Thayer, Helen (b. 1937), Sportswoman, Explorer

  • By Kate Kershner
  • Posted 8/12/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9848

Helen Thayer was the first woman and oldest person to make a solo journey to the magnetic North Pole. She competed internationally as a world-class discus thrower, and in 1975 became the U.S. National Champion in the ice-sledding sport luge. Since retiring from competitive sport, she has spent her life exploring some of the most challenging places on the planet in order to gain greater understanding of both the environment and indigenous cultures. In 1994, Thayer and her husband, Bill Thayer, spent a year living with wolves in the Canadian Yukon. In 1996 they walked the Sahara Desert and in 2001 they walked 1,600 miles across the Gobi desert. They later returned to the Sahara, walking 900 miles on an ancient trade route through four countries. Helen Thayer has been named one of National Geographic's "25 Great Sportswomen of the 20th Century," honored by the Clinton White House, and named by the University of Washington as one of the state's "100 women Who Have Made a Difference." She lives near Snohomish with her husband.

A Born Athlete

Helen Thayer was born outside Auckland, New Zealand, in 1937. Her parents, Ray and Margaret Nicholson, operated a 10,000-acre sheep and cattle ranch outside Auckland. Her mother, a tennis player, and her father, a soccer player, were both active in New Zealand's outdoors adventures, and encouraged Helen to take up their passion. "They were great goal setters, go-getters and great planners," says Thayer of her parents (Striping, 2007).

They were uninterested in the more constricted gender roles of the times. "They told me at a very early age, just because you're a girl doesn't mean to say you can't do what you want. Decide what you want to do and do it right" (Kershner interview).

At the age of 9, Thayer climbed her first mountain -- Mount Egmont (now Taranaki), a dormant volcano in New Zealand with a height of 8,200 feet. "It was a big climb for a 9-year-old," Thayer said recalling her first foray into extreme outdoor experience. "It sort of sealed my lifestyle as an outdoor person" (Brown).

Luckily for Thayer, it wasn't just her parents who encouraged her development as an athlete. The headmaster of Thayer's high school was Leslie "Dan" Bryant, a mountaineer who had attempted Mt. Everest in 1935, and was a well-known Kiwi climber.

It also didn't hurt that Sir Edmund Hillary (1919-2008), a fellow New Zealand native and part of the first known party to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, was a family friend of Thayer's. Thayer took climbing lessons from Hillary, and accompanied him on climbing trips during her adolescence -- experiences that left a strong impression.

"I just had a wonderful childhood," Thayer says. "I don't know how it could have been any better" (Brown).

Thayer went on to study laboratory medicine in college at Auckland. She graduated in 1961.

Marriage and Throwing the Discus

A year later, she met Bill Thayer, a helicopter pilot from Needles, California. Bill had been hired as an aerial agricultural sprayer on Helen's parents' farm.

They married in 1962. They decided early on that because of the dangers of Bill's job as a pilot, and Helen's ambitions as an athlete, children were not a priority in their marriage. In fact, Helen's goals were no pipe dream; she competed in the Commonwealth Games that year, throwing discus.

Shortly after their marriage, the Thayers moved to Guatemala, where Bill worked as an agricultural sprayer and Helen honed her skills throwing discus. She competed in the Caribbean Games for Guatemala.

In 1965, the Thayers moved to Washington state, where they owned and operated a dairy farm. But it wasn't all farming; by that time, Helen was the third best discus thrower in the country, with a personal best of 204 feet.

Thayer's sense of exploration -- even between sports -- kicked in again in 1972 after watching a luge race on television. Craving the adrenaline and speed this fast ice-sledding sport offered, she took up it up. As usual, Thayer had no interest in a mere hobby. In 1975, after just three years of luge, she won the United States National Championship.

After a few years they sold the dairy farm. Helen started teaching skiing in the nearby Cascades (and working part time in a hospital lab). Bill went back to flying.

Journey to the North Pole

In 1986 Thayer was inspired to explore some of the world's most remote places. Both Bill and Helen took up the cause with a signature zeal, as they kayaked through 1,200 miles of Amazon rain forest and walked 2,400 miles through the Sahara Desert.

It was during a mountain climbing expedition in Tajikistan in 1986 that Helen first decided to solo to the magnetic North Pole. Over the course of two years, the Thayers managed to save $10,000 for the cost of the expedition; a miniscule amount, compared to the millions of dollars previous explorers (with sled teams and companies) had spent.

The 364-mile journey started from Polaris, Canada, and traveled north to King Christian Island. From there, Thayer traveled seven days south to meet up with her transport back.

The area was heavily populated by polar bears, and Thayer's solo journey skiing through the area made her an easy (and slow) mark for bears that were always on the lookout for an easy dinner. A few days before she set out on her journey, an Inuit in the area offered her a 94-pound husky mix. The jet black dog, whom Thayer named Charlie, was trained by the Inuits to warn humans about the presence of polar bears and to attack approaching bears.

The journey took 27 days and Thayer pulled a 160-pound sled the entire way. Seven days from the end of her trip, a storm blew away her food supply, leaving Charlie with half-rations for the remainder of the trip, and Helen with only five walnuts and a pint of water each day.

She calls the Pole trip the most "all around challenging" adventure she has had; no small feat, considering her next two decades (Kershner interview). She published a book, Polar Dream, about the expedition.

After Thayer's North Pole Expedition, she founded Adventure Classroom, a non-profit educational program for students. Thayer's experiences, writing, and photography provide the basis for lectures, lessons, and teaching tools. "I want them to say, if she can do it, I can do it," says Thayer of her involvement with young students (Kershner interview).

