Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer Portrait.

Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer Portrait.

To mark the 79th anniversary of the death of the Antarctic explorer, Tom Crean, this is a digital artwork, entitled ‘Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer Portrait’.  Continue Reading →

When Your Life Depends on It: Extreme Decision Making Lessons from the Antarctic

When Your Life Depends on It:
Extreme Decision Making Lessons from the Antarctic.

By Brad Borkan and David Hirzel


To those of us that engross ourselves in the captivating histories of the expeditions of Antarctic exploration, it is all very matter of fact. We know the ships, the men, the tragedies, the triumphs, the many tales of heroism and the prerequisite hardships. Shackleton came agonisingly close in 1907, but Amundsen won the ‘race’, beating Scott to the South Pole, in December 1911. Scott had never subscribed to the race nonsense, but nonetheless arrived in second place, on January 17th 1912. “Great God this is an awful place”, he opined. It truly was. And the awfulness of the most hostile continent on the planet, had yet to truly bare it’s teeth.

Amundsen had quite effectively used dog teams to bridge the distance, whereas Scott had opted for the more cumbersome components of ponies and man hauling. Amundsen and his team, returned to their base camp, 10 days ahead of schedule, whilst Scott’s party never made it back, dying in wretched circumstances, on the Ross Ice Shelf.

Before the remnants of Scott’s expedition had even left the continent aboard the Terra Nova, in January 1913, Douglas Mawson’s, Australasian Antarctic Expedition, was writing the next grisly chapter in Antarctic exploration. Mawson had turned down the opportunity to join Scott, instead deciding to explore King George V Land and Adelie Land. What ensued for Mawson, Ninnis and Mertz, was a tale of tragedy, madness, death and survival.

Then came Shackleton again, in 1914. The Endurance Expedition, was exactly what it said on the boat. Ignored advice, trapped in the ice, life on the ice, escape from the ice, cold, hunger, sickness, isolation, deprivation, amputation, determination, formulation, one last voyage, one lifeboat, six men, eight hundred miles of Weddell Sea, South Georgia reached, a mountainous range for three to traverse, salvation at last on reaching Stromness, and eventual rescue, after months of attempts.

Brad Borkan and David Hirzel, in their book, When Your Life Depends On It, challenge you to look at these remarkable events, from a different perspective. They place us, the readers, into these life and death situations, encouraging us to assess how we might have responded. They explore the teamwork, leadership, camaraderie, sheer grit and determination, and explain the methods and lessons that can be garnered from them, and put to use in our modern world.  Continue Reading →

The Tom Crean 312 Cycle – From Naas to Annascaul

The Tom Crean 312 Cycle.

312 KM From Naas to Annascaul.


“Next Saturday 24th June, a group of eight of us from Naas Cycling Club are undertaking an epic one day cycle in honour of Tom Crean. We leave Naas at 5 a.m. and cycle to Athy to visit Shackleton’s Statue and then head for Annascaul, via Limerick to hopefully arrive at Tom’s statue at 7pm. We will then retire to the South Pole Inn for recovery. The total distance is 312km or about 12 hours cycling time.”
Peter Grady
For the second year running,  eight members of Naas Cycling Club, will cycle an epic distance of 312 kilometres, in honour of Tom Crean. This year they have decided to use their endeavours as a means to raise funds for the Friends of Naas Hospital.
Leaving Naas, Co. Kildare, at 5 am, on Saturday the 24th June, the route will see the brave group firstly arrive in Athy, for a quick stop at the Shackleton Statue, outside the Heritage Centre & Museum. From here they continue onwards through Stradbally, Portlaoise, Roscrea, Nenagh, Limerick, Adare, Newcastle West, Abbeyfeale, Castleisland, Farranfore, Castlemaine and finally Annascaul, in beautiful Co. Kerry. The journey will end upon arrival at the statue of Tom Crean, that stands in the village.

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The Voyage of the James Caird – A Norwegian Whaler’s Appreciation.

The Voyage of the James Caird.

April 24th – May 10th 1916.

