Besides Santa, what comes to mind when you think of the North Pole? A giant red and white pole sticking out the ice somewhere? An enormous magic rock that draws the needles of every compass on Earth? A bunch of brave expeditioners mushing sled dogs ahead toward an arbitrary point on the globe in a bid for adventure tale immortality?

Yeah, me too.

But there’s a whole lot more to know about the North Pole. Like, for instance, what is the North Pole? And, where is the North Pole, exactly? And who was the first person to reach it? Are we sure? Like, really sure?

Let’s find out.

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What is the North Pole, anyway? is actually a trick question. There are four North Poles (five, if you include the town of North Pole, Alaska). There’s true geographic north, which is where the lines of longitude converge at the top of the world—this is the point explorers seek to stab with their flagpoles. Then there’s magnetic north, which is what your compass is so intent on pointing toward, and which marks where the earth’s magnetic field shoots vertically from the planet. This also called the dip pole, since the field “dips” down into the earth at that point. Then there is the geomagnetic north pole, which is basically the extension of the the north pole’s magnetic field into space. Also something called the instantaneous North Pole, which, as far as I can tell, is the spot that corresponds to a point at which lines representing the rotational axis of the earth would hit the planet’s surface.

Answering where exactly the North Pole is can be tricky because while true north sits permanently where longitude lines meet, magnetic north moves around. Quite a bit actually. Perhaps you’ve heard conspiracy theorists rail on about the magnetic poles flipping and all hell breaking loose? Well, we’re actually long overdue for the flipping part, not to mention the hell breaking loose. The earth’s molten core sloshes around constantly, which creates the magnetic field in the first place. The sloshing also shifts the field around a bit. Magnetic north is right now booking it from its current spot in the Canadian Arctic northwest toward Siberia at a clip of about 55 km per year. 800,000 years ago the poles were reversed; if you stood facing due north holding a compass, the needle would indicate you were facing south. Geophysicists think those pole reversals happen every 200-300,000 years so we’re really on borrowed time here. The cool part—it’s not like flicking a switch and swapping the poles around. The magnetic field gradually shifts around and the poles will pop out at sporadic latitudes until completely reversed. Thankfully, we’ll all be dead next time that happens so we don’t have to worry about freaky compass behavior while that’s going on.

Finally, nobody is exactly sure which expedition actually first made it to the geographic North Pole, but we have a pretty good idea. For years and years and years, Robert Peary, who claimed to reach the pole in 1909, was lauded as the first explorer to earn that distinction. But his claim has since been discredited (experts decided he couldn’t possibly have covered the distances he claimed to have on sledges); the New York Times even published a correction in 1988 to their original report in 1909 that Peary had conquered the North Pole. A man named Frederick Cook claimed to have reached the pole a full year before Peary, though his report is also considered to be a hoax.

So who was first? Awesomely, it looks like the answer might be a group of regular workaday schlubs from Minnesota who heroically rode snowmobiles from Duluth, Minnesota, to the North Pole in 1968 with zero prior Arctic expedition experience. The Plaisted Expedition, as it’s come to be known, named for Ralph Plaisted, the insurance salesman who organized the trip, started out as a drunken wager in a Duluth bar. Plaisted gathered an amateur crew—mechanic, a cook, a doctor, a teacher, and an engineer—and appealed to National Geographic for sponsorship. They turned him down citing lack of experience and no real scientific aspirations. Undaunted, Plaisted raised $100,000 on his own, and guided his little band north. They piloted their snowmobiles and dragged sledges through impossible terrain, suffered through horrendous windstorms, and were nearly trapped on icebergs before finally, on the morning of April 20, 1968, a spotter plane flying overhead radioed down to them: “North Pole. Dead on. Every direction from where you fellows are is south.” Plaisted made it. He also rebuffed National Geographic‘s attempts to report on his feat, a breathtaking bit of stubborn pride which is partially why the Plaisted expedition isn’t better known.

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Top photo by Christopher Michael 

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