Lifetime Awardee Helen Thayer, 81, Continues “To Be a Work in Progress” Trekking the World

Helen Thayer on her first solo expedition to the North Pole with her dog Charlie. Photo courtesy Helen Thayer

Helen Thayer on her first solo expedition to the North Pole with her dog Charlie. Photo courtesy Helen Thayer

Helen Thayer spent her early years in New Zealand racking up athletic records – she was an international discus player, a US national luge champion, and an avid skier. Then at the age of 50 she turned her love of adventure and the outdoors into a new set of records, beginning with her first solo expedition – and becoming the first woman to walk solo – to the Magnetic North Pole without a resupply or any outside support. She went on to accomplish a number of extraordinary feats, including being the first woman to walk across the Sahara and Gobi Deserts, being the first non-Indian woman to kayak 2,200 miles of the Amazon River, and living above the Arctic Circle for a year to document the daily life of a wolf den. Her accomplishments, character and courage earned her the 2014 WINGS Lifetime Achievement Award.

Now at the age of 81, Thayer continues to travel the world on expeditions, proving that “people with vision can Live Life Without Limits.” She shares her experiences and explorer’s mindset through her Adventure Classroom program, launched in 1988 to inspire a new generation of students of the natural world.

WINGS WORLDQUEST: You were granted the WINGS WorldQuest Lifetime Award in 2014. Can you tell us about some of the highlights of your life and career since that time?

HELEN THAYER: Since that time, I was invited to tour several European countries to present my programs, especially my signature program telling the story of my solo un-resupplied ski trek to the magnetic North Pole when I became the first woman to do so. Kayaking the Amazon was also a popular program in Europe. I was invited to the White House under the Obama administration for my work in education that I combine with exploration of the four corners of the world. Later I returned to Africa to stay with the Bushmen for one month to add more information to Adventure Classroom regarding indigenous cultures.

WWQ: Can you tell us about your work with Adventure Classroom? Can you tell us more about what you’re doing?

HT: I continue to be a work in progress as I continue to trek through and study America’s National Parks. In November 2017 on my 80th birthday I began a trek of the full length of Death Valley pulling all of my supplies and water behind me in a cart that I called Molly. The starting weight of the load was 185 pounds. The trek was 212 miles. Because I began at the extreme far north of the northern border, I am told that I am the first person to complete the trek of the absolute full length of Death Valley. I returned a year later to again complete the trek, but with my shepherd/golden retriever dog, Sam. This began my goal of exploring National Parks, returning with a technical report, a report of Sam’s and my trek, photography of the Park and, with the assistance of Adventure Classroom technical staff, videos of each Park Sam and I visit. I will write a children’s book about each Park as I visit and trek each one. So far, I have completed three National Parks: Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and Craters of the Moon. Many school classrooms are downloading the videos that can be seen on the website, In 2020 I shall complete three more Parks and continue on each year thereafter with educational programs and children’s books. The goal is to make students aware of America’s amazing natural resource, the National Parks, some of the best in the world, and to inspire students to go outdoors, hike trails, and learn about and appreciate these natural wonders.

WWQ: What advice do you have for women who want to be explorers?

HT: Think about what you really want to explore and what your work can do for others so that young people will be inspired to strike out and make a difference. Once you have set a goal, always plan in detail. A goal without a plan is only a dream!! Ignore those who are negative and press on, always seeing yourself as being successful and providing groundwork for others to follow.

WWQ: How do you think the landscape for women working in the sciences has changed since you first became a Fellow? Do you feel women are still encountering the same obstacles?

HT: Women still meet the occasional stumbling block. But when women stick together and support each other, we present an insurmountable obstacle to those who might doubt our abilities. I find that – as I grow older and continue to be a work in progress – society, including men, accept me as an equal. I truly believe that as long as we set goals, plan well, go out and get the job done, women will continue to become a compelling strength in science and, indeed, any field we choose.

WWQ: Has becoming a WINGS Fellow benefited your career?

HT: Becoming a WINGS Fellow was an important step and honor in my career. It gave me increased recognition and credibility, and helped create an atmosphere of greater acceptance by society and by my male counterparts.

WWQ: Is there anything else you would like us to know?

HT: I intend to continue creating educational projects for Adventure Classroom and, in particular, explore America’s National Parks to bring awareness to students of these amazing places. I want to encourage them to gain educational knowledge. I want to inspire young people to go outdoors and hike and camp in these places, look around and see the geology, the flora and fauna, and gain the desire to protect America’s environment. I want to inspire students to be the best they can be and always believe in success and go out and make the world a better place. I believe that, as women continue to make an impact on society, we can encourage young people to follow. WINGS is an important organization that can help and encourage women of all ages to make a difference.

At 80, Helen Thayer trekked the 225-mile length of Death Valley with her dog, Sam. Photo courtesy Helen Thayer

At 80, Helen Thayer trekked the 225-mile length of Death Valley with her dog, Sam. Photo courtesy Helen Thayer

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