"A man who wouldn’t have cared if he’d got to the Pole and God Almighty was standing there, or the Devil" – Tryggve Gran
|Tom Crean, pipe and puppies|
Crean was a colossus. A big, strong, outgoing man, he joined three Antarctic expeditions and on each he suffered appalling ordeals and responded with spectacular acts of bravery. He never weakened, never lost heart – nothing the deadly continent threw at him even made a dent.
He was unfailingly upbeat, always joking, always singing away to himself in an eccentric jumble of bum notes. He called himself “the wild man of Borneo”. His biographer, Michael Smith, calls him a “serial hero”. The man was virtually indestructible.
Crean enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1893, aged 15, and his first two trips South were with Captain Scott – on the Discovery in 1901 and the Terra Nova in 1910.
The Discovery trip was a journey into the unknown. Antarctica was a mystery at the time, the last unexplored continent on earth. But Crean took to polar exploration like a drake to water. Blizzards, frostbite, snow-blindness – he just sucked it all up.
By the time his second expedition on the Terra Nova came round he was an old-timer. And that’s when he began pulling off his wild heroics; when he started saving lives.
Birdie Bowers and the splendidly named Apsley Cherry-Garrard were the first men to owe him everything. One night the three explorers unwittingly camped on unstable sea ice – and were woken a few hours later by the sickening sound of the floor breaking up beneath them.
They found themselves trapped on a small floe, surrounded by loose ice and drifting out to sea. To add to the drama, killer whales were circling, looking for breakfast. “We had been in a few tight places,” recalled Bowers, “but this was the limit.”
Crean assessed the situation, calmly announced he was going for help – then he leapt off the floe onto another piece of ice floating past, and from there made slow but dogged progress back to solid ground, jumping from floe to floe, using the slippery, bobbing ice sheets as stepping stones, killer whales all around him.
It was a mad gamble. One slip and he’d be dead. But after several hours he was back with ropes and a rescue party to save his colleagues. “Oh, I just kept going pretty lively…” he said later, brushing off any talk of heroics, “them killers wasn’t too healthy company.”
A year later, Crean notched up heroic rescue number two. And this time he accomplished it with nothing less than the greatest solo polar march ever made.
Crean and two other colleagues – Teddy Evans and Bill Lashly – were returning to base after taking part in Scott’s fateful push to the South Pole in 1912. They’d been among eight men who got within 150 miles of the prize. Then Scott had split the group, sending the trio back and pushing on with the four other men who were to die at his side.
Some say Scott would have survived if he’d brought the indomitable Crean with him that day. Maybe, maybe not. But what is certain is that by sending Crean back, the captain saved Teddy Evans’s life instead.
Evans, Crean and Lashly’s grim 750-miles trudge homewards was a race for survival. From the start, things went awry. The temperature dropped alarmingly. They got lost. They suffered snow-blindness. Then something happened that would have ended lesser men – Evans’s legs began to swell, his teeth became loose and he began to haemorrhage. He had scurvy.
Evans was soon too weak to walk. So Crean and Lashly lay him on the sledge and pulled him, two men doing the work of three, silently plodding through the snow at a rate of just one mile an hour.
It was a hopeless situation. The pace was too slow and their food was running out. At this speed they would all starve and freeze to death. Evans told his companions to leave him on the ice and save themselves; they refused.
The pair towed the dying Evans like that for almost a week through the icy wilderness, two brave men fighting a losing battle. On the sixth day, hungry and exhausted, they could pull no more: they were shattered. Only a miracle could save them now.
Thankfully, the wild man of Borneo had one up his sleeve. Leaving Lashly to nurse Evans, he volunteered to walk on alone to the expedition base at Hut Point and fetch help. Hut Point was 35 miles away – 35 miles across the most hostile terrain on the planet.
Crean had no skis, no tent, no means of navigation, no hot food. If there was a blizzard or if he got lost, he was dead. If he fell and injured himself, he was dead. And if he failed, all three men would perish.
He folded his arms across his face as a shield against the bitter wind and subzero temperatures, and strode off into the white wilderness. In his pocket he had three biscuits and two sticks of chocolate, his only food.
The wild man trudged for 16 miles before taking his first break. He stopped for five minutes, ate two biscuits and the chocolate and then marched on. He halted again after another 14 miles, sitting down on the ice this time. He had another “meal”: the last biscuit and a lump of snow. Then, with storm clouds pressing in, he got up and moved on once more.
