"It's ironic," laughed Helen Thayer, author of the best-selling Polar Dream, as she stepped to the microphone and set aside her walking cane to give the keynote address at the Mountaineers' Backcountry Expo earlier this month. "I have to tell you, the Arctic is nowhere near as dangerous as driving around Seattle; the polar bears aren't as bad as the cars."
Thayer should know. On her historic, 364-mile, 27-day solo ski trek to the magnetic North Pole in 1988, she and her husky Charlie faced down numerous aggressive polar bears. More recently, she was involved in a serious car accident and told she wouldn't walk again. Evidently the doctor didn't know whom he was talking to. Last year, achieving a longtime dream, Thayer limped—her words—1,423 miles across the length of the Gobi desert.
Thayer, 50 at the time of the solo Arctic trek, was the first woman to solo to a pole. While the journey falls squarely into the overloaded category of exploration "firsts," Thayer's genuinely thrilling story comes with a straightforward message: Set goals, plan for success, and go for it, no matter how old or who you are.
"A goal without a plan is simply a dream, and it won't come to pass. Once you set goals, out of that comes perseverance. You solve problems as you go, and from there you gain confidence," an ebullient Thayer repeated often during the slide show.
On the second day out, Thayer came face-to-face with her first polar bear, a hungry female with two cubs in tow.
"It was not an Arctic welcoming committee at all! They had given me the silliest advice: Don't be afraid. I was sure they could hear my heart beating back at base camp," Thayer recounted. "I was scared to death."
"Charlie was foaming at the mouth, leaping at his tether. I was impressed. So was the polar bear; she left after 30 minutes."
Thayer wasn't exactly a bandwagon explorer when she skied from Resolute, in the Northwest Territories, to the magnetic pole. Mentored by family friend Sir Edmund Hilary (yes, the Everest guy) while growing up in New Zealand, she was climbing by age 9 and has summited Mount Rainier 21 times. It was in 1986, while atop 24,590-foot Mount Communism in Tajikistan, that she realized pretty pictures weren't enough.
"I decided I needed to share my stories with children and help educate them about the world."
For 12 years Thayer, a Snohomish resident, has worked to "bring the four corners of the world back to the classroom" and has spoken to over 1 million kids about her expeditions.
For more information, see www.oneearthadventures.com