Usually, athletes like Helen Thayer retire when they are middle-aged. It was not the case for this New Zealand native. On the contrary! After a long career in sports, another life opened-up : a life of adventure that would take her to the magnetic North Pole, the Sahara and the Gobi desert.
Born in 1937 near Auckland, Helen Thayer’s parents where both sports persons. She grew up in the sheep and cattle farm they owned and it turns out that a family friend was a certain Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the two first men to reach the top of Mount Everest. It was not surprising that Helen climbed her first mountain at 9 years old. As a young adult, she became a top athlete, throwing the discus. At the same time, she also earned her degree in laboratory science. In 1961, she met her future husband Bill, a Californian who was working as a helicopter pilot. They fell in love, got hitched and decided to go live abroad, first in Guatemala before moving the US, in Washington State. Helen carried on working on her sport and even became the third-best discus thrower in the country.while running a dairy farm at the same time.
Finally fed-up with discus, she decided to start lugioe -racing, a sport she had seen on television. She launched herself in it with passion and ended up winning the US National Championship in 1975. At the time, she was 38 years old.
“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
The late 30’s is usually when athletes retire from competition. It turns out that having accomplished what she wanted to do, Helen lost interest in competitive sport. A whole new world opened for Bill and her: expeditions. With her husband, she kayaked the whole length of the Amazon (she was the first non-indigenous woman to do it) and together, they walked across the Sahara from Morocco to the Nile.
In 1986, she had the idea of reaching the magnetic North Pole… on her own. It would take husband and wife two years to gather the money and on March 30, 1988, off she went into the frozen desert, with just her equipment, supplies and her beloved husky dog, Charlie. Helen was just 50 years old. She trekked from Resolute Bay to the Magnetic Pole (a place that is not geographically defined as it moves along with the Earth’s magnetic field) without resupplying. Five days into the trip, she encountered her first polar bear and Charlie proved that he was not there just for companionship: he managed to scare the predator away. It would not be the last time they would meet a bear.
They survived deadly cold, ice breaking beneath their feet and just a week before reaching the end of her trek, a strong wind blew away half of what remained of Charlie and her’s provisions. Still, she did not call for help and carried on. She made it to her pick-up point at Helena Island after 27 days and 585 km (364 miles). She was the first woman to do so.
That didn’t quench her thirst for adventure. With her husband, she spent weeks with wolves in the Yukon, crossed the whole Gobi desert… but it’s her solitary walking in the Arctic that will remain her most famous adventure.
Polar Dream: The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and Her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole