Tag Archives: Tom Crean


13 Jan

I am giving a number of talks on’ Shackleton’s Life and Times’ this year. He is of particular interest now because; a hundred years ago he was still trapped in the icy grip of the Weddell Sea – no hope of any communication or help in those days.
His third expedition, the ‘Trans Antarctic’ expedition is an heroic story, but when I come to the final section, the crossing of South Georgia, I tend to keep it brief: The audience has, after all by then, gone through his early life, the ‘Discovery’ and ‘Nimrod’ Expeditions, plus five sections of the Job’s Trials that was the ‘Trans Antarctic’ expedition.
But the crossing of South Georgia is an epic story in itself. Having arrived at South Georgia in the adapted whaler The James Caird’ after a voyage that Shackleton feared might end in disaster, the six-men crew landed in King Haakon Bay through a narrow gap in a line of reefs, a gap ‘like blackened teeth’, so narrow that they had to ship their oars to get through. But they landed on the uninhabited side of the island; the whaling station in Stromness was some 26 miles away. The James Caird could not sail around the island safely. so a journey had to be made on foot across an utterly unknown and forbidding series of mountains and glaciers. Shackleton picked two of his five companions: Tom Crean and Frank Worsley to make the journey with him.
Shackleton wrote later: ‘I know that over that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me we were four men not three’ – they were being looked after by an unknown being, a concept taken up by T.S.Eliot in The Waste Land.
The three started out early on 19 May 1916 moving by the light of the moon. The only one with mountain experience was Worsley. Each man carried a three- day food supply in his sock. They took a primus stove plus oil, a pot, matches, a compass, a chronometer, a rope, an adze and pieces of wood from the James Caird to use as walking sticks. Soon after starting they were in fog. They roped themselves together; Worsley the navigator came last, shouting directions.
As the morning advanced they found they had crossed the island at its narrowest point, but from their vantage point the mountains dropped precipitously ahead of them and they were forced backwards. Throughout the day impassable ridges stopped their progress. They were fatigued and frostbitten.
The next stage seems to me to be almost the most dispiriting. They arrived at a place where there were five craggy peaks ahead, blunt fingers reaching into the sky. They could not find a descent pathway from the first two gaps and had to go back. Each ascent was steeper than the previous one. The third (particularly exhausting), took them to 5.000 feet. Finally, at the most northern of the four gaps they looked onto a precipice that dropped 300 feet before disappearing into the mist (or eternity).
What to do? Although Shackleton was said to be a careful and cautious leader generally, he felt they had no choice; they had nothing to loose with twenty-five men depending on them. He consulted his companions. ‘Are you willing to take a risk’? They inched down the precipitous cliff, cutting footholds with the adze, until they arrived at a snowy slope with no visible bottom. With fantastic daring the three sat, one behind the other (as if on a toboggan) and took off. They seemed to shoot into space. They shouted with excitement as they slid down 900 feet in minutes. Incredibly the slope ended leveled out and ended in a bank of snow. They had made it!
But still the trial was not ended and the men were exhausted. Shackleton allowed Crean and Worsley to sleep for five minutes (keeping awake himself by an iron will) and woke them saying they had rested for half an hour. The three had to pass over yet another ridge to get down to the coast. They struggled on and by dawn of the second day they reached a gap from which they could both see Stromness and hear the 6.30 am whistle that woke the men in the station. At 7 am they heard it again. This was their first evidence of human habitation since December 1914.
Still the problems were not over. The three then had to descend to the station carefully along the banks of and in, an icy stream, then lower themselves by rope down a thirty foot waterfall. They waded through the water before finally staggering towards the station. They were filthy, tattered, with wild hair and beards (Worsley safety-pinned his clothes together so as not to give offence). They carried the logbook the adze and the cooker, lasting memorials of their ordeal.
At the station they were seen first by two boys who, reasonably, fled. When the manager came he said ‘Well’? ‘Don’t you know me said Shackleton’? I know your voice came the doubtful reply. ‘My name is Shackleton’.
Some of the station men wept.
Some say that Shackleton’s third Antarctic expedition should never have been made. Differing views are held, but for courage, endurance and leadership in adversity it is difficult to imagine anyone more capable of giving hope, inspiring admiration and instilling confidence.

Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914

28 Feb

On August 1, 1914. Ernest Shackleton set off on his hugely ambitious expedition: The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. His aim; to cross the Antarctic from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea via the South Pole. Amongst his crew was the experienced navigator, Frank Worsley and crewmen Ernest Wild and Tom Crean, all to be famous in Antarctic history. The photographer, who was to take wonderful images of ‘The Endurance’ in her death throes, was Frank Hurley. Shackleton’s plan had been formulated when news reached England that Amundsen, followed by Scott, had actually reached the Pole. There was no glory in being the third party to get there.

August 1914 was the start of WW1. Before sailing Shackleton offered ship and crew to the government. The First Sea Lord, Winston Churchill, no doubt be-devilled by multiple national concerns, replied ‘Proceed’

‘Endurance’ left South Georgia to go to Antarctica on 5/12/14. This was later than planned because of unusually severe pack ice. THREE days later the crew unexpectedly met with the pack. They were not to reach dry land for over 400 days. They were not to get back to the whaling station on South Georgia until 19/05/16, having spent seventeen months going round the Weddell Sea, surviving on pack ice and sailing perilously small sailing boats, firstly to Elephant Island and then back to South Georgia. The team never reached the continent. ‘Endurance’ sunk into the deep on November 21, 1915. It was written ‘that some failures are greater than success’ and this was one.

Had they landed, could the expedition have been successful? It seems improbable. Ranulph Fiennes’ very recent expedition, to achieve the traverse that Shackleton aimed for, well stocked, and well planned as it was, had to abandon the attempt after about 50 (of the 1800) miles of the crossing.  Vivian Fuchs who achieved the first crossing in 1957, was met at the South Pole by Edmund Hillary who had crossed from the Ross Base with supplies. Fuchs experienced as he was, had difficulty getting his snow cats (linked together by heavy- duty cable in case they fell into a crevasse), over the immense chasms south of the Weddell Sea.

Shackleton was aiming to cross with dogs and manpower. He HAD arranged for supplies, but not up to the Pole, just as far as the Beardmore Glacier.  It is difficult to imagine how he could have achieved his monumental ambition. The pack ice may have been the salvation of the expedition. 

Meeting at Jaffrey 15-17 June The SouthPole-sium

26 Jun

This was fantastic! About 60 delegates: authors, artists, mountaineers, collectors, dealers. A real meeting of minds and the hospitality and entertainment provided was fantastic too. All organized by Rob Stephenson of the Antarctic Circle. Jaffrey is a very attractive town and of course, New Hampshire is well known for its beauty.

Richard Pierce had a book launch for his new book ‘Dead Men’ which went well and many delegates contributed. To mention a few presentations, there were talks on the Japanese expedition to Antarctica of 1910, Tom Crean, The Falkland Islands, Antiquarian Collectors, Tristan da Cunha, The Scott Polar Research Institute, also beautiful Arctic images. It was a real meeting of minds. The emphasis was on short presentations and much discussion.

I spoke on Edgar Evans and also made a presentation in the ‘Toadstool Bookshop’ in nearby Peterborough.

It was a great occasion!