Fitness Heroes : Helen Thayer age 50 walked to the North Pole, age 63 walked 1,600 miles across the Gobi Desert.

Fitness Heroes : Helen Thayer age 50 walked to the North Pole, age 63 walked 1,600 miles across the Gobi Desert.

Helen Thayer age 50 walked to the North Pole, age 63 walked 1,600 miles across the Gobi Desert.

Helen Thayer offers up this advice to travelers: “Age is no barrier to your dreams and goals.” she also notes: “Don’t listen to negative comments, such as the “polar bears will eat you”, “you will fall in the ocean and drown”, “Amazon snakes will kill you”, “you will die of thirst in the desert”. There is a long list of comments. As long as your goal is important to you, you plan thoroughly before leaving, go ahead and be confident. Believe in yourself.” (, Mar 8, 2018)

Polar Dream: The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and Her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole
(See Amazon affiliate disclosure at the bottom of the post)
In 1988, at the age of 50, Helen Thayer became the first woman on a solo unsupported expedition to the Magnetic North Pole. She traveled on skis accompanied only by her husky, Charlie.

Helen said her love of adventure started early at age 9 when her parents and their friend Ed took her climbing in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. The climb was tough for the nine-year-old but she did it and credits that first climb with teaching her to set goals and going for it. She remembered Ed aka Sir Edmund Hilary was a huge influence on her : ” He was an absolutely wonderful man. so goal oriented. But he was also very modest and always concerned about the needs of other people before his.” (Women’s Adventure Magazine, Nov. 13, 2011, p. 56)



Movement of the Magnetic North Pole from 1590 (blue) to 2020 (end of yellow yellow)

Map of the arctic area: Polaris to King Christian IslandWhen corporate sponsors were unwilling to sponsor a female adventure, she and her husband saved $10,000 over two years to finance the expedition themselves. The plan was to leave from Polaris, Canada and travel north to King Christian Island which was area the magnetic North Pole was currently in and then down to catch her transport back.  Not only was she on skis, but she was pulling a 160-pound sled with her supplies and camping gear for 27 days across 364 miles. It’s noteworthy that the Magnetic North Pole moved about 34 miles a year towards Siberia recently.  It is speeding up. Half a century ago, it moved 7 miles a year. (Forbes, February 5, 2019)

Just before she left, the Inuits warned her the polar bears would find her an easy snack if she didn’t have protection. They urged her to get a team of dogs. She bought Charlie, a black 94-pound husky-wolf mix. Thayer describes him: “Charlie was born in the High Arctic, a world of snow, ice and polar bears. Owned by an Inuit polar bear hunter, he had no name, was fed only frozen seal meat twice a week and chewed ice for water. His year-round home was the barren sea ice. He was a large, black, part-wolf, Canadian Inuit Husky. Although he existed in a tough and primitive environment, he was a lovable, gentle dog. Trained to keep polar bears out of his village, he would if necessary, defend humans against ferocious polar bear attacks. Well known for his courage, he had demonstrated his bravery on more than one occasion.” (Meet Charlie) On her journey he often warned her of approaching polar bears and saved Thayer’s life when a polar bear attacked.

On the way back, seven days away from their pickup point, an unexpected storm whisked away her food supply. For the rest of the journey, Charlie was on half rations while Thayer subsisted on a diet of five walnuts and a pint of water each day.  Later, she said it was the most “all around challenging” adventure she has had. (, Aug. 12, 2011)

Then in 2001 Helen (age 63) and Bill (age 74) Thayer walked 1,600 miles across the Mongolian part of the Gobi desert in their 40th year of marriage.  Helen describes their first encounter with nomads:

Walking the Gobi: A 1600 Mile Trek Across a Desert of Hope and Despair
One morning a thick veil of dust rose in the distance. A large caravan with horses and riders leading heavily loaded camels slowly approached, trooping north to summer pasture, driving ahead of them a herd of about 600 sheep and goats. Two large black dogs ranged along the flanks of the flock, discouraging any cavorting goats from straying too far. We were excited to catch our first glimpse of the people who spend their whole lives in this forbidding landscape.

