Barbara Hillary became the first African-American woman to reach the North and South Poles at age 79. She’s living proof that adventure is for everyone, regardless of age, race, or financial means.
Barbara Hillary has always been on a quest for adventure, looking everywhere from the concrete streets of Harlem to the freezing abyss of the poles. Growing up in New York City, she went on to follow a career in nursing, specifically gerontology, the study of aging. When she retired, she found a second career in polar exploration, conquering ageism and lung and breast cancer on her way to becoming the first African-American woman to reach both the North and South Poles.
In 2007 Hillary, at the age of 75, boarded a plane to Spitsbergen, Norway, to undergo a series of physical tests to assess her fitness for the trip. She had spent months training for the expedition by learning to cross-country ski, putting in strength and cardio workouts at the gym, and even hauling a sled with bags of sand on the beach near her house.
After she passed her exam, a small plane took her to Base Camp Barneo—a small private ice camp—a helicopter flew her even farther north, and then her own skis and perseverance took her to the earth’s North Pole. On April 23, 2007, she became the first African American woman to reach this achievement. Despite the frostbite on her fingers, unimaginably low temperatures, and dangers of large fractures in the ice, she was hooked. She returned home ready to search for new sponsors and plan her expedition to the South Pole.
Yet, her second foray into polar exploration was less smooth than the initial journey. Four years later, she flew to Punta Arenas, Chile, where weather, mechanical problems, and local strikes led to a month-long delay. Finally, her plane took off to Union Glacier, where she was welcomed by temperatures as low as -40, and off she set to complete her journey to the South Pole, which she reached on January 6, 2011.
Today, at age 85, she’s a professional speaker inspiring others with her story, her vivacious humor, and her no-excuses attitude.
When did you get involved in the outdoors?
I grew up in Harlem, so my world in terms of outdoor recreation consisted of playing stickball, roller-skating, and exploring Central Park. There was no skiing or ice-skating for me at the time. Even if my family could have afforded to go skiing, I seriously doubt if I would have been welcome. Remember, I grew up in the era of segregation, when we visited our family in the South, we had to change trains and go into the segregated car.
How did playing outside in New York City turn into polar exploration?
I had always been active, all of my life. When I retired, well, that’s when you start to reflect about many things in your life. It occurred to me that I didn’t travel as much as I would have liked to. At first, I looked at a cruise, and what I saw really turned me off. It didn’t excite me, being stuck on the ship with married people—oh God think of it—and I can’t swim. Unfortunately, so many people that have been married for a long period of time are boring as bricks.
Then I discovered an ad that said: “See polar bears in their natural habitat,” and that appealed to me. I took off from New York and went up to Manitoba to photograph polar bears. I started to fall in love with northern travel. That’s when I met interesting married people. From there I went on to learn dog sledding and snowmobiling.
How did you learn how to dogsled? Not in NYC, I’m guessing.
Well, after my first trip up North I went to Minnesota to learn how to dogsled. On that first trip, you’ll never guess what happened: The sled hit a rock and I was airborne. With dog sledding, there’s a myth that there are these cute little dogs in the snow and when you say mush they get up and shake up. Instead, they get up and take off and you get whiplash. I came back from that trip on crutches.
How did you go from dog sledding to the North Pole?
As I became more engaged in snowmobiling and dog sledding, I started to think about the North Pole and I read about Matthew Henson, the first black man to reach the North Pole. I couldn’t find any evidence of a black woman who had been there. And the idea to go began to form. It was under my skin, I couldn’t shake it. You don’t just wake up and say, “The North Pole needs a little color. Let me go.” It was a progression, a journey. And what a journey!
What are your thoughts on the lack of color at the North Pole? And in the outdoors in general?
As a black person, I have given this a tremendous amount of thought, and it’s just so complex. There are so many factors involved. Economic mobility plays a significant role. It really wasn’t until after World War II that blacks moved out of the kitchens and away from menial labor and towards making a decent salary. That was when we could even start to look at these forms of recreation. Yet, even at that point, there’s the matter of identity; we don’t have a strong heritage of polar exploration, for example, or even of camping. And if you think about our history, we went from slave ships to an agricultural base. In that context, spending time in the woods isn’t a measure of success. Social mobility, for many, means moving away from that rural past.
What was it like for you personally, being a black woman in a world usually dominated by white men?
It’s hard to articulate but hopefully this story will help. On my way to the South Pole, I’m in a dining room in Chile at the hotel. I definitely feel isolated from the culture and the people speaking Spanish, and I’m wading my way through all of this for that one goal of reaching the second pole. Then, I look across the room and I see a black fellow and I said: “Excuse me, where in the fuck did you come from?” This is the truth. This is how it came out of my mouth. Everybody laughed. They understood I wasn’t being unkind, I was just overwhelmed. He was a mountaineer, and it was the last thing I expected.
After deciding to go your next step was finding sponsors, right? What was that like?
I would get on the phone and call sponsors. Imagine their shock when you say, “My name is Barbara Hillary, and I’m a 75-year-old black woman and I want to go to the North Pole.” All you get is silence and then, “Ma’am would you repeat that?” They thought I was senile.
There were days when I questioned if I was wasting my time. Days when I’d be on the phone all day, when I’d go look in the mirror and say; “Barb do you really want to do this?”
But you did find sponsors and then made your way to both the North and the South Poles. What did it feel like achieving those goals?
It’s an experience, a feeling that I had never had in my life, the experience of excitement, joy, accomplishment. There are so many emotions rolled into one. It’s totally overwhelming. Just, so many emotions, in fact even when I talk about it now I feel such a roar of excitement.
And the second pole, it’s even better.
Do you have any advice you’d like to share?
I tell people: Live—you never know from one day or the other. You don’t need money to get up off your ass and do something.
You should also add that I’m available for speaking. Just call (718) 945-5724 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[ed. note: An earlier version of this piece stated that Camp Barneo was in Russia. While it operates under the patronage of the Russian Geographical Society, its location moves each year.]