“Inveniam viam aut faciam.”
That was supposedly Hannibal’s response to his generals’ advice that crossing the Alps by elephants is impossible. It means: “I shall find a way or I shall make one.”
For Robert Peary, it was his life motto. The words inscribed on his tombstone.
In 1881, he joined the US Navy Civil Engineers Corps, a job that sent him to Key West, Florida on one of his first assignments to do the impossible: build a new Navy Pier that other smarter, more experienced engineers said couldn’t be done.
Most would’ve balked at the request, citing other engineers’ experience or environmental conditions.
For Peary, it was a chance to prove himself and launch his career.
With a bit of ingenuity and hard work, he pulled off the impossible—and saved the US Navy over $675,000.
After that, they sent him down to Nicaragua to serve as the chief assistant on a surveying expedition — where he became obsessed with the idea of becoming the first man to reach the North Pole.
But he realized that to be the first, he would have to be different. Radically different.
So in 1886, he convinces his superiors to let him take an extended leave of absence to journey into Greenland to prove America’s superiority on the global stage.
On his first trip across the tundra, he broke every rule in the book.
Peary studied the ways of the native people at a time when experts were convinced that the Inuits lacked any practical Arctic know-how, despite having lived there for generations.
He learned to hunt for food while traveling, instead of ignoring the local animals.
He understood the value of animal skin clothing, wearing deerskin parkas, bearskin pants, and sealskin boots.
He and his team built igloos as they went, instead of carrying tents, to reduce the cargo weight they’d have to transport.
He formed an elite dog team to pull the team’s sleds, instead of having his own men pull them like every other explorer.
He walked in front of his team, charting the path forward instead of driving the team from behind.
His radical plan led him to be the 2nd man to cross the entirety of Greenland.
But in the late summer of 1891, an accident almost ended his life as he ventured further north. An ice block wedged under the rudder, lurching the ship to one side, pinning down Peary–and snapping both of his shin bones in his right leg.
The doctor said to pack up his sealskin boots. His exploring days were over.
They turned the ship around and headed home to let him find time to heal.
A few months later, he decided to compete against both his own men and Eskimos in a snowshoe race. He won.
Robert Peary would not go down without a fight.
A year later, in 1892, he picked up where he left off, kicking off a 1,300 mile round trip expedition just 10 months after he broke his leg.
Peary was back and fighting at full strength: mentally and physically.
After six more years of exploring and preparing and planning, he gathered a team to help him claim the North Pole for the United States.
This time, he’d attack the North Pole by an entirely different means.
He would sail as far north as he could, trek to an abandoned outpost in northern Canada called Fort Conger, and then make their final push for the North Pole across the ice covering the Arctic sea.
His right-hand man Matthew Henson knew it was a risky plan, but Peary, racing against a Norwegian competitor with the same plan, pressed on regardless.
He and the team finally stumbled into the dilapidated wooden shack that is Fort Conger.
They were so close they could practically taste victory.
Sitting next to the warmth of the fire, he had, as he described it, “a suspicious wooden feeling in the right foot,” so he pulled off his boots.
Eight toes had developed frostbite. His legs were dead white from the knees down.
His toes needed to be amputated. Soon.
As he lay in a cot just a few hundred miles away from the North Pole with his dream (and his toes) gone, he scratched a phrase into the wooden wall: “Inveniam viam aut faciam.”
It was his lifeline to the North Pole. The one thing he could cling to.
It was the fire that burned in his soul and kept him alive in the frigid Arctic.
After a month stuck at Fort Conger, the weather finally cleared and Henson led the team back — south — back to the ship with Peary strapped to a sled. He had crippled himself.
Again, the doctor told him his adventure days were over. But he wasn’t accepting that.
In May of the following year, he went further north than anyone else ever.
And he did it on his frostbitten, toeless feet. He had to turn back though. It was another failure.
Five years later, he made his seventh trip to the Arctic circle with state-of-the-art transportation, an all-new strategy, and an all-new crew.
The Roosevelt, designed by Peary for this journey, could cut through ice with a 30” steel hull–the first in the world to do so.
He sailed the Roosevelt up to Ellesmere Island, putting him 300 miles closer to glory than any of his previous trips. He only had 450 miles to go.
He planned to cover those miles over the frozen Artice ice with a radically new system: 6 teams with right-hand men, 5 sleds, and more than 15 dogs per team would leapfrog each other and build igloos and set up supply outposts.
The plan involved each team dropping out one by one to make way for the 6th team, Peary’s team, to dash to the North Pole.
It was a genius plan. But nothing went right.
Temperatures regularly stayed in the -50F range. Sheets of frozen Artic water smashed together creating 50 ft high walls of sheer ice that Peary’s men had to hoist their massive 500lb sleds over.
But when the blocks of ice didn’t smash together, currents ripped them apart — stranding Peary from the rest of his team.
They were forced to turn back. Without supplies and their support crew.
They only made it back to the ship by eating their sled dogs, forcing the men to haul the sleds themselves.
It was disastrous. Peary was done. He quit.
He returned home to his family. The dream was over. For almost a decade, he would be a professor. His adventures were behind him.
Until he heard of others planning to make it to the North Pole and steal his dream.
He decided that he wasn’t going to let anyone else take what was his.
So in August of 1908, at 52, Peary made what he called his “last and supreme effort.” He determined he would get there or die trying.
So he loaded up the Roosevelt once more and set sail for Ellesmere Island.
The first day after they arrived, as they set out on the frozen Artic blocks, the sled broke down for Peary’s right-hand man Matthew Henson.
After spending a day fixing Henson’s sled, they noticed a dark cloud on the horizon — there was a huge gap in the ice ahead.
Overnight, the gap closed enough for Peary and his crew to navigate from massive ice block to ice block to get across the Artice water before they could continue.
Just days later, another huge gap opened up in the ice. This time, it was a quarter-mile wide and extending as far as they could see.
There was no crossing this one.
So they waited. And waited. And waited. For days, they encamped by the break, able to see the other side, but unable to get to their goal.
After days of waiting, the ice blocks closed enough for them to cross.
On April 1, 1909, Peary took Henson and four of his best Inuit drivers and 40 of his fittest dogs in a mad, last-ditch sprint for the North Pole.
Five days later and a quarter-century after his first attempt, Robert Peary set foot on the North Pole.
After his death in 1920, the US Congress posthumously awarded him official congressional thanks, an honor once formerly reserved only for war heroes.
Teddy Roosevelt Jr, the son of President Theodore Roosevelt in whose honor Peary named his famous ship, said of the great explorer, “To me, Admiral Peary’s life is epitomized in the splendid lines from Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses: ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’”.
He was a man wholly consumed by a mission. His purpose was unwavering.
He got knocked down. He lost friends in pursuit of his goal. He was critically wounded and suffered staggering hardship.
Yet he continued. Unwilling to sacrifice his goal.
That could be you today.
You’ve been knocked down. You’ve been hurt. You’ve lost things that matter dearly to you — friends, health, money, and respect.
“Inveniam viam aut faciam.” That’s your mission. Find a way. Or make one.