You can imagine Crean quietly singing away to himself as he fought his way forward, sometimes slipping on the ice underfoot or sinking up to his thighs in soft snow. He walked for 18 hours through that hell, alone. It was an astonishing display of mental and physical toughness; an almost superhuman effort.
And of course he made it. At 3.30am on 19 February, 1912, he stumbled into Hut Point and fell to his knees. The alarm was raised, a rescue party dispatched and Evans and Lashly were saved.
A young Norwegian explorer, Tryggve Gran, saw Crean stagger through the door that day and never forgot him. Many years later, he recalled: “[Crean was] a man who wouldn’t have cared if he’d got to the Pole and God Almighty was standing there, or the Devil. He called himself the “Wild Man from Borneo” and he was”.
Crean, typically, downplayed his great march. “Well Sir, I was very weak when I reached the hut,” he wrote to a friend in another classic of understatement.
The wild man of Borneo was born and raised in Kerry, a farm boy, one of ten kids. He wasn’t British at all; he was as Irish as stout. But like that other wild Irishman Lucknow Kavanagh before him, he made a massive contribution to Britain’s reputation for grit and backbone, serving in the Royal Navy and taking part in British expeditions. So off the back of that, he’s included here: a kind of honorary great “British” nutter.
The honorary nutter pulled off heroic rescue number three on his final journey South in 1914 – and this time it was a team effort. Crean sailed on the Endurance with Ernest Shackleton, another tough Irishman known to his men as the Boss. Together the pair made a formidable team.
The Endurance expedition was a glorious failure. Shackleton’s mad plan had been to walk straight across the Antarctic continent – 1,800 miles coast to coast – with six men, Crean among them. No one had ever done it before. He called it the “last great journey on earth”.
But Endurance never even made it to the dropping off point. As she approached the Antarctic coast, the ship got stuck fast in heavy pack and sat trapped in the ice for an incredible 10 months, all the time slowly drifting north on the sea current – away from their destination.
Finally, after being crunched and crushed for almost a year, her stern rose dramatically into the air and she sank. The ice had swallowed her. And the adventurers who had sailed in her were left marooned on a floe, adrift on a floating ice-sheet 1,000 miles from the nearest human settlement.
That fragile ice floe was to be their home for nearly six months, 28 men crammed into five tents and surviving on a relentless diet of penguin and seal meat that soon had them all farting like thunder. They had enough fuel for one cup of hot tea each a day. And they had three small open boats that had been salvaged from the Endurance – their only slim hope for survival.
By April, 1916, the castaways had drifted nearly 2,000 miles north and were rapidly heading for open water. The ice beneath them started to crumble. Breakout was imminent. At last, the men clambered into the three tiny vessels and cast off in search of land.
The voyage that followed was torture. Waves crashed over the men day and night. Killer whales jostled the boat. Their clothes froze solid on their backs. Salt spray constantly slashed at their faces, leaving their mouths raw and bloody.
After five days afloat, the exhausted, terrified men began to crack. One guy had a nervous breakdown; others became delirious from thirst; a hardened sailor covered his face with his hands and wept in despair. The little flotilla was turning into a drifting asylum.
Not Crean though. He took the tiller of the smallest of the three boats, the Stancomb Wills, and steered her through the lumpy, frozen sea with a calm determination. As all around him lost their heads, he remained resolute. Occasionally he sang a tuneless little song to himself. And after a week of misery he successfully landed his desperate companions on Elephant Island, a grim, uninhabited chunk of rock in the middle of the South Atlantic.
All three boats made it safely ashore, spilling their loads of half-crazed sailors onto the beach. One guy was so unhinged he started slaughtering seals with an axe; another had a heart attack. It was the first time they’d set foot on solid ground since 5 December, 1914 – 497 days before.
But they couldn’t stay on Elephant Island. Every man knew they would never be found on that isolated rock. So Shackleton announced his next ludicrous plan: he would take five men and sail 800 miles to the nearest inhabited island, South Georgia, and there he’d get help, find a ship, and return to save his stranded companions.
Eight hundred miles – that was ten times the distance they’d just travelled. They’d have to sail an open boat across the most fearsome ocean on the planet, in winter. They’d face gales and mountainous waves. If they got their navigation even slightly off, they’d be swept past their goal into 3,000 miles of ocean and lost forever. It was virtually a suicide mission. Crean volunteered to go with the Boss.
The six men set off on Easter Monday, 1916, in the James Caird, a 22-foot whaler, the largest of the three boats. Their voyage made the journey to Elephant Island look like a Caribbean cruise.
