Chris and Marty Fagan of North Bend first met while climbing Denali, and they’re the kind of married couple that routinely runs 100-mile trail races for fun.
So it wasn’t particularly surprising when, in November 2013, the couple staked their lives, spent thousands of dollars, quit a job, put a business on hold and left their 12-year-old son at home to fulfill their dream of skiing 570 miles from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole, completely unassisted.
Only about 100 people in history have ever accomplished that feat, and the Fagans’ quest is documented in Chris Fagan’s book “The Expedition: Two Parents Risk Life and Family in an Extraordinary Quest to the South Pole,” published this fall by She Writes Press.
At the time of the expedition, the Fagans were in their late 40s, and had realized that between their age and climate change, their window of opportunity was closing.
“We wanted to experience one of the last wild frontiers on Earth before it changes,” says Chris Fagan, a business consultant.
Antarctica is the coldest continent, of course. The interior, where the Fagans skied, is so cold that bacteria can’t grow there.
Going unassisted meant they had no guide, backup or resupply for 48 days. All day, on skis, they each hauled sleds holding 220 pounds of gear across fields of ice waves called sastrugi. Low temperatures of minus 20 degrees were common; it got as low as minus 45.
The South Pole expedition wasn’t Chris Fagan’s first grand adventure, nor will it be her last; but this one was life-changing in many ways.
“Adventure is the fabric that runs through our family,” she says.
It shows in their home, nestled almost at the foot of Mount Si, where the walls of the warm, open-plan living room are adorned with a map of the moon, plus photos of the family in Tanzania and of Chris Fagan finishing the Tour du Mont Blanc.
Amid all the challenges the Fagans encountered during three years of researching, planning and rigorous training for their South Pole expedition, the toughest obstacle was having to leave their son, Keenan, behind. The parents had to come to terms with the fact that despite their best-laid plans, the worst could happen in Antarctica.
After much soul-searching, the couple decided to stress to Keenan that they had embraced life rather than feared death. Chris Fagan wrote Keenan this letter before they left:
“Part of living, really living, is to continuously grow and learn and challenge your limits. I believe to my core that the best way to live a good life, a full life, a happy life, is to seek challenge and to take risks, try new things, and push into the unknown. … And my wish for you in life is that you find your own path to being fully alive. Please promise me to live, each day.”
“We want to be in touch with who we are, and we want to model that for our children; to follow our dreams, to take risks that are managed, that lead to something important to us, and we have to look away from that judging voice in ourselves and society,” Chris Fagan says.
Meticulous planning on all fronts helped make the Fagans feel better about leaving Keenan.
On the home front, the Fagans enlisted family members and close friends to support and care for Keenan. They met with the principal and teachers at Keenan’s middle school, and the school community embraced the Fagans’ trip — a bulletin board at the school’s entrance tracked the expedition daily, and kids followed along with the expedition’s blog. The Fagan parents hosted a talk covering their equipment and the conditions they would face, and they even ran a taste test of dehydrated entrees.
To prepare for the Antarctic conditions, the Fagans trained in Oslo and Minnesota, with the help of Chicago-based Polar Explorers. Because of their snow-mountaineering experience and conditioning, they qualified to go unguided.
Antarctica, having no infrastructure, is expensive. The Fagans contracted with Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE) to set up a pop-up base camp from November through January – the only habitable season. They flew in fuel, food, communications equipment and supplies, with expedition flights and base-camp stays costing around $55,000 per person.
On paper, they plotted out a 45-day trip on the interior Messner Route, first trekked by Reinhold Messner, planning to burn 7,000-8,000 calories a day.
But there were things the Fagans couldn’t control: Weather. Broken gear and frostbite. And the X factor: human emotion.
From reading other Polar explorers’ accounts, the couple learned that many teams fail when team dynamics break down. Chris Fagan was confident they’d be OK, because she and Marty Fagan had spent years supporting each other on grueling, long-distance runs.
But reality, as usual, had its own plans.
Trekking to the Pole
In November 2013, the Fagans flew from Seattle to Punta Arenas, Chile, where their food and gear awaited them at a warehouse. Then, it was on to base camp at Union Glacier, Antarctica, and to the Ronne Ice Shelf to begin their expedition on the Messner Route. They would check in daily via satellite phone with ALE, which could have sent a plane in case of an emergency.