The Endurance Expedition (1914 – 1917).


It is without doubt the greatest open boat journey ever undertaken. Six men dragged their timber lifeboat down the rocky shore of Elephant Island, and cast themselves and boat, into the might and fury of the notorious Weddell Sea. Within moments the turbulent Southern Ocean had tipped the boat, plunging Harry McNish and John Vincent into the frigid waters. A grim reminder of what lay ahead, as the two men clambered back ashore.

And it was a gruesome journey. Shackleton would later recall “The tale of the next sixteen days is one of supreme strife amid heaving waters. The sub-Antarctic Ocean lived up to its evil winter reputation.” ‘Supreme strife’ scarcely conveys the immediate experience of McNish and Vincent, yet alone the remainder of that dreadful passage. It was 800 miles, over the course of sixteen days, in which time, they caught a glimpse of the sun, on only three occasions. That Worsley could guide them to that speck on the map, named South Georgia, in such circumstances, was a feat of navigational brilliance. On the tenth day at sea, the boat was walloped by an enormous wave, which towered above the vessel, before slamming down on them. The physics of the impact somehow contrived, that they emerged from the monstrous hit, afloat, albeit practically submerged. They bailed frantically for their lives, succeeded, and sailed onward. Ever onward.  Continue Reading →

On This Day, May 23rd 1916 – The Southern Sky Rescue Attempt.

The Southern Sky Rescue Attempt.

The Endurance Expedition – May 23rd 1916.


Shackleton, Crean and Worsley had stumbled into Stromness whaling station on May 20th 1916, to the utter disbelief of all who endeavoured there. The trio were unrecognisable, shattered, destitute men, who had just completed the most epic of journeys, traversing ice, sea and uncharted land.  With McCarthy, Vincent and McNish, they had left their 22 comrades behind on Elephant Island, on April 24th, and sailed over 800 miles across the storm lashed Weddell Sea, in their lifeboat, in search of rescue for them. That 16 day voyage was a hellish passage, that ended on May 10th 1916, in the death throes of a violent hurricane, that had enveloped them for the previous 24 hours. Somehow they had summoned the strength to fight the storm. Somehow, as they were tossed and battered by wind and wave, they had managed to avoid the rocky approaches and cliff faces of South Georgia, that the elements continuously hurled them towards.

As the fury abated, making landfall was of paramount importance. As to where, hardly mattered. These men were physically and mentally shattered, and parched; their fresh water supply having run out days beforehand. So dry were their mouths that they could not eat. There is no wrong side of the island to land upon in such a situation. Even in the relative post hurricane calm, it was an extremely difficult task, to weave their tiny timber boat through the rocky agglomerations that constitute the island.

Before boarding the Southern Sky - From left - Tom Crean, Ernest Shackleton, Captain Thom, Frank Worsley.

Before boarding the Southern Sky – From left – Tom Crean, Ernest Shackleton, Captain Thom, Frank Worsley.

Having finally landed, they found themselves on the opposite side of the island, to their intended destination of Stromness, but more importantly they found a fresh water stream. Over the course of the next few days the men recouped, for the task ahead. They sailed further up the inlet of King Haakon Bay, and set up quarterage, using the upturned James Caird, as as a shelter, at a place they named Peggotty Camp.   Continue Reading →

An Irishman’s fight for survival on North America’s highest peak – Denali.

Disaster On Denali.

An Irishman’s fight for survival on North America’s highest peak – Denali.

It is almost two years since I was first in contact with Jerry O’Sullivan, from Ballinhassig, in Co. Cork. At the time Jerry had left a comment on a post I had written about Tom Crean’s epic solo march, in February 1912. It referred to Crean’s rationing of the few pieces of chocolate he had carried, on that trek, and how it had inspired Jerry in 2011, as he lay alone on top of Alaska’s Mount Denali, with a broken leg.

Naturally I was eager to learn more from that intriguing snippet of information, so I contacted Jerry and asked if he would be interested in sharing his story, and he kindly agreed. This is his story.