Permanently wet and frozen to the marrow, the men’s feet and legs turned a ghostly white. Frostbite and filth made their faces black. Their throats became so swollen it was almost impossible to eat or speak.
The James Caird became encased in ice and almost sunk from the weight. One night a gigantic freak wave came out of nowhere and nearly finished them. They battled a hurricane and only just survived. By the end of the voyage, two of the six on board were broken men and close to death.
And Crean? Here’s Shackleton: “One of the memories that comes to me from those days is of Crean singing at the tiller and nobody ever discovered what the song was. It was devoid of tune and as monotonous as the chanting of a Buddhist monk at his prayers; yet somehow it was cheerful.”
The six desperate men were barely able to walk up the beach when they finally landed on South Georgia after 17 days of hell at sea. Yet, incredibly, still their ordeal wasn’t over. Now they were going to have to march right across the island to reach the Stromness whaling station where they hoped to find help.
South Georgia is a barren wilderness in the middle of the ocean, its interior a chaos of mountains, glaciers and crevasses. No one had ever crossed it before; no one was even sure if it was possible. But three of the James Caird's crew – Shackleton, Crean and another stalwart, Frank Worsley - were about to give it a crack. The fate of the entire Endurance expedition now lay in this trio’s hands.
Leaving their shipmates, the men headed up into the unnamed mountains with a 90-foot rope, two compasses and a carpenter’s adze to use as an ice axe. Each carried his rations in a sock. They had neither a tent nor sleeping bags.
On the first night of the crossing, they found themselves stuck on a high peak in the middle of the island. Thick fog was closing in behind, ahead lay a dangerous icy slope that would take hours to negotiate – and if they didn’t get down fast they would die of exposure.
“We’ll slide,” said the ever-optimistic Shackleton – and that’s exactly what they did. Sitting on the coiled rope, their legs and arms wrapped around the man in front, they went flying off down the mountain on their makeshift toboggan – amazed to find themselves oblivious to the danger and yelling like schoolboys at the sudden and unexpected burst of joy.
Brought to a sudden halt by a snowbank, Crean, Worsley and the Boss dusted themselves down, shook hands rather solemnly, and strode firmly onwards, their trousers now in tatters.
As they approached Stromness they tried to smarten themselves up a bit in case there were women at the base. This was a task beyond even these three. They’d been wearing the same ragged clothes for more than a year, they hadn’t washed for three months, and they’d been on the march for 36 hours. Two children were the first to see them approach - they fled in fear.
The Endurance had berthed at South Georgia on her way South 18 months earlier. But nobody at the quayside recognised the three long-haired, wild-eyed wanderers who arrived out of nowhere that day.
They were taken to the station manager who gaped in disbelief before speaking. A Norwegian worker recalled, in broken English, what happened next: “Manager say: ‘Who the hell are you?’ and terrible bearded man in the centre of the three say very quietly: ‘My name is Shackleton.’ Me – I turn away and weep.”
Even Tom Crean admitted things had been a bit hairy on that third and final expedition to the bottom of the world. “We had a hot time of it the last 12 months when we lost Endurance and I must say the Boss is a splendid gentleman,” he wrote to his old mate Cherry-Garrard when he got home.
But once again his guts and pluck had helped turn a disaster into victory. Crean didn’t die and nor did his colleagues: amazingly, not a single man on the Endurance expedition was lost.
Crean hung up his mitts and snow boots after that and settled into a quiet life back in Ireland. He married, raised a family and opened a pub called the South Pole Inn. The stories he had to tell could have made that pub – any pub – fall silent in awe. But he preferred not to talk about it. As modest as ever, he politely changed the subject if anyone asked him about Antarctica.
He never gave a single interview, never published his memoirs, never even spoke to his family about his adventures. Only his ears hinted at what he’d been through: they were stiff from the effects of frostbite. And his feet, hidden beneath specially made boots, had turned black.
The indestructible Tom Crean died on 27 July, 1938, in a Cork hospital. The man who rescued Teddy Evans and could have saved Scott, the backbone of the Endurance miracle, the wild man of Borneo was felled by, of all things, a burst appendix. Infection set in and he was dead in a week. He’d just turned 61.
* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post on this blog, but have started a new one called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow me on Twitter @historynuts or at facebook.com/historynuts. Thanks again!
Smith, Michael, An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean - Antarctic Survivor (Cork, 2000)
Alexander, Caroline, The Endurance, Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition (London, 1998)
Fiennes, Ranulph, Captain Scott (London, 2003)
Lane, Anthony, Nobody's Perfect (New York, 2002)