The twin-prop plane swung low, tilting its wings and heading north, only to circle back and swoop down over the men again. It was March 7, 1968, and the members of the Plaisted polar expedition looked up at the plane in bewilderment. They were trying to travel to the North Pole by snowmobile — in what they believed to be the first expedition to the North Pole carried out on motorized machines, but what in reality may very well have been the first to reach the North Pole at all.
Barely an hour into the trek, it wasn’t going well. Having just left base camp, the six men stood atop a 40-foot-high wall of ice at the edge of the Arctic Ocean and looked at what lay ahead: stretching over the horizon, an unending moonscape of ice boulders, crevices and pack ice contorted by vast floes whose constant motion created steep pressure ridges and black stretches of open water known as leads. Sounds came from the ice, ghoulish groans as floes shifted followed by artillery-like reports as the sheets collided, threatening to open a yawning divide beneath their feet at any moment. In the days ahead, they would have to zigzag through a patchwork of pressure ridges and risk breaking through the frozen mantle and drowning in the glacial sea.
“God, we can never cross that,” one man said. The scene before them was not what they imagined back in Minnesota, when a dare in a bar instigated the least likely polar expedition of all time. A group of average, middle-aged, suburban men — an insurance salesman, a mechanic, a doctor, an engineer — had joined forces with a young Canadian adventurer, the scion of snowmobile manufacturer Bombardier, which was sponsoring the voyage. The snowmobiles the men had brought to the Arctic were primitive 16-horsepower Ski-Doos, little more than riding lawn mowers with snow tracks. Now, only a few miles into the journey, the idea of going to the North Pole by snowmobile suddenly seemed dangerous, impossible, insane.
Just before the plane passed over for a third time, veering once again to their right, it dawned on the men that the pilot was trying to tell them something. The Twin Otter was supposed to resupply them as they progressed across the ice — gas, beer, steaks, smokes, all the necessities. But the pilot had apparently come to check on their progress on the first day of the voyage. A tiny red object flew out of the cockpit window, landing in a snowdrift. It was a box of cigarettes, with a note: “You’re 45 degrees off course,” it read. “Enter the pack here.”
The expedition was just beginning, and they were headed in the wrong direction. As the plane disappeared to the south, the tiny, disoriented wagon train turned north, spirits low. They worked for hours in 60-below temperatures to lift their machines over a ridge of ice blocks. They progressed only 150 yards farther into the ice field by the end of the day — scarcely more than a football field. There were 415 miles to go, but the estimated total distance would be nearly double that once lateral travel to avoid obstacles was factored in. At this rate, they wouldn’t reach the pole by the time spring arrived to thaw half the Arctic Ocean.
The sky darkened and threatened a storm — a blow, in Arctic argot — and the men made camp. Walt Pederson, the mechanic, started to tinker with a snowmobile only to discover he’d forgotten his tools at base camp. They had left in extreme haste that day at the insistence of the expedition leader, Ralph Plaisted. After they set up their tent, Plaisted cut a finger opening a tin of chocolate. Art Aufderheide, the medic, inspected the wound.
“Ain’t you going to sew it up?” Plaisted asked. “Looks like the suture kit and the medical bag didn’t get packed on the sled when we left,” Aufderheide replied. “My god,” Plaisted said. “Can’t I depend on you guys for anything? Get on the radio, see if you can contact Moriarty at base camp.” “I can’t,” the radio operator, Don Powellek, said. “Why not?” “We’ve got all the radio equipment along, but nobody brought the generators,” Powellek replied.
Handing out soup in the frigid tent, the leader Plaisted sullenly admitted his own mistake. “Shut up and drink it,” he said. “I forgot the silverware.”
The dialogue above comes from an odd account of the Plaisted expedition titled First to the Pole. On the copyright page of the book, it is stated, “This is a work of fiction.” The book’s first words are “This is a true story.” Something I discovered when I stumbled on the snowmobilers’ tale: When dealing with the lore and literature of the North Pole, determining the precise truth of events can be surprisingly difficult. The book was written by multiple amateur authors, and Corinne Dwyer, the book’s publisher in St. Cloud, called it “creative nonfiction.” As I further reported the story, I realized that the book was in fact based on their diaries as well as the recollections years later of the men involved.
Ralph Plaisted died in 2008, as have most of the men involved in the expedition. The story of their voyage has disappeared into near-perfect obscurity, buried in yellowing letters and press clippings stowed in boxes I found in garages and basements scattered across Minneapolis.