 

Disaster on Denali

by Jerry O’Sullivan

In April 2011 my friend Tony and I landed in Anchorage, Alaska for an early season climb of Denali (at the time officially called Mt. McKinley). Standing at 20,320ft Denali is North Americas highest mountain.
We joined the rest of the group which consisted of five Americans, three of whom were guides, and one Swiss climber. We packed up food for a three week trip and following a gear check we drove a few hours to the small town of Talkeetna, which is the last stop for those heading to Denali.

There we registered with the National Park Service, weighed our gear and waited for a weather window, which would allow us to fly into the mountains. A few hours later we and our gear, were loaded on two Beaver turbo-props and on our way over the vast wilderness that is Alaska. Not for the faint hearted. Our plane journey brought us very close to surrounding mountains and through “one shot pass” to our landing site on the soft snow at basecamp, on the Southeast fork of the Kahiltna Glacier. The planes were quickly unloaded and camp set up for the night.
We were at an elevation of 7,200ft and had 3 weeks to attempt the summit and get back to basecamp in time to catch our flight out of the mountains. We were ready.

Over the next two weeks we made our way up the mountain fully loaded with food, personal and group gear in our backpacks and sleds. The approach to dealing with the weight of our gear and the altitude was to “carry and cache” loads at higher elevations during the day and return to camp at lower elevations to sleep. The following day we would move to a higher camp before returning to recover the buried cache. This method along with rest days brought us up the mountain through camps at 7,800ft, 11,200ft, 14,200ft and finally high camp at 17,200ft. We climbed landmarks such as Motorcycle hill and Ski hill and rounded the famous Windy Corner. The scenery was wild, beautiful and pristine as we looked down on the endless surrounding peaks, the most prominent being Mt Hunter and Mt Foraker.

On 8th May after a long tough day we reached high camp. The weather forecast for the next two days was for a high winds but those winds never came. One of the American climbers had left our group to return to base camp a few days earlier. The long climb to high camp took its toll on another so we were left with four climbers and two guides hoping to make the top.

Camp, along the route to Denali.

Camp, along the route to Denali.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011 began like the previous two days, bright with little wind. It was decided to go for the summit. We left high camp at approximately 10:15 AM in two rope teams. The first section of the climb was over a route known as autobahn. This is a steep and dangerous section which requires climbers to clip in to pickets along the route to avoid falling. Due to this terrain we did not stop for a break until reaching the top of the autobahn at Denali pass some three hours later. Then disaster struck. Tonys hands felt cold on the way up and when he removed his gloves, his fingers were white. It was a frightening sight. Just three hours into summit day and Tony had suffered frostbite! The only option was for him to descend to camp with the second guide and seek medical help. I decided I would go back with Tony but the guide said there was no point in turning around at this stage. We carried on up the mountain though feeling great disappointment that Tony was being robbed of his chance to make the summit. We were now a team of four, three climbers and one guide roped together.   Continue Reading →

Beyond Endurance Expedition 2008 – The South Georgia Traverse

Beyond Endurance Expedition 2008.

The South Georgia Traverse.


It is almost two years since I was first in contact with Jerry O’Sullivan, from Ballinhassig, in Co. Cork. At the time Jerry had left a comment on a post I had written about Tom Crean’s epic solo march, in February 1912. It referred to Crean’s rationing of the few pieces of chocolate he had carried, on that trek, and how it had inspired Jerry in 2011, as he lay alone on top of Alaska’s Mount Denali, with a broken leg.

Naturally I was eager to learn more from that intriguing snippet of information, so I contacted Jerry and asked if he would be interested in sharing his story, and he kindly agreed. His interest in Tom Crean and Ernest Shackleton, was largely responsible for him becoming a member of the Beyond Endurance Expedition of 2008. And like minded friendships forged in South Georgia during that time, coupled with a keen sense of adventure, led to him taking up mountaineering. He started climbing in Ireland, before scaling peaks in Europe and South America, prior to tackling Denali. What transpired on North America’s highest peak, was the stuff of nightmares, for any mountaineer, and truly is a ‘must read’.

