Pioneering the poles

Anne Bancroft's mukluks
Anne Bancroft's mukluks

Minnesotans are known for their ability to brave the bitter cold every winter. But did you know our state also boasts a legacy of explorers who have taken on some the planet’s most extreme temperatures in the Arctic and Antarctica?

Via snowmobile

Fifty years ago, on March 7, 1968, Ralph Plaisted, a St. Paul insurance agent, led an attempt to become the first team to reach the North Pole by mechanized means. Their journey relied on Minnesota’s popular new recreational vehicle — the snowmobile.

Plaisted was a snowmobile enthusiast, and his polar trek got its start from his love for the vehicle, according to a 2008 New York Times article: “A friend, who was tired of hearing from him about the virtues of snowmobiles, suggested jokingly that if Mr. Plaisted thought they were so great, he should take one to the North Pole.”

In the spring of 1967 Plaisted tried, but was deterred by storms and open water. The following year, however, he and his crew — traveling 474 miles and braving temperatures dropping to 60 below — reached the magnetic pole on April 19, 1968.

When he returned to Minnesota, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Plaisted said, “Boy, it’s cold up there. I don’t know why anyone would want to do it again.”

His expedition papers are now part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s collections.

Will Steger's parka
Will Steger’s parka

By dogsled

Nearly 20 years later, Will Steger and Paul Schurke of Ely led a crew, including St. Paul’s Ann Bancroft, to reach the North Pole by dogsled.

The Steger International Polar Expedition, modeled after the trips of earlier explorers, started in March 1986.

They navigated by sextant and carried all of their own supplies. Fifty-five days later, six team members completed the journey without any outside resupply help.

It was the first-ever undisputed dogsled journey to the North Pole, and Bancroft became the first woman to reach the North Pole by sled and on foot.

In 1989, Steger led a team in an attempt to be the first people to dogsled across Antarctica.

The 3,741-mile trip took seven months, and the team dealt with 90-mile-an-hour winds, whiteout conditions and temps dropping to 113 degrees below 0. They nearly lost Japanese team member Keizo Funatsu in a blizzard, a mere 16 miles from their finish line, finally finding him more than 12 hours later.

“We wanted to prove that six men from six different nations, who had grown up with starkly different cultural backgrounds, could work together toward a common goal under some of the cruelest conditions on the planet,” Steger wrote in a National Geographic article.

More than 100 artifacts from the International Trans-Antarctica Expedition are now preserved in the historical society’s collections, including cold-weather gear, cooking equipment and a dogsled.

Anne Bancroft's skis
Anne Bancroft’s skis

On skis

In January 1993, Ann Bancroft became the first woman to reach both the North and South poles.

She led the American Women’s Expedition (AWE), a team of four women, who skied 660 miles to the pole, raising awareness of women’s achievements and environmental issues in Antarctica while also contributing to scientific research about the effects of extreme conditions on women.

The AWE’s original goal was to traverse all of Antarctica, but risky weather and funding issues caused the trip to end at the South Pole.

Instead, Bancroft and Norwegian explorer Liv Arnesen went on to become the first women to ski and wind-sail across Antarctica, completing the trip in 94 days in 2001.

Numerous items from all of Bancroft’s expeditions, such as skis, tents and even freeze-dried food, are now in the historical society’s collections.

Lauren Peck is a media relations and social media associate for the Minnesota Historical Society.