The Quest for the North Pole Episode 8: Triumph by Snowmobile

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It’s April 1968, and an insurance salesman from Minnesota named Ralph Plaisted is looking down at his feet. He’s standing on an ice floe in the Arctic, with 10,000 feet of frigid water below.

And the ice is getting softer.

Plaisted looks around. Miles of ice-covered ocean surround him in all directions. He’s only days into his attempt to reach the North Pole—and things look as grim as they’ve ever been. Plaisted and his team of amateur explorers have endured fuel shortages, howling storms, and forgotten supplies. But now, just a few inches of precarious ice separates them from a watery grave.

For days, they probe the ice with chisels. They hope for sure footing and an extrusion that will connect them to another floe. Finally, one appears. Plaisted and his men scramble onto their snowmobiles, preparing to ride over to the fragile surface like daredevils. Plaisted doesn’t want to do it—it’s a preposterous plan—but there’s no other choice.

The floes finally touch. The men rev their engines and surge forward.

Incredibly, impossibly, it works. Three of the four, including Plaisted, make it across.

Then they hear a crack.

Plaisted looks back. There’s his friend Walter Pederson, caught in the lead between the ice floes. And he’s sinking.

Plaisted bolts across the surface, feet meeting ice the consistency of a Slurpee. He reaches out for Pederson, grabs his snowmobile, and pulls. As hard as he can. Today, four will survive, or two will die.

How had they even gotten to this point? Ralph Plaisted was no one’s idea of an action hero. In his late 30s, with a Wilford Brimley-esque mustache, Plaisted was just an insurance salesman from Minnesota. And insurance salesmen, while members of a noble profession, aren’t necessarily equipped for Arctic expeditions. Would he be able to save his friend? And what was really behind this unlikely mission to reach the North Pole? In this episode, we’ll find out.

From Mental Floss and iHeart Radio, this is The Quest for the North Pole. I’m your host, Kat Long, science editor at Mental Floss, and this is Episode 8: Triumph by Snowmobile.

By the time Ralph Plaisted was sinking into the ice, it had been 59 years since Robert Peary and Matthew Henson claimed to conquer the Pole in 1909. After that momentous adventure and ensuing controversy with Frederick Cook, which we laid out in our previous episode, a parade of airships, airplanes, and submarines had traveled to the Pole. The airship Norge—led by Roald Amundsen, with American aviator Lincoln Ellsworth as navigator and Italian engineer Umberto Nobile as pilot—flew over the North Pole in 1926. A few days earlier, American aviator Richard E. Byrd claimed to have flown his plane over the North Pole, but skeptics later questioned his veracity. In 1958, the U.S. nuclear submarine Nautilus made the first underwater cruise to the geographic North Pole, gliding under the ice. And the following year, the American nuclear sub Skate pushed through the ice field to become the first to surface at the Pole. 

But those were explorers in vessels. Trekking to the North Pole over miles of ice was still a Romantic mission, one that attracted adventurers with iron constitutions. Men who had made a life and career of pushing the envelope. Men who were completely and utterly unlike Ralph Plaisted, who had never even been to the Arctic, and after he’d gotten there, remarked, “Boy, it’s cold up there.”

Plaisted was determined to succeed where many had not. He’d read National Geographic issues cover to cover and knew the accounts of Peary and Henson by heart. What Plaisted lacked in personal polar experience, he made up for in enthusiasm. And while men like Robert Peary were driven by a need to make history, Plaisted was driven by … a dare made in a bar.

Granted, Plaisted wasn’t a guy you’d typically find lounging around the house on weekends. As a Naval officer, he’d served in the Pacific theater during World War II before returning to Minnesota to begin a series of odd jobs. Plaisted was a born salesman, going door to door with a variety of goods like fly spray and cattle vitamins. Then he began selling insurance, which was his true calling. Pretty soon, he owned his own company.

He was also an avid outdoorsman who had a special affinity for Ski-Doos. This brand of snowmobile was starting to gain popularity after being introduced in 1959. They were particularly suited for snowy Minnesota.

Bill Convery: And Minnesota has a thriving snowmobile culture.

