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Plaisted first to reach North Pole over ice

Fifty years ago this week, the Ralph Plaisted team snowmobiled across the Arctic to achieve goal

By Doug Voerding

Fifty years ago this week, Minnesota's Ralph Plaisted and his team of Walt Pederson, Gerald Pitzl, and Jean-Luc Bombardier became the first to plant American and Canadian flags at the North Pole. Their achievement was identified as the first indisputable reaching of the North Pole over sea ice.

A couple of weeks ago, Dick Stevens brought some information about Plaisted and his expedition to the Journal-Press office.

Stevens said that Ralph Plaisted was a good friend of his son, Mike, and would come in the spring each year for a fish fry at the Stevens' place here in Wright County. Ralph would spend time visiting his brother Tom Plaisted in Buffalo and other friends in the area.

Ralph Plaisted's last spring fish fry was in 2008. He left his sweater behind and, when the Stevens family wanted to return it, Plaisted told them to keep it. For the Stevens family, that sweater is a remembrance of the man who conquered the Arctic and became the first to the North Pole over the ice.


First attempts in history

Prior to the early 1900s, there had been numerous explorations of the Arctic. European monarchs wanted to find an alternative trading route to China, the Northwest Passage through the North American continent.

From 1594 to 1900, several European explorers tried unsuccessfully to find that Northwest Passage. Roald Amundsen, of Norway, finally completed a navigation of the Northwest Passage from 1903 to 1905. All of these expeditions were by ship.

From 1886 to 1909, U.S. Navy Engineer Robert Peary organized eight expeditions to the Arctic. In 1909, on an expedition supported by the National Geographic Society, Peary reported that he with Matthew Henson and four others reached the North Pole on foot with dog sleds. There are still questions about his report of the distances he traveled and how close he actually came to the North Pole.

However, the first-verified, over-ice expedition to the North Pole did not happen until 1968 when Ralph Plaisted and his team used snowmobiles to reach the pole.


Before the expedition

After serving in the U. S. Navy during World War II, Plaisted became a successful insurance agent in White Bear Lake.

When the sport of snowmobiling grew popular in the 1960s, Plaisted bought one of the first Canadian-made Ski-Doo sleds in the United States. To prove that snowmobiles were durable for travel, in January 1965, he drove non-stop from Ely to St. Paul, a distance of 250 miles, in 14 hours.

In 1963, Plaisted met his friend Art Aufderheide in a bar. Aufderheide apparently got tired of hearing how great snowmobiles were and told Plaisted that if the machines were so great, he should ride one to the North Pole. A bar bet, or so the story goes.


Preparations for the expedition

Plaisted took up the challenge in 1967 and, with a small crew and CBS journalist Charles Kuralt, attempted to reach the North Pole. The trip ended far short of the goal because unexpected warm weather in April caused the ice to start breaking up. However, plans for a trip the following year were begun.

The 1968 trip would cost $125,000, about $900,000 in today's dollars. There were more than 85 sponsors, including Knorr for dried soup, Pillsbury for dried meals, and Coleman for tents.

Snowmobile suits of the 1960s were not designed for Arctic conditions. Special clothing was made that included an inner parka of cotton lined with Sherpa cloth and a hood of wolverine fur. Plaisted and his team tested the custom-made outfits by lying on a Minnesota lake when the temperature was 35 below.


The expedition

The Plaisted Expedition, with Plaisted as the leader, included navigator and radioman Gerry Pitzl, a university geography teacher; mechanic Walt Pederson, owner of a Ski-Doo dealership in St. Cloud; and Jean-Luc Bombardier, the nephew of Armand Bombardier, whose Ski-Doo snowmobiles were used in the expedition.

The Ski-Doo snowmobiles were single-piston and 16-horsepower. They were made of wood and steel and weighed about 250 pounds, much lighter and less powerful than today's sleds.

The team left from Ward Hunt Island in Canada on March 7, about a month earlier than in 1967. The temperature was 62 below.

Their route to the North Pole required covering more than 825 miles. If they had been able to follow a straight line, the trip would have been about half that at 475 miles. The trip took 44 days. Six of those days were spent waiting out an Arctic storm.

The route was over ice ridges that could be more than twenty feet high. If the snowmobilers couldn't get around the ridges, bridges were built with ice picks and shovels. Some days, the team only covered two or three miles. Other days, the team would travel 65 miles.

Seven air drops of fuel and supplies kept the riders going. Temperatures were consistently 50 to 60 below for the first two weeks, and never got above 18 below.

Once the expedition reached the North Pole, they had to spend a night until a U.S. Air Force plane could fly over to document their location. In fact, before the plane flew over, they had to move their tents and equipment two-and-a-half miles because the ice had shifted during the night.

Once it was determined that the team was indeed at the North Pole, they were then flown home with their equipment and three of the snowmobiles.

Two other men, Art Aufderheide, the friend who made the challenge, and electronics engineer Don Powellek who had previously been flown off the ice back to base camp to take care of supply and electronics issues.


After the success

After the team's success, Plaisted continued to run his insurance agency until 1971.

Always an adventurer, in 1971, Plaisted brought his family to Lake Russell, Saskatchewan, Canada. There they lived in tents for 15 months while building fishing camp cabins and living off the land and water.

Plaisted returned to his insurance business, and he continued to run that fly-in fishing camp for many years.

Said Dick Stevens, "My family was able to go to that fish camp in 1983."

Plaisted also gave lectures and programs.

In January, 1974, Plaisted spoke to the Buffalo Snow Riders snowmobile club. The program included showings of "North Pole Expedition" and "Our Wilderness Live-In," which highlighted Plaisted's snowmobile trip to the North Pole and his experiences living in the far north with his family.

After his return, Plaisted reportedly said, "Boy, it's cold up there. I don't know why anyone would want to do it again."

Ralph Plaisted died at his home in Wyoming, Minnesota, on September 8, 2008, at the age of 80.


Sources of information are from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, National Geographic Society, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Minneapolis StarTribune, Wright County Journal-Press, Los Angeles Times, St. Paul Pioneer Press, New York Sun, and New York Times.


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