By Jenny Lynn Zappala
name Helen Thayer
born Auckland, New Zealand
home 12-acre farm in rural Snohomish
job Author, educator, explorer, motivational speaker, photographer
nonprofit Adventure Classroom
sponsor Cordura Brand
websites adventureclassroom.org and helenthayer.com
books “Polar Dream: The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and Her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole”; “Three Among Wolves: A Couple and Their Dog Live a Year with Wolves in the Wild” and “Walking the Gobi Desert: A 1600-Mile Trek Across a Desert of Hope and Despair”
previous jobs Medical lab technologist and emergency medical technician
pets Four dogs (rescued), three cats (rescued), one donkey and 10 goats
single longest, continuous journey in miles Sahara, 4,000 miles
weekend fun 40-mile hike
Arctic explorer and lifelong mountain climber Helen Thayer expected danger to be close, but not this close or this deadly. In her attempt to become the first woman — and the oldest person, at age 50 — to circumnavigate the magnetic North Pole on foot or skis, unresupplied, Helen planned for everything. She trained to pull a 160-pound supply sled by herself for 364 miles in defiance of dehydration, frostbite, shifting thin ice, snowstorms and down to minus 50-degree temperatures. Charlie, a 94-pound Inuit-trained dog and her only companion, would sense and help scare away what the Inuit called silent, deadly “nanuk” polar bears.
On day 20, the unmerciful, howling Arctic wind pulled open the sled bag and blew away all the food except a bag of walnuts and Charlie’s dog food. The math is brutal: seven more days’ travel, seven handfuls of walnuts and one radio. Make one radio call and go home to a hot meal, fresh water, her family and a warm bed? Give up?
“I was the only expedition that year, so I was truly alone. I learned what true fear is and how to walk through that door of fear and survive no matter what is going on. If I remain optimistic, I can do it,” she said. “I realized I can do this, I can go on. My dream is coming true — motivating kids.”
This is not a publicity stunt. This is her plan in action. She completed her magnetic North Pole mission in 1988, the first of about 30 expeditions so far to Earth’s most-remote places. She completed and documented all her travels to teach and inspire students. Helen has spoken to more than a million children since 1988. Her nonprofit, Adventure Classroom, is a platform for the curriculum, inspirational speeches, photography, slideshows, stories and three books that she’s produced. Her home and office is a 12-acre farm in rural Snohomish.
“I try to motivate kids to get fit, eat a good diet and set your own goals — plan and persistence.”
For Helen, survival is another day at the “office” — the edge of the Earth. Her opponents: frost bite, hunger, sand storms, scorpions, shifting ice, snakes, snow storms and thirst for starters. Her secrets to success: physical strength, discipline, endurance and planning. “The plan is my road map to my success,” she said. “A goal without a plan is a dream. You’re not going to make it.”
On foot, Helen has explored about 2,700 miles in the Arctic and the Antarctic, 4,000 miles across the Sahara, 1,500 miles of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts and 1,500 miles of New Zealand. She celebrated her 60th birthday in the Antarctic. National Geographic and National Public Radio named her “one of the Great Explorers of the Twentieth Century.”
“I believe the real world is out there where people are living the natural life and are at one with their environment,” she said. “People need to go out and experience that.”
Helen has always had her arms around the globe. She loved studying geography, the Earth and its lands, features, inhabitants and phenomena, in Auckland, New Zealand, where she was born. Inspired by famous explorer and family friend Edmund Hillary, Helen started mountain climbing at age 9 with her family. At age 13, she declared her intention to walk across the Gobi Desert because she wanted to meet the people who lived there. She achieved major climbs worldwide, including Mt. McKinley’s 20,320-foot summit. On Tajikistan’s Peak Communism (a 24,590-foot summit) at age 48, Helen got the inspiration for Adventure Classroom.
Her husband Bill, a retired helicopter pilot, is a true partner in the field — determined, patient and smart. Together, they’ve explored Alaska, the Amazon River, the Arctic, the Sahara Desert, Tanzania and beyond. Bill and Helen met and became fast friends in New Zealand, when Bill accepted a helicopter pilot’s job from Helen’s father. She said, “We do well together.”
In 2001, they celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary by walking 1,600 miles across the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Helen’s childhood dream to experience the Mongolian people’s hospitality came true: “They help each other to survive. If someone behaves badly, they turn away from it. Let it go. If someone says something you don’t like, let it go. It’s not important. They will give you the last mouthful of food left if you are their guest.”
Helen’s focus now is human. In her current project, “Enduring Cultures,” she documents ancient communities that have lived in harmony with their environment for centuries, like the Maasai, the Tatooga and the Bushmen people, all of Tanzania, and the Berbers and Tuareg of North Africa for modern audiences, like Americans. Helen’s goal is to promote intercultural respect. American children are often surprised and curious to learn that children in ancient cultures live without cell phones, television and “the Twitter” just fine, she said. Children and adults in ancient cultures know how to live on their land and live together, things worth understanding. With understanding, respect and friendship can follow.
“Once you can teach the kids to respect other cultures — the only way is to teach them about other cultures — then one day they will interact with each other, perhaps to help or perhaps to make friends,” she said. “It would be nice if all cultures in the world could be friends with all other cultures and there would be no need to fight.”
Helen’s plan is to keep moving: Africa, China and Tibet most likely. She and Bill’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration will probably be an 800-mile trek in the Sahara in 2011.
She said, “There are many hundreds of miles to walk yet and photographs to take yet and many cultures and climates to learn about yet.”