That’s Bill Convery, the director of research for the Minnesota Historical Society and an expert in the state’s history.

Convery: In the 1960s, when Ralph Plaisted got his first snowmobile, the consumer culture of snowmobiling had just started. But today, a lot of Minnesotans own snowmobiles that becomes the primary way they get around in the wintertime. It's a major source of recreation, and Minnesotans pride themselves on their ability to endure extreme cold temperatures and certainly Plaisted fits in that category.

Plaisted was such a fan of snowmobiles that in 1965, he drove one all the way from Ely, Minnesota, to White Bear Lake, just north of St. Paul, a distance of 250 miles. Oh, and it was about 30 degrees below zero during the trip.

Convery: The coldest I've experienced in Minnesota is 35 below. And I tell you, it's impossible to breathe. It hurts to breathe when you go outside. Your limbs get frostbite almost immediately. And the idea of bundling up and hopping on a snowmobile, which you couldn't say the snowmobiles of the 1960s were overpowered by any stretch of the imagination. You had a little 15 or 16 horsepower engine. The top speed it could go was maybe 20, or if you really pushed it, 30 miles an hour. So 14 hours of enduring colder temperatures than really most of us can even imagine.

And Plaisted did it non-stop.

An achievement like that can really bolster a person’s confidence. So when Plaisted was seated in the Pickwick Bar in Duluth, Minnesota, on March 5, 1966, he thought he knew what he was talking about when he insisted snowmobiles would be a feasible way of traveling in the Arctic.

Plaisted had a verbal sparring partner that evening. His name was Art Aufderheide, a local doctor. The men had originally been discussing a seal hunting trip using dog sleds, which Aufderheide had used in previous trips. But the more Plaisted bragged about the virtues of snowmobiles, the more confrontational Aufderheide got. If what Plaisted was saying was true, he argued, then a snowmobile should be something that Plaisted could drive straight to the North Pole.

Remember that no one in history had ever driven a motorized vehicle to the North Pole. In fact, no person had been able to prove they had trekked to the North Pole. But Plaisted might not have been aware of that at the time. And after crowing about his Ski-Doo, Plaisted really had no choice but to defiantly insist that, yes, it would absolutely be possible to drive one all the way to an incredibly remote part of the world.

Convery: Which I think of as kind of the equivalent of, "Well, if you love her so much, why don't you marry her?" It's like going to the North Pole on sort of a middle school dare. Be careful what you promise after a couple of drinks, right?

Then and there, Plaisted made a decision. He would embark on an expedition that traditionally had a formidable casualty rate. Aufderheide would be coming along with him. His role? Medical officer.

As newspaper stories began to surface in November 1966, Plaisted described his trip in scientific terms. He’d collect data on everything from human tolerance to extreme weather conditions to polar navigation. They were lofty goals, and in reality, Plaisted and his men would be so preoccupied with merely surviving that none of this research would be completed. And maybe deep down, Plaisted knew there would be limited value to his observations. The prize was being first.

Convery: The thing about Plaisted is that he was a huge fan of National Geographic and he had soaked up the stories of Robert Peary and Admiral Byrd and Matthew Henson. He knew those stories backwards and forwards. And I think he romanticized those stories in an important way, and he certainly understood cold, although he really didn't understand the conditions of the North Pole, but I think he knew just enough to be dangerous, to think, "Well, if these guys could do it over land, then I can certainly do it on a machine."

Plaisted’s adventure had attracted the attention of CBS. The network entered into a deal with him to chronicle his trip for future airing on the channel, with regular updates on their radio news broadcast. CBS even dispatched correspondent Charles Kuralt to shadow Plaisted’s crew and write about their progress.

Like a kind of Arctic Dirty Dozen, Plaisted recruited friends who could each bring a special skill to the table. In addition to Aufderheide, Plaisted enlisted Donald Powellek, an engineer who could operate the radio. Gerald Pitzl, a high school geography teacher, and Blair Woolsey, a dentist by trade, would assist with navigation. Walt Pederson was a mechanical engineer who would tend to the Ski-Doos. John Austad was a survival expert from the Royal Canadian Air Force. Photographer Robert Clemens came on assignment for CBS, and Welland Phipps, a Canadian pilot, would provide air support and deliver supplies. Plaisted designated himself the expedition’s cook.

