Getting to Know NZ Explorer Helen Thayer
Helen Thayer left New Zealand in 1961 after marrying American helicopter pilot Bill, first living in Guatemala and Honduras, before settling in the United States. But, interviewed via email from her home at the foothills of Seattle’s Cascade Mountains, Thayer assures New Zealand Herald journalist Stephanie Holmes she is still very much a New Zealander.
“I will always be a Kiwi and intensely proud of it,” Thayer, 79, writes. “I have travelled, so far, to 36 countries and have decided that there is no better country in the world than our own.
Growing up on a farm in Whitford, near Howick, Thayer’s childhood was “very outdoorsy”. She had “great parents” who inspired her love of adventure. Another major influence in her life was family friend Ed.
That’s Sir Edmund Hillary to the rest of us.
“He was one of my childhood mentors. He was a truly kind and generous man.”
At the age of 9, Thayer climbed Mt Taranaki with her parents and Hillary. She cites this as the moment she realised her future was in adventure and expedition.
As she excelled in her athletics career (she has represented New Zealand, Guatemala and the United States in international track and field), she realised competing against others wasn’t her main driver. She was more interested in achieving personal goals. She went back to mountain climbing and, aged 50, became the first woman to travel solo to the Magnetic North Pole.
“It was very difficult,” she writes. “I was a pioneer for women in polar travel on foot and ski. There was no equipment available and little information. That made the challenge all the more worthwhile.
“Polar bears were a constant threat and to be alone among them on foot was a formidable challenge. However, I am very happy I made the journey. It opened up a whole new world of writing, public speaking and many other expeditions.”
These have included walking across the Sahara along a 6440km trade route from Morocco to the Nile River; walking 2575km across the Mongolian Gobi Desert; becoming the first non-indigenous woman to kayak 3540km along the Amazon River; living alongside a wolf den for more than six months in the Yukon; and together with Bill, becoming the first couple to travel unsupported to the Magnetic North Pole.
For her next adventure, she wants to walk across Australia’s deserts.
“I am still a work in progress with no plans to retire,” she writes. “We are what we think we are. I think I’m still 38 going on 39. I still have many more hundreds of miles to walk and mountains to climb. And more programmes to produce for Adventure Classroom.”
The latter, a not-for-profit organisation she and Bill founded, educates and inspires students to explore the world and “embrace integrity, demonstrate courage, and assume responsibility for their actions”.
Original article by Stephanie Holmes, New Zealand Herald, March 7, 2017.