By Rebecca Heaton
Helen Thayer explores all corners of the globe to experience its cultures and share them with others.
A woman’s work is never done. Just ask Helen Thayer. The world-renowned explorer and author commits much of her time to her organization, Adventure Classroom. But her job is anything but conventional. She doesn’t sit in an office behind a computer, making phone calls and typing e-mails. Instead, she travels the world to immerse herself in local cultures and, in turn, share those experiences with children to help them understand and respect other people’s lifestyles.
“Ours is not the only way,” Helen says of Western culture. “We’re all caught up in this giant worldwide web and we need to learn to respect each other. We have to understand where you’re coming from, where I’m coming from, and respect that your way is fine, my way is fine, and that we can be friends.” That is why since 1988, when Adventure Classroom was launched, Helen and her husband Bill have undertaken journeys to explore world cultures and wildlife. “We figure out where we want to go, if it is politically safe, and what sort of education program we can bring home to share with the kids,” explains Helen. “Then we set up the logistics.”
Together they have worked with the Maori in New Zealand and nomads in Mongolia. They have trekked with caribou in Alaska, lived among wolves in Canada, and kayaked through the Amazon to visit indigenous people. They have walked almost 8,000 miles across Africa’s Sahara Desert, the Atlas Mountains, and the vast Serengeti plains, and lived with the Maasai, Bushmen, and Datooga tribes. Most recently, they returned from another African expedition in the Sahara where they led four camels on a 700-mile trek with the Berber tribe on an eleventh century historical trade route.
“When we go away, it’s partly a lovely vacation, but it’s really our work and we go to learn and become part of the culture we are visiting so we can bring this back to the kids,” says Helen. “It’s important that we get off the tourist route and get into the thick of things.” By this, Helen refers to how she “joins the woman’s life,” taking on such tasks as finding clean water, carrying it back, finding fire wood, milking the animals, and cooking meals. Bill, on the other hand, “has to act like one of the men and kill the animals.”
Helen credits her and Bill’s ages (she is 74, he is 85) as a big advantage to arranging their cultural immersions. “We are treated as respected elders, so it works well,” she says. “They wouldn’t allow us in to some of the places we’ve explored if we were younger.” She also notes that their age never seems to slow them down. “We still work out and people can’t believe our real ages. They tell us we look 25 to 30 years younger.”
The couple resides in Washington state at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, where they hike the rugged trails on a daily basis and work out in their home gym when they’re not traveling the globe. “We keep ourselves tuned up by hiking long and hard, lifting weights, and stretching,” says Helen.
“Age means so little to us,” she adds. “I remember the days when I would meet an older hiker on the trails and think ‘wow, how did he get up here?’ Now Bill and I are a pair of those hikers, and when we get up on the high trails, younger people come along and talk to us. You can see them looking at us and guess the thoughts in their minds about how did we get up here.”
The mountains have always been near and dear to Helen. She’ll say that the seed for Adventure Classroom was sown in 1986 as she stood on the summit of Peak Communism (24,590 feet) in Tajikistan at age 48. But in reality, it had been germinating since she was a 9-year-old, hiking up Mount Taranaki (8,261 feet) in her home country of New Zealand with family friend, Sir Edmund Hilary. Yes, the Sir Edmund Hilary.
“Ed was a family friend. I went climbing with him and my parents in the Southern Alps in New Zealand,” says Helen. “He was an absolutely wonderful man, so goal oriented. But he was also very modest and always concerned about the needs of other people before his.”
The climb was tough for her 9-year-old legs, but Helen credits that first big mountain climb as the start to her life of adventure. “It set the pace for the rest of my life to set goals,” says Helen. “Once I put a plan in place, I went for it.” During those early years, Helen climbed the highest peaks around New Zealand with “Ed.” She eventually went on to summit some of the highest peaks around the world, including Mt. McKinley (20,320 feet) in Alaska, Aconcagua (22,841 feet) in Argentina, and, of course, Peak Communism in Tajikistan.
When Helen became the first woman to trek solo to the magnetic North Pole at age 50, she reminisced about climbing those New Zealand peaks at an early age. “On the flight back to base camp [after walking to the Pole], I realized what the journey to the Pole taught me,” she says. “It made me grateful for that early start, knowing I could do it, and having that belief in myself. You don’t realize what you have inside until you do it yourself.”
