GRAND FORKS — In August 1963, David Pearson was a young engineer for Polaris Industries in Roseau, Minnesota, when he accompanied company president Allan Hetteen and Alaska Polaris distributor Harold Johnson of Anchorage on an expedition to Alaska’s Mount McKinley to test the Comet, the first Polaris front-engine snowmobile.
Don Sheldon, a legendary Alaska bush pilot, had flown the men, along with 6-horse Comet and 8-horse Comet prototype snowmobiles, two canvas tents and two days’ worth of provisions, up the mountain — known today as Denali — to test the machines, just weeks before they were scheduled to go into production at the Polaris factory in Roseau.
Before the Comet, Polaris snowmobile engines were mounted at the rear of the machines.
What was supposed to be a two-day expedition stretched to eight days when heavy rain, snow and temperatures that plummeted to 15 below zero thwarted testing plans and kept the men huddled in two leaky tents.
Stranded on the Ruth Glacier with no prospect for rescue until weather conditions improved and the bush plane that got them there could return, the trio at times wondered if they’d make it off the mountain alive, Pearson recalls.
They tried playing cards to pass the time, but the cards were too wet, he said.
“It was getting to the point where we didn’t know if we’d make it or not,” Pearson said this week in a phone interview from his home in Phoenix. “We were soaking wet there for, gosh, about six days.
“We had to cut holes in the floor of the tent to let the water run out, it was so doggone wet in there.”
The weather finally improved, and they were able to test the snowmobiles and make it off the mountain alive, but the stormy testing expedition would mark a colorful chapter in Polaris history. Plagued by problems with the rubber track, the Comet nearly bankrupted the fledgling snowmobile manufacturer as the company had to recall machines or offer refunds. The Comet performed well in the sticky glacier snow, Pearson says, but in deep powder snow, “it didn’t work worth a darn.”
Like the testing crew in Alaska, Polaris would survive the Comet disaster, thanks to the advent of more dependable snowmobiles such as the Mustang, which would be a staple for years to come.
“We knew we could do better than the Comet was doing,” said Pearson, who left Polaris in 1964. “We didn’t realize the Comet was going to end up as bad as it was.”
Allan Hetteen died in a November 1973 farm accident. But his son, Mike, of Roseau, in July was able to relive a bit of Polaris history when he visited the glacier site where his dad, Pearson and Johnson had tested those Comet snowmobiles 58 years earlier.
Allan Hetteen, his brother Edgar Hetteen and David Johnson of Roseau founded Polaris in the 1950s from a company originally called Hetteen Hoist and Derrick that specialized in making straw choppers.
By coincidence, their July 17 flight to the Ruth Glacier coincided with what would have been Allan Hetteen’s 92nd birthday, said Mike Hetteen, who retired from Polaris five years ago after a 36-year career with the company.
For a flatlander from Roseau – Allan Hetteen would have been 34 years old at the time — landing on an Alaska glacier must have been quite an experience, Mike Hetteen said.
“To get dropped off on this glacier, and this plane takes off and you’re all by yourself up there — nobody else,” he said. “It had to have been an eerie feeling.”
Bad weather earlier in the week had prevented the 40-minute flight from Talkeetna, Alaska, to the glacier site, Mike Hetteen said, but he and his wife finally were able to visit the site on the final day of an Alaska vacation with friends Pam and Danny Howell of Angle Inlet, Minnesota.
They’d actually given up on making the trip and were on a train from Denali National Park and Preserve back to Anchorage on Friday, July 16, when the pilot called Hetteen’s cellphone and said the weather conditions for the next day looked favorable.
The foursome drove the 2-plus hours from Anchorage back to Talkeetna the next morning, and they spent about half an hour at the Ruth Glacier testing site.
Don Sheldon died in 1975, but his daughter, Holly Sheldon Lee, and son-in-law, David Lee, now own the air service that flew them up the mountain, Hetteen says; “flightseeing” tours are a popular offering for the air service.
After seeing photos Allan Hetteen had taken back in 1963, David Lee, their pilot, knew exactly where the photos were taken.
“He said, ‘That’s Ruth Glacier,’” Hetteen said. “He said we’ll be landing right by that rock. He said he knew all of those spots, and he took us right to the same spot where my dad was when they were doing their testing.”
A defining image from the day shows Mike Hetteen holding a black-and-white photo of his dad pictured on a Comet snowmobile with the same mountain peak in the background.
“It was really overwhelming,” he said. “I spent a little bit of time off by myself from the rest of the group just absorbing everything.”
Hetteen, who was 7 years old in 1963, says he doesn’t remember his dad talking about the expedition, but he was able to visit with Pearson about the trek a few years ago in Phoenix.
Pearson wrote a short account of the expedition, and Hetteen has a copy.
“His comment was, ‘We didn’t think we’d get down alive,’” Hetteen said. “Each of them wrote up their will, and he said they’d all signed each other’s wills. Keep in mind that they had planned for a two-day trip so they had provisions for two days and they were stuck out there for eight.
“That’s the kind of dire situation they felt they were in.”
Hetteen was 16 years old when his dad was killed so the recent trip was a way to reconnect with his memory, he said.
“I only had a few years with him,” Hetteen said. “And to be able to fly up there and say, ‘I’m standing in the same spot my dad was 58 years ago, up in this vast wilderness up on Denali.' … I don’t have the memories of fishing trips, hunting trips, those types of things that a lot of people do with their parents as they grow older because I didn’t have that opportunity.
“So this was kind of reliving those connections — only through a different venue.”