I've been thinking a lot lately about Frederick Cook*. In 1906 he claimed to have been the first to summit Mt McKinley and since 1906 a lot of other people have said that he lied. Since what he claimed to accomplish in the time frame he had was pretty much impossible, and since he subsequently lied about getting to the North Pole, Cook has gone down in history as being one of America's most infamous hoaxers. My question is why on earth he risked what was a perfectly respectable exploration career and let it blow up in the craziest way possible.
In other words, was saying he reached the summit worth the price he paid?
Cook is a character, in every sense of the word. His feud with Peary (who also stretched the truth about the North Pole) predated their "race" for the Pole (which wasn't really a race but in retrospect seems like one). McKinley was one of the exploration prizes at the turn of the century and has remained so for climbers. (In 1910 the "Sourdough Expedition" reached the North summit, the lower of the two - fueled on coffee and donuts! - but the acknowledged first full ascent of the mountain was in 1912 by the Hudson Stuck party.) Cook's attempt at getting their first, a desperate attempt to be sure, has not been discounted by everyone and there is still a society that supports him, refuting everything that comes out over the years proving him wrong. It's pretty impressive how they have hung in there though, in spite of all the evidence against him. (Which is not helped by the fact that he was later convicted of mail fraud.)
Studying the men who have climbed McKinley makes for fascinating reading. Some did it to be first, some for science (my favorites, really) and some as a sort of spiritual quest. Some are trying, I think, just to "check off the box" - to say they got McKinley just like they got so many others. I don't think there has ever been a "because it is there" nature to mountain climbing (I doubt Mallory even said that about Everest), but there is a need to prove something within the hearts of so many climbers. The ground is not enough for them; they need to reach the top or at least claim that they did. I'll never understand it but trying to make sense of their decisions is fun to think about.
*I'm writing about Cook in my current book. (Because pilots aren't enough, now I need mountain climbers too.)
[More on folks who believe Cook here.]