In January 2014, Chris Fagan stepped out of the plane she’d taken from Chile — and onto Antarctica.
The pilot helped Fagan, and her husband Marty, unload their 220-pound sleds, hopped back in the plane, and wished them luck. The image of that plane taking flight, turning into a small dot, and disappearing, is one Fagan will never forget.
“It was super excited to finally start, but also daunting at the same time to realize ‘OK, here we go. Just you and me and these sleds, and this wide-open nothingness,’” she recalled.
The North Bend couple were beginning what would become a 570-mile journey across the frozen continent to the South Pole. For 48 days they toiled on their skis, hauling their gear behind them, across the snow and ice.
The journey is difficult, and just more than 100 people have made it in the manner the Fagans did. And it took years of planning and rigorous training before the couple finally flew from Seattle to Chile, and took a final connection flight to the Ronne-Ice Shelf on Antarctica.
But even getting to that point was an ordeal unto itself.
It was three years earlier when Marty brought up the idea for the trek. The couple were no strangers to extreme adventure. They met on a climb up Mt. Denali in Alaska, and shared a love for mountaineering and trail running. Eventually, they moved out to North Bend to be closer to the Cascades’ trails.
“Adventure was really embedded in our day-to-day life,” Fagan said.
But it wasn’t until 2010, when they were both in peak physical shape in their late 40s, that they decided to tackle Antarctica. They had spent years running long-distance marathons, endurance races and jogging down mountain passes.
The couple began researching and planning for the trip. They read books, but what proved most helpful was talking with the small band of people who had made the journey before them — without direct support, guides and while carrying everything with them.
And the couple started a grueling training regimen. They would tie SUV tires together, and each would drag two around every day for hours on end. On their longest training day, they started hauling their tires near Rattlesnake Lake, and walked to the far side of the Snoqualmie Valley Tunnel.
Often, they would find themselves hiking around the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, or along Iron Horse.
While the tires weren’t as heavy as their sleds, the friction gave a good approximation of what they would be hauling on their journey. And the daily routine simulated what was to come. They bulked up too, with Fagan gaining 12 pounds of muscle mass — valuable banked calories she would burn through during the trip.
Their training paid off.
In Antarctica, Fagan said the temperature was often 20 degrees below zero, and got colder as they got to the pole. It’s also the windiest place on earth, and as they traversed the frigid landscape, they were usually heading into the wind.
“All that made it challenging,” Fagan said. “As well as you couldn’t talk during the day because of the wind.”
Day after day, the Fagans skied onward. They would wake in the morning, melt snow, eat and pack up before skiing up to 14 miles a day. Before going to bed, they would call in to the base camp on the coast of Antarctica with one of their satellite phones, and deliver their coordinates.
The days had their ups and downs, Fagan said. She remembered the perfect day on the snow.
There was a blue, clear sky stretching out over the ice. The temperature was a little warmer, the wind had died down and the terrain was easier to navigate than the day before. The snow beneath their skis allowed them to glide a bit, and she had music playing in her earbuds. It felt like she was floating over the ice, flying over the continent.
“Everything came together,” she said. “This is why I’m doing this.”
But there were bad days too. Around day 40 of their 48-day trek, they were both worn out. Their minds and bodies were spent and fraying. Fagan wasn’t sleeping well, and it was a white-out day, when visibility was next to nothing. She spent the day’s journey staring at her compass and trying to keep Marty in sight.
“It’s just mentally so gruelling,” she said.
At the end of the day, she flopped into their tent and burst into tears. Fagan said it was her lowest point. Still, they kept moving.
They drew nearer to the South Pole, and the U.S. research facility Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Two days out, they hit the polar plateau. It was less bumpy, and they were looking forward to an easier stretch. But a new snow made it harder to drag their sleds.
Eventually Fagan noticed a glint on the horizon.
“I literally fell over because I was so excited that it might be the South Pole station,” she said.
It was, and the next day before they pulled into the station, they called their 12-year-old son, Keenan. After reaching the station, they were flown out and eventually arrived back in Seattle.
Fagan said the trek felt like a pinnacle. They’re not trying to top it, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still adventuring.
Since then, they’ve gone on a trip to Nepal, up to the Mt. Everest base camp with their son, and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. They can also be found circling Mt. St. Helens or hiking the Mt. Rainier Wonderland trail.
Six months after arriving back from Antarctica, Fagan decided to write a book about the adventure. It took some time, but the book was eventually published last year. She described it as a labor of love that took some detours.
“But the book was always there trying to get finished,” she said.
On Dec. 2, Friends of the North Bend Library is hosting Fagain for their semi-annual Valley Reads program online. Free copies of her book, The Expedition, will be given to attendees who will have a chance to talk with Fagan.