Six Lessons from Skiing to the South Pole

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Chris Fagan and her husband decided to ski 570 miles from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole, setting a world record. Here's what she learned along the way.

I met my husband Marty in 1998 while on separate self-supported climbing expeditions on Denali in Alaska. A year later, we married and pledged a life of adventure together. Over the past 20 years—whether hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro (with our ten-year-old son), running 100-mile trail races, or kayaking the Broken Island Group as a family—adventure has connected us to each other and the wild places we love to explore.

At midlife, the otherworldliness of an expedition in Antarctica called to us. After three years of preparation, we set off to undertake one of the hardest challenges on the planet: ski 570 miles from the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole. Dragging 220-pound sleds. With no guide or resupply. After 48 days of stretching mind, body and marriage to the limit, Marty and I arrived at the bottom of the earth. We became the first American married couple to complete such a journey.

What wisdom did the White Wonder share? Here are the six lessons I learned along the way to the bottom of the earth. You can hear more of my story on the Wild Ideas Worth Living podcast.

1. Befriend your fears

When initially considering a journey to the South Pole, I felt the paralyzing impact of fear. I feared I lacked the skill for an unguided expedition, despite being an accomplished adventurer. I feared we might emotionally damaging my 12-year-old son by leaving for two months, and that moms would judge me as selfish. I worried about all of the unknowns that come with a major expedition.

Once aware of my fears, I could address each one. My husband and I researched past Antarctic expeditions and trained with polar experts to build confidence. We focused on why Antarctica was right for us—because it aligned with our core belief that the best way to live a good life is to seek challenge and take risks, try new things and push into the unknown—and stopped worrying what others thought. Fear diminished but wasn’t distinguished. I bravely moved forward, arm-in-arm with fear.

2. Accept the uncontrollable

In Antarctica, the cloudy sky and snowy landscape often merged into one. A whiteout. Like skiing inside of an egg, whiteouts completely disoriented and demanded relentless focus to stay the course.

To avoid creating stress and struggle, I learned to accept that I cannot control the uncontrollable. Trying to wish away whiteouts wasn’t a productive strategy. I can control what I think about whiteouts—as well as sticky snow, -45-degree temperatures, heavy sleds or Marty’s broken ski. By accepting what I cannot change, I learned to practice patience during whiteouts and welcome blue sky days.

3. Silence isn’t to be filled; it’s to be felt

In Antarctica, beyond human-made sounds—skis scraping against snow, poles stabbing ice, breath hissing inside my face mask—was a silence that I had never known. For eight-plus hours a day, the silence was my constant companion. Sometimes I filled the silence with music or audiobooks or drifting thoughts. Sometimes I simply endured it.

One night, with only a wisp of wind in the air, I stood motionless outside the tent in the profound stillness. I could no longer tell where my body ended, and the ice and sky began, all connected as one by the silence. Later, as I lay inside the tent snuggled inside my sleeping bag, I realized that silence wasn’t to be filled—it was to be felt.

4. Connection pulls you forward

Reaching big goals requires us to dig deep, to push mentally and physically, to stretch ourselves into the unknown. In Antarctica, by day 38, I felt I might break into pieces from exhaustion and isolation. I couldn’t push any harder to reach daily mileage goals.

So I released myself from the grip of self-criticism caused by unmet goals. Antarctica whispered in my ear: Try being pulled forward by the energy and love of all of the people back home cheering for you. Soon, heavy legs felt light, and I focused on what I could accomplish instead of what I couldn’t. I became happy to move forward, one ski and a time, powered by positive energy.

5. Strength and vulnerability aren’t mutually exclusive

Once I had passed my limits in Antarctica, I felt exposed, like a naked child standing in the bitter cold. One day I stopped dead in my ski tracks. I realized that somewhere along the line, I had developed a deep-seated belief that being strong means being worthy of love and belonging, and being weak doesn’t. In that moment, I felt weak and inadequate.

Antarctica taught me I don’t have to earn love and belonging. I don’t have to prove my worth by wearing strong armor. Now I show up in the world as strong and vulnerable and feel more authentic, human, and free.

6. What’s your South Pole?

While a South Pole expedition may seem cold and daunting, fitting adventure into life doesn’t need to feel so extreme. Upon returning from Antarctica, my husband and I spent a chunk of time resting and recovering. I began noticing that mini-adventures—whether running on my favorite trail or trying a new Thai food recipe—can deliver satisfying surges of energy and excitement, just like more significant journeys.

Adventure awakens our curiosity and is a catalyst for growth and discovery. Whatever journey sparks your interest, start moving towards it. Then connect to wild places in the world and within yourself. You can read more about my trip to the South Pole in my book, The Expedition.