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75-year-old thought to be first black woman to make trek

Monday, May 7, 2007

NEW YORK -- The bone-numbing trek to the North Pole is riddled with enough perils to make a seasoned explorer quake: Frostbite threatens, polar bears loom and the ice is constantly shifting beneath frozen feet.

But Barbara Hillary took it all in stride, completing the trek to the world's northernmost point last month at the age of 75. She is one of the oldest people to reach the North Pole, and is thought to be the first black woman on record to accomplish the feat.

Hillary, of Averne, N.Y., grew up in Harlem and devoted herself to a nursing career and community activism. At 67 and during retirement, she battled lung cancer. Five years later, she went dog sledding in Quebec and photographed polar bears in Manitoba.

Then she heard that a black woman had never made it to the North Pole.

"I said, `What's wrong with this picture?"' she said. "So I sort of rolled into this, shall we say."

In 1909, Matthew Henson made history as the first black man to reach the Pole, although his accomplishment was not officially recognized for decades -- it was overshadowed by the presence of his white colleague, Robert Peary.

Ann Bancroft, a physical education teacher from Minnesota, was the North Pole's first female visitor in 1986 as a member of the Steger Polar Expedition, which arrived unassisted in a re-creation of the 1909 trip.

"It's not like there's a guest book when you get up there and you sign it," said Robert Russell, founder of Eagles Cry Adventures, Inc., the travel company that leads thrill-seekers like Hillary to the farthest corners of the globe.

Preparing for the trek

So she enrolled in cross-country skiing lessons and hired a personal trainer, who finally determined she was physically fit for the voyage.

"She's a headstrong woman," Russell said.

Her lack of funds didn't stop her, either. Hillary scraped together thousands of dollars and solicited private donors. On April 18, she arrived in Longyearben, Norway.

The travelers were then flown to the base camp -- which is rebuilt each year because of melting ice -- and pitched their tents.

On April 23 Hillary set off on skis with two trained guides. Russell had convinced her to take the daylong ski route to the Pole.

As the sunlight glinted off the ice, distorting her gaze, 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.

Standing at the top of the world, she could have cared less.


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