Within a half hour, our routes converged. The entire group sat astride black or dark brown Mongolian horses the size of ponies, with streaming tails and manes. The riders, who sat atop their mounts with nonchalant ease, stopped in bewilderment. Three families totaling 17 people — six adults, six teenagers, and five children — stared in wonder at two sweaty, dusty Westerners who were actually walking. (Walking the Gobi: A 1600 Mile Trek Across a Desert of Hope and Despair, Helen Thayer, pg 54)

Their trek had it’s share of dangers. Straying too close to the Chinese border, they were picked up and interrogated. The Chinese guards accused them of being smugglers.  The guards threatened them with jail and steep fines. Helen turned the tables on them and scolded them for their lack of respect to their elders. Finally the guards admitted they did not seem like smugglers and let them go. (, July 1, 2011)

The Thayers planned the trip carefully knowing they would be walking in the heat of summer so along with two camels (Tom and Jerry) to carry their supplies, they also had a resupply plane meeting them at specified places, breaking their journey into four parts. But no matter how carefully you plan, things happen. Nine days from meeting the next resupply plane, they lost their water supply. They had only five gallons left in 130F degrees desert.  Up until then they were walking 15 to 20 miles a day.  On their 6th day of little water, they only managed three miles and were dangerously close to dying of thirst. It was not like they could use a cellphone to call for help. Luckily on the 7th day, they found a pool of salty water. Thankfully they set about filtering the lifegiving fluid and it gave them enough to meet their resupply plane a few days later.

It had been a tough journey but after 71 days, they completed their trek across the length of the Gobi desert.  They had also wrote up their journey, their encounters with the desert residents and customs, and photographed their experiences so they could turn their journey into academic lessons for children to learn inter-cultural awareness and respect through the Thayer’s Adventure Classroom program. Later they have visited Africa, the Amazon, Antartica and other places sharing their experiences with more than one million children.

Helen states, “I am still a work in progress with no plans to retire.” she writes. (, Mar 8, 2018) At the age of 74, Helen and her husband, now 85 have a list of places they still want to explore including Ethiopia, Bhutan, Tibet, and the Congo.  “We are what we think we are. I think I’m still 38 going on 39. I still have many more hundreds of miles to walk and mountains to climb. Some folks go on a cruise but the Thayers spent their 50th anniversary trekking 700 miles across the Sahara. (, Aug. 12, 2011)

Helen follows her own advice :”Age is no barrier to your dreams and goals.” (, Aug. 12, 2011)


Helen Thayer is the greatest Kiwi adventurer you’ve probably never heard of,  March 8, 2018

Traveling to Teach
by Rebecca Heaton, Women’s Adventure Magazine, Nov. 13, 2011, p. 56)

Thayer, Helen (b. 1937), Sportswoman, Explorer
by Kate Kershner,, Aug. 12, 2011

Helen and Bill Thayer begin a 1,600-mile walk across the Gobi Desert on May 1, 2001
by Kate Kershner,, July 1, 2011

Helen Thayer’s Saharan Expedition
by Hiking Lady, November 11, 2013

A Remarkable Woman: Helen Thayer
by Hiking Lady, August 11, 2010

A Visit With Helen Thayer
by Shandman, Fresh Air Junkie, August 11, 2010

Walking the Gobi: A 1600 Mile Trek Across a Desert of Hope and Despair
by Helen Thayer

Earth’s Magnetic North Pole Has Officially Moved
by Trevor Nace, Forbes, February 5, 2019)

World Magnetic Model Out-of-Cycle Release
National Centers for Environmental Information, February 4, 2019

Meet Charlie
Helen Thayer

You can do a search to find something on Amazon like I did with “Helen Thayer”.


I’m an affiliate for HealthyWage and Amazon so may earn a commission/fee if you join or buy something through clicking a link. This has no effect on your price. You pay the same price you would normally. Amazon disclosure: “We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.”

4 Replies to “Fitness Heroes : Helen Thayer age 50 walked to the North Pole, age 63 walked 1,600 miles across the Gobi Desert.”

  1. Woooow. This lady is fascinating. Can you imagine all the sights she must have seen along her journey? Amazing. Thank you so much for bringing my attention to her story 🙂

  2. Another good one is Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. She walked 800 miles of the Appalachian trail at age 67.

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