Days were filled with hours of skiing and pulling the sled in minus-20-degree temperatures — all in conditions so poor your partner might be mere yards away but unable to hear you panting over the screaming wind. The unrelenting expanse of white offered no distraction from the strain and concentration. The nightly routine: melt snow, cook food packets, journal or blog, sleep — then wake up and do it again.
“It was this cumulative effect of the 10-hour days wearing on you — not just on your body, but on your mind,” says Chris Fagan. “Imagine you are carrying a backpack and somebody keeps adding two pounds of rocks every day. That doesn’t sound like very much, but by day 28, you’d feel like, ‘I can barely lift this anymore.’ ”
They also actually had more weight than they planned — the sleds weighed in at 220 pounds each, 40 pounds heavier than initial estimates. So they were burning more calories. Their trainers had also suggested a rest day every 10 days. They had only taken one, yet their pace kept slowing — not a good sign.
They reached the point where they had to ration food again — cutting their daily caloric intake from 5,400 to 3,600.
On the 39th day, the strain threatened to break the couple. Chris Fagan felt she had reached her limit and suggested a second rest day. Marty Fagan thought his wife was risking the expedition, and said he would zip her into the sled and pull her himself if necessary. They were at a brittle impasse.
Desperate for a new voice, they phoned their friend, Leni, who had run many ultramarathons with them. Leni reminded them of the times in a race when every cell is screaming to stop, but the desire to finish keeps you going.
Chris Fagan said the words “I feel weak,” and somehow, she felt better. After the call, Marty and Chris Fagan’s tension dispelled. They compromised: they’d keep going, possibly slower, with less food.
On Jan. 18, 2014, with 100 yards to go, they called their son and yelled through tears: “Keenan, we are at the Pole!”
At 3 p.m. that day, they reached the South Pole and skied into the Guinness Book of World Records as the first American couple to ski to the Pole unassisted. Chris Fagan became the 18th woman to do so and the duo holds the record for fastest time by an unassisted couple.
It took three days longer than planned, but they did it — despite Marty Fagan’s broken ski, Chris Fagan’s menopausal hot flashes, and physical and emotional breaks for both.
“It was surreal,” Chris Fagan says. “All of the stress from the last 48 days instantly melted away. I was filled with the thrill of completion and an utter sense of contentment. My heart was bursting with joy and love. A feeling of lightness overwhelmed me, as if I might float away.”
Back home: A new paradigm
The trip was a life-changing experience for the Fagans.
“It just expanded our life and my ability to feel compassion for people who have been in those really low, judged places,” Chris Fagan says, adding that at times, like that low point on day 39, she stepped into a world she didn’t know existed; a place where “I pushed my mind and body to the limit, and now I’m past the limit, but I have to keep going.”
“You can reflect on how that is for people in their day-to-day life,” Chris Fagan says. “It really cracked me open.”
She learned that being strong and being vulnerable are not mutually exclusive — that sometimes her strength, when it became armor, could be a barrier to growth.
That perspective helped her through challenges that were coming. Chris Fagan’s father died two years after their return, soon followed by her mother in 2017.
In 2016, Marty Fagan was diagnosed with advanced squamous cell carcinoma — a slow-growing, currently incurable cancer. Chris Fagan’s response was to obsessively research and assemble a team of doctors. Her husband’s response was to run the 93-mile Wonderland Trail alone.
“We have used what we’ve learned about perseverance, taking one day at a time, and surrounding ourselves with a supportive community in this new journey we are on,” Chris Fagan says.
Marty Fagan continues to go all-out while undergoing immunotherapy treatment. He, Chris Fagan and Keenan have since trekked to Everest base camp, and the parents sailed and paddled Alaska’s Inside Passage in an outrigger sailing canoe in the Race to Alaska.
“I’ve always thought it was amazing what they did,” says Keenan, now 17, and a senior in high school. “There are only positive takeaways for me. It taught me to be a little more self-reliant, taught me to be more organized, but it also taught me they had this goal in mind and they worked to achieve it. I think that’s a big part of the lesson they wanted me to learn.”
That drive, Keenan says, has inspired him in all aspects of life. For instance, on a recent trip to Mount Kilimanjaro, it fueled his determination to summit — despite having stopped at 17,000 feet due to altitude sickness on a trip to Kilimanjaro seven years prior .
“This time I was thinking, ‘Even if I have to limp to the finish line, I’m going to do it,’ ” he said.
“The Expedition: Two Parents Risk Life and Family in an Extraordinary Quest to the South Pole,” by Chris Fagan, She Writes Press, 304 pp., $16.95