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Tom Crean, cont.

Part 2 - South with Scott

Discovery was Crean's Antarctic apprenticeship. He went on the very first man-hauling party of the Discovery expedition - a little 24 hour jaunt onto the Barrier that established a new "furthest south. Scott's No 2, Albert Armitage, was quick to spot a character in the making. In 1905 he wrote a very telling comment about the Irishman, saying:

Crean was an Irishman with a fund of wit and an even temper which nothing disturbed.

Scott, too, recognised the Irishman's qualities. After Discovery's return to Britain, he recommended Crean for promotion and in 1906 he asked Crean to serve with him in the Atlantic Fleet. Crean agreed and the relationship continued unbroken until January 1912 when they parted for the last time on the Polar plateau - barely 150 miles from the Pole.

Crean was among the first to sign up for the Terra Nova expedition. Scott wanted people he could trust, notably three stalwarts from the Discovery days - Bill Lashly, Edgar Evans and Tom Crean.

The fateful decision of who should go in the final party was taken by Scott when he stood only 150 miles from the South Pole. He took a party of five and left three men - Teddy Evans, Lashly and Crean - to make the run back to Hut Point. It was one of the greatest feats of Polar travel ever undertaken.

The 750-mile journey to Hut Point was literally a race for life. Only Evans could navigate and their sledgemeter had broken - so they had to rely heavily on their outward tracks to find their precious food depots. It was a perilous journey fraught with danger and at one stage the men became trapped in a maze of ice falls. With their food running out, they simply could not afford to get lost. The situation called for desperate measures.

Evans ordered the men to climb aboard the sledge and they kicked off downhill like crazed tobogganists. It was a toss-up between catastrophe or safety. Luckily they survived - though no one, especially the three tobogganists, knows how!

Worse followed when Evans began to show increasing signs of scurvy. Within 100 miles of the safety of Hut Point, he broke down and was unable to travel further. Evans ordered Crean and Lashly to leave him behind and save themselves. Crean and Lashly refused. Years later Evans remembered that moment as the only time in his distinguished naval career that anyone had disobeyed an order.

Despite their own hunger and exhaustion, Crean and Lashly placed Evans on the sledge and dragged him over the ice. But 35 miles from Hut Point their own strength finally gave out.They placed Evans in the tent and Lashly nursed him. And Tom Crean volunteered to walk 35 miles to Hut Point.

He had already marched for 3½ months, man-hauling a sledge for about 1500 miles over dreadful terrain in sub-zero temperatures on what we now know to be an inadequate, vitamin-deficient diet. But Crean strode off, bolstered only with two sticks of chocolate and three biscuits in his pocket. No sleeping bag or tent for protection. No hot drinks. No hot food.

He walked, stumbled and crawled for 18 hours. Over his shoulder a blizzard was starting to gather. But somehow he made the 35 miles. He opened the hut door and collapsed on the floor, delirious with exhaustion and hunger.

By an extraordinary stroke of luck, Atkinson, the only doctor within 400 miles, happened to be in the hut. He gave Tom a tot of brandy - and he was promptly sick. Within minutes of reaching the hut a ferocious blizzard struck the area. If Tom Crean had taken another 30 minutes to make the solo march he would have perished in the blizzard - and no one would have known that Lashly and Evans were stuck out on the Barrier.

Crean and Lashly were given the Albert Medal, then the nation's highest award for gallantry in saving the life of Teddy Evans. There was no greater feat of individual heroism in the history of Polar exploration than Crean's solo march to save the life of his commanding officer.

Inevitably, the incredible story of the last supporting party was totally overshadowed by the tragedy of the Polar party and it is little surprise that it has never quite received the attention it fully deserves. Luckily, one of the very few original Crean letters to survive tells the tale of the solo march. It is remarkable for the matter-of-fact, dismissive way in which his astonishing walk is explained:

...my long legs did the trick...But I must say I was pretty well done for when I finished.

There is no heroic language, no frills, no embroidery - and not a hint of self-acclaim. It is easy to understand why Shackleton wanted Tom Crean to accompany him on the legendary Endurance expedition in 1914.

Part 3: Endurance

Copyright © 2000 Michael Smith; about framheim; about the author