The factual uncertainties surrounding the Plaisted expedition pale in comparison with those that dog the historical record of previous attempts. During the golden age of polar exploration, which lasted from the 19th century to the early years of the 20th, two expeditions claimed to have reached the North Pole. The first such declaration was by Robert Peary, who was widely credited with reaching the pole in 1909. But doubts about the veracity of his claim began upon his arrival back in the United States. Peary said he had traveled distances by sledge that subsequent investigations suggested weren’t humanly possible, and he had no way of locating the pole if he had made it. The vast majority of experts now concur that Admiral Peary faked his logs and failed to reach the pole, a deception of historic proportions. It was a tale enveloped in half-truths, exaggerations and the wishful thinking of the National Geographic Society, which sponsored the expedition. In 1988, long after Peary’s death, The New York Times ran a correction to its original 1909 story admitting that The Times and the society “may have failed to scrutinize adequately what they yearned to believe.”
Equally discredited was another claimant, Frederick Cook, who maintained that he reached the pole a year before Peary. This meant that Plaisted and his fellow adventurers — though they didn’t know it at the time — would improbably rank as the first to prove they had reached the pole. That is, if they could pull it off.
The Big Idea, as it became known, was born in a pub called the Pickwick overlooking Lake Superior in Duluth in 1966. Ralph Plaisted, a barrel-chested, 39-year-old insurance salesman, was having a beer with an acquaintance, a local doctor named Art Aufderheide. They were discussing plans for a seal-hunting trip by dog sled in the far north of Canada.
Tall and husky with a walrus-like mustache, Plaisted suggested they should go on snowmobiles, which were then a newfangled winter recreational vehicle. He was convinced that the machines, branded Ski-Doos, would transform life for the Inuit in the region. Aufderheide didn’t care for snowmobiles. He thought the noisy machines would intrude on the solemn silence of the Arctic.
“If you get hungry, you can’t eat a snowmobile,” Aufderheide said — the totemic last resort of Arctic lore. But Plaisted insisted on the virtues of these “iron dogs.” “If snowmobiles are so good,” Aufderheide countered, “why couldn’t you do something really spectacular with one — like drive it to the North Pole?”
Plaisted didn’t speak. He’d grown up reading about polar adventures in the pages of National Geographic magazine. Now, apparently in the throes of a midlife crisis, he sat looking at his beer and imagined himself in the Minneapolis Tribune. The year before, he drove his snowmobile 250 miles along the highway from his cabin in Ely to his home in White Bear Lake, a deed he accomplished in minus-30-degree temperatures. How much harder could it be in the high Arctic?
“To hell with seal hunting,” Plaisted said. “Let’s go to the North Pole!”
Plaisted wasn’t what might be considered a stereotypical polar explorer. A 10th-grade dropout who joined the Navy and apprenticed as a baker, he was a natural salesman who now owned a thriving insurance business. He had been duck hunting in Saskatchewan and loved to ride his collection of snowmobiles at his lakeside cabin, but he longed to find a project to throw himself into. Until that very moment, he had never considered such a venture.
The challenge soon became an obsession that Plaisted shared with his buddies, a collection of suburban dads in their thirties and forties. Don Powellek, his best friend and an engineer, agreed to be the radio operator; he said yes partly to make up for missing so many hunting trips — he didn’t think Plaisted would actually go. As the instigator, Aufderheide signed on to be the expedition’s doctor because he wanted to experience what it was like to travel across Arctic ice; reaching the pole didn’t really matter to him. To keep the team headed in the right direction — no easy task in the magnetic north — Plaisted recruited a high-school geography teacher named Jerry Pitzl, who learned to navigate in the Marine Corps but had never been on a snowmobile or spent much time outdoors.
The self-appointed leader, Plaisted cast himself as the expedition cook, a job he held in the military while serving in the Aleutians, a remote string of volcanic islands in the northern Pacific.
The final piece of the puzzle was a mechanic, and there was no one in Minnesota better with snowmobiles than Walt Pederson, an ambidextrous autodidact who ran a local Ski-Doo dealership. Since childhood, he had displayed a genius with small engines, despite a lack of formal education. The primitive two-stroke engines in snowmobiles had never been exposed to the extreme elements of the North Pole, so keeping them running would require serious talent. Bantam-size but tough and always in a hurry, Pederson was the sort of man who would turn an afternoon walk into a race. He paused for 10 seconds when approached with the offer. “I’m in,” he said.
