The Expedition: Two Parents Risk Life and Family in an Extraordinary Quest to the South Pole, by Chris Fagan, September 2019, 272 pages, published by She Writes Press, $16.95 paperback, $9.95 e-book.
Since the early 1900s when explorers like Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen sought to cross the ice of Antarctica to be the first to reach the South Pole – many dying in the process – Antarctica has held a certain fascination for many. Today’s explorers test themselves by crossing the continent on skis, using just human power, often seeking records for fastest time to the South Pole, or across the entire continent, or to the Pole and back to the continent’s edge.
In November 2013, Chris Fagan and her husband Marty set out on just such an extreme adventure: an unguided, unsupported 570-mile trek on skis from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole. Each would pull a 220-pound sled packed with enough gear and food for 45 days, sleeping in a small tent each night after 8-10 hours of hard effort to cover just 10-15 miles, struggling to avoid frostbite, to consume enough calories to maintain strength and weight throughout the journey. They would be the first American married couple to attempt this ordeal. And perhaps the most difficult aspect of their adventure: leaving their 12-year-old son Keenan behind, knowing there was a possibility that one or both of them would never return.
The Fagans are not unfamiliar with risk and challenge. They met on the face of Denali, each part of separate teams that happened to be summiting North America’s highest peak at the same time.
The Expedition is the compelling narrative of the Fagans’ arduous journey in a cold, white, often-windy and unforgiving environment, told from Chris’s perspective. The book starts with an idea proposed by Marty that grows into a plan requiring a couple years of research and training. Reaching mid-life, with demanding jobs, Chris and Marty are both ultra-distance trail runners who have completed hundred-mile races; they know intimately the emotional and physical ups and downs of an endurance event. To add to their existing endurance training and conditioning, they begin pulling SUV tires attached by harnesses, for hours on end, to simulate pulling a sled loaded with gear. They test clothing and gear while camping in the snowy Cascade Mountains of Washington near their home in North Bend, 30 miles east of Seattle. Yet how can one truly train for something that will take at least 45 days to complete?
Once an airplane drops them off and they’re alone on the ice of Antarctica, Chris and Marty must work as a team, depending solely on each other to survive harsh conditions. There’s little margin for error. It’s late November – summer in Antarctica – when temperatures range from the low teens on the edge of the continent to well below zero near the South Pole. Their route starts at 500 feet in elevation and will end at 9,300 feet. Chris is honest, sometimes brutally so, in describing what she and Marty experienced in this alien environment, offering details from the journal she kept about their daily routines surrounding food, clothing and personal hygiene, sharing the emotional ups and downs both felt day after day, their miscommunications and frustrations with each other especially when encountering fatigue and issues with gear, even how Chris dealt with her period while in that frozen environment. Overshadowing all these challenges for both is the pain of missing their son and family back home.
While planning their expedition, the Fagans developed relationships with school kids across the country who would follow them on their journey via daily blog posts sent by satellite phone. They also arranged for an entire team of family and friends to stay at their home with Keenan so that his routine could remain as normal as possible during their absence. Their ability to talk to Keenan by satellite phone, and to exchange texts with his caregivers, relieved some of their anxiety about leaving him behind while risking their own lives to pursue their dream.
Shortly before leaving for the bottom of the world, Chris wrote a letter to Keenan, the sort of letter meant to be read only if one dies. She offers Keenan answers to the questions, Why go? Why risk your lives when you have a child?
You deserve answers. 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. If I hadn’t chosen Antarctica, then I might have been trail running on a mountain in Patagonia, or climbing an unnamed mountain in Nepal, or sailing on the Pacific with friends. You may have been there too. You see, don’t be afraid of what will happen if you challenge yourself. You must do the things you think you cannot do. For you must live and use your gifts to the fullest, to share your light with the world. You never know what day will be your last, so don’t wait for the perfect moment to step out and into your full self.
Often the best parenting comes from showing, not telling; from being an example.
Chris’s writing is accessible and relatable. The book is chronological, from idea to planning to expedition, sharing significant and telling details culled from many of the 48 days it ultimately took them to achieve their goal. You’ll see the other-worldly landscape they confront. You’ll feel the cold temperatures made worse by wind; the stress of white-out conditions making navigating both harder and incredibly important to avoid mistaken miles; the frustration of skiing through endless sastrugi, the wind-carved waves of ice that make forward progress extra challenging while pulling a heavy sled that, at times, has a mind of its own; the claustrophobia of living each daylight-filled “night” (summer in Antarctica means round-the-clock daylight, also known as Midnight Sun) in a small tent. You’ll see a marriage laid bare and ultimately made stronger as they overcome these challenges together.
While few of us will undertake an expedition like that of the Fagans, we can learn from their experience, going along with them vicariously from the comfort of our cozy home. The Expedition is inspiring, motivating, moving, and ultimately life-affirming. Well worth reading.
The Expedition will be available September 2019. You can pre-order the book on Amazon.
(All photos courtesy Chris Fagan.)