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
Through Boldly Went, travel, trail running and hiking we've gotten to know a lot of remarkable people, but Chris and Marty Fagan are definitely some of the most impressive. We met Chris originally through the trail running community in the Seattle area, and since the Fagans have shared at one of our original Boldly Went proto-events - "Grit and Grace", been featured on our podcast about the 2019 Race to Alaska, and most recently shared a story live at one of our Tacoma events.
Chris recently completed a book called "The Expedition" about maybe their biggest adventure - when she and her husband Marty became the first American married couple to ski unsupported and unguided to the South Pole. If you like Boldly Went, I'm confident you're going to like this book.
In November 2013, Chris and Marty Fagan were dropped off on an ice shelf on the edge of Antarctica, put on their skis, and spent 48 days dragging themselves and all of their supplies across 500 miles of ice and snow to the South Pole, becoming the first American married couple to have done so without a guide or support. Her book, "The Expedition," is a well-written and well-paced chronicle of that experience that starts in the beginning - from the time she and Marty first met while climbing Denali in treacherous conditions, through their subsequent marriage and adventure life together in the ultra-running and mountaineering worlds, on to this specific quest itself.
The description of the 48 days they spent in Antarctica is an enjoyable and interesting read, and does a great job of describing the challenges of just existing in Antarctica - how do you take a leak when you'll get frostbite on any exposed skin in minutes, for instance, and how do you manage if you can't wash clothes or shower on an almost two month adventure? It also does a great job of describing the physical and psychological challenges associated with 48 straight 8 - 10 hour days of maximum effort in an unforgiving environment where there are literally no other people (or any other kind of mammal, for that matter) for hundreds of miles. Chris captures some of the small moments along the way - their first Ramen meal on the ice, struggles with dealing with navigation in white out conditions, managing early signs of frost bite - in a way that brings you into the experience in a relatable way. The most striking physical challenge beyond the expected cold and isolation were the miles of "sastrugi" that they had to contend with - imagine trying to cross country ski over frozen waves of varying heights - from speed bumps to rollers taller than they were.
Reading about the physical challenges of the adventure was interesting, but for me what sets this book apart as one to pick up when there are hundreds of adventure chronicles out there is the perspective that Chris gives into what this experience was like for her as a mother and a member of a family.
The book spends a lot of time on the lead up to the expedition, so readers get the sense of how big this thing actually was. Chris and Marty spent a small mortgage worth of personal money on the expedition, and devoted their life to it for several years. They focused their physical energy on it, Marty left a long time job, and you get the sense that their entire community was involved in the expedition in some way or another. While they were in Antarctica for under two months, everything in their life had to center on preparations for the year prior.
Chris doesn't necessarily play up the fact that this is a book about adventure from a wife and mother's perspective, but it is, and that's one of the things that makes it particularly interesting. The husband-wife dynamic day after day on the ice and in the tent is interesting, and navigating life and death and exhaustion of every type with a spouse was a big theme in the book. There were anecdotes in the lead up to the trip about family and friends who questioned their responsibility as parents leaving a child behind to risk their lives on something like this, and as someone who loves big travel and outdoor adventures, that was relatable.
Chris wrestles with those types of questions extensively as a theme throughout the book, and to me the most intriguing moments were when she wrote about how the trip was impacting her relationship with her son Keenan - in both challenging and inspiring ways. The most striking moment in the whole book, in my opinion, was when Chris shared a letter she wrote to Keenan to be given to him if she didn't come back - essentially a goodbye letter on the occasion of her death. The letter brought the seriousness of the experience into focus, and her reflection on the experience of writing the letter produced, to me, the most memorable quote in the book:
“My conversation with death prepared me to live.”
One of the big takeaways of an adventure like this one is that we're all mortal, and it's only when we come to terms with death that we can put our lives in their proper context - whether or not we're choosing the risks we take consciously.
In the end the book flips the script on the narrative that adventure is selfish. I don't want to reveal too much about one of the central tensions in the book, but I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that in the end, as a reader I felt that the positives for their family in the experience far outweighed the negatives.
Taken as a whole, the book does a great job of showing how optimism, planning, sheer toughness, commitment, and a little bit of a “haters gonna hate” attitude got Chris and Marty through not just Antarctica but the social and emotional challenges that come along with a big, scary expedition. It's a book that's satisfying as a chronicle of a massive, record setting expedition, but in the bigger picture was a great read because it dealt in interesting ways with social and relational issues that often are only peripheral in adventure literature.
If you want to buy the book, predictably enough, it's for sale on Amazon, but also look out for it at REI stores and other purveyors of fine adventure literature.
And if you're a fan of adventure and reading, pick up a copy of our book, The Dirtbag's Guide to Life: Eternal Truth for Hiker Trash, Ski Bums, and Vagabonds.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.