Tue, Jun 19, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Polar explorer Wally Herbert dies at 72


Wally Herbert, the first man to walk across the icebound Arctic Ocean and, some contend, the first to reach the North Pole on foot, a feat long credited to Rear Admiral. Robert Peary, died last Tuesday in Scotland at 72.

The cause was diabetes, said his daughter, Kari Herbert. Herbert was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2000 and lived near Inverness, Scotland.

"It seemed like conquering a horizontal Everest," Herbert said of the 5,826km 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," Herbert radioed to London.

Sixty years earlier, on April 6, 1909, Peary was reported to be the first man to reach the pole on foot. The news went out to the world five months later when 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."

That claim has been debated. In 1973, Dennis Rawlins, an astronomer, wrote a book, Peary at the North Pole: Fact or Fiction? in which he calculated that Peary had missed the pole by about 96km.

In 1985, Herbert, who wrote nine books on polar exploration, was invited to examine 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 Peary's expedition, published an article by Herbert 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 48km to 96km from the pole.

Herbert was born in York, England, on Oct. 24, 1934. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he mapped 11,6549km2 of the Antarctic. An Antarctic mountain range and an Arctic mountain are named for him.

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