On This Day – February 4th In Antarctic History

February 4th 1902

Discovery Expedition

On 4 February 1902, Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition, landed on the Barrier and unloaded an observation balloon which Scott had brought along for the purpose of achieving aerial surveys. Scott himself was first to climb aboard the balloon and it rapidly ascended to a height of 180 m, but thankfully the balloon was firmly tethered. Ernest Shackleton piloted the second ascent, and as with Scott, the only thing observable, even at that height was the seemingly endless expanse of icy whiteness that constituted the Barrier. The expeditions junior doctor and zoologist, Edward Wilson privately thought the flights to be “perfect madness”.

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On This Day – January 8th 1902

Discovery Expedition

Tom Crean’s First Glimpse of Antarctica

Tom Crean - Shortly after joining the Navy.

Tom Crean – Shortly after joining the Navy.

Having sailed from Lyttelton, New Zealand on 21st December 1901, aboard the expedition ship Discovery, with Captain Scott, Tom Crean caught his very first glimpse of Antarctica on January 8th, 1902. It must have been an overwhelming sight for the man, who had come from Annascaul in Co. Kerry, and now found himself at the end of the earth, staring upon a vast white landscape of seemingly never ending ice.

Looking at the black and white, and sepia tinted photographs and footage from the Discovery , and subsequent expeditions of the Heroic Age, it is easy to forget the beauty and marvel of Antarctica’s ever changing landscape, that would have greeted those that arrived there. From the towering ice cliffs of the
Barrier (now the Ross Ice Shelf) to the many surrealistically shaped ice bergs, sculpted by fracture, time and Antarctic winds, the majesty of the sights beheld by these Antarctic pioneers, was surely one of the factors, that compelled them to return there.
Tom Crean would have had little idea, on that day, that over a century later his name would be forever synonymous with Antarctica. He would spend many years there, over the course of three major expeditions, and spent more time on the unforgiving ice of the continent, than either of the more celebrated Scott and Shackleton.
His heroic acts of bravery, most notably his epic solo march to save the life of Lt. Edward Evans, on the Terra Nova Expedition, and his part in the voyage of the James Caird, and subsequent crossing of South Georgia, resonate more palpably today, than ever before.

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Tom Crean – Christmas Day 1902.

On This Day – December 25th 1902.

A First Christmas On The Ice Of Antarctica.

The Discovery Expedition (1901 – 1904).

Relatively speaking, Antarctica has only two seasons – Winter and Summer, and they occur contrary to the seasons in the northern hemisphere. The austral summer peaks in the months of January and February, and because of this, most of the endeavours of Antarctic explorers are plotted around a November to March timeframe.

This was no different in 1902, by which stage Tom Crean was well into his first venture to Antarctic climes, with Captain Scott’s Discovery Expedition. In November of that year he was part of a 12 man team selected to lay a supply route for what would be Scott’s first tentative attempt to reach the South Pole, with Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson, accompanying him.

Cape Crozier - Watercolor by Wilson
“The great ice barrier – looking east from Cape Crozier.” Watercolor by Edward A. Wilson

On November 11 1902, Crean and a number of the depot laying team, under the command of Michael Barne, had achieved the honour of establishing a new farthest south record, when they passed the 78°50’S spot reached by Carsten Borchgrevink, on 16th February 1900.
When their mission was successfully completed they returned to Hut Point, having spent 35 difficult and labourious days on the ice. They would however, not rest for long, as a pre-planned exploration of the continents southwest, was next on their agenda. As Scott, Shackleton and Wilson laboured vainly towards the pole, Barne led out his six man team, including Tom Crean, on December 20th 1902.

They hauled well in excess of 1,000 lbs of supplies and equipment with them, on two sledges, but despite the immense physical demands of dragging five weeks supplies in their wake they nonetheless made good progress. Meanwhile, Scott’s southern party were relaying their supplies, dragging half their load forward, one mile at a time, then plodding back a mile, before hauling the remainder forward again. In short, for every geographical mile they had covered, the weary men had walked a distance of three miles.

