boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

Intrepid cancer survivor, 75, skis to top of the world

May be 1st black woman to make it to North Pole

Barbara Hillary, 75, showed the parka she wore to the North Pole. She is one of the oldest people to complete the trek. (Richard Drew/associated press)

NEW YORK -- The bone-numbing trek to the North Pole is rife with perils that would make a seasoned explorer quake: Frostbite threatens, polar bears loom, and the ice is constantly shifting beneath frozen feet.

But Barbara Hillary took it all in stride, completing the trip last month at the age of 75. She is one of the oldest people to reach the North Pole, and is believed to be the first black woman on record to accomplish the feat.

Hillary, of Averne, N.Y., grew up in Harlem and devoted herself to a nursing career and community activism. At 67 and during retirement, she battled lung cancer. Five years later, she went dog sledding in Quebec and photographed polar bears in Manitoba.

Then she heard that a black woman had never made it to the North Pole.

"I said, 'What's wrong with this picture?' " she said. "So I sort of rolled into this, shall we say."

Hillary made the trip through Eagles Cry Adventures Inc., a Georgia-based travel company that leads thrill-seekers like Hillary to the farthest corners of the globe.

Paying customers can be taken to the North Pole in various ways, including cross-country ski trips from four to 18 days, polar skydiving jumps, or simply being dropped off at the Pole via helicopter. The trip costs about $21,000 per person.

Hillary insisted on skiing, even though she had never been on the slopes before. "It wasn't a popular sport in Harlem," she quipped.

So she enrolled in cross-country skiing lessons and hired a personal trainer, who finally determined that she was physically fit for the expedition.

"She's a headstrong woman. You don't tell her 'no' about too many things," said Robert Russell, founder of Eagles Cry Adventures.

Her lack of funds didn't stop her, either. Hillary scraped together thousands of dollars and solicited private donors.

On April 18, she arrived in Longyearben, Norway, where it is common for people to carry guns to ward off hungry polar bears.

"Before I arrived, the word was out that soul food was coming," she joked.

The travelers were then flown to the base camp -- which is rebuilt each year due to melting ice -- and pitched their tents.

On April 23 Hillary set off on skis with two trained guides. Russell, fearing for her health, had persuaded her to take the daylong ski route to the Pole in lieu of the longer trips.

As the sunlight glinted off the ice, distorting her gaze, Hillary struggled beneath a load of gear and pressed on. In her euphoria at reaching the Pole, she forgot the cold and removed her gloves, causing her fingers to become frostbitten.

Standing at the top of the world, she couldn't have cared less. The enormous expanse of ice and sky left Hillary, for once in her long life, speechless.

In 1909, Matthew A. Henson, a native of Maryland, made history as the first black man to reach the North Pole, though his accomplishment was not officially recognized for decades.

Henson's feat was overshadowed by the presence of his white colleague, Navy Commander Robert E. Peary, who led the expedition that climaxed with the discovery of the Pole on April 6, 1909 . Peary and Henson used dogsleds, driven by Inuits.

Ann Bancroft, a physical education teacher from Minnesota, was the North Pole's first female visitor in 1986 as a member of the Steger Polar Expedition, which arrived unassisted in a re-creation of the 1909 trip.

Various scientific organizations said no record exists of a black woman matching Bancroft's feat, although such record-keeping is not perfect.

"It's not like there's a guest book when you get up there and you sign it," Russell said.

He interviewed fellow polar expedition contractors and dug through history books, but failed to find a black woman who had completed the trek.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES