Not one for boring trips with boring people, Barbara Hillary became hooked on adventure travel after shooting photographs of polar bears in Manitoba, Canada. Hillary wondered which African Americans had gone to the North Pole. She knew about Matthew Henson, but didn’t find any black women on record. “The idea to go began to form,” the retired gerontology nurse said on her website. “It was under my skin; I couldn’t shake it. You don’t just wake up and say, ‘The North Pole needs a little color. Let me go.’”
And go she did — first to the North Pole on April 23, 2007, when she was 75 and four years later to the South Pole at 79 on Jan. 6, 2011.
“It’s an experience, a feeling that I had never had in my life, the experience of excitement, joy, accomplishment,” Hillary said. “There are so many emotions rolled into one. It’s totally overwhelming. … And the second pole, it’s even better!”
The 88-year-old native New Yorker, who believed in living life to the fullest, died last Saturday at a hospital in Far Rockaway, Queens.
Lacking “two nickels to rub together,” she raised tens of thousands of dollars to support her arctic trips long before crowdfunding became a thing. She was undaunted by naysayers who questioned her age or health. She had survived breast cancer in her 20s and lung cancer in her late 60s — her breathing capacity cut by 25% following surgery to remove cancerous lung tissue.
In preparation for physical tests in Norway, she hit the treadmill, lifted weights, mastered cross-country skiing and started snowmobiling. She learned to dog sled in Minnesota and Quebec, practicing by pulling a tire harnessed to her waist through the streets of Queens and a sled filled with sandbags on a beach near her home in the Rockaways.
Hillary was so excited after stepping foot on the North Pole that she pulled off her gloves and threw up her hands in jubilation. She ended up with frostbite and limited mobility in her fingers.
After seeing the effects of climate change firsthand through her travels and when Hurricane Sandy threatened her home on the Rockaway Peninsula, Hillary began speaking out on the topic and also gave motivational talks. She founded the Arverne Action Association Inc. and Peninsula Magazine, serving as editor-in-chief.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution in June 2007, honoring Hillary for making history on the North Pole. The National Organization of Women later paid tribute to her as a “Woman of Courage.”
Despite becoming ill after fluid began accumulating in her heart valve earlier this year, she traveled to Mongolia in late February. “I’d like to learn the culture, because the people there are in a transition because of technology and how fast the world is moving,” she told 1010 WINS, a New York radio station.
Hillary met Kazakh rug makers and a woman falconer, who uses trained birds of prey to hunt animals. “It’s exceedingly rare for a woman to exceed in this area,” she said.
She was born on June 12, 1931, to Viola and Donald Hillary in a black and Latino neighborhood in midtown Manhattan that is now home to Lincoln Center, but was once known as San Juan Hill in honor of the 10th U.S. Calvary, an African-American unit that fought during the Spanish-American War. She grew up in Harlem with her mother and sister, after her father’s death in 1935.
Hillary earned bachelor and master degrees at the New School in lower Manhattan. She worked more than a half-century as a nurse, specializing in gerontology, which informed some of her thoughts on aging fiercely.
“I’m not a little old lady but an older Northern explorer,” Hillary once said. “To be old is not to be mindless, useless and sexless. To be old is to be in control.”