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Get Up, Get Going
Helen Thayer

photoHelen pulling her 160-pound supply sled with Charlie at her side on her solo trek to the magnetic North Pole in 1988. © Helen Thayer

Helen Thayer and I were both in our 30s when last we talked. And for nearly four decades she has been one of the most memorable people I’ve ever interviewed in my journalism career.

To celebrate turning 50, she became the first woman and oldest person to trek solo to the magnetic North Pole. She pulled a 160-pound supply sled and was accompanied only by Charlie, an Inuit-trained, part-wolf dog who more than once saved her from aggressive polar bears.

Since then, she has lived among wolves for a year, kayaked 2,200 miles of the Amazon River, walked 4,000 miles across the Sahara Desert from Morocco to the Nile River and 1,600 miles across the Mongolian Gobi Desert, among other walkabouts with her husband, Bill. In 2002, the National Geographic Society named Thayer one of the great explorers of the 20th Century.

She has endured temperature extremes from a wind-chill of minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit to a high of 126 degrees and lived to tell the tale. And there’s more to come: The Thayers—Helen, 75, and Bill, 86,—are training for an upcoming walk across Northern India.

Thayer is coming to the Methow Valley and I recently interviewed her for the first time since we met 39 years ago. She will speak at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 9, at the Methow Valley Community Center. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Admission is by donation with proceeds going to Twisp Library Friends and Methow Arts’ literary programs in the schools. A meet-the-author reception, book sale and signing will follow. Food and desserts by Sunflower Catering will be available for purchase. Earlier in the day Thayer will speak to students and teachers at Liberty Bell High School.

photoHelen Thayer with Tom and Jerry, the camels who carried the Thayer’s supplies across the Mongolian Gobi Desert. © Helen Thayer

The topic for her evening presentation is “Walking the Gobi,” the story of the walk she and Bill made in 2001 across Mongolia’s blazing hot Gobi Desert when she was 63. They were the first to complete the route on foot and did so despite Helen’s constant pain from car-accident injuries, sizzling temperatures and life-threatening dehydration after one of their camels rolled, bursting open and spilling most of their water containers.

When I first met the irrepressible Helen Thayer I was writing feature stories for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She had just won a luge event of some significance. I found her name in tiny print in a one-paragraph story buried inside the P-I sports section. I immediately wanted to know: Who was this woman from Snohomish who was speeding down an icy chute somewhere in the Midwest? What made her tick?

This was pre-Title 9. Women athletes rarely appeared in sports sections. There were no commercial gyms for the masses and minimal safety gear. There certainly weren’t retail racks of apparel on sale for every conceivable athletic activity. And luge? Who cared about luge?

We met at the Snohomish dairy farm where she lived with Bill, a helicopter pilot. They kept fit by running on country roads and working out with an assortment of weights and jury-rigged exercise equipment. She was a 5’3” salt-of-the-earth, athletic native of New Zealand who started climbing mountains as a child and had competed internationally in track and field.

Her enthusiasm for personal, especially physical, challenges was astonishing. I still remember her describing how battered she got hurtling down the luge track. If memory serves, she entered her first competition after a few practice runs that left her with black and blue arms swollen almost beyond recognition. Undaunted, by 1975, the year after my story was published, she became the U.S. national luge champion. She seemed destined for adventures beyond the farm. But what would they be?

photoOne of Helen and Bill Thayer’s tent camps in the Arctic. © Helen Thayer

“If somebody had said then, ‘You are going to the North Pole,’ I would have said, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” she told me the other day. But the North Pole trek proved life changing. At age 50 she became a woman with a mission—to explore and bring the far corners of the planet to schoolchildren. “I’ve spoken to over one million kids since 1988,” she told Grist.

The program is called Adventure Classroom and it is a Thayer-family operation financed by her speaking fees and promoted mostly through word-of-mouth advertising and a website. The program allows the Thayers to educate the next generation while combining their love for physical challenge in the remote natural world with the study of wildlife and learning about the cultures of indigenous people. “I have students all over the world,” Thayer said proudly.

Since we last spoke, the Thayers have sold their 80-acre dairy farm. They now live on 12 acres near Snohomish with six rescue dogs, three cats, 11 goats and 29 chickens. Bill retired from flying some years back to join Adventure Classroom. And Helen’s mother, Margaret Nicholson, who’s always been an inspiration to her, is now 94 and lives with them. She moved to the U.S. and became a citizen.

