Tom Crean On The Polar Plateau.
December 25th 1911.
The Terra Nova Expedition 1910-13.
Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s, assault on the South Pole began on November 1st 1911. The southern journey was a mammoth undertaking – a 900 mile march, on foot, with provisions being hauled on sledges. Dog teams and ponies played supporting roles to the physical efforts of the men, but once the team had reached the foot of the Beardmore Glacier, manpower was the only mode of progression.
The dog teams turned back at this point, and the last of the surviving ponies, including Crean’s pony Bones, were shot. Their meat was cached.
The journey can be summarised in three main stages;
1. Across The Barrier (Ross Ice Shelf), from their base at Cape Evans, to the foot of the Beardmore Glacier. A journey of approximately 400 miles.
2. Traversing the Beardmore Glacier. A steady climb of 10,000 feet over a 120 mile crevasse riddled glacier.
3. The Polar Plateau – From the top of the Beardmore to the South Pole. Approximately 380 miles.
Shambles Camp was the name given to their last Barrier depot, before the group began the ascent of the fearsome glacier. Three sledge teams began the treacherous clamber on December 10th, 1911:
Sledge 1 – Scott, Wilson, Oates and P.O. Evans
Sledge 2 – E. Evans, Atkinson, Wright and Lashly.
Sledge 3 – Bowers, Cherry-Gerrard, Crean and Keohane.
On Friday , December 22nd the three teams had reached the top of the Beardmore, made their Upper Glacier depot, and Scott now had to decide which team would return to base, and who would forge ahead. There was no pre-planning by Scott, regarding returning teams, and decisions were made, it seems, only at the point when they needed to be made. This probably allowed Scott to monitor the physical and mental conditions of the men, and make his choices based on that diagnosis.
Man hauling on the Beardmore Glacier, December 13th 1911. Front from left – Cherry-Garrard and Bowers. Rear from left – Keohane and Crean, while Wilson pushes.
Atkinson, Wright, Cherry-Gerrard and the Irishman, Keohane, were selected to return, and begin the weary descent of the Glacier they had just scaled. “Affecting farewell’s” were made and the two sledge teams continued their heavy hauling south.
Sledge 1 – Scott, Wilson, Oates and P.O. Evans.
Sledge 2 – E. Evans, Bowers, Crean and Lashly.
The Polar Plateau is the coldest and windiest place on earth. It was the final leg, of the great journey, yet it was the stage that roused the most trepidations for the men. However the two teams moved off at a satisfactory pace. Scott noted, ” The second sledge came close behind us, showing that we have weeded the weak spots and made proper choice for the returning party.”
Two days later and Scott’s optimism was still very much evident. “We have not struck a crevasse all day, which is a good sign. The sun continues to shine in a cloudless sky, the wind rises and falls, and about us is a scene of the wildest desolation, but we are a very cheerful party and to-morrow is Christmas Day, with something extra in the hoosh.”
Christmas Day 1911, came after a night of strong winds, and snowfall, which had accumulated to about 12 inches underfoot, with some drift. It made for precarious progression, and to compound matters, they soon found themselves weaving evasive pathways through crevasses.
Slowly, tentatively they moved forward, with many near misses. Scott who was leading the first sledge, was engrossed in the effort of moving safely forward, and paid little attention to the advancement of the second sledge.
After half an hour or so of labouring, he stopped to catch breath and peered behind, to see the second sledge had stopped, quite a distance to the rear of them. The sickening realisation that someone had indeed fallen into a crevasse became very clear. He could make out the frantic movements of the other three men, and realised a rescue operation was underway.
The unfortunate one was Bill Lashly, who was ‘celebrating’ his 44th birthday, that Christmas Day. He had quite suddenly an instantaneously crashed through the crevasse. Fortuitously the sledge had been jerked across the breadth of the fissure, supporting Lashly as he dangled from his harness. As he awaited his rescue he had ample time to gauge that the crevasse was about 120 feet long, eight feet wide, and a lethal fifty feet deep.
Eventually an Alpine rope was lowered from above by Crean, Bowers and Evans. Frostbite was starting to affect Lashly’s hands and face, but he managed to hold on while the three men hauled him to safety.
Extremely relieved to be extricated, Lashly stood up and brushed himself down. At this point it seems Tom Crean thought it the perfect opportunity to wish Bill a very happy birthday, which raised much laughter, and lightened the mood after such a perilous incident.
The team caught up with Scott, who wondered if Lashly was able to continue, after such an ordeal. He was amazed by Lashly’s indifference to the accident, and his determination to stay going.
With a distance of 8 miles covered, the men stopped for lunch. They had an extra ration of a stick of chocolate each, and two spoonfuls of raisins in their tea, just to mark the day. Then it was onwards again. Progression was paramount to any occasion. Such was their lot.
At the end of that day’s designated sledging time they calculated that they had covered 14.75 miles. “What about fifteen miles for Christmas Day?” Scott asked. They all agreed to the extra march, with the prospect of a good meal on it’s completion.
The Antarctic explorers of the heroic age traditionally marked Christmas Day with a good feast. Despite the fact that the eight men were hundreds of miles from the comforts of their Cape Evans base, surrounded by the desperate desolation of the Antarctic ice, they endeavoured to do the same. After setting up camp, they set about preparing their Christmas dinner. Lashly described it as follows; “It consisted of a good fat hoosh with pony meat and ground biscuit; a chocolate hoosh made of water, cocoa, sugar, biscuit, raisins, and thickened with a spoonful of arrowroot. (This is the most satisfying stuff imaginable.) Then came 2½ square inches of plum-duff each, and a good mug of cocoa washed down the whole. In addition to this we had four caramels each and four squares of crystallized ginger. I positively could not eat all mine, and turned in feeling as if I had made a beast of myself. I wrote up my journal—in fact I should have liked somebody to put me to bed.”
Scott also complained of overeating to the point where he too could not finish his allowance, and turned in to sleep, noting in his diary, that he would have to complete that day’s entry the following morning, as he was unable to do so, due to his over-indulgence.
It was a very rare complaint for Antarctic pioneers such as they, to feel the ill effects of an overeating binge. Sadly, quite the opposite would affect them all for the durations of their journeying.
It’s 107 years to the day, since these gallant gentlemen, fought their way across the polar plateau, aiming to be the first humans to stand at the South Pole. For all of them, their greatest challenges and struggles lay ahead. For five of them, this would tragically be their last Christmas. For Crean, Evans and Lashly – the three survivors, that Christmas dinner was one they no doubt remembered and cherished, albeit tinged with great sadness, for the rest of their lives.
Journals: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition (Oxford World’s Classics).
The Worst Journey in the World: Antarctic 1910-1913 – Apsley Cherry-Gerrard.