In 1988, Helen decided to take on the challenge of trekking solo to the magnetic North Pole as her first “assignment” for Adventure Classroom. She would live with the Inuit people, polar bears, and other wildlife, and work with Canadian scientists in an environmental project to record daily ice temperatures. She would walk and ski alone, pulling her own sled without the aid of dog teams or snowmobiles.
“Being the first woman to do this, I really had to reinvent the wheel because there were no other women I could ask questions,” says Helen of the journey. Because she was traveling to the magnetic North Pole, she couldn’t rely on a regular compass as the needle wouldn’t point correctly. Instead, she relied on Inuit navigation using a 24-hour clock, a piece of cardboard, and the shadow system to determine her direction.
Navigation wasn’t the only challenge, though. Helen was embarking on a strenuous journey through dangerous polar bear territory. Lucky for her, a local hunter sold her Charlie, a black husky that became her loyal travel companion and “polar bear dog.” Together they survived storms, barely escaped drowning, and, yes, fought off polar bears.
After 364 miles and 27 days, Helen and Charlie successfully reached the Pole. Helen wrote a best-selling book about the journey called Polar Dream. “I was the first woman to accomplish this trek, but I didn’t do the trip for that reason. I wanted the focus to be something different than that,” she says. Because it was her first program for Adventure Classroom, Helen wanted to prove to kids that if you plan correctly, you can finish such a journey and live in harmony with wild animals. Even today, Polar Dream is being used in schools and is available in nine languages and in Braille.
Four years later, for their 30th anniversary, Helen and Bill traveled the same route to become the first married couple to walk to any of the world’s Poles. Two years after that, they (and Charlie) spent a year in the Canadian Yukon and Northwest Territories studying and photographing three families of wild wolves. Helen’s second book, Three Among Wolves, documents the amazing story.
“We really get into it,” says Helen of her travels with Bill. “We have to do it this way to get the full report, and bring back the photography and the writing.” Helen’s third book, Walking the Gobi, tells the story of the couple’s 1,600-mile trek in 2001 across the Gobi Desert… for their 40th anniversary. “Some people have a nice dinner for their anniversary, but we like to find ourselves doing other things,” says Helen with a laugh.
The Gobi trip turned out to be one of the more difficult for the couple, though, when they found themselves without water nine days from a resupply station. “One of our camels actually rolled and it was the one carrying our water,” Helen says. For seven days, the couple pushed the envelope to the very edge as they slowly made their way while dealing with life-threatening thirst. “We had thoughts that we wouldn’t make it,” recalls Helen, “but then we found a filthy little pool just in time.”
That incident didn’t deter them from continuing their adventures. The following years, they traveled to the Amazon to study indigenous cultures and water issues, and to Africa to live with several tribes. In 2011, Helen and Bill celebrated 50 years of marriage by walking 900 miles across the Sahara Desert through Algeria, Mauritania, and Mali to document the Sahara Berber tribe and its customs.
“We have expeditions planned every year here on out,” says Helen. “We have a lot of work to do with Adventure Classroom.” Helen lists living with the Afar people in Ethiopia, working with reindeer herders in Northern Finland, and returning to the Amazon to meet more tribes as potential upcoming trips.
“There are so many different people and so many different cultures for Bill and me to learn about. Our age is getting to us, so it’s a matter of staying in good shape, keeping the body tuned up, and getting away and doing these things while we can,” she says.
With the help of CORDURA® Fabric, her main sponsor, Helen will be able to continue her work. The company discovered Helen through Adventure Classroom and has a program called CORDURA Cares(SM), which is focused on kids and their future. “It’s a great fit with the mission of Adventure Classroom,” says Helen of the partnership. “I’ve become a CORDURA® ambassador and use their products when I travel. They encourage me and Bill to go overseas and live among different people.”
In between her overseas travels and her Washington hikes, Helen does take time to sit at her desk and write about her travels. She is currently working on a biography about her beloved husky, Charlie, and plans on a series of children’s books. “I need to live to be 500 to finish all of this,” she laughs. We can’t wait to hear about her next adventure.
Helen’s tales and travels are enough to fill a library, but we only had so much room in our pages. Follow Helen on her website helenthayer.com. And learn more about her program Adventure Classroom at adventureclassroom.org
All photos copyright of Helen Thayer