Wintering With Wolves

In 1994, the Thayers decided to spend a year living in the Northwest Territories and Canadian Yukon close to a pack of wolves, observing not just their social behavior within a pack, but also what the Thayers saw as a distinct pattern of food-sharing behavior with other species in their habitat.

Taking Charlie as a go-between (himself a great-great-grandson of an Arctic Gray wolf), they lived 100 feet from the entrance of the wolf den in the summer months, where the wolves accepted them as neighbors. The story became the basis for her book, Three Among the Wolves. She became an advocate for wolves, describing their care for each other and noting that they hunted mainly ill or old animals (and were thus not depleting herds of moose or elk that humans hunted), 

Hiking and Exploring

In 1995, Thayer walked a total of 1,500 miles through Death Valley and the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.

And, in a (not so pleasant) contrast to the desert, she spent her 60th birthday on a solo walk in Antarctica. She celebrated with a frozen cupcake.

Thayer returned to her place of birth in 1999 and walked 1,200 miles across New Zealand to study the Maori culture.

"For us, it's terribly important to be curious about other people and to know what they're doing," Thayer said in 2007. "Just because they're different doesn't mean they're less. Sometimes they're a whole lot more, a whole lot more" (Stripling, 2007).

Awards and Honors

Helen Thayer has been honored as an explorer and as an athlete. Her awards include the following:

  • 2010 University of Washington chose Helen as one of Washington state's "100 Women Who Have Made a Difference."
  • 2010 inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame, Snohomish County
  • 2006 recipient of the Explorers Club Vancouver Award for the pursuit of knowledge and exploration
  • 2005 member of Washington State's Parade of Star Athletes
  • In 2002 Helen was named "One of the Great Explorers of the 20th Century" by National Geographic
  • President Bill Clinton and Hilary Clinton invited Helen Thayer to the White House on March 4, 1999, for a reception honoring "Pioneer Women in Sports." 
  • August 12, 1999 the National Geographic Alaska Alliance awarded Helen the Robert A. Henning Geography Education Award "In recognition of Your Tireless Efforts In Sharing World Geography With Students"
  • In 2000, Helen Thayer was a subject of National Geographic's book Women in Exploration.
  • "The Helen Thayer Award" named in Helen's honor and awarded annually for "Excellence in Student Education, Community and Business Service."
  • 1999 Women in Communication "Women of Achievement Award"
  • 1998 Washington state award for work with "Children's Education and Community Service".
  • 1997 "Sports Legend" award, Washington State
  • 1994 Winner of the Business & Professional Women's Award for her "Community Service in Motivating Students to Better Life Styles."
  • 1990 Team Leader of the first Soviet-American Women's Arctic Expedition
  • 1989 "Woman Athlete of the Year", Snohomish County
  • 1988 Winner of the American Mountain Foundation "Outstanding Achievement" Award
  • 1975 United States National Champion for the sport of luge
  • 1965 to 1975 National Champion and record holder in Track and Field and Luge During this time, Helen represented three countries. New Zealand, Guatemala, and the United States ) on national teams in international competition in track and field and luge.

Gobi Desert Days

But Helen Thayer was not ready to rest on her laurels. In 2001, she and her husband had another adventure in mind.

Helen and Bill (ages 63 and 74 in 2001, respectively) were in their 40th year of marriage. Both intrigued and curious about nomadic culture, they decided their anniversary trip would be a 1,600 mile trek across the Mongolian part of Gobi Desert, located in Mongolia and China. Like many of Thayer's adventures, this one came from a seed planted early in life (at age 13), when a teacher at Pukekohe High School in New Zealand described the Gobi in a lesson.

Accompanied by two camels (named by the Thayers Tom and Jerry) who carried the supplies on their back, the couple confronted not just the predictable thirst, scorpions, and extreme sandstorms; they also contended with dangerous smugglers and the constant threat of accidentally crossing the border into a hostile China. Thayer wrote the book Walking the Gobi detailing their adventure.

Audacious and Rare

The Thayers are rare adventurers. "You have to admire their audacity," said Ed Sobey, Ph.D., chair of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of The Explorers Club. Sobey calls them "deceptive adventurers" (Stripling, 2007). "If you saw them on the street, you'd never pick them out as world-class explorers," he says (Stripling, 2007).

Thayer, at the age of 74, still has a sizable list of places she'd like to explore with her husband, now 85. Ethiopia, Bhutan, Tibet, and the Congo are all of interest. And just to show they still have plenty of adventure in them, the Thayers just spent their 50th anniversary trekking 700 miles across the Sahara, to produce another Adventure Classroom program studying cultures around the globe.


Sources: Helen Thayer, Polar Dream (Troutdale, Oregon: NewSage Press, 2002); Helen Thayer, Three Among The Wolves (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2004); Helen Thayer, Walking the Gobi (Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2007); Kate Kershner interview with Helen Thayer, May 29, 2011, Seattle, audio file in possession of Kate Kershner, Seattle; Sherry Stripling, "North Stars," The Seattle Times, January 19, 1989 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/).; Rebekah Denn, "Leg Injury Cuts Short Trek to South Pole," The Seattle Times, November 27, 1997 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/); Diane Wright, "Marriage Has Been an Adventure," The Seattle Times, June 23, 2004 (seattletimes.com); Sherry Stripling, "Honey, Let's Go For A Walk," The Seattle Times, October 10, 2007 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/); David Brown, "At the Wolf's Door; With a Dog To Break The Ice, A Couple Moves in Next to Some Really Wild Neighbors," The Washington Post, December 23, 2004, p. C-1; KSER radio interview with Helen Thayer, October 10, 2001, KSER website accessed June 17, 2011 (http://kser.org/); Helen Thayer website accessed June 18, 2011 (http://www.helenthayer.com/).

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