In Duluth, Minnesota, on the revamped boulevard fronting the industrial shores of Lake Superior, there is an ancient bar called the Pickwick. Over its 100 years of existence, the Pickwick has likely seen countless chest-thumping, blustery bar challenges made over stale peanuts and cheap beer. But none were as important as one made on an otherwise unremarkable evening in 1966. This challenge led to one of history’s great and frankly unbelievable expeditions: the first indisputable, documented trip to the North Pole that came just two years later.
Ralph Plaisted, a 39-year-old insurance salesman and high school-dropout from Bruno, Minnesota, was having a beer at the Pickwick with his friend and local physician, Art Aufderheide. Plaisted was praising the merits of the newly released snowmobile; he’d recently ridden some 250 miles across frozen northern Minnesota on a Ski-Doo brand version of the machine. Plaisted and Aufderheide were chatting about a possible hunting trip in northern Canada the next spring. Aufderheide wanted to use sled dogs. Plaisted insisted on the snowmobile. Aufderheide grew tired of Plaisted’s boasting about the Ski-Doo. Finally, the challenge: Aufderheide told Plaisted he should just ride one of the damn machines clear to the North Pole if they were so capable.
Plaisted, a man with no previous polar expedition experience, who merely liked to hunt and camp in his spare time, took Aufderheide seriously. By the following year, he’d recruited Aufderheide to join him on a mad quest. Plaisted was going for the North Pole.
“They said nobody could just take a few cronies from Minnesota and go to the North Pole. I told them they could just sit there and watch me.”
At the time, it was thought Admiral Robert Peary had reached the North Pole in 1909. A man named Frederick Cook had also claimed to reach the North Pole in 1908. Historians have since concluded neither man actually made it and either would have had great difficulty actually knowing they’d arrived at the pole even if they had. Plaisted wasn’t necessarily out for the glory of first arrival. He pitched his trip to potential sponsors as only the second trip to the North Pole since Peary, and the first by snowmobile. His pitch worked. Plaisted was supplied everything from food to whiskey to clothes and gear.
Plaisted also approached The National Geographic Society for financial assistance, but they scoffed at the chances of an inexperienced polar explorer succeeding on such a mission. Furthermore, they didn’t feel he’d bring any scientific expertise to the trip.
“They said nobody could just take a few cronies from Minnesota and go to the North Pole,” Plaisted told reporter Charles Kuralt, who joined the 1967 trip, in his book To the Top of the World. “I told them they could just sit there and watch me.”
Plaisted also pitched the trip to his buddies and local Regular Joes he hoped would sign on as crew. None of them were explorers, or even adventurers, either, but something about Plaisted lured them along. His friend Don Powellek, an engineer by trade, joined as radio operator. Walt Pederson, who ran a local Ski-Doo sales office, came along as the group’s mechanic. A geography teacher named Jerry Pitzl would be the navigator. Aufderheide served as the doctor. Bombardier, the company that manufactured the Ski-Doo, agreed to supply the outfit with a handful of the machines, as long as a member of the family could join. Jean-Luc Bombardier, a dashingly handsome snowmobile racer, thus came along as the lone Canadian on the expedition.
The men set out for their first attempt in the spring of 1967. They made it 300 miles in one month before abandoning the mission in the midst of a terrible snow storm. No matter. Plaisted, unfazed, immediately began drawing up a plan to head out again the following spring. The expedition raised more money, hired filmmakers to document portions of the trip, and Plaisted even convinced Pillsbury to supply them with a new kind of freeze-dried food they’d worked on for the space program (and even poached one of their food scientists who left his job on the spot to follow Plaisted into the Arctic). Ever the promotional genius, Plaisted presented the men with polar outfits emblazoned with a “Plaisted Expedition” logo.
In late February 1968, the crew departed from Bombardier HQ in Montreal, set up basecamp some 400 miles from the North Pole, then struck out aboard their Ski-Doos for the second attempt at a grand adventure.
Immediately, they were on the wrong course. Tools for the snowmobiles and medical supplies were forgotten at basecamp. Generators had been left behind. Blizzards kept them in tents for days at a time. They were uncertain about crossing strange forms of ice they didn’t recognize. Plaisted had arranged for aerial resupplies, but poor weather grounded their support plane, leaving them dangerously low on fuel and food. Morale plummeted just days into the voyage. A massive storm threatened to end their trip just two weeks in, similar to the poor luck that befelled them the previous year.
But the weather cleared, spirits improved, and Plaisted and his team continued pushing north. They drove the little 15 horsepower Ski-Doos fast when they could, hauled them over small crevasses and ice blocks when they couldn’t.
A month into the expedition, the group began encountering dangerously thin sections of ice and wildly unpredictable veins of black, freezing water, with only a crust of frost on top. Plaisted decided to break the group up, sending Aufderheide and Powellek back to basecamp to aid in planning and to lessen the weight on the Ski-Doos. Pitzl, the navigator, was flown to join Plaisted to direct them on the final push, constantly taking measurements with his trusty but frozen sextant.
Disaster nearly struck when the team encountered a stretch of open water that ran for miles in either direction. Seeing no other way to cross, the group gambled on waiting for an ice floe that drifted toward them to form a bridge to the other side. They gunned their snowmobiles and opened throttle when the bridge formed, the machines racing across over a thin suggestion of ice. Pederson’s Ski-Doo, however, bogged at the ice’s thinnest point. Plaisted, terrified, sprinted to drag his friend and the sinking machine to the frozen shore. They caught their breath and pushed on. Pederson would later credit Plaisted with saving his life.
By mid-April, Pitzl announced to the group they were close, perhaps within a few degrees of the pole. They moved through a few more dangerous stretches of confusing mazes of ice floes until they emerged again into a wide expanse of unbroken ice. Finally, on the morning of April 20, an Air Force jet that was monitoring their progress roared low overhead.
The pilot of the jet’s voice came crackling over Plaisted’s radio. They were standing dead on the center of the North Pole. Any direction they stepped would take them due south. They’d actually made it.
Plaisted was right. His ragtag team of cronies from Minnesota had done the impossible. They were the first team to reach the North Pole with actual evidence of their arrival. Most likely, they were the first to travel there at all.
Plaisted died in 2008. In his obituary, The New York Times reported a quote Plaisted had given years earlier about his trip. “Boy, it’s cold up there,” he said after his return home. “I don’t know why anyone would want to do it again.”
Photo, top: Minnesota Historical Society