But for now, this is the prologue to that story, which will follow shortly.

My thanks to Jerry O’Sullivan.

The South Georgia Traverse.

An account by expedition member Jerry O’Sullivan.

When I was in school the only person I associated with the South Pole was Captain Robert Scott. I’d never heard of Roald Amundsen. I was certainly not aware of Ernest Shackleton or Tom Crean. Many years later, through an interest in photography, I purchased a book of Frank Hurleys photographic account of Shackleton’s ill-fated, Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. I was completely blown away by the epic story of the Endurance and her crew. In fact I was very surprised by the great Irish involvement with Shackleton, Crean and Keohane playing such important roles. Later Michael Smiths wonderful book Tom Crean Unsung Hero brought to life the full account of the Kerry man’s influence in this Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

I never thought it would be possible to go to the places visited by Crean & co, until the adventurer Pat Falvey, sought out ‘ordinary men and women for an extraordinary adventure’. So in 2008 I signed up for the Beyond Endurance Expedition, following in the footsteps of Crean and Shackleton across the island of South Georgia, in the South Atlantic.

In the early morning of 14th of November 2008 our ship pulled into King Haakon bay South Georgia. The day before had been stormy, and the remains of that weather front abated just long enough to allow us to land the RIBs on the shore at Peggotty Bluff. This is the same location from where Shackleton, Crean and Worsley began their traverse of the island on 19th of May, 1916.

Jerry O’Sullivan, during the traverse of South Georgia, on the Beyond Endurance Expedition.

With enough food and gear for five days we struck off past the on-looking Fur seals. After about two hours over rough ground we reached the snow line which made pulling the sleds much easier. However the weather had worsened. The strong winds created near blizzard conditions. As we made our way over the Murray snowfield it was difficult at times to tell where the ground ended and the sky began. After about 8 hours we stopped to camp for the night below the Trident towers, which would be the highest point on our journey. We had much work to do before settling down for the night. Pitching the tents in the windy conditions was no easy task but we had prepared well and soon they were set up, snow holes were dug out and snow was melting for much needed hot food and drinks.   Continue Reading →

Preparing for the Voyage of the James Caird – The Endurance Expedition

The Voyage to South Georgia.

Endurance Expedition (1914 – 1917).


They had waited months for the drifting ice floes, they were stranded on to finally break up, and afford them passage through the Weddell Sea. It had then taken them seven wretched days, voyaging in the ship’s three lifeboats to reach Elephant Island. They slept that night, where they had landed, at Providence Beach. They named it so, as they were quite entitled to, being the first humans to ever set foot on the island. The following morning they had to set sail again, to find a safer place to establish their camp. Westwards along the perilously rocky fringes they travelled, and landed on a thin sandy spit. This place, they named Cape Wild, after Frank Wild, who had earlier that day discovered the place with Crean, Marston, Vincent and McCarthy, in the Stancomb Wills. Finally, after spending 497 days, drifting on ice, the 28 men could, at last entrench their living quarters, on land. And then? Then they had to get of that godforsaken rock, as quickly as possible.

Though they had some garrison from the harsh environment, they had no hope of being rescued, from Elephant Island. The isolated outcrop was nowhere near any shipping lanes, and no-one knew they were there. They would have to save themselves. Shackleton deliberated with Wild and Worsley, and it was decided that another boat journey was their only option. South Georgia, which lay 800 miles away, was the chosen destination, as the voyagers could harness the persistent north westerly winds. Though the Falkland Islands lay 300 miles closer to them, they would have had to sail directly into those winds, which effectively ruled it out as a feasible option.

This was not a journey that could be undertaken by all 28 men, when all was considered. Firstly, all of the boats were simply not up to such a journey, through one of the most turbulent expanses of ocean on the planet. Secondly, they did not possess enough food to sustain such a number, over such a distance. And most crucially many of the men were undisputedly unfit for the task ahead. It was settled upon that six men would sail, whilst 22 remained behind, to survive on rations, and hopefully supplement their diets, with a few fresh kills. The largest of the boats, the James Caird, was the obvious choice of vessel.

