Helen Thayer is by far the most dynamic and inspirational person I have ever met. No, I am not exaggerating, and I hope many more people have the opportunity to meet her like I did last week at the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City.
My expectations were already high before meeting Helen in person. Before heading to the Outdoor Retailer show, I wrote a blog post about my upcoming meeting with Helen. I knew that the 72-year old explorer, best selling author, photographer, motivational speaker, and international athlete would have many stories to share. What I wasn’t anticipating was her wonderful wit, humility, and ability to inspire me to set goals no matter how grandiose, and take careful steps to reach them!
Many people know of Helen Thayer because she was the first woman to complete a solo trek to the magnetic North Pole, which she accomplished in 1988 at the age of 50. She has numerous other remarkable achievements and accolades on her resume, ranging from being the first woman to walk the 1,600 miles across the Gobi desert, to kayaking the 1,200 mile long Irixana and Jaquere Rivers in a remote region of the Amazon.
We could have talked all afternoon about her expeditions and journeys, but her best selling books Polar Dream, Walking the Gobi, and Three Among the Wolves describe them in detail. I wanted to better understand what motivates Helen and learn about the barriers she’s overcome.
The Driving Force
Helen is a goal setter. Rather than living a complacent life, Helen embraces challenges and seeks them out. She explained that “we can all reach our goals”, it is just a matter of setting those goals and planning for success. We need to take one step at a time. “There is always a way… it is only a problem until you solve it!”
Helen and Bill, her husband of 49 years, continue to set goals, and through their non-profit Adventure Classroom are passionately working to share what they learn on their explorations. They use the experiences from their adventures to help inspire children to set goals, love the outdoors, and respect other peoples and cultures. Helen has lectured more than 1 million students around the world!
What differentiates Helen from other explorers is that she integrates herself into the local culture of the places she’s exploring, to try to emulate them and learn as much as possible. Rather than just reaching a mountain peak, the North Pole, or finishing a trek across the Gobi Desert, Helen develops a deep respect and understanding of the local people. While they do not have a traditional western education, they do have invaluable skills and knowledge.
Before her quest to the magnetic North Pole, Helen lived with the Inuit people. Many of the skills she learned enabled her to survive life threatening situations, including her encounters with polar bears! The common conception of Westerners is that the people of these ancient cultures, such as the Inuit tribes or the African Bush people, are primitive. Helen has seen and experienced firsthand that in fact there is much to learn, including patience, the importance of family, and respect for elders.
This November she and Bill are headed once again to Africa, this time to live with a fishing tribe on Lake Victoria. They will come back with stories, photographs, and invaluable lessons, and again spread their message to school children worldwide.
Jumping the Hurdles
Throughout her life Helen has overcome barriers, and there is certainly nothing that will prevent Helen from achieving her goals. Even her 5’3″ frame did not sway her from becoming a discus thrower. She secretly lifted weights under the tutelage of her father, and her discipline paid off – she became a world-class discus thrower, and represented New Zealand, Guatemala and the United States at various times. Then she went on to become a USA National Luge Champion, which has virtually no similarity to discus!
When she moved to the United States in the 1960s, she learned that the U.S. was far less progressive than her homeland of New Zealand, so her discus training had to wait until all of the men left the field at night. At age 50, when she set out to make her record breaking solo trek to the North Pole, corporate sponsors were not receptive to supporting a female adventurer. Luckily her husband Bill, a helicopter pilot, funded it entirely to enable Helen to achieve her dream.
As she recounted her stories of overcoming these hurdles the twinkle in her eyes told me that these challenges just fueled her motivation to set and achieve more goals!
The Adventuring Continues!
Helen’s sense of adventure is innate. She quipped that “the Kiwi’s invented bungee jumping!” so as a New Zealander she was born to love the outdoors. Helen and I talked about her childhood in New Zealand, her supportive father who encouraged her to be an independent young woman, and the continuing support from her 91-year old mother! When Helen climbed her first mountain at age 9, she climbed Mt. Taranaki with her parents and family friend Edmund Hillary, who later became the first person to summit Mt. Everest. Climbing the 8,261 foot Mt. Taranaki was just the first of many of Helen’s adventures.
After a lifetime of athletic achievements, exploratory firsts, and a successful non-profit educational venture, there’s no slowing down for Helen Thayer! With the vibrancy and passion for life of a young girl, Helen told me about some of her upcoming adventures, and plans for many more. She advised, “Don’t be limited by what other people tell you…Just go out and do it!”
I encourage you to read more about Helen on her website, her educational non-profit Adventure Classroom, and watch this inspiring video of Helen talking about planning and goal setting. If there is anyone who will help motivate you to achieve your dreams, I know Helen Thayer will, because she certainly inspired me!
Special thank you to Helen Thayer’s sponsor, Cordura, for arranging this meeting.