I recently had the chance to visit the village of Annascaul on the stunningly beautiful Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. The attraction in Annascaul was the South Pole Inn, opened by Annascaul native Tom Crean after his retirement from the Royal Navy. Crean was, by all accounts, a modest man reluctant to draw attention to himself, but he was one of the heroes of the golden age of Antarctic exploration. Crean was a member of two of Robert Scott’s Antarctic expeditions, and on Scott’s final expedition he saved the life of one of his comrades by volunteering to walk 35 miles across the Ross Ice Shelf to get help.
I first became aware of Crean because of his involvement in Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914, which failed in its goal of traversing Antarctica but which justly became famous as one of the most amazing survival stories in history. (The best account of that expedition remains, in my view, Alfred Lansing’s 1958 classic, Endurance). Crean played an important role in helping Shackleton rescue all of his men after the expedition’s ship was trapped and crushed in the pack ice. Shackleton chose Crean to be on the of the five men to accompany him on the 800 mile journey in a small boat through some of the roughest seas on the planet from Elephant Island to South Georgia, and Crean was one of the three men to cross the South Georgia Alps without a map or proper mountaineering gear to get help at the whaling station on the other side of South Georgia.
Tom Crean was tough, brave, and self-reliant, but also kindly, cheerful, and loyal. He was a fitting representative of an age that vauled duty over pleasure, discipline over self-indulgence, and achievement over celebrity. Today’s values are far different, which helps explain why we no longer have many men like Tom Crean.