Kat Long: Today, so many polar explorers are trying to do it unsupported, solo. They're kind of putting these artificial limits on themselves to show that they can endure this amount of pressure to reach their goal, but Plaisted is like, "I don't want to make this more difficult than I have to." Convery: Exactly. I mean, there's this aesthetic of deprivation that a lot of explorers live up to, that it's kind of a test of their discipline to be able to go without the creature comforts of life. And that didn't fly with Ralph Plaisted at all, not even a little. He wasn't going to do this if he couldn't be comfortable. And so all along the way, he received packages that dropped from the air of cigarettes and beer and scotch.

Some of these men didn’t even have much experience outdoors, much less in the Arctic. Pitzl said as much in an interview with The Montreal Gazette, labeling them all “a bunch of amateurs.”

Convery: Well, these guys are mostly middle-aged men in their late thirties and early forties. They're mechanics and engineers and teachers. Kind of people with everyday backgrounds who got into this expedition simply because they were friends with Ralph Plaisted.

The men would have to train for a journey demanding physical and mental fortitude. Since none of them had passed the psychological evaluation, they’d just have to make do with the physical part. They hoped their weekends spent ice-fishing on frozen lakes would prepare them.

Convery: And so to train and prepare for this trip, they slept outdoors in sleeping bags. They camped out on frozen-over lakes, particularly Mille Lacs Lake. They went through exercises like building up fake ice ridges to navigate and to figure out how they were going to move their snowmobiles over them. They did this all basically thinking, and they're not entirely wrong, that a Minnesota winter was at least good conditioning for the kinds of experiences they were going to experience in the Arctic. Long: Do you think what they did to prepare was enough? Convery: I would say that they came back thinking the answer to that was no. The ice conditions in the Arctic circle were nothing like any of them had experienced, and so they couldn't read the ice, which is very dangerous, of course. If you drive a snowmobile over a thin patch of ice in the Arctic, that's almost certainly a fatal experience.

The more they practiced that spring of 1967, the more crowds began to form around the lake. There was a real curiosity over what would become of this motley crew once they started toward their destination.

Newspapers in Minneapolis and St. Cloud followed the expedition’s progress and setbacks, and Plaisted became a local celebrity. Even if Minnesotans had their doubts about whether the team would make it to the Pole, they went along with the narrative, swept up in the age-old battle between man and nature.

Long: I think a couple of wire services at the time did an article or two about him. And it was carried in all papers, all across the country. I mean, to me, felt like these audiences kind of in the late '60s are perhaps looking for something to believe in collectively. I mean, it was a pretty rough time in our country at that point, and maybe they needed this kind of thing to latch on to. Convery: That's a great point. And I think part of the context that people need to understand is what was going on in the United States and in the world in the late 1960s. America was mired in Vietnam. The Civil Rights Movement was kind of falling apart. On April 4th of 1968, while Plaisted is still up in the Arctic, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. This is a very turbulent time, but there's also a backdrop of these new adventures in outer space. The Apollo program was going in 1968 and 1969. And so Americans were kind of mired in problems on the ground, but looking up at the skies with some hope, and that was kind of the context that drew a lot of attention to Ralph Plaisted.  Long: It's kind of funny that even as late as 1968, it's still a race. Convery: Right, this is still an extreme endeavor. Plaisted, when he returned, noted that even in the late 1960s, hundreds of mountain climbers were scaling Mount Everest every year, but almost nobody went to the North Pole. So this was terra incognita, this was essentially an unconquered horizon for human beings. Long: And you brought up the space race too, which of course was happening at the same time. And there's so many parallels between the two. One thing that kind of struck me is that not only are there parallels between the space race and Plaisted's expedition, but he actually used foods, apparently, that the Pillsbury Company in Minneapolis had developed for the space program. Do you know anything about that? I am so curious about this. Convery: Think about what it takes to eat food in outer space for a minute. You can't eat things with crumbs. You can't eat things that are liquidy or gooey because that stuff floats around and it gets in your controls. And so NASA was looking for some compact way to keep their astronauts fed in a way that wouldn't muck up their systems. And Pillsbury, a Minnesota company, a company that was headquartered in Minneapolis, was working on the creation of what they called space food sticks. They didn't really have a good name for this in the 1960s, but we would call this an energy bar today. Basically a compact edible stick of food that could be tightly packed and contained, and carried into outer space, and Plaisted's expedition provided a great opportunity to test out these new food sticks, and so Plaisted took along the supply.