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Tom Crean – The Complete Endurance Odyssey

The Endurance Expedition (1914 – 1917).

“Tom Crean’s role in the escape from the ice, is unique in that he was the only member of the Endurance Expedition to take part in every aspect of it.”


Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer

Tom Crean

The term ‘challenge’ is without doubt a gross understatement, if used in the context of the unbelievable survival story, that was the Endurance Expedition. Odyssey probably is too. Yet after much research, I settled on it, as perhaps the most suitable of existing words, to somehow convey the magnitude of what the men of the sunken ship Endurance, undertook in the wake of it’s loss.
Being trapped in the ice of the notorious Weddell Sea, in February 1915, was not a cause for huge concern, despite the unseasonableness of it’s occurrence. The ship being pulverised and eventually sunk, by the immense pressures of the ice floes, however, was!
Endurance, snapping and shattering, in it’s frigid white vice, was abandoned on October 27th 1915. The wreckage remained abob, awhile, until finally slipping below the surface, on November 21st.
The enormity of their predicament had of course registered with the group, long before the precipitation of the ship’s timbers, to the fathomless depths below.
All that separated them from an identical fate, was the very ice they stood upon. Ocean Camp, established within plundering distance of their shattered ship, had been their first settlement on the drifting floes.
Twenty eight men, a pack of dogs, one cat, stock, store and lifeboats, drifting helplessly in the southern ocean, on an immeasurable sheet of ice. They had made attempts to march westwards across the ice, hauling their provisions in two of the lifeboats. It was back breaking work, that yielded little distance. As Frank Hurley had noted, there was scarcely a square yard of flat ice. The conditions underfoot were in fact atrocious. The men sank in soft snow and the icy surface was a series of hummocks and pressure ridges.

Imperial_Trans-Antarctic_Expedition,_map_and_timeline

Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Map & Timeline

The plan had been to strike for Paulet Island, Robertson Island or Snow Hill Island, all of which lay over 300 miles away. After a week of heavy exertion, which had seen the group cover a distance of only seven miles, Shackleton aborted the operation, citing that it would take them over 300 days to complete the trek. An optimistic calculation, given that it was formulated at their initial pace, and hardly factored in the inevitable deterioration of the participants over the course.

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The Voyaging in the Lifeboats Begins – The Endurance Expedition

The Escape From the Ice.

“There were twenty-eight men on our floating cake of ice, which was steadily dwindling under the influence of wind, weather, charging floes, and heavy swell. I confess that I felt the burden of responsibility sit heavily on my shoulders; but, on the other hand, I was stimulated and cheered by the attitude of the men. Loneliness is the penalty of leadership, but the man who has to make the decisions is assisted greatly if he feels that there is no uncertainty in the minds of those who follow him, and that his orders will be carried out confidently and in expectation of success.”
― from “South: The Story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Expedition”

The expedition ship Endurance, was snared by the ice of the Weddell Sea, in February 1915, in latitude 77º south. Over the course of more than 1,000 miles, the ship and it’s helpless crew, would drift, at the mercy of the ice sheet that held them captive. At latitude 69º south the Endurance finally yielded to the immense pressures of the crushing floes, and sank.
The twenty eight men of the expedition, had no other choice but to remain on the ice, and try to eke out an existence. Foresight on their part had ensured they had afforded themselves a future chance of survival; as they had salvaged three lifeboats from the ship, before it was pulverised.
In order to sail however, they needed leads of water, when all about them was heavy pack ice. But even in Antarctic climes, ice melts, and once it begins it can be an alarmingly rapid process.
It would take months though, before the men of the Endurance would witness this. Their first settlement on the floes was dubbed Ocean Camp. From here the first escape from the ice was planned. All of the groups supplies were loaded into two boats, which the men attempted to drag across the ice. It was backbreaking work, that ultimately proved futile, and almost caused a mutiny.

Ocean Camp - Their first settlement on the ice.

Ocean Camp – Their first settlement on the ice.

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