Preparing for their first expedition in 1967, the men spent winter weekends at Plaisted’s deer-hunting camp, hoping to recreate the conditions they imagined they would encounter in the Arctic. They tooled around on snowmobiles and built ice ridges to mimic the real thing (or so they thought). The men stripped and jumped into the freezing water of an iced-over lake to see how long it took them to get dressed without dying from hypothermia. As stories started to appear in the local press, onlookers turned up to watch the explorers rehearse on Mille Lacs Lake. According to Pederson’s son Tim, the men took a psychological test to determine their suitability for the arduous trek. None passed.
What Plaisted lacked in experience he made up for with his talents as an impresario. The men who’d experienced life and death at the ends of the earth — Sir Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, Robert Peary — all practiced a form of survivalism with almost religious dimensions. Plaisted had no intention of duplicating their hardships. He aimed to make his voyage as safe and comfortable as possible. They would receive support by air, a kind of Arctic room service. They would have radios and all the gear they could carry — kerosene stoves, lamps and cameras — on the sleds they would tow. A documentary crew from CBS would film their progress.
Scores of companies around the country succumbed to Plaisted’s sales pitch. No one had reached the North Pole over the ice since Peary, he explained, and no one had ever gone there by snowmobile. What sounded like a knuckleheaded idea actually captured the spirit of the age of lunar exploration: man, machine, limitless ambition. Plaisted soon had corporations large and small on the hook to provide free goods and services to the expedition — everything from designer watches to Scotch whiskey.
Bombardier, at the time a small snowmobile manufacturer in Quebec, agreed to supply Ski-Doos, so long as a family member could join the expedition: Jean-Luc Bombardier, a handsome 29-year-old nephew of the founder, was a snowmobile racer who served as the face of the company in advertising. A Canadian joining the expedition also conveniently allayed geopolitical concerns about a bunch of Americans planting a flag at the North Pole and thereby laying claim to the territory.
The men raised more than $100,000 for expenses, including their polar outfits. The clothing was ingenious in its engineering: an inner parka made of poplin with a wolverine-fur hood layered underneath a duck canvas exterior parka with hand-stitched hems and cuffs and a hood lined with Arctic wolf fur. Each parka was dyed a different color so the men could identify one another by sight in harsh conditions; Plaisted picked royal purple. Like the towering polar explorers of the past, he named the expedition after himself, and he plastered “Plaisted” on all the men’s outfits and, indeed, on every piece of equipment he could.
As Plaisted promoted the expedition, he approached the National Geographic Society, which invited him in for an interview. Plaisted, who adored the magazine, eagerly traveled to Washington, D.C. But lunch in the society’s ornate boardroom quickly turned into a scene of ridicule and condescension, or so it seemed to Plaisted. (“Real dainty food,” he recalled later, “some kind of casserole in a little dish.”) The fact that he’d never traveled farther north than Saskatchewan was noted with derision, as was his failure to articulate a greater purpose for the expedition, a common pretense of explorers throughout history. Peary had labored mightily for decades to reach the pole, losing eight toes to amputation, supposedly focused on scientifically documenting terra incognita — but in truth he, too, was obsessed with personal glory.
“They said I wasn’t planning on doing enough scientific stuff,” Plaisted told CBS reporter Charles Kuralt for his book To the Top of the World, an account of the expedition’s first attempt in 1967. “I said I was planning to go to the North Pole — wasn’t that enough? 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.”
The first Plaisted expedition departed on March 28, 1967, from Eureka, a small Canadian research center on Ellesmere Island, 700 miles from the pole. None of the men had ever set foot on Arctic ice. As the group headed out on the first day, Plaisted used an iceberg in the distance as his point of reference for navigation, only to discover that they had circled it and were mistakenly heading south. A month later, pinned down by an enormous storm that kept them in their tents for a week, the expedition was abandoned 400 miles short of the pole. As Plaisted lay in his sleeping bag, humiliated, frustrated and terrified, he wrote in his diary, “Just when we have finally learned enough to succeed, we have failed.”
