'Last of the ice party that made it to the pole' marks milestone

By CYNTHIA MILLER | The Santa Fe New Mexican (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 21, 2018

He wasn't much of a camper – certainly not in Arctic conditions – and he'd never been on a snowmobile. But when Jerry Pitzl heard about a crackpot plan for a Ski-Doo expedition to the North Pole in the late 1960s, he was eager to join.

Not that he had much of a choice.

Ralph Plaisted, a Minnesota insurance salesman and snowmobile enthusiast who had dreamed up the misadventure in a Duluth barroom, had heard from a mutual friend that Pitzl, then a geography teacher at a Minneapolis high school, had served in the Marine Corps and was an experienced navigator and pilot.

Plaisted, an abrupt man, told Pitzl, "You're going along."

"Right from the start, I was part of the madness," said Pitzl, 84, who has lived in Santa Fe for nearly two decades.

He came here to retire from teaching, he told The New Mexican in an interview this week, but instead found a second career in state government.

The Plaisted expedition's first attempt to reach the pole on snowmobiles – with an extensive support team and air drops of food, beer and other provisions – failed in 1967, Pitzl said. The group had started too late that year, and it was too warm a winter to trust the ice.

But they set out again from tiny Ward Hunt Island, one of the northernmost points of Canada, on March 7, 1968.

"The temperature that day was 62 below zero," Pitzl said, "and it really didn't get above 40 below for the first four weeks."

At 10:30 a.m. Central Time on April 20, more than six weeks after their journey began, Pitzl, Plaisted and two other men in the group made a verified arrival at the North Pole – the first time anyone had undisputedly completed the trek by surface travel.

That day, Pitzl said, "it was finally a balmy 20 or 25 below. We knew spring was coming."

Members of the expedition who had worked at the base camp, as well as their friends and families, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the milestone this week in Duluth, although Pitzl did not attend, he said.

And the other three men who completed the journey, one that may become impossible to duplicate as the seas continue to warm and the northern ice cap grows smaller each winter, have all passed away.

"I'm the last of the ice party that made it to the pole," he said.

Jean-Luc Bombardier, whose family manufactured the Ski-Doos, died in 1970; Plaisted died in 2008; and Walter Pederson died in 2016.

Pitzl and his wife, artist Devi Benjamin, quietly celebrated the historic expedition's anniversary with close friends Friday – designated as Gerald "Jerry" Pitzl Day in New Mexico earlier this year by state lawmakers and Gov. Susana Martinez.

Pitzl's memories of the ice excursion are still sharp. "I think about it a lot," he said.

While the group's first, unsuccessful trip was well documented by a CBS film crew and showcased in a TV production narrated by Charles Kuralt, and in Kuralt's book To the Top of the World, the second trip received far less attention.

A New York Times Magazine story by Guy Lawson put the Plaisted Polar Expedition back in the spotlight in March 2016, detailing a well-funded but slow and harrowing effort across more than 400 miles of ice ridges, with risky waters and high winds.

"That article really stirred up interest again," Pitzl said.

Sony Pictures purchased the film rights to Lawson's story and reportedly is developing a feature-length dramedy, starring Will Ferrell as Plaisted.

"It's just going to be a romp," Pitzl said of the production.

The journey, he said, "was a very serious endeavor. We worked for every mile we did on this thing."

There was some humor along the way, he admitted, "but mostly it was just hard work, chopping ice and pushing snowmobiles."

And there were dayslong delays, waiting for fierce storms to pass or open water to freeze.

"We were constantly frustrated because we couldn't go faster, we couldn't go far. ... There were days when we would work eight, 10 hours, driving on breaking ice and make maybe two miles in a northerly direction."

One wind storm delayed the trek for seven days.

"We couldn't move an inch," Pitzl said. "You can imagine just sitting in a tent, it's 30-below outside and the tent walls are flapping."

He'd been warned before the trip of what he should expect, Pitzl said, but he was too inexperienced at the time to catch on.

During a talk about the excursion at Ohio State University with some graduate students, he said, a program director introduced him as member of an expedition planning to "carry snowmobiles across the North Pole."

He'd assumed the snowmobiles would cruise smoothly across the Arctic ice, Pitzl said. "But it's not a speedway. The ice is too rough."

The ride was hard on the knees, too, he said: "As we were driving along on the snowmobiles, we had to drive not sitting on the snowmobile but kneeling because the ice was so rough."

He recalled the men's elation the moment they reached the pole, their position verified by an Air Force jet pilot flying overhead.

"Everywhere from where you guys are is south," Pitzl remembered the pilot saying, "which means we had nailed it. ... That was extremely exciting. Guys were rolling around on the ice."

There was a short-lived celebration after their triumph, he said.

"It was pretty quiet then."

Pitzl taught high school for another year and then earned a doctorate and began what would be a 30-year tenure teaching at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.

He and his wife discovered Santa Fe during a visit to the Southwest as they were preparing for retirement. "We just fell in love with the area," Pitzl said. They began building a house in 1998 and made a permanent move in 2000.

"I traded in my snow shovel for allergy medication," Pitzl joked.

"When I got down here, I thought I was retired," he said, "but I still had some energy."

He began working for the state Public Education Department under the Richardson administration, directing a Rural Revitalization Initiative aimed at building relationships between school districts and businesses in small, remote communities. Later, he took a position in the Higher Education Department as a policy analyst. He finally retired for good in January 2015 at age 80.

Lately, Pitzl has been typing up his travel logs from the Plaisted Polar Expedition, a couple of hundred pages detailing each day's events, weather conditions and miles gained.

Maybe he'll get them published someday.

"Well, what can I say," Pitzl said of the historic trek. "It was just a lot of work. Quite an accomplishment. ... We had captured something that defied capture."


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