Profile: World Explorer Helen Thayer

A world — and mind — without borders

Explorer Helen Thayer dishes on Algerian kidnapping, polar bear attacks and Gobi Desert thirst

By Carolyn Price

Photo at right: Helen Thayer and her canine companion, Charlie, trekked 364 miles to the Magnetic North Pole. © Helen Thayer

Helen Thayer summited her first peak when she was 9-years-old. And why wouldn’t she? Her parents were accomplished mountaineers in New Zealand and fellow countryman Edmund Hilary—the first to summit Mount Everest—was a family friend.

That 8,291 foot summit atop Mount Taranaki launched Thayer’s adventure career but it wasn’t until 40 years later at age 50 that this explorer became a world-renowned outdoors pioneer.

So it was that Thayer, from Snohomish County, Wash., embarked on a solo trek to the Magnetic North Pole in a 364-mile epic journey in 1988. As the first woman to travel alone to this region, Thayer and her dog, Charlie, encountered violent storms, breaking sea ice and hungry polar bears that came within six feet of them.

Hungry polar bears became a dangerous nuisance on Thayer’s journey to the Magnetic North Pole. © Helen Thayer

“It’s hard to describe the absolute terror when polar bears arrive and you realize they can eat you,” Thayer says. “They were with us every day for about a month. They would come straight at you but I used flares and Charlie did his job at keeping them at bay—including jumping up and clipping one of them on its rear paw. We had seven very close encounters.” Thayer added that when she slept in her tent, Charlie kept the bears at bay.

A few years later, she trekked again, this time with her husband, Bill, where they became the first married couple to trek unsupported to the Pole while celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary.

“Afraid I would grow a muscle!”

“I was a strange teenager,” Thayer recounts, when she came of age in the late 40s, early 50s. “I wanted to be like my parents and I had a lot of people around me that encouraged me to be outdoors.”

Thayer, however, had a lot of naysayers.

“At one point I wanted to be a discus thrower but I was laughed at, told I was too short and they were afraid I would grow a muscle! But my dad set up a weight room in our barn and I trained in secret.”

The diligence paid off as Thayer went on to compete in a variety of international track and field events including representing three different countries: New Zealand, Guatemala and the United States. In 1975 she won the U.S. national luge championships, and represented the U.S. in world luge competition.

When she announced her North Pole trek, the naysaying resumed.

“People said that I was a woman and I would get lost,” she says. “I thought that was insulting. I was the kind of person that just went out and did whatever. The fact they didn’t like it was their problem.”

Not only did Thayer have to be in tip-top shape for the North Pole trek, she also had a lot of unknowns to figure out. Remember, this was 1988 before gels, GPS, technical apparel, engineered equipment and online ordering.

A Boeing engineer fabricated a sled she could pull and Cordura Brand supplied a durable fabric for the sled cover—both designed to outlast the rigors of the North Pole. Her food bags were filled with rice, butter, oatmeal, milk powder, nuts, cookies and peanut butter cups while her navigation system was patterned after the Inuit culture that used a 24-hour sun compass.

Kidnapped in the Sahara

Helen Thayer with a wily camel in the Gobi Desert. © Helen Thayer

Thayer’s adventures prepared her for a world without borders and her mind expanded as well in learning different cultures, getting past language barriers and lifestyles, and realizing that if she wanted to do something, no matter the age or the difficulties, she could do it.

But this philosophy didn’t prepare her for being kidnapped by Algerian rebels on the Thayer’s 4,000-mile walk across the Sahara or nearly dying of thirst in the Mongolian Gobi Desert when their supply camel rolled over and squashed the water supply.

The rebels were scared off when Bill brought out his GPS and brilliantly copped a story about help arriving in five minutes. And their lives were spared when they rehydrated after filtering water from a filthy pond in the middle of the Gobi.

The sense of adventure and what they have learned is not lost on the Thayers and as they keep living life to the fullest—they give back as well. Their Adventure Classroom nonprofit is a program that’s designed to inspire students from kindergarten to high school in embracing integrity, courage and responsibility.

When they embark on their 1,500-mile journey across North India this fall, they will no doubt bring back more experiences to share for the Adventure Classroom curriculum.

But first and foremost, Helen, 76, and her husband Bill, 87, have a bigger task ahead—finding someone to feed their six dogs, three cats, 25 chickens, one donkey and 10 goats on their 12 acres in Snohomish.

Carolyn Price is the publisher at OutdoorsNW.

Books by Helen Thayer:

Polar Dream, the story of Helen Thayer’s expedition to the Magnetic North Pole; 3 Among the Wolves, when Helen and Bill Thayer spent a year observing wolves in the wild; and Walking the Gobi, which documents their 1,600-mile trek across Mongolia’s Gobi Desert.

Helen Thayer keynote at Gear UP

Helen Thayer will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Gear Up Expo, April 26–27 at the Everett Comcast Arena. She is scheduled to talk at 1:30 p.m. Saturday about her book, Polar Dream, and her solo trek — with her dog Charlie — to the Magnetic North Pole in 1988 when she was 50 years old. She will also be signing and selling books from her booth, No. 313.

Helen Thayer’s accomplishments:

  • First woman to walk 4,000 miles across the Sahara from Morocco to the Nile River;
  • In another world’s first, Helen walked 1,600 miles across the Gobi Desert at age 63;
  • Kayaked 2,200 miles of the Amazon River;
  • Lived near a wolf den above the Arctic Circle for a year;
  • Climbed some the world’s highest mountains.

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