Some men are simply built of a different constitution.
By all accounts, Tom Crean seems to have been that friend who is quietly competent. You know the buddy who doesn’t talk about being a badass, he just gets things done? He’s the one breaking trail or silently lugging more than his fair share of gear on a group trip or making the hero line look easy. Of course, those are 21st century examples of fun. Crean was an Antarctic explorer in the early 1900s, and the realities he faced were terrifying to the extreme, with legitimate life and death consequences.
Crean was born to a large family in County Kerry, Ireland, on February 25, 1877. As one of 10 children, his options on the family land were limited, so he enlisted in the Royal Navy at the age of 15. Irish to the core, his drinking and boisterousness earned him a reputation for being a little wild at his naval post in New Zealand. Crean must have purged his system of his youthful drama early on, because never again would anyone publicly refer to him as anything other than a strong and steady, calming force.
Three Times to Antarctica – Each More Treacherous than the Previous
The year was 1901 and the race to the poles was on. It was the kickoff to what is now referred to as the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. First by chance, then by design, Tom Crean was a central player from start to finish.
British Captain Robert Falcon Scott was in New Zealand readying a crew and his ship, the Discovery, for a geographic and scientific expedition of Antarctica. When one of the crew went AWOL last minute, Tom Crean was granted permission to join the expedition.
The Discovery Expedition (1901-1904) yielded important geographic knowledge of the Ross Sea, coastal and ice shelf regions of that sea, McMurdo Sound, and Victoria Land. Reaching the South Pole was a glimmer in Scott’s eye, but it was not an objective of this mission. Despite that the Discovery required rescue by another ship and that the science from the trip was suspect, the expedition was generally considered a success for the sheer quantity of information gathered.
While the men weren’t met with any particular hardship beyond the expected difficulties of Antarctic travel, Crean still earned formal recognition by Scott for “meritorious service throughout.” When challenged by -54º F temperatures and falling through the ice into frigid waters, he proved his mettle by remaining composed and unwavering.
The South Pole Attempt
Seven years later, Captain Scott received British backing for a second Antarctic expedition. This time, the objective was ironclad: be the first to reach the South Pole.
Crean had proven his worth on the Discovery and was immediately welcomed on the Terra Nova trip (1911-1913). His heroism on this second trip would be one of the only good things to come from the expedition.
Scott’s Terra Nova team was in a race against Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s crew to be the first to the South Pole. After failed attempts to learn the fine art of dog sledding, Scott opted for horse-pulled sledges. (Though a sledge is the same thing as a sled, polar explorers seem to prefer the British term.) To put it bluntly, this was a mistake. The horses were not suited to polar travel and were dismissed one by one, leaving the men to drag the heavy, clumsy sledges.
Stemming from Scott’s unfortunate choices, the Terra Nova crew had one setback after another. They were set up for an exhausting route with inefficient means. Scott had not predetermined which members of the team would continue on each leg of the journey. The result was that no one knew who should preserve energy. All of the men went full-out, every day.
Crean’s fitness and mental fortitude became evident, as he was universally recognized as the strongest man on the expedition. When the team was within 500 miles of the Pole, Scott selected the crew for the final push. Everyone was shocked, none more so than Crean, when Crean was not chosen to go to the pole. To make matters worse, Scott elected to bring four men with him. This left Crean with only two other men to pull a four-man sledge the 750 miles back to base camp.
One of the men, Teddy Evans, was near death from scurvy and starvation. Crean and the third man, Bill Lashly, placed Evans on the sledge and the two men dragged the awkward and stupidly heavy apparatus across uneven ice and snow. When they were four to five days out from their destination, Evans became too sick to continue. It would take too long for all three to travel together with the sledge. Lashly stayed to comfort and care for Evans, and Crean took off alone to retrieve help. He walked solo for 35 miles across the Ross Ice Shelf of Antarctica. He continued for 18 hours straight, fueled by a mission to save his friends’ lives.
Crean’s heroic effort was successful and Evans and Lashly survived. Lashly and Crean were awarded Albert Medals, a high honor to recognize gallantry and extraordinary efforts to save a life.
Scott’s efforts, meanwhile, were doomed. Amundsen and his team traveled by dog sled and reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911. Completely unaware of the achievement, Scott and his team of four were floundering 400 miles behind. They pressed on and eventually reached the South Pole 34 days after Amundsen. They found the Norwegians’ tent, flag, and a note. Mentally and physically defeated, all five men died on the return trip.
