Helen Thayer

views updated

Helen Thayer


American Arctic Adventurer

In 1988 Helen Thayer became the first woman explorer to plan and carry out an unsupported solo expedition to the magnetic North Pole. No one has successfully soloed to the North Pole by foot since her successful expedition.

Thayer was born in 1938 in Whangerei, New Zealand. Her parents were both amateur mountain climbers and instilled in her a lifelong love of outdoor adventure. At age nine she climbed her first mountain, Mount Egmont (8,258 feet) in New Zealand.

Thayer was educated in New Zealand and enjoyed an exciting career as a multitalented international athlete. As a discus thrower, she representing teams from New Zealand, Guatemala (where she lived for four years), and the United States. In 1975 she won the United States luge championship and represented the United States in Europe. Thayer also excelled as a Nordic ski racer and instructor, a kayak racer, a mountain climber, and climbing instructor. She has climbed some of the highest mountains in New Zealand, North America, Mexico, China, and the former Soviet Union.

In 1988, at the age of 50, Thayer decided to walk alone to the magnetic North Pole without the support of aircraft resupply, dog teams, or a snow mobile. She had dreamed of traveling to one of the world's poles since 1958, when Sir Edmund Hillary (1919- ) traveled to the South Pole. She had always been fascinated by the barren islands, the hardy plant and animals adapted to one of the world's harshest climate, and the treacherous sea ice. She was especially fascinated by polar bears, of which the North Pole had the largest population in the world. This expedition would be the first of many trips conducted through her environmental education program for students throughout the United States.

The trip was to take approximately one month. Thayer would travel by foot or ski and carry all of her supplies on a sled that she would pull. There would be no resupply, and she would check in by radio once a day. Four months before departure, she traveled to Resolute Bay to test her equipment. The Inuit (local Eskimo people) felt that she needed to take a dog team for protection.

In March 1988 she returned to Resolute Bay to begin her expedition. Again, the local Inuit encouraged her to take a dog team. Just days before leaving, she decided to take a local dog on the trip as her companion. Charlie was a large black Husky, trained to warn villagers of polar bears near the Inuit village. Charlie's job was to walk at her side and protect her from polar bears. Thayer later credited Charlie for alerting her to polar bears at least nine times, and actually saving her life early in the expedition.

Thayer and Charlie departed on March 30, beginning a month-long 365-mile journey. Since her expedition was the only excursion to the magnetic North Pole in 1988, she had no advance warning of the treacherous ice conditions that she would encounter. Because the magnetic North Pole is constantly in motion, she traveled to the approximate area of the Pole. The actual location of the Pole is in the center of this large area and it wanders daily in an elliptical path and may fluctuate much as 50 miles (80 km.)

She traveled most of the expedition across the sea ice, photographing and taking notes as she went. She recounted her journey in a book, Polar Dreams. In 1988 Thayer and her husband established an environmental education program, Environmental Expeditions, for students in kindergarten through the 12th grade. Through Internet communications, specially designed curricula, and summer opportunities for older students, this program was designed to allow students to "travel" with her on expeditions to Antarctica, the Sahara Desert, and the Amazon rain forest.


About this article

Helen Thayer

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article