Undaunted, Plaisted and his friends returned in 1968. For food, Plaisted approached Pillsbury, headquartered in Minneapolis. The company’s food scientists were developing dehydrated dishes for the Apollo space program, and he pitched them the idea of testing their astronaut food in the Arctic climate. There, John Moriarty, a 28-year-old working in research, asked if he could come along to help with logistics at the base camp. The soft-spoken Moriarty literally quit his job that day and signed on — a fact he told me last fall, in a tone that indicated that the trip remained a highlight of his life.
The second Plaisted expedition officially left in late February 1968 from Montreal, the location of Bombardier headquarters. But the early omens were not good. Plaisted hadn’t been able to persuade CBS to cover the second attempt, so he sold the documentary rights. The two sideburned Swiss cameramen hired for the job acted as if they were on a film set, not embarking on an expedition. They kept demanding the men restage events like the departure on the tarmac in front of an honor guard of bagpipers freezing in the wind.
An argument erupted when Pederson refused to sign an agreement stipulating that Plaisted would receive by far the largest share of any monetary benefit from the expedition. Without Pederson, they’d have no one to keep the machines running, dooming the effort. When the others said they wouldn’t go unless he came along, Plaisted relented.
Base camp for the second attempt was at a place called Ward Hunt Island, a former Canadian research center 425 miles from the pole that they reached by twin-prop plane. The site was much closer to their goal than the previous year’s, further improving their chances of success. It also happened to be close to the spot from which Peary departed in 1909.
“The camp at Ward Island was a shambles when we arrived,” Moriarty told me. “There were these huts from the 1950s with all the walls blown out. It was 50 below, so we used cardboard to build walls.”
After the fiasco of the first day, when their supply pilot, legendary Arctic airman Weldy Phipps, tossed them a cigarette pack to inform them they were headed in the wrong direction, Pederson returned to camp to collect the forgotten equipment. But the second day proved just as maddeningly difficult, and Plaisted was furious with the lack of progress.
“Ralph was really rambunctious — shouting, screaming, yelling, blaming everybody for everything,” Aufderheide wrote in his diary.
“Ralph hollered at everybody, but it didn’t have much power,” Pederson said later. “It just made him think he knew better. I didn’t mind. In one ear and out the other, unless it was something important like warning that a polar bear was coming.”
Finally breaking through the ice ridge on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, they encountered what was called the big lead, the place where the ice hits deep water and is shaped by the ocean’s currents and tides. Freshwater ice is brittle and cracks when too much weight is put on it; saltwater ice is rubbery and stretches before it breaks, turning judgment about safe travel into a highly uncertain science. Variations in temperature, movement of floes, wind, the age of the ice, the depth of the ice — all needed to be constantly assessed. As winter gave way to spring and the ice upon the Arctic Ocean began to disappear, the situation would only worsen.
The peloton of four Ski-Doos and sleds navigated a disorienting landscape with no landmarks or signs of civilization. There were only five hours of daylight that far north, so they had to make the most of waking hours. On the third day, a blizzard kept them in their tents until noon. That afternoon, as they worked to break through a ridge, a cameramen tossed his ax into a sled, cutting through a container holding five gallons of fuel and soaking two sleeping bags with gas. From then on, the men had to zip the remaining bags together and sleep three or four to a bag. With sleeping pills and whiskey, the arrangement proved to be warmer.
The air support they received was no simple matter. Weather frequently grounded the plane, and the terrain out on the ice sometimes made landing impossible. Barrels of gas and, catastrophically, cans of beer were in danger of breaking in airdrops. Returning south to get supplies early in the expedition, an engine on the Twin Otter died, and Phipps, the pilot, nearly crashed as he steered over a range of mountains. While the engine was being repaired, the ice party ran out of fuel to heat their tents in the middle of a blizzard. It was 60 below inside and impossible to sleep. Their food supplies dangerously low, the men quietly contemplated giving up in the face of the kind of hardship Arctic explorers have always faced. They became haunted by the existential question at the heart of all polar expeditions: Why on earth am I doing this?
“Men: All are anxious at the moment,” Aufderheide wrote in his journal on the fifth day of the expedition. “All have given thought to walking or riding to [base camp]. The problems with this, together with the humiliation, keep most of us from talking about it.”
“All the fears a man can have tormented through my mind from claustrophobia,” Pederson recorded in his journal. “From the [polar] bear episode yesterday, to the loss of love, to ice piling on us, to a burial in a blow, to freezing to death.”
By the end of the first week, they had traveled only 35 miles from base camp.
