Barbara Hillary, the first black woman on record to reach the North Pole, which she did at the age of 75, and the first to reach the South Pole, at the age of 79, died on Saturday in a hospital in Far Rockaway, Queens. She was 88.
Her death was announced on her website. A post on her Twitter account said her health had been declining in recent months. She had breast cancer in her 20s and lung cancer in her 60s.
It was not until 1986 that any woman had reached the top of the world, with Ann Bancroft, a physical education teacher and explorer from Minnesota, becoming the first. The first black man there was Matthew Henson, who, along with Robert Peary, set foot on the North Pole in 1909.
Ms. Hillary had retired from a 55-year career as a nurse when, seeking adventure, she went dog sledding in Quebec and photographed polar bears in Manitoba. She then learned that no African-American woman had ever made it to the North Pole and challenged herself to become the first, though she had no funding and no organization behind her and had lost 25 per cent of her breathing capacity from surgery for her lung cancer.
The expedition would require her to ski, which she had also never done before. “It wasn’t a popular sport in Harlem,” where she had grown up, she told The Seattle Times in 2007.
In preparation for the trek, she took cross-country skiing lessons and hired a personal trainer. She started eating more vegetables, increased her vitamin intake and worked out with weights. And she raised the necessary US$25,000, mostly through donations, for equipment and transportation.
There are a limited number of ways to reach the North Pole, which is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, where the waters are almost permanently covered with shifting sea ice. Ms. Hillary signed on for an expedition with Eagles Cry Adventures, an outfitter, and was deposited by helicopter at a Norwegian base camp about 50 kilometres from the North Pole.
On April 23, 2007, another helicopter took her to a point on the ice that was “within skiing distance of the North Pole,” Ms. Hillary told The New Yorker magazine later that year, and she set off with a guide.
The Seattle Times reported: “As the sunlight glinted off the ice, distorting her vision, Hillary struggled beneath a load of gear and pressed on. In her euphoria at reaching the Pole, she forgot the cold and removed her gloves, causing her fingers to become frostbitten.”
Hillary told The New Yorker: “I have never experienced such sheer joy and excitement. I was screaming, jumping up and down, for the first few minutes.”
The expedition only whetted her appetite for more. Four years later, on Jan. 6, 2011, she stood at the South Pole.
Ms. Hillary initially took these treks for the thrill of it, and to enjoy the beauty of the landscape, but she came to understand that climate change was wreaking havoc on the planet, not least its polar extremities, and began lecturing on the topic. She also became a motivational speaker.
This year, at 87, she ventured to Outer Mongolia, where she visited a nomadic tribe whose rural way of life was disappearing because of climate change and the desertification of the steppes.
These expeditions were not without their creature comforts. At the South Pole, for example, she indulged – perhaps overindulged – her love of milk chocolate. As she told The New York Times in 2011, “If I had frozen to death down there, wouldn’t it be sad if I’d gone to hell without getting what I want?”
Barbara Hillary was born on June 12, 1931, in Manhattan. Her father died when she was 2. Her mother, Viola Jones Hillary, had migrated to New York in the 1930s from South Carolina to give Barbara and her sister, Dorothy, the chance for a good education. Earning her living by cleaning houses, she raised her daughters by herself in Harlem.
Barbara loved to read and was drawn to books about surviving in extreme circumstances. Robinson Crusoe was one of her favorites.
“We were poor,” Ms. Hillary said in 2017, when she gave the commencement address at the New School (formerly the New School for Social Research), her alma mater. “We were Depression-poor, but there was no such thing as mental poverty in our home.”
As a New School student, Ms. Hillary majored in gerontology and earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the subject before becoming a nurse.
In Far Rockaway, she founded the Arverne Action Association, which sought to improve life in that neighborhood. She also founded The Peninsula Magazine, which covered the Rockaways, and was its editor-in-chief.
In addition to working as a nurse, Ms. Hillary sometimes drove a taxi, Deborah Bogosian, a friend, told 1010 WINS radio in New York. She also had an appreciation for “archery, guns and knives, big trucks and big dogs,” Ms. Bogosian said, and grew roses and tomatoes.
In 2007, Ms. Hillary shared with The New Yorker some of her tips for living a good life: “One, mind your own business; two, maintain a sense of humor; and three, tell an individual to go to hell when it’s needed.”
And she had this bit of advice for New School graduates when she spoke at their commencement: “At every phase in your life, look at your options. Please, do not select boring ones.”