Barbara Hillary, 79, First Black Woman to Reach the North Pole, Looks Southward

Jul 12, 2010


As the first black woman to reach the North Pole at the age of 75, Barbara Hillary knows that the key to performing great deeds and achieving personal milestones is, quite honestly, kind of funny.

It’s not great hiking gear or a million dollars in the bank. It’s not a corporate sponsorship or a well-connected relative. It’s mainly this: a robust and unyielding sense of humor.

Barbara at the North Pole. (Photo: Courtesy Modernage Photo Services, NYC/Copyright Barbara H. Hillary 2010, All Rights Reserved)

Humor, combined with persistence and careful choices about who you surround yourself with, will take you anywhere you want to go, Hillary says.

“Throughout our discussion, I will come back to two things,” she said recently to TakePart. “One, avoid negative people. They will suck the life-blood out of you. And two, never lose your sense of humor.”

Hillary, a cancer survivor who reached the top of the planet in 2007, lives that ethos fully and has recently applied it to a new, perhaps even more ambitious goal: to reach the South Pole.

Now 79, she’s facing ageism, sexism and just plain disbelief, she says, but is planning to overwhelm them with that unflagging optimism.

In a short talk with Hillary, it’s easy to see how her infectious attitude could pull her through. From her home in Queens, she intersperses bits of wisdom and practical advice in a stream of jokes and laughter.

In talking about how she reacts to people who stand in the way of her goals, for example, she says:

“Some people, I don’t even waste good saliva trying to convert them, because all they’re going to do is talk and be negative, and they’re not going to make any positive contribution toward what you’re doing, so you kiss them off.”

“Just like a bad lover,” she adds, laughing. “Why go back? For a repeat of a bad performance?”

Going North

Barbara Hillary. (Photo: Courtesy Modernage Photo Services, NYC/Copyright Barbara H. Hillary 2010, All Rights Reserved)

Robert Peary, the man widely thought to be the first to the North Pole (and who made it with the help of an African American man named Matthew Henson), made his first Arctic expedition when he was 30. A spring chicken by Hillary’s standards.

Hillary didn’t become interested in Arctic travel until after she retired from a career in nursing education, when she got hit with a revived sense of adventure. She had no desire to simply get old and be boring.

“When I retired, I was looking around just for something to do, because I didn’t travel much during my life,” Hillary says. “So I looked at the cruise ships, and then I said 'Oh, my God,' I could think of nothing worse than being on a ship full of boring married people.”

After seeing an advertisement for a trip to Manitoba, Canada, to photograph polar bears, she decided to go north.

“I fell in love with northern travel. I went on to learn snowmobiling and how to drive my own dog sled,” Hillary says. The travel got her reading about polar exploration and Henson in particular. She set her sights on a monumental goal: to become the first African American woman to reach the pole.

Slogging her way north with a guide through what she calls “the hell” of the trip, she made the journey to the pole on skis. It was a punishing trip, she says, that had her on the ropes by the time she reached the pole.

“By that time I’m beat; I’m mentally drained. I’m asking myself, 'Do I really need this in my life?' All those good emotions they don’t show in the movies,” she says. Eventually her guide turned to her and declared that she’d reached the mark.

“He said 'Barbara … you’re now standing on top of the world.' What a feeling.” Hillary had done it, at the age of 75.

Living Without Limitations

Barbara at a camp in the Arctic. (Photo: Courtesy Modernage Photo Services, NYC/Copyright Barbara H. Hillary 2010, All Rights Reserved)

But where had she come from? Who was this septuagenarian standing at 90 degrees north, where few thought she could ever make it?

Hillary’s background is hallmarked by independence. A lifelong New Yorker, she was raised in Harlem and brought up to believe she should live without limitations. Taking it to heart, she spent a lot of time in libraries and museums, she says, learning and exploring on her own.

She studied nursing and worked in nursing education, and later studied international affairs. In her personal life, Hillary says, she chose not to start a family, preferring to focus on her intellectual pursuits.

“In terms of having a baby, I have noticed so many women, their brains come out with the baby,” she says, laughing. “So that’s the end of the excursion into mommy-hood.”

Her excursion into another life-altering event, however, wasn’t by choice: 10 years ago, Hillary fought off lung cancer. She had part of a lung removed to beat it, which made her trip to the North Pole all the harder.

But the toughest part of that journey wasn't really the physical exertions: worse was the long, grinding preparation and fundraising necessary to make the trip possible.

“People are afflicted with ageism; so when you say 75, it’s like a horror movie,” Hillary says. “When you approach people … and say, ‘I’d like to go to the North Pole,’ they know you’ve lost your mind.”

But sticking to her guns made it happen.

“You have to overcome this ageism. You have to overcome the sexism. You have to look for people who have arctic skills, who do adventure travel, who can even help you and say, ‘Call so and so.’ So it was an uphill battle from the moment I decided I was going to do it.”

But in the end, she got what she was after. She did it.

Southward Bound

Among the drifts and ice ridges. (Photo: Courtesy Modernage Photo Services, NYC/Copyright Barbara H. Hillary 2010, All Rights Reserved)

Hillary is now on a path to an even grander, more expensive trip: the bottom of the world. She's facing the same doubts and negative reactions from people in this quest as she did the first time.

The base cost of the trip will start at $50,000, plus expenses for travel and lodging, and she’s working “seven days a week” to raise the cash. To generate funding, she performs speaking engagements and is always looking for the next gig.

“I’m not lazy. I’m willing to work, but I just need the help to get there,” she says, adding that she’s also actively seeking corporate sponsorship. Those looking to contact her should reach her through her Web site,

In the meantime, she shares her experiences in trying to encourage others to pursue their goals and stop setting self-imposed limitations.

She says that people often lean on excuses, reasoning, “’When this happens, I’ll do this. When that happens, I’ll do that. When the children finish college, I’ll do this…’ And it never ends. And one day they look up, and life has passed them by.”

Refusing to let that happen, and locked on the goal of Antarctica, she realizes that people might wonder why they should support her, why it's important for her to make the trip.

Antarctica is not just another feather in her travel cap, she says.

“When I came from the North Pole, I realized through the mail I received from all over the world … that I had inspired people. I’d given hope to people who had cancer, whose relatives had cancer,” Hillary says. “So I feel that I’m making a contribution, and it cuts across racial lines. It’s all about humanity. It’s about growing old; it’s about illness; it’s about gender.

Barbara trains by pulling a sled filled with logs. (Photo: Courtesy Modernage Photo Services, NYC/Copyright Barbara H. Hillary 2010, All Rights Reserved)

“My goal is not just a physical accomplishment,” she adds “It transmits to people who are looking for a level of inspiration.”

Lastly, her polar travel has turned her on to another topic: environmental concerns. Hillary says talking with locals on her northern trek showed her that things are headed in a dire direction, climate-wise.

“What is it going to take for man to wake up and realize that the party’s over, and we have little time left if we are going to achieve some level of humanity and common sense about saving this planet we live on?”

With typical directness, she says it is time to have the guts to face the reality.

“If you deal with truth, it might hurt a little, but it will never hurt as much as keeping your head deep in the ground with your ass in the air.”

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