Helen Thayer has been named by the National Geographic Society as one of the most important explorers of the 20th century. In 1988, at the age of 50, she walked alone (aside from Charlie, her canine escort) to the magnetic North Pole. She and her husband Bill, and again Charlie, lived for a year in the Arctic among wolves, essentially becoming part of that extremely exclusive society. They trekked the Sahara and the Amazon, and Helen soloed again in Antarctica. The kicker, of course, is that she will likely also be considered one of the most important explorers of the 21st century. In 2001 Helen and Bill walked across the Gobi Desert, and are preparing to spend this summer walking across Central and South Africa, and are beginning a project that will take them across China and Tibet on foot.
“My outdoor life really began when I was 9, when I climbed my first mountain with my parents,” says Thayer, who was born in New Zealand but now lives with her husband in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in rural Washington. Childhood inspiration came from a fellow New Zealander. “Edmund Hillary, the first person to summit Everest, he was a close family friend. I realized the importance of setting goals. I find that a positive attitude toward life, making plans, going out and achieving, that life is a lot happier. Life has got more meaning to it. And a positive attitude, really, is the forerunner of good health and happiness. I really believe that.”
Adding meaning and importance to Thayer’s accomplishments is the fact that she is able to bring them back in the form of powerful words and photographs. Her books (Polar Dream, Three Among the Wolves, Walking the Gobi) function as documentary records of her travels and the exotic cultures in which she immerses herself. They are also fairly thrilling to read. Indiana Jones takes on a poofy Mother Goose air when you imagine this woman alone above the Arctic Circle, who is not only dodging charging polar bears, but is dodging charging polar bears while she takes stunning photographs of them.
“The images do have a visual impact,” says Thayer. “I can tell the story, but if they can see it happening, it comes alive to them.”
Thayer was a high-altitude climber before soloing to the poles, and she honed her photography skills on those climbs. Those two facts made her doubly unusual in the world of adventurers of that era. Mostly for want of opportunity in a sport that descended from the misogynistic mists of British public schools, it was extremely rare for a woman to have the skills and stamina to be self-sufficient in a technical climbing situation. And it was extremely rare for a photographer to actually be able to climb. If an expedition justified professional photography, both the photographer and his or her gear were pretty much considered baggage by the rest of the team. (There are notable exceptions, of course—your Galen Rowells and Ace Kvales. And they remain easy to name because they were so sparse.)
“I was a high-altitude climber and taking photos,” says Thayer. “But then I really fine-tuned it when I found I was going to need good photography for Adventure Classroom. I found that it came very naturally.”
What her books are for adults, Thayer’s Adventure Classroom is for kids K-12. When the Thayers are in the field, they post journals and photos and lesson plans online.
“When I walked to the pole it was all film,” she says. “That creates a few problems. Of course you don’t know what you’ve got. Digital is wonderful. You can take a look at what you’ve taken. You don’t have to hope you’ve got it when you get home. And there’s not as much to carry.”
Many of their excursions are filed under descriptors beginning with the word “first.” But the Thayers appear not to be much interested in accumulating superlatives. They are truly curious about other cultures, and seem uniquely able to appreciate the exotic and translate it to those of us less convinced of our expeditionary abilities. They intentionally travel by foot whenever possible, and strive to encounter the locals on local terms. (Thayer is currently learning Swahili and Chinese simultaneously, and already speaks English, German, Spanish, Mongolian, and “a bit of Portuguese.”)
“We find that when we go out and live with another culture it expands our ideas, it gives us greater understanding of other lifestyles, and it gives us enormous respect for people leading other lifestyles,” Thayer says. “Our society tends to judge other cultures. Rather than judge people from afar, we go live among these people and learn about them and bring back information for Adventure Classroom, with the intention of increasing among students inter-cultural respect.”
Now there’s a trophy.