Helen Thayer has always led an active life.
But at an age when a lot of people hang their skis over the fireplace or let their bike get rusty in the storage shed, Thayer embarked on expeditions that tested the limits of human endurance.
At 50, Thayer became the first woman to ski to the magnetic North Pole without a dogsled, snowmobile, resupply or support.
At 63, she walked 1,600 miles across the Gobi Desert.
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She was the first woman to walk 4,000 miles across the Sahara from Morocco to the Nile River and she’s kayaked 2,200 miles of the Amazon River.
Now 78, Thayer lives with her husband, Bill, 89, in the Cascade foothills near Granite Falls. The couple met in Thayer’s home country of New Zealand (Sir Edmund Hillary was a family friend) and have lived in Washington since 1965.
Thayer will speak about her trip to the North Pole on Saturday at the Hunt Street Ministry Center in Gig Harbor. All proceeds from the event will fund a new adventure playground at the center.
The News Tribune caught up with Thayer while she was visiting a friend on Raft Island.
Q: I know you and Bill do a lot together but on your solo trip to the North Pole you only had Charlie, your dog, as a companion?
A: He was the star of the story because he saved my life from polar bears.
I bought him from the Inuit. His job was to keep the polar bears out of the village and keep the humans safe. I had to learn to trust that he’d warn me about polar bears.
And being an independent soul, I had to figure that one out. He walked at my side and we became best buddies and he came home with me.
Q: What was the scariest part of your polar expedition?
A: It was challenging every single waking hour. It was most tense, most difficult journey I’ve taken because it was a place where people don’t live and never will. The Inuit don’t even hunt that far.
But it was the constant fear of polar bears, having to constantly watch for them. With Charlie at my side I would ski for five minutes and then stop and do a 360-degree view.
And then watching for approaching storms and cracks in the ice because I’m walking across the Arctic Ocean. You go right to the edge of your emotions, your physical being.
Q: And at one point your tent caught fire?
A: Yes, I had nine frostbitten fingers. You’ve got to put that tube into the (camp) stove correctly so that the fuel will stay in the stove. I guess I was careless one night and it leaked fuel and it blew up.
I had a fire to put out. I already fingers that were really painful, so what’s a few more. When your tent is on fire you’ve got to get it out or you won’t have a home. You can’t exactly check into a hotel.
Q: In the end, what did you learn about yourself from your journey?
A: I learned to overcome fear.
Fear is so all-encompassing. The main thing I learned is don’t panic. You’ve got to take control of it. Once you control yourself you can control the situation. Then you have a chance of surviving.
There’s nothing wrong with being afraid. But how do you handle the fear? Are you going to panic and be useless or are you going to fight back?
Q: How do you describe yourself?
A: We’re adventurers and explorers.
I suppose the word explorer would come in when we go and do research. We’re studying indigenous cultures. We live with them around the world. We immerse ourselves in their lifestyles.
And we lived one year with wolves. It’s the first study of people living alongside a wolf den for a whole year. It was right on the Arctic circle in the Canadian Yukon.
Q: What’s your daily training regimen?
A: I usually start my day with one hour of kayaking 4 hard miles.
I go out to the trails and hike the mountains. Hiking the trails — that’s about the best workout you can have. I weight train really hard three to four days a week. I stretch every day.
Q: You seem to have an affinity for deserts as well as ice.
A: I fell in love with deserts. People say they’re dead places, but they’re very alive.
Crossing the Sahara, it was so flat and so featureless it was like walking on a cloud. There was no way to tell scale of anything. But even then it’s still alive.
Q: What is your next big adventure?
A: We’ve had our plans seriously interrupted by ISIS and al-Qaida. We go in to such remote areas. We’d really like to walk across the Afar Desert (in Ethiopia) but ISIS is coming at it from Somalia. It’s just too dangerous. We wouldn’t make it out alive.
But we’ve already walked 1,500 miles down from Nevada into the Mojave and Sonoran deserts and crossed the border into Mexico and I’d like to do that again.
Going from the high-altitude to low-altitude deserts. I’d like to compare what we see now to what we saw then.
Q: Is this regarding climate change?
A: Yes, and to see if the edges of the desert are increasing. The desert is being pushed out. Like the Sahara, they are all increasing.
Q: There must be plenty of people half your age who say, “I’m too old” when it comes to the types of adventures you and Bill take. What do you tell them?
A: The message I always like to get across in my speaking events is that age is not a barrier to our dreams and our goals. We are what we think we are.
I’ve met many people who say, “I’m 40 years old. I can’t do this anymore.” I realize health problems can crop up. But all things being equal it’s attitude. If you’re going to think of yourself that way, then that’s what you are.
I’m still living the life I lived physically since I was 25. I haven’t had to change anything. Genes do come into play. My mother is 97 and still racing through life.
Q: On top of all of this you were a U.S. champion in luge and competed in track and field.
A: Yes, I represented three countries in track and field (New Zealand, Guatemala and the U.S.) and then I became the United States national luge champion.
Then I won a world championship in kayaking and another national championship in cross country skiing. I’ve had an athletic life alongside a life in mountaineering.
Q: Growing up in New Zealand, Sir Edmund Hillary was a family friend?
A: Yes, he wrote the forward to my first book, “Polar Dream.” He was a childhood mentor. He taught me a lot about climbing. I really looked up to him. He was a real goal-setter.
Q: Tell me about your education work.
A: All of our expeditions are designed to bring back educational programs for Adventure Classroom, for kids K through 12. We’re redesigning the website to bring in even younger kids.
Our programs are used in 30 countries now. We’re really paying attention to what, for example, South Korean schools want from us so we gear in a direction for them.
I’ve spoken to over a million kids in schools since 1988. Nothing like that eye-to-eye contact when you’re talking about setting goals, planning, don’t give up on yourself.
Q: Do you think you would be a household name or at least better known if you were a man?
A: I think in the beginning, yes. But once I skied to the pole, then people like National Geographic sat up and thought about women in exploration.
Up to that time there was no interest in us because we were women and for me, I was 50 when I took this journey. I was told, “You’re too old and you’re a woman.” Basically, that I was no good.
But I did it, not to prove a thing to anybody, but to start Adventure Classroom. I had a good reason to do it. It wasn’t for my own personal glory.
But I get a lot of attention now because of my age and because I’m a woman. I call myself a work in progress.
Q: Why a work in progress?
A: I have a long way to walk yet and a lot of things to do.
What: Lecture and dessert
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Hunt Street Ministry Center, 4819 Hunt St. NW, Gig Harbor
Where to buy: Harborview Fellowship Church, 4819 Hunt St. NW, Gig Harbor
More information: helenthayer.com