Ignite possibilities

Helen Thayer: An Uncommon Life of Adventure

At the age of 48, Helen Thayer, a world class athlete and mountaineer, stood on top of Mt. Communism in Tajikistan and was struck by an inspiration.  At that moment, she decided to start a new chapter in her life by using her world expeditions as metaphors to teach and inspire students.  She founded the non-profit Adventure Classroom with the mission “to inspire students to embrace integrity, demonstrate courage, and assume responsibility for their actions.”

“I work to inspire kids to set goals, plan for success and never give up.  There is a bright future ahead for those who are prepared to set goals and work towards them,” says Helen.

Since that day in 1986, Helen has steadfastly worked toward accomplishing her mission by sharing her unique journeys with students all over the world.  Helen has personally shared her message with over one million students nationwide and several more million worldwide via her web site.

Amazing Quests

Helen uses her talents as an accomplished author and photographer to communicate her adventure stories to schoolchildren, business executives and members of non-profit organizations.  Helen’s best selling books document some of her quests:

Polar Dream – Helen’s account as the first woman to solo trek to the magnetic North Pole at the age of 50 without resupply, dog teams or snowmobile.   She traveled 364 miles alone, battling treacherous weather, navigating erratic ice conditions and outsmarting dangerous polar bears.

Three Among the Wolves – In the summer of 1994, Helen spent one year observing and documenting a pack of wolves in the Canadian Yukon.

Walking the Gobi – At the age of 63, Helen became the first woman to walk across the entire span of the Mongolian Gobi dessert, a journey of 1600 miles, surviving incredible heat, grueling sandstorms and dangerous scorpions.  Her husband joined her on this journey where they had interactions with Gobi Dessert Nomads.

More recently, Helen is drawn to explore remote cultures, such as the Inuit of Alaska and the Hadza and Maasai of Africa.  At 72, she is seen as an elder and is welcomed into isolated cultures, usually off limits to outsiders.  Because she is self sufficient and hikes into these remote areas, she is trusted to respect the land and customs.  Following these trips, she creates programs focussed on respecting different cultures.

Earlier in Life

Before embarking on her career as an adventurer, author and motivational speaker, Helen thrived as an elite athlete.  A native to New Zealand, Helen grew up with parents who mountain climbed and neighbors who became world famous in the sport, such as Sir Edmund Hillary, the first climber to summit Mt. Everest in 1953.  At the age of 9, Helen summited her first 8,000 foot peak, and thus began her love affair with the outdoors.

In her mid 20’s and 30’s, she competed in Track & Field and Luge and went on to become a National Champion and record holder in these sports.  She represented three countries (New Zealand, Guatemala and the USA) on national teams in international competition.  Helen was well prepared, physically and mentally, for that life changing day when she decided to found a non-profit and take her life in a new direction.

Helen’s Main Message

Helen takes a no-nonsense approach to her explorations and teachings.  Her mantra, “set goals, make a plan and be persistent,” seems so simple.  When you dive deep into the meaning of these words, you realize these simple principles, meticulously executed, have led to her success.

Helen doesn’t just set goals, she sets what best selling authors Collis and Porras call “big hairy audacious goals.”  These goals stretch limits and test potential.  They are goals you must work hard towards, every day.  They motivate and embody a strong purpose.

Helen’s idea of planning goes well beyond the norm.  She lives and breathes her plan, tries it on for size and reworks it until she is completely confident it suits her needs.

Since Helen was a pioneer in solo trekking to the magnetic North Pole, she couldn’t consult someone else’s plan and simply make refinements.  She had to plan every detail, from constructing a custom sled that would withstand freezing temperatures to figuring out how to scare off polar bears without using aggravating rubber bullets.  To solve this problem, she turned to flare guns.  She recalls, “I was in a boat store and noticed a flare gun and said – that’s it!  I can use a flare gun to scare away bears and since I’ll be on ice, I won’t set the landscape on fire.”  Her innovative use of flare guns with polar bears led to their use by park rangers.

A key to her planning is building in contingency options.  As she states, “To ensure success, you’ll need plan B, C, D and E, in some cases.  At some point you’re going to have to change your plan.  You can’t follow a straight line.  You simply need to plan for all that could go wrong.”

One of her biggest concerns while trekking to the magnetic North Pole was running out of food or water.  To condition her body and mind for this possibility, she would fast for 24 hours, then go on a 24 hour hike with a full pack, all the while not eating a bite of food.  When she returned home, she would fast an additional 24 hours.  The foresight of this training paid off.  With seven days left until reaching the magnetic North Pole, Helen found herself with little food or water.  She ate only five walnuts a day with a few sips of water.  During this time, it never occurred to Helen that she’d be unsuccessful.  She had trained her mind to believe failure was not an option.

Finally, there’s persistence.  While Helen’s endeavors may on the surface appear to be based on physical determination, she believes that 75% of her efforts are mental.  Mental persistence means believing in yourself and your ability to effectively problem solve when necessary.


Here are five lessons Helen brings to individuals and organizations embarking on any kind of adventure:

Set big goals.  Stretch and set big, hairy, audacious goals.  These are visionary goals that are emotionally compelling and quicken the pulse.  Many organizations use these types of goals to stimulate progress:  Google:  Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful; Boeing:  Bet the pot on the b-17, 707 and 747; and Amazon:  Every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.

Create a living plan.  Dust off your existing marketing, finance or business plan and look at it with fresh eyes.  How can you truly “live” the plan and test it to ensure it will help you achieve your goals?   Have you built in contingencies to ensure success?   Have you identified the worst challenge you might encounter? Simulate that event and create solutions to overcome it.

Train your brain.  To embark on a challenging journey of any kind, you’ll need mental stamina and problem solving skills.  Train your mind to believe that no challenge is big enough to stop you from reaching your goal.  Decide that failure is not an option.  Read books such as How to be an Explorer of the World and  A Whole New Mind to sharpen your creativity and problem solving skills.

Become a pioneer.   Instead of following the process that’s already established at your company or in your field, why not create a new process or way of approaching the task at hand.  By simply allowing yourself to be a pioneer, even for a day, you’ll open up to new ideas and ways of working.

Share your experience.  Many new innovation models are based on open source collaboration.  Helen’s life shifted when she moved from embarking on personal adventures to enriching the lives of others through her adventures.  How can you share your knowledge?

Helen Thayer speaks at schools and organizations around the world.  She is currently a resident of Snohomish, Washington.  Visit her website to learn more about her.



  1. Roberta McFarland says:

    Chris- WOW amazing woman with a wonderful mission… thank you for sharing your interview and her story!

  2. Chris Fagan says:

    Roberta, glad you liked the story. Helen is definitely an inspiring woman.

  3. I read Helen’s polar story years ago, and here you’ve distilled it down to lessons I can use here and now without going to extreme climates. Thanks for taking the time to make it real for all of us!

  4. Maureen Grandon says:

    Does Helen still make personal appearances?

    • Chris Fagan says:

      Yes, she does! You can contact her at email hidden; JavaScript is required. I recently saw her speak at and she does a fantastic job of engaging the audience and providing an inspiring message.

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