Sponsors wound up donating over $100,000 to his nonprofit company, Plaisted Polar Expedition, Inc. But not everyone was enamored with Plaisted’s plans. Campbell’s Soup declined to send him free cans. Pepsi also rejected his request for 10 cases of soda. He did manage to convince Bombardier, the manufacturer of Ski-Doos, to donate 10 vehicles. But Bombardier had one condition. Plaisted would have to let Jean-Luc Bombardier, the nephew of the founder, accompany him, along with technician Pierre Drouin.

CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt chronicled Ralph Plaisted's first attempt to reach the North Pole in his book To The Top of the World.
CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt chronicled Ralph Plaisted's first attempt to reach the North Pole in his book To The Top of the World. / Amazon

Plaisted added some rather clever touches. For one, he made sure the parkas worn by the men were different colors so they could be easily identified on the ice. The custom outfits cost $11,000 and were made by Sid Lanham of the Chippewa Trading Post in Grand Rapids, who worked from sketches created by Aufderheide. The parkas had both an inner and outer shell, so the men could remove the outer layer for physical jobs like clearing a trail and keep it on while riding. He also made sure the Ski-Doos were lined with Styrofoam to keep them afloat in case they broke through the ice.

Plaisted had other help, too. He consulted polar research scientists in both Washington and Ottawa to formulate the best way to make the 800-mile journey, although he stated he got far more help from Canadian officials than the Pentagon. “I went to the Pentagon last year, and the only thing they know about is Vietnam,” Plaisted told The Montreal Gazette. “If you are not going to Vietnam, you are not going anywhere.”

He also sought advice from at least 150 experts in Arctic adventuring, from those at the Arctic Research Laboratory at Point Barrow, Alaska, to the Sea Ice Branch of the U.S. Navy Oceanographic Office. The most useful advice may have come from Donald Alford, a glaciologist at Montana State. “I think your total food and fuel estimates are a bit low,” he began. “The most priceless possession up there is a warm sleeping bag … Until you’ve been in a sleeping bag for five days at -30 Fahrenheit, listening to the wind blow, you can’t imagine how it takes the edge off one’s enthusiasm.”

Even though he’d be using 16-horsepower snowmobiles, Plaisted still planned on bringing along dogs to warn his team of approaching polar bears. The Ski-Doos could go 30 miles an hour while pulling sleds containing all the donated equipment and supplies they’d need. Each Ski-Doo could tow 500 pounds, and the sleds had water-tight plastic bags in case they had to be moved over water. Plaisted pitched the tents in his living room so they could dry out after their weekend practice runs, but his family was used to the inconvenience. His wife, Gail, had to walk around them, and their children, 18-year-old Jacquie and 11-year-old Steven, sometimes slept over at a neighbor’s house when Plaisted had his teammates over for meetings.

It was time to begin. On March 24, 1967, Plaisted and his team flew from Montreal to Eureka, a small weather station on Ellesmere Island in Canada. From Eureka, Plaisted intended to travel along Nansen Sound to the Arctic Ocean, then head west to cross the ice toward the North Pole. His route was similar to Frederick Cook’s on his 1908 polar journey. Upon arrival at the Pole, Plaisted’s party would be transported back to civilization by airplane.

On March 28, the journey began. And on March 28, things began going wrong.

Let’s take a break here.