The Plaisted expedition was racing against the spring melt, when half of the ice covering the Arctic Ocean would disappear. At the same time, they were racing against an eccentric Englishman named Wally Herbert, who was trying to reach the top of the world in the traditional, heroic manner: dog and sledge. He had spent most of his adult life on polar expeditions, trying almost literally to walk in the footsteps of men like Shackleton and Amundsen and Peary. He was obsessed with a version of an authentic polar expedition that required him to employ the same methods used during the golden age.
For the most part, that is: The year before, stranded on the Arctic Ocean, Herbert and his two comrades sent out a distress signal by Morse code that he and his crew were running out of food and faced starvation. The Plaisted expedition of 1967 had failed by then, but the men were still at base camp. They went on a mercy mission to bring Herbert supplies by air. The Englishman was reluctant to accept help from a group of men using “motorized toboggans” to try to reach the pole. He called the offer of aid the most difficult question he’d ever been asked, but he relented: “If we didn’t accept Plaisted’s food, we should have to kill and eat the dogs,” he wrote. Instead, they took the candy bars and kerosene.
Despite the appearance of historical authenticity, Herbert best resembled a Civil War re-enactor, a delusional inhabitant of an imagined glorious past. He aimed to walk across the Arctic by way of the North Pole, and unless the 1968 Plaisted expedition failed, they would beat him handily.
Still, the psychological toll of traveling over the ice was becoming evident in the Plaisted expedition. Aufderheide and Powellek were cautious and fearful: “By ourselves we’d never get to the pole,” Aufderheide wrote in his journal. The long-haired Bombardier, younger than the others and by far the best rider even if he was out of shape, found escape from the sounds of the ice and whipping blizzards by smoking cigarettes in his tent and listening to rock ’n’ roll on a small tape recorder he’d brought. Despite his private fears, Pederson was upbeat and eager to push forward, no matter the dangers. “Often wishes to do irrational things in his nervously energetic manner,” Aufderheide observed of him.
On the night of March 15 came another big blow, like the one that defeated them the year before. Gale-force winds pounded the expedition for seven days and nights, and Plaisted, Pederson and Aufderheide were forced to be alone together 24 hours a day. According to First to the Pole, the tent took on the air of a confessional. Plaisted told the men that his personal life was a mess. While he was preparing for the second expedition in 1968, his eldest daughter told me, he was having an affair with a woman who used to work for his insurance agency. Plaisted’s wife was pregnant at the time. He told the men he intended to leave his wife upon his return.
Pederson, a deeply religious man, was baffled by Plaisted’s admission. He told the others about his upbringing during the Depression, during which his impoverished parents had beaten and abused him. “I hated my parents,” he would later write to a sibling. “I wanted desperately to think or feel that I was worth something, so much so that taking risks seemed the thing to do, like making the trip to the North Pole on Ski-Doos.”
The men all entertained second thoughts as they huddled against the terrifying force of the big blow. But this time they withstood the fear. The weather turned fair, and they were soon making real progress. Pederson left the tent first each morning to start the engines by sparking the carburetor with a gas rag set aflame, an ingenious fix. Bombardier departed a half hour before the others to find the path northward.
Now, the greatest danger was the leads, those black stretches of open water and paper-thin ice. Every time they encountered one, panic descended. There was a local truism that a man in polar water was a dead man, a saying that darkened their imaginations as they revved their engines and sped across the rubbery expanses of ice.
The farther north they traveled, the more erratic Plaisted’s behavior grew. Haunted by the thought of falling through the ice, he was clearly under emotional strain, and he hectored Pederson endlessly. Before the expedition, Plaisted specifically asked Aufderheide to be blunt about his leadership failings. Nearly a month into the trip, Aufderheide warned Plaisted that he was being too hard on the men, needling and ridiculing his team.
“They have to work hard now that we got good weather,” Plaisted replied. “It’s like the guy from National Geographic said: You’ve got to drive them until they hate your guts.” “That’s the first time I heard you pay attention to anything they told you,” Aufderheide said. “And it’s probably the only advice they gave you that’s wrong.”
Plaisted was unmoved. The only thing he cared about was making it to the pole. Until that point, the men had been forced to share snowmobiles, slowing down the expedition considerably. Plaisted decided to trim the team so that each man would have a machine to himself. To speed their progress, Aufderheide volunteered to return to base camp to help with logistics; making it to the pole had never been his ambition. Plaisted then told the cameraman and Powellek, his best friend and the deputy leader, to head back as well. Forced from the ice party, Powellek felt discarded and betrayed; after working for years on the expedition, he was being denied his chance at the prize.
