Everybody knows the iconic “Just Do It” Nike swoosh logo. And for adventurer Barbara Hillary, she “just did it,” and became the first African-American woman to stand on top of the world at the North Pole in April, 2007. By the way, she was 75 years , as well as a former cancer survivor. She’s definitely replaced the term “getting older” with “getting BOLDER.” This human dynamo lives a “can do” attitude that’s a wonderful lesson for all generations.
As one of my “women of vision,” what inspires me is her relentless quest to stretch herself to new possibilities.
Barbara is truly someone who smashes through boundaries—but she did it, anyway!
She smashed through the boundary of age: she was 75 years old.
She smashed through the boundary of gender: she was the first black woman to achieve this goal.
She smashed through the boundary of physical limitation: she was a kung-cancer survivor, with no prior experience on skis.
And most importantly, she smashed through the boundary of dream-stealing: she repeatedly scaled walls of indifference among many in the black community, and even a brush-off form letter from New York City Mayor Bloomberg to just settle for passive senior existence.
After a long career as a nurse, and community activist, she pursued an interest in arctic travel, with dog sledding in Quebec, and photographing bears in Montana.
When she learned that no black female had ever made it to the North Pole, she asked herself, “What’s wrong with this picture? So, I sort of rolled into this.” For her, it was a natural progression from the previous expeditions. This was generally out of the realm of experiences, but that just was her push—to bring it into her experience.
Embracing the challenge, she prepared rigorously mentally, financially, and physically, six to nine months prior, working with a professional which put her in prime physical condition.
Growing up in 1930’s Harlem, Barbara was raised never to be affected by mental poverty—the “woe is me” syndrome. Her widowed mother, Viola Jones Hillary, instilled in her two daughters a solid sense of excellence, high standards, and the right to be a free thinker. She credits her mother as the heroine in her life, being the ever-present compass to surpass herself.
The North Pole trip was arranged though a Georgia-based company, Eagles Cry Adventures, Inc., at a cost of about $22,000. People can experience the North Pole by polar skydiving jumps, being dropped off via helicopter, or taking a cross-country ski trip.
On April 16, 2007, she said good-bye to friends at Newark Airport, and asked herself for the first time,”Barbara, have out lost your mind?”
Accompanied by two experienced guides, she survived numerous factors that would daunt many experienced trekkers: possible frostbite, looming polar bears, and constantly shifting ice. But on April 23, she made it to the top of the Geographic North Pole! Her commentary of that historic moment was “….incredibly beautiful and quiet…it almost describes description.”
By the way, in her continuing journey for fully living life, she also reached the South Pole on January 31, 20011, making her the first black female to reach both Poles. As a side note, she was 79 years old, maintaining a sense of wry humor, along with a “what’s next?” curiosity.
She states: “I’m not a little old lady, but an older Northern explorer….to be old is not to be mindless, useless, and sexless. To be old, is to be in control.”
You go, Barbara—we need more like you out there!