Straddling their Ski-Doos, with hundreds of miles of icy terrain between them and the North Pole, the men sped toward immortality. And ran into problems. Ignoring Pitzl’s navigation, Plaisted gauged their direction by using an iceberg as a point of reference. But, too late, they realized they had circled the iceberg and were now heading south, a major obstacle in arriving at the North Pole. They had lost 12 miles.

By the second day, Clemens, the CBS photographer, had already had enough. He seemed to see the gravity of the situation when his camera lens froze over, and began screaming that he would be returning to base camp by himself. The others talked him out of what would have been a dangerous solo trip. That night, the men set up camp and radioed back to base, where operators could pass along word of their progress to their wives and families and Plaisted could request supplies.

Moving—even if the men were going in circles—was tolerable. But at night, the environment’s reluctance to accommodate human occupants became stark. Plaisted stuffed the men into a single dinner tent and cooked up a nice beef stew. But there was so little space inside that one team member’s wet clothing might be draped over another person’s leg or arm. The zippers lining the entrance froze with the flap open, blasting them with frigid ar.

By April 1, they had traveled 100 miles north. The odometers on their Ski-Doos read 175 miles owing to the detours. After exiting Nansen Sound, what lay ahead was treacherous sea ice broken into hummocks and ridges, none of it ever meant to be traversed by man or machine. Because of the currents, which carried ice floes two or three miles an hour, the men would move even while camped out. But it might not necessarily be in the right direction.

Plaisted soon came to a realization. With uneven ice ahead of him, and a load of equipment totaling hundreds of pounds, his expedition had become too cumbersome. He sent Woolsey and Bombardier, who were both sick, back to base camp. Clemens also went back, since his cameras needed thawing.

But he still needed to send one more man away. As leader, it couldn’t be him. And it couldn’t be Austad, who had experience with sea ice. Powellek operated the radio. Pitzl was in charge of navigation. Aufderheide was the doctor, and Pederson was the mechanic. All were indispensable, but Plaisted finally decided that Aufderheide was the only one who wasn’t absolutely necessary to their progress. Though any one of them could have needed medical attention for something like a broken leg, the doctor was sent away.

Plaisted may have had second thoughts once they started moving forward again. Leads opened between ice floes and revealed water below. The men hurried to cross before they widened. They used rods to test the ice for stability. Sometimes, the rods would hit solid ice. Other times, they would pass clean through. When they came to a newly formed ice bridge 50 yards wide, the men scrambled across it, knowing it could collapse at any time.

Because Plaisted, the National Geographic fan, had read Robert Peary’s accounts of crossing these fragile, flexible ice bridges, he surely would have doubted the wisdom of this enterprise. Peary and his men had barely crossed such ice with lightweight sledges, nimble-footed dogs, and snowshoes. Plaisted had snowmobiles and too much gear.

Once, Plaisted and his crew woke up to find that the ice floe they had camped on had drifted into open water. They were marooned, and could do nothing but wait for the ice to close up so they could proceed. It took two days. When they finally were able to move forward, they did their best to assess the strength of the ice before crossing. Often, it came down to not what they knew but what they hoped to be true—that it would be able to support their snowmobiles.

Here’s Bill Convery.

Convery: They have about the same power of a powered lawn mower today. You look at the Ski-Doos from 1965 and they look like little plastic toys. They're not very maneuverable, they don't handle very well. And the idea that they went on what, essentially, looks like a Tonka toy, is one of the things that's really remarkable about this entire story.

Despite the conditions, only minor injuries befell them. Powellek twisted his ankle in a crack, while Peterson’s nose froze, thawed, and refroze. Jerry Pitzl swung an ax to chop at an ice boulder, and when it bounced off, it sliced clean through his boot and socks, barely missing his foot.

Throughout the expedition, Plaisted had rotated members of his party to give everyone a chance to navigate the ice. The men Plaisted had sent away—Aufderheide, Woolsey, and Bombardier—now rejoined the team, replacing Powellek, Pitzl, Austad, and Pederson.

Not long after, the men were confronted with an ice ridge over 40 feet tall. They carved a makeshift ramp into it, pulling the snowmobiles up and over with ropes. It was grueling work.

The temperature plunged to 60 degrees below zero. Their practice at the frozen lake had failed to prepare them for the elements.

