Trailblazing Explorer Barbara Hillary, First Black Woman to Reach North and South Poles, Dies at 88

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Barbara Hillary, the trailblazing adventurer who made history as the first African-American woman to reach the North and South Poles, has died. She was 88 years old.

A friend, Deborah Bogosian, confirmed her passing to 1010 WINS radio in New York this week. She said Hillary, whose health had suffered in recent months, died shorty after midnight Saturday at a hospital in Far Rockaway, surrounded by family and friends.

Barbara Hillary
In 2007, Barbara Hillary became the first known Black woman to reach the North Pole. (Photo: Legacy.com)

“There were still so many things she wanted to do,” she told the station.

The New York native broke her first record in 2007 when she reached the North Pole, becoming the first African-American woman to do so. She was 75 years old at the time.

Seeking another challenge, Hillary took her trek far south — to the South Pole, that is. She reached her destination in January 2011 at the age of 79, cementing herself in history as the first Black woman to reach both poles.

“If you could combine all the positive emotions into one ball, that’s what I felt,” Hillary told AOL.com of her record-breaking feat.

So how exactly did she reach the poles? Hillary picked up skiing in her 70s so that she could make her epic trips to the ends of the Earth.

“Everything about her was just fascinating, convention-breaking, [and] confounding,” Bogosian told 1010 WINS of her dear friend. “Her record-setting treks, her defeat over cancer, her arduous fight to get her house back after Hurricane Sandy. Her years as a nurse, her gigs as a taxi driver and in sundry other jobs that gave her more than a few stories to tell.”

Hillary, 88, interviewed with the station earlier this year before her trip to Mongolia, where she visited with an all-woman team of Kazakh rug makers. She also met with a woman who excelled in the art of falconry, or hunting animals using trained birds of prey.

“It’s exceedingly rare for a woman to exceed in this area, so I’ll spend some time with her,” she told the station at the time.

Bogosian remembers her friend as a “strong and spirited” woman. She spoke of Hillary’s appreciation for all things including archery and big trucks to “the roses and miraculous tomatoes she grew” in her garden.

“She died in the season of 24 hour sun in the South Pole,” she added.

Fans offered their condolences amid news of Hillary’s passing.

“A blow to the heart,” one person wrote on Twitter. “May her explorations magnify exponentially on her journey away from this world.”

“This is so devastating to hear,” another added. “She was such an inspiration to me. She will be missed but never forgotten.”

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