Ascent of Denali/Mt. McKinley


Seeing is believing, they used to say. With the advent of digital technology, that has been a harder statement make, in any field from politics to pornography. Yet, even without technology, people did manage to fake photos — just through simple cropping.

We were in Alaska, a century ago. As twentieth century dawned and the age of exploration came to its final stretches, a holy grail remained at the very top of the Americas. The successful summit of North America’s highest peak. The peak (which the Native Americans called Denali) had only recently been named Mount McKinley, after the sitting president — by a gold prospector who admired McKinley’s stance towards gold standard.

In 1906, Dr. Frederick Albert Cook claimed that he had reached the summit of Mt. McKinley. As proof, he produced the photo above of Ed Barrill standing on the peak. Barrill was a horse packer and sole member of Cook’s expedition who remained with him after Cook had sent back the rest of the party home when he failed to find a route up the south side of the mountain.  Other members of his expedition expressed doubts whether Cook had made it to the top, but the explorer was widely hailed as a hero. After all, Cook had led an earlier expedition to the mountain in 1903, which successfully circumnavigated the peak and scaled up to 11,000 feet.


It took a few years for the truth to catch up with Cook.  Two members of the team, Belmore Browne and Hershel Parker, who were immediately suspicious of Cook (noting that Cook could not have made it back from the summit in just 12 days), led their own expedition in 1910, using Cook’s notes, maps, and photos and found discrepancies. By this time, Cook was already a discredited man, due to another outrageous lie that he was the first man to reach the North Pole, which was debunked by a Danish commission.  Browne and Parker discovered that Cook simply cropped a photograph of a tiny peak 20 miles away and 15,000-feet below to make it look like the summit.

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