Barbara Hillary Made History: 'It Was So Cold'

Nurse and community activist was the first black woman to get to the poles
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 28, 2019 2:18 PM CST
Barbara Hillary Reached Poles in Historic First
Barbara Hillary displays the parka she wore on her trip to the North Pole in 2007.   (AP Photo/Richard Drew, file)

"There were still so many things she wanted to do," a friend said of Barbara Hillary after her death in New York on Saturday at 88. But Hillary did plenty, CNN reports, as a nurse, community activist, editor, and adventurer. At age 75, she skied into the North Pole, becoming the first black woman ever to reach it. "I have never experienced such sheer joy and excitement," she told the New Yorker. Caught up in the moment, Hillary took off her gloves and raised her fists in the air, giving her a frostbitten thumb. Four years later, she stood on the South Pole, another first.

Hillary was a nurse for 55 years, specializing in gerontology, and founded Peninsula Magazine, a nonprofit publication in Queens. A survivor of breast cancer and lung cancer, she began traveling after retiring from nursing. She went dog-sledding in Quebec and photographed polar bears in Manitoba. Hillary set a new goal, despite having lost one-fourth of her lung capacity to cancer, when she learned that no African American woman had made it to the North Pole, per the Smithsonian. She trained, learned to ski—in her 70s—and raised money for the trip. "Five days, no heat, 40 below," she said, per WINS. "It was so cold." Earlier this year, Hillary made a trip to Mongolia to visit nomadic groups. Her next trip was to be to Russia. "She died in the season of 24-hour sunlight at the South Pole," her friend said. (More North Pole stories.)

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