Ralph Summers Plaisted (30 September 1927 – 8 September 2008) and his three companions, Walt Pederson, Gerry Pitzl and Jean-Luc Bombardier, are regarded by most polar authorities to be the first to succeed in a surface traverse across the ice to the North Pole on 19 April 1968, making the first confirmed surface conquest of the Pole.
Plaisted was a high-school dropout from Bruno, Minnesota, who found success as an insurance salesman. An avid outdoorsman, in the early 1960s he was one of the first Minnesotans to buy a Ski-Doo snowmobile, a then-novel invention of Canada's Bombardier Company, and became a convert and promoter of the machine. In 1965, Plaisted drove his snowmobile 250 miles (400 km) from Ely to White Bear Lake, Minnesota in one day, which is regarded as the first long-distance snowmobile trek.
Plaisted and his friend Art Aufderheide conceived the idea of reaching the North Pole by snowmobile in the spring of 1966, aiming to make the trip the following year. Gordon Mikkelson (1929-1990) helped with snowmobiling and base camp logistics. Customized clothing was assembled for the team, which they tested by sleeping on a frozen lake in northern Minnesota. In April and May 1967 Plaisted's first attempt was thwarted at 83° 20' latitude by storms and open water. The attempt resulted in a CBS-TV documentary To the Top of the World, reported by Charles Kuralt, who accompanied the Plaisted team.
Plaisted returned for a successful attempt the following year in March, 1968. Starting at Canada's Ward Hunt Island just a few miles from Peary's start at Cape Columbia on Ellesmere Island, Plaisted began the 412-mile (663 km) traverse on March 9.
Navigating with a sextant and resupplied when possible with fuel and supplies dropped by a turboprop DeHavilland Twin Otter, the expedition members spent 43 days, 11 hours traveling on the ice before reaching their final camp on the evening of April 19. Navigator Jerry Pitzl made hourly sextant sightings over the next two days to confirm their location. On the morning of April 20, the party journeyed somewhat less than four miles (6 km) to account for ice drift, and signaled a United States Air Force C-135 weather reconnaissance aircraft using a handheld radio. At 10:30 am Eastern Daylight Time, the aircraft, call sign LARK-47, flew overhead confirming the party was exactly at the North Pole. The party was then flown out.
Given the doubts surrounding the North Pole conquest claims of Robert Peary and Frederick Cook, Ralph Plaisted's journey is regarded as the first undisputed surface conquest of the North Pole. Affidavits signed by resupply pilots Welland Phipps and Ken Lee confirm that the expedition did not cover any distance by air.
He also worked with the 1967 and 1968 Plaisted polar expeditions.
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.