Pitzl, the navigator, had been at base camp, but now he was flown out to join the ice party and keep them on course. The four each had their own snowmobiles: Pederson had “Little Lady” inscribed on the hood; Pitzl had “Polecat”; Plaisted “Caribou Queen”; and Bombardier, the bachelor French Canadian, dubbed his “Le Swinger.” Distances traveled each day began to grow from 22 miles to 54 miles — the kind of distance Peary and Wally Herbert could never achieve with dog and sledge. The plane flew ahead of them, searching for the best path forward — an advantage unimaginable to past polar explorers. Aufderheide oversaw a project to photograph the ice pack to provide a map for the expedition. With the distance from base camp growing, a refueling station was established halfway to the pole, using a beacon devised by Powellek. Despite the dysfunction and disputation, each man in the ragtag collection was contributing. Pitzl, who now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, told me the expedition was a godsend for him at the time. His mother died in January 1966, and his first marriage ended in February of that year. So when Plaisted proposed the North Pole expedition in March, he grabbed the chance.
“It gave me something to be excited about,” Pitzl says. “It took away some of the upset and gave me something to hold on to.”
Reminders of the risks were everywhere. One night, zipped two to a sleeping bag and listening to the groaning ice, as Plaisted later told a reporter, the men were horrified when the ice pan they were camping on suddenly started to roar and rumble, as if coming to life. No one said a word. In the morning, Pitzl was the first out of the tent, and he reported that the entire south end of the ice pan was rubble; they’d missed ruination by a matter of yards.
“We don’t care what’s going on to the south,” Pederson said. “We’re going north.”
On April 8, after a month and a day on the ice, it looked as if another big blow was coming: A specter appeared on the horizon, shimmering and ethereal. As they neared it, though, they realized that they were seeing mist rise from a tremendous expanse of open water two miles wide and stretching to the horizon in both directions. The scale of it was terrifying. The men agreed that they would have to hope it would freeze over. But the ice was getting softer, giving way underfoot in an unnerving fashion.
“How deep is the ocean here?” Bombardier asked as they looked at the lead, according to First to the Pole. “Ten thousand feet,” Pitzl said. “Maybe we should wait,” Bombardier said.
Trapped on a floe drifting southward, they continually checked the thickness of the ice over the next few days; Bombardier probed with a chisel then carefully stepped onto the gray ice, progressing inch by inch until the ice grew black and watery. The situation seemed hopeless. Pederson and Bombardier kept patrolling up and down the length of the lead, looking for a place where their floe might connect with the floe to the north. Then Pederson saw a large extrusion that appeared to be about to collide with their ice pan. He raced back to camp and urged the team to pack up and prepare for when the floes smashed into each other. They’d be able to cross during the collision, Pederson told them eagerly. The plan sounded far too dangerous to Plaisted, but the other three insisted. A kind of polar fever had taken over. Revving their engines, the din breaking the vast silence, they awaited word from Pederson until the floes crashed with an enormous boom.
“Now,” Pederson shouted.
The expedition set forth at full throttle, skimming onto the other floe. But there was an almighty roar and a crack as the ice fractured, splitting the party into two pairs of sleds. Pitzl gunned his Ski-Doo and made it to the main floe, the others grabbing his sled and pulling it ashore before he sank into the abyss. Now Pederson was left drifting away, with open water spreading among the fragmenting ice islands. He had no choice but to go as fast as he could until he reached an expanse of thin black ice. As he tried to cross it, his machine bogged down and began to sink, its snow track spinning ineffectually.
Plaisted, overpowering his own fear, stepped off the safety of the hard floe onto the gelatinous ice and picked his way gingerly to the machine, his feet sinking with each step. He tugged the skis of Pederson’s Ski-Doo and pulled it from the grasp of the frigid sea. Others told different versions of the story, but years later, Pederson still recalled the “miracle” that saved his life.
Later that night, as they lay in the tent contemplating the risks they were taking, Plaisted told his compadres: “If any of you think we’re doing anything like that again, you can forget it right now.”