Round Three: Shackleton and the Endurance – The Imperial Trans-Atlantic Expedition
After the disappointment and devastation of the Terra Nova Expedition, Crean could have been forgiven for calling it quits in Antarctica. Apparently, his drive was too strong. Plus, his experience and strength were too important for Earnest Shackleton to ignore when he was granted his own Antarctic expedition.
Shackleton had been an officer on the Discovery, though he and Scott did not see eye-to-eye and parted ways after the trip. It was now 1914. Amundsen had been the first to reach the Pole, but no one had yet crossed the entirety of Antarctica by land. That was Shackleton’s goal.
Most people are familiar with Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition as the greatest survival story of all time. The highlights (lowlights?) remain jaw-dropping no matter how many times they are replayed. Each man on the expedition displayed heroic levels of courage and tenacity, regardless of their role.
Tom Crean was no different. His exception came only in that he fought for his place on each of the scariest and most dangerous experiences of the trip. He earned his rights through strength and quiet leadership, but he also insisted on putting himself in danger so that others less healthy could have better odds at survival.
Jumping into the meat of the legendary story, the Endurance became trapped in the ice. When it came time to abandon the destroyed ship, the men set up a temporary base called Patience Camp. They survived on rations from the ship and then by killing their sled dogs for meat. This was a necessary decision, but was particularly difficult for Crean, who was one of the dog handlers. He had even cared for an unexpected litter of puppies that was born during the trip. The emotional toil was about to meet its physical match.
When the Patience Camp ice floe began to break up, the cold and weakened team set sail in three lifeboats, the largest of which was 23.5 feet. They sailed and rowed for seven days to reach the nearest terra firma – uninhabited Elephant Island. Conditions were abysmal. Men were seasick and rotting with dysentery. They were constantly doused with frigid sea water and subzero temperatures. When the senior officer in his lifeboat became too sick, Crean took over without drama or anarchy. He simply did what needed to be done to make it safely to land, and the crew noted his calm façade in the face of truly horrific conditions.
Reaching Elephant Island was just a stop-gap measure. The next, more dangerous leg of survival was sailing across the violent Weddell Sea to make contact with whalers on South Georgia Island. Crean convinced Shackleton to bring him along, as the bulk of the men remained on shore. He was not the most experienced seaman, but he had proven time again to be inordinately strong – both mentally and physically. He was calm and reassuring to the others under unthinkable adversity. They didn’t know that they’d only yet scratched the surface of that adversity.
The 800-nautical mile (920 miles) voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island was as damning as you’d imagine. Enormous rogue waves dwarfed the little lifeboat. When not rowing, men were chipping ice off the gunwales. Not only were they navigating in open seas, they were avoiding icebergs and constantly bailing water from the boat. They were drenched all the time and survived for two weeks at sea with little food and even less fresh water to drink.
That’s enough to break a man, right? No. Joy at having spotted South Georgia Island was quickly replaced with dread when there was nowhere to land the boat on the rocky promontories. As they tirelessly rowed – seeking a soft landing – a hurricane rolled in. Yeah. Because they hadn’t been through enough already, the six men in a lifeboat rode out an Antarctic hurricane that sank a massive Argentinian ship not 10 miles away. Everyone on that ship died.
The crew would later reminisce about Crean’s singing whenever he was at the helm. What he lacked in talent, he more than made up for in his ability to bring a certain peacefulness to an unthinkable situation. His presence calmed people. His strength gave them strength to continue.
After two days of riding out the hurricane at sea, Crean took the lead at rowing the boat to shore. As everyone else attempted to recuperate at least minimally, Crean immediately went in search of a cave for shelter for the crew. Survival was at stake.
The ordeal was not over. It turns out, the lifeboat crew was on the opposite side of the island from the whaling settlements. Crean, with Shackleton and one other man, set out on the landward part of their journey. In 37 hours straight, they crossed the alpine-like interior of the island. They slid down snowy mountainsides, tied together with a rope, and had to risk questionable choices on routes that were determined more by their exhaustion than by prudent overland preferences.
Crean never wavered and all members of the Endurance expedition were eventually rescued – alive. It’s not accurate to give him full credit in this amazing survival story, but it is fair to give credence to a man who made others stronger simply by being present. He didn’t demand authority; he earned respect. And through his own tenacity and emotional equilibrium, he contributed to turning adventure stories from tragedies to triumphs.
After the Endurance expedition, Tom Crean finished out his term in the Royal Navy. In 1920, he returned to County Kerry and opened the South Pole Inn and pub with his wife. He died in 1938, at age 61, from a burst appendix. A glacier and an Antarctic peak are named in his honor.
Photos by Herbert Ponting, Frank Hurley, and Robert Falcon Smith.