- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2007

NEW YORK (AP) — 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 75-year-old cancer survivor Barbara Hillary took it all in stride, completing the trek to the world’s northernmost point last month. She is one of the oldest people to reach the North Pole and is thought to be the first black woman to accomplish the feat.

Miss 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?’ ” Miss Hillary recalled. “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. Various scientific organizations said no record exists of a black woman matching Miss Bancroft’s feat, although such record-keeping is not perfect.

“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 Miss Hillary to the farthest corners of the globe. Mr. Russell conducted six months’ worth of research, interviewing fellow polar expedition contractors and digging through history books but failed to find a black woman who had completed the trek.

Mr. Russell’s paying customers can travel to the North Pole in various ways — from 18-day cross-country ski trips to simply being dropped off at the Pole via helicopter. The trip costs about $21,000 per person.

Miss Hillary insisted on skiing. Only trouble was, she had never been on the slopes before.

“It wasn’t a popular sport in Harlem,” she said. So she enrolled in cross-country skiing lessons and hired a personal trainer.

“She’s a headstrong woman. You don’t tell her no about too many things,” Mr. Russell said.

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