Anybody can be an explorer if they want to be. You can be an astronaut if you want. Figure out what you want to do, and then go do it.
– Helen Thayer
Maybe it was the beautiful New Zealand countryside where she grew up that did it. When Helen Thayer was just 9, her parents decided to climb a nearby 8200 foot peak with some friends. Helen asked if she could go, and they agreed, on condition that she pack and carry her own gear.
She immediately set to planning every detail that would be critical to reaching her goal. And as she climbed through snow to the summit a few days later, she knew she would never again settle for an ordinary life.
Over the years that followed, she competed in a variety of international athletic events…at different times representing New Zealand, Guatemala and the United States. In 1975 she won the US national luge championships, and represented the US in world luge competition.
But she had never really enjoyed competing against others. Her preference was to set goals and then reach them…competing only against nature, and herself.
She returned to mountain climbing, over the next decade reaching the summits of many of the highest peaks on earth. And yet, she still wanted something bigger.
Standing on a Soviet mountaintop in 1986, she formulated her plan.
She would travel to some of the earth’s least known places, and add to human knowledge about them. And she would share those travels with school children everywhere… in hopes of inspiring a new generation of explorers, scientists, and problem solvers.
She decided to start by becoming …at age 50…the first woman in history to travel solo to the magnetic North Pole.
With that decision, Helen took a major step. She went from being a world-class athlete and mountaineer, to a true explorer.
Until that day my photography and writing were filed away. Now was the time for others to share the places I traveled, the exhilaration I experienced as I met challenges head on, set goals, planned, and pushed onward with the resolve to succeed.
– Helen Thayer
Now, the magnetic North Pole is an elusive target which cannot actually be defined as a dot on a map. Its position, determined by the Earth’s turbulent magnetic field, is constantly on the move.
In 1988, the year Helen made her journey, it was in Canada’s Northwest Territories, on the polar sea ice about 800 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Her plan was to travel solo, pulling a fully loaded sled by herself. No dog team, no snow machines. Just her, hundreds of miles of barren ice, and an unknown number of polar bears who were likely hungry at this time of year.
A lot of people, especially the locals, told her she was crazy. They finally convinced her to take along one rifle and one dog – a Husky named Charlie, to help guard against the bears.
Over the next 27 grueling days, she and the dog made their way through raging winds, blinding snowstorms and constant danger of bear attack.
They covered over 370 miles on foot…and achieved every goal Helen had set for herself.
She added to the store of human knowledge, working with Canadian scientists to record daily ice temperatures throughout her trek.
She wrote a bestselling book about the journey, titled Polar Dream.
And she made her photos and reports freely available to schoolchildren, through a program she had begun called Adventure Classroom.
A remarkable odyssey by a truly remarkable woman… an epic undertaking that few people of any age or sex could have achieved
– Sir Edmund Hillary, in the foreword to “Polar Dream”
And yet this expedition, as challenging as it was, was really just the beginning for Helen Thayer. At an age where many people become more cautious, she was just getting started!
Over the next two decades, she tested herself in more challenges than many people face in a lifetime. And she continued to share her experiences with children…a process which had become much easier and more interactive with the rise of the Internet.
Two years after her Polar trek, she was the American leader of the first Russian-USA women’s Arctic expedition.
She and her husband Bill spent a year in the Yukon, studying and photographing three families of wild wolves and publishing a remarkable book about the experience.
They took a 1,500 mile stroll through Death Valley and the great Southwestern deserts of the US… followed the next year by an equally challenging trek across the Sahara Desert, following ancient camel trade routes.
In 1997 Helen went to Antarctica. Alone. She travelled by foot for over 450 miles, pulling a 260 pound sled with her only supplies. She celebrated her 60th birthday alone on the polar snow cap, lighting a single candle stuck into a frozen cupcake.
Every year continues to bring a new expedition, a new goal. And after each trip she shares her stories and photos with millions of schoolchildren, as well as adult audiences in the US and abroad.
She and Bill trekked over 600 miles following the world’s largest caribou herd in its migration from Alberta to Alaska, documenting everything for educational and scientific programs.
They were the first non-natives to kayak 1,200 miles in a remote area of the Amazon…living with indigenous peoples, documenting their lifestyles, and exploring an area seldom seen by the outside world.
Their next trek took them across the entire length of the Mongolian Gobi Desert on foot … 1,600 miles of intense heat, sand storms and scorpions. Their exploration provided valuable insights into the lives of the nomadic tribes that populate this desert.
The worst thing you can do is to plan, and over-plan but then never go out to do anything.
– Helen Thayer
In 2002 Helen was named “One of the Great Explorers of the 20th Century” by National Geographic. She’s also been recognized through many awards and citations over the years… both for her adventuresome spirit, and for her devotion to the education and inspiration of young people.
During her school visits Helen uses her own story to continually reinforce what is for her a key message: setting goals is the most powerful tool we have, in any part of life. Dreams – without a plan to achieve them – won’t get you where you want to go.
And she’s still not ready to sit home looking at her photo albums.
Only two years ago, she and Bill kayaked over 1,000 miles in the Amazon, followed immediately by another 800 miles on foot in the Yukon…studying and documenting the effects of climate change. She was 70 years old; Bill was 82.
I am in awe. These are clearly two people who don’t understand the word “impossible”.
Good for them…and for all of us, too.