Six days of intense heat had passed in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert and world renowned explorer Helen Thayer and her husband Bill were almost out of water.
“We were desperate then,” she said. A camel accident had left them with only five gallons of water and considering they had been drinking a gallon and a half a day, “by day seven we were out and we knew that if we didn’t find water on day seven we would die by day eight,” Thayer said.
The couple managed to find a small pool that at the time looked fresh and magnificent, but in hindsight was terrible and dirty. Nevertheless, “It saved our lives,” she said.
For 81 days in 2001, she and her husband Bill, then age 63 and 74 respectively, walked with two camels 1600 miles across the Gobi Desert, dodging drug smugglers, surviving violent wind and sand storms, and sharing time milking sheep and goats and herding camels and horses with the region’s nomadic people.
Thayer will recount the missteps and discoveries of that journey Tuesday at the University of Montana. Her talk, “Walking the Gobi: Environmental change in the Mongolian Desert” is the second installment of the 2009 Wilderness Expeditions Lecture Series. Thayer will be speaking in room 106 of the Gallagher Business Building 7 p.m. All presentations in the series are free and open to the public. Click here for the full schedule.
In 1988, Thayer grabbed world headlines when, at age 50, she walked with her dog Charlie to the Magnetic North Pole to become first woman to reach one of the world’s poles alone without dog sled or snowmobile.
By then Thayer was already an accomplished mountaineer. She began climbing mountains in her native New Zealand at the age of nine with Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to summit Everest. Hillary was a close personal mentor for Thayer.
While standing on the summit of 24,590 Peak Communism in Tajikistan in 1986, Thayer had an epiphany of sorts. She decided she needed to share her adventures with children and inspire them reach their dreams. The result was “Adventure Classroom” a nonprofit organization dedicated to educational programs on the world’s most remote places.
The walk to the Magnetic North Pole followed, as have many more, especially in above the Arctic Circle.
Her programs include the recently launched “Kid to Kid Talk” which aims to develop a world wide network of schools, mostly in remote locations, to facilitate cultural respect and understanding. Through the Internet, children communicate their cultural customs, geography and history. If people can learn to understand different cultures and countries from a young age then we have a much better long-term chance for cultural coexistence, Thayer said. “You don’t usually go out and fight your friends.”
Of particular concern to her and her husband are threats to indigenous cultures like the ethnic Mongolian herders of the Gobi, especially due to climate change.
“The Gobi desert is drying out. It’s another environmental disaster,” Thayer said.
Desertification has made it more difficult for herders to find food and water for their animals so they supplement their diet with processed food from the cities. Often high in sugars, the shift in diet has led to increases in dental decay, diabetes, obesity and other health problems. At the same time, the culture is besieged. Many young people have moved to the cities to find work that isn’t there and the government lacks the resources to support high levels of unemployment.
While crossing the Gobi Desert the couple averaged 20 miles a day over terrain without trails. They can travel up to 30 in a single day depending on the terrain. In addition to their expeditions, they hike hundreds of miles annually near their home in Washington’s Cascade Mountains.
Now 71 and 82, Helen and Bill have no intention of slowing down. They just returned from their second thousand mile kayak trip through the Brazilian Amazon. On Friday they depart for a 1500 mile walk across Death Valley, the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts.