Ralph Plaisted; First to Reach North Pole by Surface Travel

Ralph S. Plaisted and his team reached the North Pole by snowmobile in 1968, covering 825 miles over 43 days.
Ralph S. Plaisted and his team reached the North Pole by snowmobile in 1968, covering 825 miles over 43 days. (By Associated Press)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008

Ralph S. Plaisted, 80, a Minnesota insurance salesman who relied on a snowmobile to get him to the North Pole in 1968 and became the first person who indisputably reached the pole by surface travel, died Sept. 8 at his home in Wyoming, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul. He had an apparent heart attack, said his stepdaughter, Leslie Tobkin.

Renowned American explorer Robert E. Peary said he accomplished the feat by dog sled in 1909. Although his claim was endorsed by the National Geographic Society, sponsor of the expedition, he failed to produce evidence beyond his word that he had made it to the pole, which is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.

Over the years, a number of writers and polar explorers, including Mr. Plaisted, have questioned whether Peary had gotten any closer than 30 to 60 miles.

In 1989, Mr. Plaisted told The Washington Post that he thought Peary faked his feat and that evidence from Peary's diaries, in addition to his own arctic ordeals, made it even more unlikely that he reached the pole.

Mr. Plaisted got the idea for a North Pole trek after becoming an avid snowmobiler in the early 1960s, not long after the machines were invented. He was such an enthusiast, Tobkin said, that his drinking buddies challenged him to prove their worth. He did -- by blazing a 200-mile snowmobile trail from Ely, Minn., to St. Paul, by entering the International 500 snowmobile race from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to St. Paul and by setting off to the North Pole in 1967.

That first expedition, financed by 87 companies, fell far short when the ice began to break up.

His six-man second try, which included a lawyer, a schoolteacher, a doctor and a movie cameraman, relied on four 16-horsepower Bombardier Ski-Doo snowmobiles. The 40-year-old adventurer had backing from 50 companies, which donated $132,000, as well as $70,000 worth of equipment, including synthetic outfits based on Eskimo designs. "He was a great salesman," said Tobkin, of Watertown, S.D.

For six months, the group trained in northern Minnesota. When the team arrived at Frobisher Bay, Baffin Island, on Feb. 23, the temperature was a relatively balmy 20 degrees below zero, with winds of only 40 mph. By March 7, when the Minnesotan adventurers revved up their snowmobiles at Ward Hunt Island for the start of the journey, the thermometer had plummeted 40 degrees.

Traveling through the twilight of the late arctic winter, the men encountered frozen fiords as well as daunting ice ridges more than 40 feet high. Often they had to shove their 250-pound snowmobiles up and over steep inclines by hand. At times, men and machines fell through the ice. Once, they were confined to their tents for six days, waiting out an arctic storm. A support plane dropped supplies, and they were able to shove ahead.

Their biggest challenge, aside from the cold, was crossing gaps in the restless ice, sometimes eight to 10 feet wide over water as deep as two miles. They got across by gunning their snowmobiles and soaring like arctic Evil Knievels.

The expedition reached the pole 43 days later, April 19, 1968. The men had traveled 825 miles, 474 miles as the crow flies. The next day, a U.S. Air Force weather plane verified their position.

"Plaisted," the pilot radioed, "every direction from where you are is south."

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