tom crean, polar explorer...

Whilst twisting down the narrow road in the empty middle of the Dingle Peninsula one day, we noticed an anomalous road sign announcing the presence of a pub called the "South Pole Inn". There seemed something vaguely familiar about the photographic visage on the sign, so we pulled over for a closer look.

Well, if it wasn't our old good friend Tom Crean (1877-1938), polar explorer and veteran of one of the most incredible survival adventures ever told, the Shackleton Expedition.

Tom was born right here, in the middle of Dingle, but lit out as soon as he could and joined the British Navy. For some reason, his destiny took him south, south and south and further south. He crewed on Robert Scott's first test of Antarctica, the Discovery expedition, 1901-04. The crew lived on the ice for over two years. It was an arduous existence, struggling with sledges and dogs over vast tracts of white wastes. Though the expedition failed to reach the Pole, they made the furthest southern explorations yet made. And young Tom seemed to think it was all great sport!

So he was tapped again by Scott to crew on his second attempt at the Pole, the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition, 1910-13. Scott reached the Pole this time, but just barely, and only to find himself beaten in the game by Roald Amundsen of Norway. Scott's defeated and weakened party began their return, struggling against exhaustion and disappointment and failure. One by one, they died on the ice.

Crean's supply team also struggled during their return, but our hero's strength, determination, and good cheer brought them all through. Tom and the Terra Nova returned to the world with other members of the expedition, including the photographer Herbert Ponting, whose images of Antarctica provide a documentary record of the failed adventure. They are also masterfully artful and incredibly beautiful.

Despite the harrowing test of survival, our Tom was not yet done with his Antarctic sojourns, oh no, not by a long shot. Ernest Shackleton came along in 1914 with the swell idea of returning again to Antarctica, this time with the goal of crossing the continent by foot. Sure, Tom was with him, Tom's third and last voyage south, and the only member of the Terra Nova expedition to ever go back.

I first met up with Tom on the Shackleton Expedition, 1914-17. Okay, I was not on the Endurance myself. But some years earlier I had encountered the story, and my study of it made a lasting impression. Not least of this impression was due to the incredible images of the expedition's photographer, the Australian Frank Hurley. His photographs of the ice-locked Endurance lit by flash powder against the perpetual Antarctic darkness are astonishing and indelible.

The Endurance was never to touch the southern continent. Instead, it became frozen fast in the Antarctic waters. No effort of man or beast could free the boat. For 10 months the Endurance was trapped in the unyielding ice, squeezed and lifted, tilted 30 degrees to port, dying in slow motion. Finally, inexorably, the boat crushed under the massive pressures. Shackleton and crew were forced to abandoned her to her fates and confront their own desperate reality: shipless, living on ice, without hope of rescue.

And their troubles were just beginning.

Their ultimate survival, to every last man, is one of the greatest nautical stories of all time. I won't pretend to recount it here. Instead I would suggest it is well worth the time to read it well-told in any number of books on the subject, including Shackleton's own.

The main thing is, Tom made it back, alive. He served out a few more years in the navy, then settled in the small village of his home on the Dingle Peninsula. He opened a pub here in the early 1920's, called it the "South Pole Inn", and otherwise didn't talk much about his years on the ice.

It was a special and unexpected treat to meet up with Tom again, here in Ireland. We enjoyed lunch in his pub -- accompanied by Guinness, naturally -- and relived his memories through all the photographs and artefacts which now decorate the humble stone walls.

Tom still has family in the area. One morning while breakfasting at our B&B, we shared the table with an Australian family. As we talked we learned it so happened they were a branch of the Crean's, on holiday to make their first reunion with their Irish relations. Just another one of those amazing coincidences that can sometimes happen while traveling, discovering the world.

Annascaul, Dingle Peninsula, Republic of Ireland.

September 2007.

Rolleiflex X, Tessar, Fomapan 400.