In 2011, Barbara Hillary, a 79-year-old retired nurse, became the first black woman to reach the South Pole. Just four years earlier, Hillary stood on top of the world as the first black woman to ski the North Pole—a mere two years after a bout with cancer.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. recently caught up with the now 87-year-old trailblazer, who not only hasn’t lost her sense of adventure but also has some incredible life advice to share.
“When I retired from nursing, I wanted to do something. And I wanted to be surrounded by interesting people,” Hillary told the CBC. “So I looked at cruise ships, and I said to myself, that is death. Imagine being stuck on a ship with married people—boring!”
(Wow, don’t think that because Ms. Hillary is on pension, she ain’t a savage. Hanging out with you dull married hos—not for her!)
“And then I saw an ad—photograph polar bears—and I said, ‘Aha! Now, that’s epic,’” she continued.
That started her on a trek northward to Manitoba, Canada, where she photographed polar bears and met people she liked.
“They were married, but they were doing things. There were women who were single, and they were doing things. It’s so important how you age,” said Hillary.
After that first trip, she learned how to snowmobile and get around on a dog sled; then she got curious about whether any black woman had ever reached the North Pole.
Hillary called the Library of Congress and HBCUs asking if they had any record of black women going to the top of the world, and received no confirmation that such a feat had been accomplished. So she set her sights on being the first.
“It’s not like the movies,” Hillary said about the process. “No, you have to raise money ... now you have to sell yourself. Now you have to convince people you’re not senile and you want to ski to the North Pole.”
Seeking donors was a full-time job, with Hillary spending hours calling strangers across the country to help her reach her goal. She raised more than $25,000, CBC writes, training and hiring guides to help her make the solo journey.
“What kept me going with the setbacks ... I realized that it was the way I was raised that gave me that fire, that gave me that extra inch,” Hillary said about her journey to the top of the world. “My mother would say, life doesn’t owe you anything. You want something, get up off your ass and work for it.”
She dedicated that first trip to the memory of her mother but also decided that she couldn’t stop at one record-breaking milestone. So she set her sights on the South Pole.
Hillary says that next journey to the South Pole left her heart full of pride.
She later added (this is the part you want to stick to your vision board):
It reinforced that all of us can reach the North Pole and the South Pole, but it’s up to the individual to decide what that South Pole and North Pole is going to be, and where it’s going to be. But don’t put it off too long. Even if it’s a little thing, do it today.