Barbara Hillary: Blazing a Trail to the Top (and Bottom) of the World

A 75-year-old cancer survivor’s Incredible journey


A retired nurse who survived two bouts of cancer, Barbara Hillary was the first African-American women to reach the North Pole, among other trekking adventures.

In terms of sheer persistence, Barbara Hillary’s is quite a story. Determined to do what no other woman like her had done before, Hillary became the first African-American woman to reach the North Pole. Even more noteworthy, she did it at the age of 75.

She wasn’t the first African American person to set foot on the North Pole. That honor goes to Matthew Henson, whose statue graces the grounds of Camden, New Jersey’s, Shipbuilding and Maritime Museum. He reached the arctic in 1909.

Cancer survivor
But when Hillary realized no African-American woman had followed in his footsteps, she decided to be the first. Never mind that she had no funding, no sponsors and no organizations backing her. And did I mention she had survived breast cancer in her 20s and underwent lung cancer surgery in her 60s that stripped her of 25% of her breathing capacity?

The Barbara Hillary website documents her worldwide travels.

Her gutsy plan required that she learn to ski, something she had never done. To quote an interview with The Seattle Times, “it wasn’t a popular sport in Harlem,” where she grew up. So she took cross-country skiing lessons and hired a personal trainer. Changed her diet and began eating more vegetables. Increased her vitamin intake and worked out with weights. And long before anyone had heard of Kickstarter or GoFundMe, she raised $25,000 to cover her equipment and transportation expenses, mostly through donations.

Now, contrary to what we’ve heard about Santa and his eight reindeer, there’s no easy way into or out of the North Pole. So Hillary signed on for an expedition with Eagles Cry Adventures outfitter to be set down by helicopter at a Norwegian base camp about 30 miles from her destination. There, a second helicopter picked her up and deposited her within skiing distance of the North Pole, where she set off with a guide.

2007 at the Pole
Her vision distorted by sun glinting off ice that was constantly shifting beneath her feet, and struggling with 50 pounds of gear, the 75-year-old Hillary couldn’t contain her excitement when she reached the top of the world in April of 2007. She recalled, “I was screaming, jumping up and down for the first few minutes.” In her joy, she stripped off her gloves, winding up with a few frostbitten fingers. She had become one of the oldest people — and the first black woman — to set foot on the North Pole.

New Yorker Barbara Hillary went from a Harlem childhood to international celebrity as an adventurer and environmental advocate.

But Barbara Hillary was never one to rest on her laurels. So four years later, in 2011, at the age of 79, she became the first black woman to stand on the South Pole, in part to give “all the people who didn’t believe in me the one-two punch!” This time she took plenty of milk chocolate with her. After all, “if I had frozen to death down there, wouldn’t it be sad if I’d gone to hell without getting what I want?” she told The New York Times.

Outer Mongolia
Hillary had initially undertaken her travels for the thrill of experiencing exotic, far-flung landscapes. But when she began to see firsthand what climate change was doing to the planet, she started giving public lectures on the subject. In her 87th year, despite being ill, she traveled to Outer Mongolia to meet a nomadic tribe whose lifestyle was being threatened by the desert steadily encroaching on the grassy plains known as the Mongolian steppes where, in the 13th century, Genghis Khan once ruled.

Barbara Hillary was born in 1931 in Manhattan. Her parents had traveled from South Carolina to New York to give Hillary and her sister the benefits of a better education. But after her father died when she was just two years old, her mother went to work cleaning houses, and raised her daughters as a single mother in Harlem.

Always an avid reader, Hillary was especially drawn to books about adventurers who survived the most extreme circumstances, Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe being one her favorites. She once described those growing-up years in Harlem as being “sub-Depression poor.” But thanks to her books, “there was no such thing as mental poverty in our home.”

Bachelor’s and master’s degrees
She graduated from the New School for Social Research (now known as New School University) after majoring in gerontology and earning both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees before deciding to become a nurse. Putting her studies to good use, she focused her practice on improving staff development in nursing homes to meet the expectations of an aging population. She practiced nursing for 55 years before retiring.

As a community activist, she founded the Arverne Action Association in Far Rockaway, New York, with a mission to improve residents’ lives, and founded The Peninsula Magazine, a multiracial, non-profit, community-focused magazine, serving as its editor in chief.

The same year she reached the North Pole, she shared tips for living a good life with The New Yorker magazine: “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 when chosen to deliver the commencement address at her alma mater in 2017, she offered new graduates this bit of advice: “At every phase in your life, look at your options. Please, do not select boring ones.”

Congressional resolution
Barbara Hillary may not have a statue commemorating her accomplishments — at least not yet. But she was no stranger to honors and awards. In 2007, the United States House of Representatives passed House Resolution 466, recognizing and honoring her achievement in reaching the North Pole. One year later, she received the Woman of Courage Award from the National Organization of Women.

Barbara Hillary took her own advice and never chose boring. She dreamed big and lived large, stood at the top (and the bottom) of the world, and never let the world define her. But after a decline in her health, she died in November 2019 at the age of 88 in a hospital in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York, “in the season of 24-hour sun in the South Pole,” according to her death announcement.

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