An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean – Antarctic Survivor by Michael Smith

Tom crean

Published: 2010 by The Collins Press
My copy: Bought on Kindle

Memorable quote: “Each successive frostbite on a finger was marked by a ring where the skin had peeled off, so that we could count our frostbites by the rings of the skin – something after the woodman telling the age of a tree by counting concentric rings.”

Tom Crean was probably the ultimate Antarctic hero: he went South with Scott on the Discovery and again on Terra Nova. During this second expedition he was one of the last men to see the polar party alive, and he was single handedly responsible for saving the life of the scurvy stricken Teddy Evans, who collapsed on the journey back. Crean had to make an epic 40 mile solo trek to get help for his ailing superior officer. And then when all that failed to kill him, he went back again with Shackleton on Endurance. When the ship was beset by ice and the party shipwrecked on forbidding Elephant Island, Crean was one of the men Shackleton picked to accompany him on the journey for help, in an open top boat, across 800 miles of dangerous, freezing ocean to the whaling stations of South Georgia. When the men arrived they beached on the wrong side of the island and Crean was one of the three men who trekked across the uncharted interior to fetch help. Basically he was one hardcore hero. Marvel and DC ‘aint got nothing on Tom Crean.

Smith is quite an unobtrusive biographer. Reading this I didn’t get much sense of the author at all, as you do in many biographies. But he does a good job here in piecing together Crean’s life, including some fascinating glimpses of Crean at home and the sorts of experiences that might have motivated a man from a poor Catholic family in rural Ireland to undertake three polar expeditions. Although there is plenty of action to tell, and never a dull moment in Crean’s epic story, first hand commentary is sparse since Crean was not a writer, did not keep an Antarctic diary and rarely even wrote more than notes to his friends and comrades. Despite these limitations, Smith convincingly pieces together the evidence from other explorer’s diaries, and from records as well as from interviews with family and friends who knew Crean. Although by now I know the stories of all three expeditions pretty well, Smith definitely made them feel fresh and Tom Crean’s exploits are well worth retelling. Crean retired from exploring to found a pub in his home village of Anascaul, The South Pole Inn, which is apparently still open today, and definitely a destination that features somewhere on my very long ‘to visit’ list.

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