The twin-prop plane swung low, tilting its wings and heading north, only to circle back and swoop down over the men again.
It was March 7, 1968, and the members of the Plaisted Polar Expedition looked up at the plane in bewilderment. They were trying to travel to the North Pole by snowmobile — in what they believed to be the first expedition to the North Pole carried out on motorized machines, but what in reality may very well have been the first to reach the North Pole at all.
Barely an hour into the trek, it wasn’t going well. Having just left base camp, the six men stood atop a 40-foot-high wall of ice at the edge of the Arctic Ocean and looked at what lay ahead: stretching over the horizon, an unending moonscape of ice boulders, crevices and pack ice contorted by vast floes whose constant motion created steep pressure ridges and black stretches of open water known as leads.
Sounds came from the ice, ghoulish groans as floes shifted followed by artillery-like reports as the sheets collided, threatening to open a yawning divide beneath their feet at any moment. In the days ahead they would have to zigzag through a patchwork of pressure ridges and risk breaking through the frozen mantle and drowning in the glacial sea.
‘‘God, we can never cross that,’’ one man said.
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