerner said the problem was caused by shorefast— sea ice close to the coast. “Once you step off it, you’re on ice crunching against the shore-fast,” he said. “For something like 40 miles the ice can break  up around you. Literally in the dark, we had to take our tents down and move.” 

Sir Wally’s preparations led to success. “He was not surprised by these kinds of events,” Dr. Koerner said. “The sleds could carry the loads, and the tents were not too heavy and able to withstand any of the storms and the temperatures.”   

Wally and his Trans-Arctic expedition at the North Pole on April 4, 1969 in the “last great journey on earth.” 

When the team arrived at the pole, the temperature was 50 degrees below zero.

Copyright 2008 - The Frederick A. Cook Society