In 2007 Barbara Hillary, a retired nurse from New York City, achieved a historic first when she became the first African-American woman ever to reach the North Pole. Hillary had begun taking physically challenging vacations after surviving a bout with lung cancer several years earlier, and she trained intensely for her North Pole excursion, an adventure that would involve an hours-long cross-country ski trek. Hillary claimed to be in no hurry "to meet the Grim Reaper," she said when interviewed by Newsweek's Karen Springen and asked about the risks involved in a journey that would daunt many. "However, if I'm going to die, I want to go doing something I enjoy."
Hillary is a native of New York City and spent her earliest years in the area of Manhattan called San Juan Hill, which until the 1950s was a predominantly African-American area of the city. Its unsafe tenement houses were demolished to make way for the performing arts complex of Lincoln Center. She never knew her father, who died when she was still an infant, and her mother, who worked as a domestic, later moved the family to Harlem. Hillary recalled that as a child she was enchanted by books featuring extreme adventure tales, such as Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe's 1719 novel about a man stranded on a tropical island for twenty-eight years.
As a young woman, Hillary trained to become a nurse, and she never married. She was active in community organizations in the New York area and made her home in the beachfront community of Arverne, in the borough of Queens. At the age of sixty-seven, she was diagnosed with lung cancer but recovered. The brush with mortality jarred her, and she began taking vacations in places that were far from the traditional tourist destinations. She went dog-sledding in northern Quebec, and she took part in a photography expedition to another Canadian province, Manitoba, to photograph polar bears. When she learned that there was no record of a black woman ever reaching the North Pole, she decided to make that her next goal.
The first humans on record to reach the North Pole did so in 1909 in a well-publicized event. The National Geographic Society-sponsored trip was led by American adventurer Robert Peary and included four Inuit men and Matthew Henson, an African-American explorer who had traveled with Peary on several other expeditions. Peary fell ill as they neared the pole, however, and sent Henson ahead to plant the U.S. flag at the geographic top of the Earth. But Henson's role was ignored for many years, with Peary receiving the majority of honors and accolades.
In 1986 Ann Bancroft, a physical-education teacher from Minnesota, became the first woman ever to reach the North Pole. By then there were regular expeditions that ferried scientists and adventuresome types back and forth, usually from a base in Norway within the Arctic Circle. There were two methods of reaching the Pole: either by cross-country skis or being dropped off by a helicopter. A company called Eagles Cry Adventures Inc. took North Pole visitors to and fro, but the cost of such a journey was $16,000 when Hillary first inquired. She began saving and training for the trip and seemed undaunted by the fact that she had never skied in her life. "It wasn't a popular sport in Harlem," she was quoted as saying by Meghan Barr in the Seattle Times. Hillary's North Pole trip would involve hauling a sled while on cross-country skis, and to prepare herself she began working out with a personal trainer. She even dragged a plastic sled along the beach near her home, with a bag of sand atop to simulate the weight of the supplies she would need, but the sled quickly fell apart.
Another complication arose once Hillary's preparations were fully underway, when Eagles Cry Adventures was forced to implement a major price hike to $21,000 because of currency fluctuations and other factors. Hillary began soliciting donations to meet the additional costs, and she even contacted the New York City Mayor's Office. "Mayor Bloomberg referred me to the Department for the Aging, which sent a form letter of things I could do in the senior center," she recounted in an interview with Lauren Collins for the New Yorker. "Mister, don't you get it? If I'm going to the North Pole, why … do I need a senior center?"
Collins's article appeared in late March, just a few weeks away from Hillary's planned departure date, and readers began sending donations in to the magazine. One was from an eleven-year-old boy who wrote, according to Collins's follow-up article in May, "You have had a great life." On April 16, 2007, she arrived in Longyearbyen, Norway, and underwent a mandatory fitness test. She was elated to pass it, but Robert Russell, the owner of Eagles Cry Adventures, convinced her it would be more prudent to do just a one-day trip, instead of the original plan to ski for three days to reach the pole, with eight to ten hours of skiing required daily. On April 23, she and two guides were dropped off by helicopter on an ice floe called Base Camp Barneo, about sixty miles from the North Pole, where she was required to wait for the right moment to depart, because reaching the pole safely depends on weather and ice conditions. The camp at Barneo was a large one, with dozens of heated red tents and a runway for aircraft, and serves as the main base camp for the polar-bound. The tents were unisex, however, and for Hillary this was the most alarming part of her journey. "In the middle of the night, some burly Russian gentleman comes walking in, lies down, and starts snoring," she told Collins in the New Yorker follow-up. "You don't have any choice but to adjust or go sleep outside, where it's twenty to forty below."
Finally, Hillary boarded another helicopter, and, after landing, she and her guide began skiing toward the pole. When she finally reached it, a number of immediate thoughts crossed her mind, she told Collins: "Part of you is saying, ‘I can't believe I made it this far’; another part is saying, ‘Let this thing be over with’; another part, ‘Damn, it's cold.’" In the elation of the moment, Hillary removed her gloves and suffered minor frostbite on her fingers. She became the first African-American woman to reach the North Pole, but was also one of the oldest people ever to make the trek. Her adventure had turned her from a community activist into a global one, as she learned about the effects of global warming on polar ice. She hoped to use her newfound fame "to go and lecture to different groups on what they can do on a grass-roots level" to stall potentially disastrous climate change, the Seattle Times report by Barr quoted her as saying. She was also considering another trek, as she told Collins. "All the people who didn't believe in me—I'd like to go to the South Pole and give 'em the one-two punch!"
At a Glance …
Born c. 1932 in New York, NY. Education: Trained as a nurse.
Career: Worked as a nurse.
Addresses: Home—Queens, NY. Office—PO Box 920174, Arverne Station, New York, NY 11692.
Houston Chronicle, May 7, 2007.
Newsweek, March 5, 2007.
New Yorker, March 26, 2007.
Seattle Times, May 7, 2007.
Collins, Lauren, "Top of the World," NewYorker.com,http://www.newyorker.com/online/2007/05/28/070528on_onlineonly_collins (accessed December 26, 2007).
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