Barbara Hillary
Triumph at the top of the world

By Lou Dzierzak

“The polar bears will eat you, you’re too old, and why would you want to do something like that?”

After Barbara Hillary made up her mind to visit the North Pole, many people felt it was their responsibility to stop her from pursuing such a folly. Hillary treated dire warnings like this as minor annoyances rather than sage advice. She had bigger issues to address to fulfill her mission. At 75, the lifelong New Yorker had never been on cross country skis.

Hillary describes learning to ski. “At my best I’m not the most graceful person. In addition to learning how to ski, there was an awareness that I didn’t want to fall and break something and not be able to make the expedition. There’s no trip refund when you are that close to the time to go.”

Questionable snow conditions in the northeast in late 2006 hampered Hillary’s training regime. “Last winter in the northeast there was no snow to speak of. I had to find the snow before I could even start to practice,” she recalls.

The staff at Lapland Lake in Northville, NY, and High Point XC Center in Sussex, NJ, offered Hilary lessons, encouragement and emotional support. “The people at High Point were always encouraging. I will always be indebted to the schools at Lapland Lake and High Point.”

The fire inside

Hillary’s father died before she celebrated her second birthday. Her mother’s approach to life inspired her throughout her life. Reflecting on her childhood, she says, ”The gasoline that gave me the horsepower to do what I did came from my mother. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. She taught us that you determine what you want to do and you try to do it. Life doesn’t owe you anything. You get up off your ass and work for what you get. Education was foremost in my house. When I had to reach down and gather additional strength, it came from the way I was raised.”

Hillary worked as a nurse for 55 years and, at age 67, survived a lung cancer diagnosis. Trekking to the North Pole never seemed like an insurmountable challenge.

To the Pole  

In April 2007, with months of physical training and fundraising to pay the $21,000 expedition fee behind her, Hillary joined Eagles Cry Adventures, Inc., for a trip to the Arctic Circle.

Closing in on her objective, she still had several obstacles to overcome.

Addressing skepticism was the first step. Hillary explains, “The guide evaluates you before you go to base camp. I can appreciate his position. They knew I was coming but all they knew was that a black 75-year old woman was coming. I could understand his apprehension. You have to ski and pull a heavy sled. There’s no such a thing as ‘I like the way you smile.’ He’s sizing you up good.”

At the top of the world  

Staying ready to leave at a moment’s notice wasn’t something Hillary enjoyed.Everything depends on weather. The Russians were in charge. You don’t do anything until they tell you. If they say you can only stay X period of time, that’s it. They are responsible for your life. This is where your adaptability and flexibility are stretched to the limit. You are always on point. As soon as you get into one frame of mind, then you have to change to another. Are you going? No we can’t! We are; we aren’t,” she offers.

Forget the threat of becoming a polar bear’s dinner. Hillary’s biggest fear was a late night bathroom call.

“It’s an adventure when you finally figure out how to get undressed in the sleeping bag and get all your things rolled up, as they tell you to do, so [your clothes are] warm in the morning. After you do that, you pray you don’t have to wee-wee. The more you think about not having to go… You haven’t lived until you have to get dressed and go out when it’s 30 below.”  

The North Pole

On April 23, 2007, Barbara Hillary stood at the North Pole. Robert Russell, founder of Eagles Cry Adventures, had spent six months researching earlier expeditions and could not find a reference to another black woman who had achieved that goal.

Hillary reminisces, “I’ve lived in New York for 75 years. I’m used to tall buildings, trees, subways, buses, taxis and people and suddenly I’m in something that is completely foreign to me. After you pass a certain point in the Arctic, it’s all ice and snow. There are no signs of day-to-day living. You realize you can really be alone.”  

At the Pole, the pleas of naysayers were forever brushed aside by euphoria.

“I can’t begin tell you how many doom and gloomers I encountered. It never ended. I cannot describe the feeling of elation, pride and joy I felt. The other part of it was all the people throughout the United States who were supportive. It was not Barbara Hillary doing it, but all the people who gave me that vote of confidence,” she says.

Back in New York, Hillary’s determination to reach her goal became even more evident. She offers, “I had a tear in a tendon in my shoulder when I went to the Pole. I kept my mouth shut. I know when you focus on something negative, everyone is watching. This way no one had to give me any special treatment or make special provisions or think ‘maybe she can’t do it.’”

A role model

When the New York weather turns cold, relatively, compared to what she experienced in the Arctic, Hillary wears her expedition jacket. In the media capital of the world, she’s recognized.

“I re-live the experience almost every day from another point of view. When people I don’t know come up and say I saw you on television, I have a tendency to look behind – it’s not me, it must be someone behind me. It was an added honor and bonus that I haven’t thought about. A young man from Louisiana wrote to me and asked for a picture. I was so touched,” Hillary says.

Today, Hillary is looking for speaking engagements, contemplating a book and planning her next adventure.