Helen continues to walk large across the landscape of life. She and Bill will celebrate their 53rd wedding anniversary this summer and are deep into planning and training for their trek across Northern India. “We always say we deserve each other; nobody else would have us,” she said of her husband. Her readers—Thayer is the author of three books—know Bill is her fellow explorer, quiet by nature and a solid teammate.

Thayer insists the pair is making no concessions to age. “We feel like we are in our 20s or 30s,” she said. Really? “You are what you think you are,” she replied. “If you want to be old, you’ll be old. If you want to be sick, you’ll be sick.” But barring being stricken by a major disease, her advice is to “get up and get going.” She has no patience with people who say they are too old to do something.

quote from storyThe Thayers control their diets and stay in shape. (Even their dogs tend to reach the age of 18; Charlie was 23 when he died.) They train by “walking long distances.” They spend a lot of time in the Cascades. And almost every year they walk from Snoqualmie Pass to Stevens Pass, often on to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. Their home gym has been improved, but it’s nothing fancy, she said.

To prepare for treks, the couple does extensive research and physical training. In a video linked to her website, Thayer says, “I try to visualize everything that could go wrong, anything that could happen to me. And then I think it through. What would I do if that polar bear attacked me? What would I do if I fell into that water?” Every trip is planned in minute detail and the first step is never taken until all preparations are in place.

And yet, as anyone who’s read her breath-taking stories knows, Thayer has stared down death more than once in circumstances that were unpredictable. Was she born with whatever it is that enables her to stave off panic and go forward?

“I think it was something I was born with,” she told me, alluding to her ability to problem-solve in tight spots. “It’s very odd,” she added. “I didn’t realize this until my last seven days going to the pole.”

As Thayer tells that harrowing story in her book “Polar Dream,” she and her dog Charlie confronted a screaming windstorm about 300 miles into the 364-mile trek and one week away from where a plane was to pick her up. In an instant the wind hurled her, face down, onto the ice. Blood-streaked and with an injured eye, she had fuzzy vision. The wind also ripped the zipper on her supply sled.

“My worst fears were realized,” she wrote. “All my food had been blown away except for one small bag of walnuts in my day food bag...I also lost most of the fuel, a pair of crampons, two fuel bottles, the spare stove, a few items of clothing and assorted odds and ends.” (Being able to melt ice to make life-sustaining water was critical.)

That is the moment she described to me these 15 years later: “I didn’t panic,” she said. “I wasn’t unhappy…The challenge was fun. I just sat there in my tent and figured it out.” Which is to say, she put Charlie on half rations because only half of his food blew away. She put herself on one “small handful” of walnuts a day, which meant five walnut halves each day for one week, to be exact—I just had to ask.

“I understood the realities of going from five thousand calories a day to one hundred calories, and from two quarts of water a day, which is minimal, to only one pint per day while working hard in a cold, dry climate,” she wrote. “This wasn’t enough to make me quit.”

“I can’t say I enjoyed the last seven days,” she confessed in our telephone interview. But the experience taught her that she had the ability to solve problems in extreme circumstances. That ability has been tested and honed since on other treks. When things go wrong, she acknowledges that “things are bad now,” then says to herself: “Let’s figure this out.”

The iron-willed Thayer said she’s always been an “independent soul.” She left competitive sports because she really didn’t like competing with other people, she explained. She prefers the personal challenge of adventurous exploration on her own, and especially with Bill. These are not trips with major commercial sponsorship and support teams carrying supplies. These are do-it-yourself excursions. “I have this philosophy: If you want something done, do it yourself,” she said.

In addition to preparing for their upcoming walk across India, Helen said she is finishing her fourth book, a biography of her beloved dog Charlie. The fifth book is to be the story of the Thayers’ walk across the Sahara in 1996, parts of which were so politically dangerous they put booties on their camels and silently sneaked across borders at night.

Four decades ago I could no more have known who that uncelebrated luge competitor would become than I could have known my own life’s journey. But it was gratifying to call her again and find that the off-the-charts, globe-trotting explorer is “not too impressed with fame,” has a raucous sense of humor, freely speaks her mind, and still believes there are no age limits on dreams and setting goals.

And you, Dear Reader, are the first to know this: Helen Thayer has moved to the top of my “most memorable people ever interviewed” list.


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Another fabulous article, Karen, about a truly amazing and compelling woman. WOW! Thanks for writing this!

Terry Karro