Outdoors: Acclaimed explorer Helen Thayer visits Asheville

In 1988, at age 50, Helen Thayer walked — alone and unsupported — to the magnetic north pole. No aircraft, dog teams or snowmobiles: She walked and skied, pulling a 160-pound sled. Her only companion was Charlie, a black Canadian Eskimo Dog whose job it was to walk at Helen's side and protect her from polar bears. In 1997, Thayer spent her 60th birthday trekking alone in Antarctica. Thayer will be in Asheville and environs May 12-15 (see box).

Artic traveler: Renowed adventurere Helen Thayer pauses with her trusty dog Charlie, who accompanied her on a walk to the magnetic North Pole. Photo courtesy Helen Thayer

Mountain Xpress: How do your adventures relate to your readers' lives?
Helen Thayer:
My expeditions are like life itself. I need to plan carefully before taking the first step. It takes patience and versatility. Regardless of whom we are and what we want to achieve, the same aspects apply. With planning, a dream becomes a goal. My message applies to everyone.

Why do you go on these trips?
I was born in New Zealand and have been climbing mountains since I was 9. My parents were close friends with Sir Edmund Hillary. [In 1953, Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to climb Mount Everest.] My parents and Ed got me started; I got the idea of sharing these adventures with others, and I created [the nonprofit] Adventure Classroom. We produce material for children K-12 based on our travels.

What will you be emphasizing in your talk?
In Asheville, I'll be talking about my second book, Three Among the Wolves. My husband, Bill, and I traveled to the Canadian Yukon, where we lived within 100 feet of a wild wolf den. Our dog, Charlie, became the star, because he's part wolf and was raised with wolves. Without Charlie, we couldn't have done this.

What will be your next adventure?
My husband and I leave in November for Africa. We'll be spending several weeks with the Sukuma tribe, the largest culture in Tanzania. This is our third time in Africa. These tribes don't want tourists. We're respected as elders, but we feel we have nothing to teach them;  they have a lot to teach us.

Were there times when you felt you were going to die?
When I walked to the pole alone, polar bears could have done me in, but Charlie did his job well. We were confronted by seven polar bears, one at a time, and Charlie saved my life more than once.

In the Gobi Desert, we almost died because of lack of water, and I understand that's not a pleasant way to die. We push the envelope but we don't let it fall off the table.

At 72 years of age, do you ever say, "This is my last such trip"?
No. One trip leads to another.

What do you say to older folks who feel they cannot have adventures?
Age is no barrier to setting goals. Retirement is moving from one phase of your life to another. It's never too late to change your way. Get a good pair of walking shoes. Walk and listen to birds, then increase the speed and mileage. Take the dog with you; make it pleasurable. Never say, "Darn, I have to walk." Say, "Wow, I'm going to walk." At home, I stretch, I weight-train and follow a fitness program. I hit the hills hard. I'm constantly working out.

How would you like to be remembered?
That I lived life to the fullest. I emphasize goal setting. We've taken care of ourselves, and that's why we can do these adventures. Kids need to look ahead and make good choices, with an active lifestyle and eating right. How are they going to make a mark in the world? You have to go out and work for it. In order to be successful, you have to figure out what it takes. Am I up to it? You need to plan and know what to do. If Plan A doesn't work, you have to go to Plan B.

[Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Heritage. She can be reached at danny@hikertohiker.com.]

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