Cal Tech, Pasadena, CA. In 1875, British sea captain and explorer John A. Lawson ascended a previously unknown peak on the island of New Guinea. Its enormous height and size prompted Lawson to name his new find Mt. Hercules, whose summit, according to his calculations, rose to an elevation of 32,370 feet above sea level and was "higher than Everest." Mt. Hercules dwarfed its rival and up to then the world tallest peak, Mt. Everest, by a little under 4000 feet.
Lawson reported his discovery in a volume he wrote upon his return to Britain. His book, "Wanderings in New Guinea," was a fascinating tale of his trek across the island. His discovery of Mt. Hercules drew the most attention. American newspapers noted the discovery. Even editors of rural weeklies, needing three lines of filler, spread the news that a mountain "higher than Everest" had been discovered. The World Almanac placed Hercules ahead of Everest in the listing of the highest peaks.
But that was 1875, and no one else ever climbed, or even saw, Mt. Hercules. Geographers and other explorers challenged Lawson's claim. But, as Lawson pointed out in rebuttal, none of them had ever been to New Guinea. As time passed, however, Mt. Hercules disappeared from the list of tall mountains and Everest regained its place as the world's highest peak.
Now, the chief vulcanologist for the U. S. Geological Service, California Institute of Technology professor Dr. Joan Lucey, has resurrected Lawson's peak in a stunning paper presented last week at a conference of vulcanologists in Pasadena. Lucey has given new life to Lawson's claim and, at the same time, created a controversy that has geologists around the world equally divided on the question of Mt. Hercules' existence.
According to Dr.. Lucey, the reason no one else has ever seen Mt. Hercules is that it disappeared shortly after Lawson climbed the peak. How could a giant mountain disappear? Lawson climbed Hercules in 1875. Eight years later, Krakatoa erupted in the largest explosion known to man, darkening the sky over a large portion of the earth. Lucey postulates that it wasn't just Krakatoa that erupted at that time. Noting that a major earthquake can trigger shocks in adjacent faults, Lucey speculated that the force of Krakatoa's blast set off a companion eruption in Mt. Hercules, one that completely decimated the mountain. This also explains why some vulcanologists have doubted that an eruption at Krakatoa could have had such a widespread effect.
When questioned by skeptical geologists at the Pasadena meeting as to why there is no evidence of such an explosion on New Guinea, Lucey had a convincing answer. The part of the island where Mt. Hercules stood is still inhabited by head hunting cannibals. For decades after the 1883 catastrophe at Krakatoa, no explorer attempted to reach the site of Mt. Hercules. In the meantime, the jungle reclaimed the area amid an abundance of rain and sunshine. Even during World War II troops, whether Japanese or Allied forces, avoided the area.
Lucey intends to mount a well-provisioned scientific expedition into that part of New Guinea sometime before the end of the decade, accompanied by American special forces for protection. She is convinced that the geologists will not only find the remnants of Mt. Hercules, but that they will be able to reconstruct a model of what the peak looked like in 1875, using the remaining detritus from the eruption to reconstruct a model of the peak. She doubts, however, that Lawson's calculation of a 32,000 plus elevation will be verified. "Lawson's barometric equipment was crude, at best. My guess is that Mt. Hercules was only 30,000 feet above sea level. At that elevation, however, it still was 'higher than Everest.' "