Barbara Hillary, first black woman to reach the poles, dies at 88

 Barbara Hillary with the parka she wore on her trip to the North Pole.
Barbara Hillary with the parka she wore on her trip to the North Pole. AP Photo/Richard Drew, file/Associated Press

NEW YORK — Barbara Hillary, the first black woman on record to reach the North Pole, which she did at the age of 75, and the first to reach the South Pole, at the age of 79, died last Saturday in a hospital in Far Rockaway, Queens. She was 88.

Her death was announced on her website. A post on her Twitter account said her health had been declining in recent months. She had breast cancer in her 20s and lung cancer in her 60s.

It was not until 1986 that any woman had reached the top of the world, with Ann Bancroft, a physical education teacher and explorer from Minnesota, becoming the first. The first black man there was Matthew Henson, who, along with Robert E. Peary, set foot on the North Pole in 1909.


Ms. Hillary had retired from a 55-year career as a nurse when, seeking adventure, she went dog-sledding in Quebec and photographed polar bears in Manitoba. She then learned that no African-American woman had ever made it to the North Pole and challenged herself to become the first, though she had no funding and no organization behind her and had lost 25 percent of her breathing capacity from surgery for her lung cancer.

The expedition would require her to ski, which she had also never done before.

In preparation for the trek, she took cross-country skiing lessons and hired a personal trainer. She started eating more vegetables, increased her vitamin intake, and worked out with weights. And she raised the necessary $25,000, mostly through donations, for equipment and transportation.

There are a limited number of ways to reach the North Pole, which is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, where the waters are almost permanently covered with shifting sea ice. Ms. Hillary signed on for an expedition with Eagles Cry Adventures, an outfitter, and was deposited by helicopter at a Norwegian base camp about 30 miles from the pole.


On April 23, 2007, another helicopter took her to a point on the ice that was “within skiing distance of the North Pole,” Ms. Hillary told The New Yorker magazine later that year, and she set off with a guide.

The Seattle Times reported: “As the sunlight glinted off the ice, distorting her vision, Ms. 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.”

Ms. Hillary told The New Yorker: “I have never experienced such sheer joy and excitement. I was screaming, jumping up and down, for the first few minutes.”

The expedition only whetted her appetite for more. Four years later, on Jan. 6, 2011, she stood at the South Pole.

Ms. Hillary initially took these treks for the thrill of it, and to enjoy the beauty of the landscape, but she came to understand that climate change was wreaking havoc on the planet, not least its polar extremities, and began lecturing on the topic. She also became a motivational speaker.

Barbara Hillary was born on June 12, 1931, in Manhattan. Her father died when she was 2. Her mother, Viola Jones Hillary, had migrated to New York in the 1930s from South Carolina to give Barbara and her sister, Dorothy, the chance for a good education. Earning her living by cleaning houses, she raised her daughters by herself in Harlem.


In 2007, Ms. Hillary shared with The New Yorker some of her tips for living a good life: “One, mind your own business; two, maintain a sense of humor; and three, tell an individual to go to hell when it’s needed.”