After traveling from New York to Norway, camping out on a moving ice floe, and taking a helicopter ride to a remote, frigid landscape, Barbara Hillary skied into the North Pole on April 23, 2007. At age 75, she became the first African-American woman in history to make it to this icy region on top of the earth.
“I have never experienced such sheer joy and excitement,” Hillary told the New Yorker’s Lauren Collins shortly after her record-breaking trip. “I was screaming, jumping up and down, for the first few minutes.”
Five years later, the explorer made a groundbreaking journey to another one of the planet’s geographic extremes, becoming the first African-American woman to stand on the South Pole.
Hillary died Saturday at the age of 88 after several months of ill health. She retained her adventurous spirit until the end: “There were still so many things she wanted to do,” Hillary’s friend, Deborah Bogosian, tells 1010 WINS.
Born in New York City in 1931, Hillary was raised by her mother, Viola Jones Hillary, following her father’s death when she was 2 years old. According to Katharine Q. Seelye of the New York Times, Viola brought her children up in Harlem, supporting the family by working as a cleaner.
“We were poor,” Hillary said while delivering the commencement address at her alma mater, the New School, in 2017. “We were sub-Depression-poor, but there was no such thing as mental poverty in our home.”
Hillary earned her Bachelor of Arts and Master’s degrees from the New School and became a nurse with a specialty in gerontology. According to her website, Hillary focused on “staff training in the concepts of patient aging and their service delivery systems in nursing homes and similar facilities.” She was also the founder and editor-in-chief of the Peninsula Magazine, a “non-profit and multi-racial” publication based in Queens.
After 55 years in the nursing field, Hillary retired. Although many individuals at a similar stage in life head to warm climates, she set out for Canada, going dog-sledding in Quebec and photographing polar bears in Manitoba. Hillary became enthralled with the icy beauty of the region, and when she discovered that no African-American woman had ever reached the North Pole, she resolved to become the first to make the journey.
The goal was a lofty one, not only because of Hillary’s advanced age, but also because she had lost around 25 percent of her breathing capacity after undergoing lung cancer surgery in her 60s. (This was, in fact, her second battle with the disease; she had also survived breast cancer in her 20s.) Still, she threw herself into the plans with gusto, and, according to Collins, prepared for the trip by “taking her vitamins, hoarding fleece, and enduring grueling treadmill runs at Rockaway Park’s Cyberzone gym.” She also learned how to ski, and raised $25,000 to help cover the cost of the journey.
Hillary’s travels to the North and South Poles required discipline and determination. But she allowed herself to indulge in some vices. In a 2011 interview with Henry Alford of the New York Times, Hillary confessed that she had eaten too much milk chocolate while exploring the South Pole at the age of 79.
“If I had frozen to death down there, wouldn’t it be sad if I’d gone to hell without getting what I want?” she asked.
Her experiences in polar climates, which have been hard-hit by climate change, transformed Hillary into an environmental activist; according to Seelye, she even delivered lectures on the subject.
“I think we’re hellbent on blowing ourselves up into hydrogen particles,” Hillary told the New Yorker’s Collins earlier this year.
Most recently, the 87-year-old Hillary travelled to Outer Mongolia, where she spent time with nomadic groups whose way of life is being threatened by climate change, among other factors. She also met a female falconer, or someone who hunts using birds of prey—a custom that is “exceedingly rare” among women, Hillary told 1010 Wins in February.
By the time she reached Mongolia, Hillary’s health had already started to decline. But she was still making plans for her next trip.
“I’ve discovered a place, but it’s in Russia,” she explained to Collins, “and I have to figure out how to get permission from the Russian government to go there.”
Given how sick she had been, Hillary knew the journey might never happen. But “dreams,” she told Collins, “even if they don’t come true, are important.”