Then, on April 27, a storm hit. A bad one. It trapped Plaisted and his men in their tents for a week straight, with howling winds blowing at least 50 miles per hour beating relentlessly against the fabric of their shelters. And a week inside of a tent gives you time to think. The goal of the North Pole began to seem quaint. Instead, survival became paramount.

Plaisted began to fear that lives might be lost. If and when the blizzard finally broke, the salesman decided, he would lead his men home. Driving a snowmobile in Minnesota had simply not trained him for the steep learning curve of the Arctic. The ice was softening, and finishing seemed more like a death wish than a study in persistence. They had logged a total of 216 nautical miles, with 384 ahead of them. On May 4, they stopped on an ice floe big enough for the DeHavilland Twin Otter propeller plane to land on and waited to go home.

But Plaisted didn’t think of the retreat as a failure. He and his team had spent an arduous month acclimating themselves to the real Arctic. It was practice. Like Peary and other explorers before him, he would learn from the experience.

And not long after he returned home, Plaisted decided they’d try again.

We’ll be right back.

Plaisted was convinced the second time would be the charm. He now had a month’s worth of experience in extreme conditions. He made adjustments to his camp’s supplies to reduce number of sleds.

He also decided that leaving from Eureka had been too challenging. He moved his base camp to Ward Hunt Island, a tiny speck of rock off the northernmost coast of Ellesmere Island. This new route meant crossing a distance of just 425 miles, but ahead of them was a vast landscape of sea ice and open water, constantly moving and shifting with currents and wind. The ground could literally break open beneath their feet. That fact could never have been far from Plaisted’s mind.

A sticker printed with the Plaisted Polar Expedition's logo featured the U.S. and Canadian flags.
A sticker printed with the Plaisted Polar Expedition's logo featured the U.S. and Canadian flags. / Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS)

The men set out on March 7, 1968, roughly a year after their first attempt. And again, they headed in the wrong direction on their very first day. But this time, their air support pilot, Welland Phipps, dropped a cigarette pack with a note that told them to change direction. Other times, Phipps later recalled, Plaisted would unknowingly set up his tent directly on a runway, preventing him from landing.

As they settled down to camp each night, they realized several crucial supplies had been left behind, including the mechanic’s tools, a medical kit, and a generator for the radios. Walt Pederson was sent to retrieve them while Plaisted shouted his frustrations at the rest of the team. How was he supposed to make history if they couldn’t even remember to bring a screwdriver?

Things got worse. It turned out that air-dropping containers of gasoline isn’t nearly as safe as it sounds. When the crew did run out of fuel before the next air-drop, their heaters stopped working and they shivered in their tents. It seemed as though the second attempt at the North Pole was going to be even harder than the first. The one saving grace was that no polar bears bothered them, though two team members were attacked by foxes.

As their progress continued, it became clear that having a large expedition party was again slowing their pace. At the same time, the coming spring thaw meant that the ice would begin thinning and make their path forward even more precarious. Two men to a snowmobile was no longer practical. Plaisted, who had become surly and demanding with every irritating setback, told a cameraman and Powellek to join Aufderheide in returning back to base camp. That left just four men. Plaisted; Pederson; navigator Gerald Pitzl, and Jean-Luc Bombardier. As it turned out, Plaisted had been right that reducing team size would quicken their pace. Where the party had been traveling just 22 miles a day, they were now up to 54 miles at a time.

Roughly a month into the journey, the men found themselves on a mobile ice floe and desperate to make it onto an ice field that was heading north. With little time to spare, they decided to make a daring jump on their Ski-Doos. They made it—all of them except for Pederson, who became trapped in the watery sludge. That’s when Plaisted acted quickly, grabbing the Ski-Doo and pulling it to safety at the risk of his own life.

The expedition carried on for weeks. Their route was anything but direct. Hummocks blocked their way and open leads were more numerous now. The 425-mile trip to the Pole had doubled—to 840 miles because of the detours. That would be like a road trip from New York City to Cleveland with a detour through Richmond, Virginia.