The North Pole was a point in space that could be defined by the stars, the earth’s magnetic field, the earth’s rotation around its axis, tectonics — or the sense of adventure. “We strive for an elusive and imaginary point,” Pitzl wrote in his diary. “This may be what drove Peary for 25 years, and Cook, too. It has nothing to do with the Arctic and the wilds of the north. It’s the drive to capture something that defies capture.”
Determining the pole’s exact location presented the team’s final challenge. Pitzl stopped hourly to use a sextant to find their latitude, and by April 15, he judged that they were now less than two degrees of latitude from the exact geographic northernmost point on the globe.
Victory at hand, Plaisted was presented with a quandary. Two key members of the expedition — Aufderheide and Powellek, his best friend — could be flown up to share the experience of reaching the pole or the two cameramen working on the documentary could come to provide a record of the deed. There wasn’t room in the plane for all of them. Plaisted chose the filmmakers, bitterly disappointing Powellek, who believed that it had been Plaisted’s plan all along to cut out the other two and steal the spotlight.
But before they could reach the top, the ice party encountered what looked like a trap, a foreboding jumble of broken and fragmented ice. “There must be six or seven leads out there,” Pitzl said to Plaisted.
In every direction lay peril: some leads frozen, some stretches of open water. It was like a spider’s web, the ridges and floes forming an intricate icescape that lured them in farther. But after hours navigating the labyrinth, they reached open ice again and closed in on 90 degrees north — the pole. The sense of elation was palpable.
As they were breaking camp a few days later, the men were startled by the roar of a large Air Force jet flying low over the Arctic searching for the ice party. The overflights would be able to confirm the team’s position, even as they drifted over the geographically fixed position of true north.
The next day, the party picked its spot. “This is Lark 47 on approach to the North Pole,” the pilot of the jet called on the radio. He began to count down from 10 as Plaisted came into view below. “I see them dead ahead. Four, three, two, one, North Pole. Dead on. Every direction from where you fellows are is south.”
It was April 20 at 11 in the morning when they officially became the first to the pole.
Why was the unlikely triumph of the Plaisted expedition lost to history? The answer is a combination of bad luck and polar politics. When the expedition returned to Montreal, a writer from National Geographic was waiting, hoping to acquire rights to the story. Plaisted flatly refused, despite the pleading of his comrades. Since Peary’s day, the magazine had been the official arbiter of exploration claims like theirs; with his refusal, Plaisted denied his team the legitimacy only the society could bestow.
“Ralph thought for sure there would be a ticker-tape parade in New York City,” Pitzl recalls. “Ralph had a big ego — it was ego all the way. He was convinced there would be laurels. But no dice.”
Wally Herbert eventually reached the pole in 1969 after being trapped on an ice floe for close to eight months. Even the thwarted Englishman in his later years acknowledged that the rightful claim to being first to the pole went to Plaisted and his snowmobiling pals, although their voyage lacked the high-minded pretensions of golden-age exploration.
As I disinterred the tale, I learned that one member of the team who had taken the entire trek still survived: Walt Pederson. He was about to turn 88, his eldest son, Tim, told me last October, and I was welcome to come to his birthday party in Minnesota. Walt had recently been picked up by the police in Butte, Montana, where he and his wife had holed up in an RV with more than $100,000 in cash, both clearly suffering from dementia. Returned home, he was now living in a memory-care ward — but his restless energy meant that he was constantly trying to escape by climbing out windows.
“The hospital called and said that Dad was saying crazy things,” his son told me. “They said he told them he’d been to the North Pole on a snowmobile.” The younger Pederson laughed. “I told them that part was true.”
The elder Pederson was flinty, with a solid handshake, but it was evident that his memory had suffered significant loss. As we walked toward the cafeteria for his party, Walt broke into a fast-paced shuffle, almost a jog, as I was told he’d always done. “God gave me more ambition than a man should have” was one of his mottos.
“Your mind isn’t what it used to be,” the son told his father. “I know that,” Walt replied. His descent into dementia had been painful for the family. But sitting together eating birthday cake, they all relished the chance to recollect his amazing Arctic voyage. Like the grown children of the other members of the expedition, they took great pride in their intrepid father. The feat was fading from memory, but Walt grinned, seeming to recognize why a perfect stranger had come to talk to him about the Plaisted expedition. “Why did you go to the North Pole?” I asked. “I’d never been there,” Walt said, eyes twinkling. “I knew it would be fun. I’d go back now, if I could. Why not?
This article is reprinted in collaboration with The New York Times.