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Arctic adventure

Moriarty supported 1968 snowmobile expedition to the North Pole


John Moriarty is one of those ordinary people who never seem to pass up an opportunity to do something extraordinary.

In 1968, Moriarty’s sense of adventure propelled him to join a team of arctic adventurers that became the first to make an overland traverse to the North Pole using Ski-Doo snowmobiles, a relatively new invention at the time.

Moriarty was a 28-year-old “food technologist” for the Pillsbury Company in Minneapolis, Minn., when a man named Ralph Plaisted approached the famous food manufacturer about supplying his upcoming arctic expedition with supplies.

Moriarty was working in Pillsbury’s research and development (R&D) department. The lab had government contracts from the Army to develop foodstuffs for field troops, from freeze-dried meals to fruitcakes that could be baked in foil pouches.

“They were just kind of weird, off-the-wall things. They were trying to develop better C-rations for the Army,” recalled Moriarty during an interview at McMurdo Station, where at 71 years old he worked as a utility mechanic for the 2010-11 summer field season, maintaining and fixing furnaces and other machines at the U.S. Antarctic Program’s largest research base.

Plaisted knew about Pillsbury’s research through contacts at the company, Moriarty explained. An avid outdoorsman, with a mercurial personality, Plaisted and his friend Arthur Aufderheide (a physician who later gained fame as a pathologist specializing in mummies) had conceived of the idea of reaching the North Pole by snowmobile in the spring of 1966.

Their first attempt in 1967 failed due to storms and open water. The attempt was captured in a CBS-TV documentary “To the Top of the World,” by Charles Kuralt, who accompanied the expedition.

Moriarty had worked with Plaisted and his crew that year on food supplies.

“I made some rations for them. I researched it by reading books I could find about mountain climbing and what they had for food. There wasn’t a lot of material out there,” Moriarty said.

“Everybody seems to have relied on pemmican,” he added, laughing, referring an early type of energy bar made with fat and protein favored by such Antarctic explorers like Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen in their quest for the South Pole in the early 20th century. 

Plaisted decided to make one more attempt in 1968. Pillsbury again offered to sponsor the expedition with food. And so Moriarty got back to work developing a menu that incorporated about 5,000 calories per day. He even considered the logistics, assuming some of the food cargo might be airdropped to the field team. So he crated up a few boxes and dropped them off the third-floor roof of the Pillsbury building to see how the food would survive the crash.

About two weeks before the expedition was due to depart, Moriarty approached Plaisted about joining the team. The group was still in need of a base camp mechanic to work on the diesel generators, along with other camp duties.

“It was one of those things where you know you have to do it. I always wanted to do something like that,” said Moriarty, who had grown up reading the adventures of the polar explorers. “When you’re from Minnesota, you like the cold. I still like the cold. I figured this is my opportunity. If I don’t do this, I’ll never forgive myself.”

The crew agreed Moriarty would make a good addition to the team, and on Feb. 21, 1968, he and the rest of the expedition members began the long journey to Ward Hunt Island, a tiny island off the north coast of Ellesmere Island where they would establish their base camp. It was used as a weather station during the International Geophysical Year of 1967-58, with a small, worn-out tented Jamesway building on the site.

“It was up to us to make our own base camp, and that’s what we did,” Moriarty said.

Four men would eventually make the final bid for the North Pole — Plaisted, navigator and radioman Gerry Pitzl, mechanic Walt Pederson, and Jean-Luc Bombardier, the nephew of Ski-Doo inventor Joseph-Armand Bombardier, whose snowmobiles the team rode to the Pole. (Aufderheide had started with the traverse team, but had later swapped places with Pitzl, because of the latter’s navigational skills.)

Moriarty and several others would be at base camp at Ward Hunt Island, supporting the traverse with a Twin Otter airplane, which was often an adventure in itself.

“In those days, it was much more dangerous flying up there because there were no satellite links or satellite navigation. All of the navigation was kind of dicey. It was done by sextant,” Moriarty said.

It was the adventure he dreamed about — and more.

But it began with some misfortune. Before reaching base camp, Moriarty had ruptured a disc in his back moving 55-gallon fuel drums, and he could hardly walk. But that didn’t stop him from joining the team shortly before the snowmobilers left on March 7.

It was a sudden and chaotic departure, Moriarty recalled, as Plaisted started tossing gear into sleds and ordering the team to prepare to leave. At the same time, a storm was approaching. The pilot decided to head back to Eureka on Ellesmere Island to retrieve more fuel.

“All of a sudden everyone is gone except me. I’m all alone at the base camp, and this storm came up, and it’s blowing like hell,” Moriarty said.

Wind blasted through holes in the canvas covering the small Jamesway, with the temperature around minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Moriarty was alone for about four days. “It was pretty tough business.

“We were always cold. Always cold,” he added. “I can remember getting back to Resolute Bay. They had showers. I remember walking into a building and thinking, ‘I don’t have to keep this warm anymore.’”

That moment was still weeks away. Nearly two months of bitter cold, bad weather and dodgy Twin Otter missions lay ahead. The expedition members were mostly amateur adventurers — though certainly with the requisite outdoor skills — but organization was a bit on the fly, according Moriarty.

“They really didn’t realize what we were getting into,” he said.

For instance, the team needed to erect a 40-foot-tall radio tower for communications at the base camp. But no one had thought out how to build such a structure on ground frozen solid as rock. The MacGyver solution was to use 55-gallon drums as anchors by filling them with rocks and water, and then allowing it to freeze like an epoxy. Moriarty had the unfortunate task of climbing the tower to secure the antenna on top.

“It was kind of scary,” he said.

On April 19, 1968, the four snowmobilers reach 90 degrees north. Both Robert Peary and Frederick Cook had claimed the honor of being the first to reach the top of the world — Cook in 1908 and Perry in 1909. History doubts both claims, meaning the 1968 Plaisted expedition may have been the first overland traverse of any kind to the North Pole.

Moriarty had gotten as close as 50 miles or so to the North Pole on a support sortie aboard the Twin Otter, but never set foot at the final destination.

However, the South Pole hasn’t eluded the white-haired and lanky Minnesota native, who finally got a chance to visit the bottom of the planet this past summer after four seasons working in Antarctica. All four stints have been at McMurdo Station, the first coming in 2003-04 when he took a leave of absence from his job with the city of St. Paul, where he worked as a street light engineer for 20 years before retiring in 2009.

But one suspects Moriarty is also one of those people who prefer the journey to the destination.

“I just like the community down here, and I like the work, too. Of course, it’s an adventure to come down here,” he said.

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Curator: Michael Lucibella, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Peter West, Division of Polar Programs