Then, on April 15, navigator Pitzl declared they were close to the northernmost point on the globe. An insurance salesman from Minnesota was about to take the first confirmed steps on the North Pole. After treading carefully over ice, knowing they could break through if they made one careless step, they arrived at 90° North on April 19, 1968. And no one had to take Plaisted’s word for it. The next day, the Air Force plane sent to pick them up at the Pole confirmed the coordinates. 

The achievement of the Pole by snowmobile cast more doubt on Robert Peary’s claim of reaching the Pole using a similarly sized team and dogsleds in just 37 days. Plaisted had departed just 20 miles from Peary’s starting point at Cape Columbia and had taken 44 days.

Plaisted left a lot of their equipment behind on that ice floe circling the Pole. It was just too heavy to bring on the plane. In some ways, he also left his old life behind.

When he departed the second time, his wife Gail was pregnant with their third child. When he returned, he had a new baby—a boy named David Scott Plaisted. A cheering crowd met him at the airport, eager to celebrate his victory. Ralph Plaisted had defied the odds and come back with his pride—and his extremities—intact, which is more that can be said for many explorers before him.

In keeping with tradition, he and his crew members gave lectures on their accomplishment and published accounts of the trip. St. Cloud even declared a Walter Pederson day. Plaisted returned to selling insurance. He had certainly earned the right to resume the predictability of a salesman’s life.

A sign commemorates Ralph Plaisted's singular polar achievement in Bruno, Minnesota.
A sign commemorates Ralph Plaisted's singular polar achievement in Bruno, Minnesota. / Minnesota Historical Society, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

But Plaisted didn’t want that. So he quit. He pulled his kids out of school and took his family to a place near Russell Lake in Saskatchewan. For 15 months, they ate fish and moose meat and slept in tents before building a log cabin. He wrote a book about living in the wilderness. There was something in Plaisted that needed to be back outdoors, challenged by the elements. He died in 2008, still proud of what he had accomplished, as Bill Convery explains.

Convery: His obituary was in The New York Times, but he never received the kind of international fame that somebody like Admiral Byrd or Robert Peary received for their expeditions, but everybody remembered him. Everybody knew who he was. And if you go to Bruno, Minnesota, which is his hometown where he was born, there's a little sign that says that this was the birthplace of the first person to officially reach the North Pole by snowmobile in April, 1968. So there's a lot of local pride in this guy, and people remembered him right up to his death, and knew that he was this man who had done the impossible.

So what can we make of Ralph Plaisted and his unlikely journey to the top of the Earth? He had no government support and no real scientific purpose. He had set up an endurance challenge for himself and aced it in two tries. He proved a person didn’t have to be a professional explorer to succeed, opening the North Pole to other amateurs. Provided you were willing to make the necessary sacrifices, you could even follow in his footsteps. 

Convery: Ralph Plaisted is a great every man's story. This is an ordinary person who does an extraordinary thing by basically taking a bunch of his middle-aged friends and determining to travel over land all the way to the North Pole.  Long: One thing that has been kind of consistent throughout history in terms of polar explorers is that they're these very confident, swashbuckly type figures, and Plaisted is not really that guy, he's an insurance salesman. So I think that's one thing that makes him really unique in this pantheon. Convery: If you just think of the magnitude of that endeavor, of how much fortitude and maybe even how much ignorance is required for somebody to kind of casually say, "Yeah, I'm going to drive a snowmobile to the North Pole." I think if he really knew what he was getting into, he would have never started. And he certainly was on record after he was finished saying he would never do anything like that again.

In one strange bit of irony, Plaisted once said that he wouldn’t have been able to acquire life insurance for himself or any of his team members for the journey. It was too dangerous. The odds were too long. But somehow, Ralph Plaisted and his friends found their true north.

The Quest for the North Pole is hosted by me, Kat Long.

This episode was researched by me and Jake Rossen and written by Jake Rossen, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson. The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy and Tyler Klang. The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan. Thanks to our expert, Bill Convery.

For transcripts, a glossary, and to learn more about this episode, visit

The Quest for the North Pole is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss. For more podcasts from iHeartRadio, check out the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.