Scott’s sledge party, which reached the furthest southern latitude on his national Antarctic expedition, celebrating Christmas. Lieutenant Ernest Shackleton, left, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, centre, and Dr Edward Adrian Wilson, right. Original Publication: Illustrated London News – pub. 1903

On December 25th 1902, Crean and his five companions crammed into one of the three-man tents they shared, to celebrate Christmas Day, on Antarctica’s great Ice Barrier. Dinner had been eaten and spirits were high as cards, which had been written by their Discovery shipmates were read aloud.
Barne noted that each man did a ‘turn’ during what he described as a ‘concert.’ It was without doubt the most unique white Christmas to date. Their tent, a tiny speck on the vast, unforgiving ice plains, emanating the alien sounds of songs stories and laughter, to blend with the eerie silence, or bewailing winds – the only other sources of sound, in the dominion of their splendid isolation.

In his excellent biography of Tom Crean, Michael Smith notes – “Crean was well known for breaking into song even under normal circumstances and now his voice was lubricated by a special gift which had been smuggled onto one of the sledges.”
Barne revealed:
“Our efforts were simulated by a bottle of port which had been brought for the purpose”

Source – An Unsung Hero, Michael Smith.

So wherever you celebrate Christmas, this year, spare a thought for the brave and bold pioneers of Antarctic exploration, who, on this day, 115 years ago, despite being enveloped by the harshest continent on the planet, somewhere deep within it’s icy interior, still took time to pause in their efforts and salute this most very special of occasions.
It was a bleak and dangerous place. They were at the foot of the world, in the midst of the last great unknown, but it was white and it was Christmas.

Source – An Unsung Hero – Michael Smith

On This Day, January 3rd 1902 – Tom Crean Crosses the Antarctic Circle.

Tom Crean’s enters the Antarctic Circle

Scott’s Discovery Expedition

January 3rd 1902

On January 3rd 1902, Tom Crean sailed into Antarctic waters for the very first time, aboard the Discovery, which was commanded by Robert Falcon Scott. The British National Antarctic Expedition, as it was officially known had a somewhat unexpected crew member, in Crean, who only joined the Discovery after its last port of call at Lyttelton, New Zealand.
Tom Crean was assigned to the Ringarooma, which was also in the area, and its crew were helping Scott with final preparations, before departure for Antarctica.
One of the Discovery crew, a man named Harry Baker, was involved in a dispute, and struck an officer. Baker fled, rather than face his punishment and now Scott’s crew was a man short.

Realising his only hope of replenishing his crew lay with Captain Rich of the Ringarooma, Scott approached him with the request for one of his men. When the call went out for a volunteer, it was Tom Crean who took up the challenge. Continue Reading →

On This Day 30th December 1902 – Farthest South.

New Farthest South Record Set.

Discovery Expedition – 30th December 1902.

On this day in 1902, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson established a new ‘Farthest South’ record, on the Discovery expedition. They had trekked hundreds of miles across Antarctica, reaching latitude 82º 17’S. It had been a tentative, yet truly pioneering effort, and there was little hope of the quest ever achieving its goal, of actually reaching the South Pole. It is safe to assume that in all probability, it was not deemed possible, even by the participants themselves. Wilson had noted in his diary, that their aim was “to get as far south in a straight line on the Barrier ice as we can, reach the Pole if possible, or find some new land.”  The three men were relaying their supplies, dragging half their load forward, one mile at a time, then plodding back that mile, before hauling the remainder forward again. In short, for every geographical mile they had covered, the weary men had walked a distance of three miles. The physical demands of this system were simply not sustainable.

As it transpired, the only reward their efforts yielded was in achieving the new record, without ever leaving the Barrier, on December 30th, 1902. It was the second time within the space of a couple of months that the ‘farthest south’ measurement had been surpassed. On November 11 1902, Tom Crean and a number of the depot laying team, under the command of Michael Barne, had achieved the honour of establishing a new farthest south record, when they passed the 78°50’S spot reached by Carsten Borchgrevink, on 16th February 1900. They had been a support party, for Scott’s southern journey, and had been tasked with laying a supply route for the three men.

On December 25th 1902, Scott, Shackleton and Wilson had taken time out from their gruelling man hauling efforts to celebrate Christmas Day. It was far from elaborate, but their double rations were supplemented with a Christmas pudding, which Shackleton had secretly brought with him, for the occasion.

Dr Wilson (left) and Captain Scott at the furthest point South – they planted the British flag in latitude 82.17 on December 30th, 1902, 270 miles from the ship and 420 from the pole. The third member of the party was Lieutenant Shackleton. They were absent from the ship for three months from November 1902 to February 1903. Original Publication: Illustrated London News – pub. 1903

On December 30th, the group, having reached 82º 17’S, correctly opted to turn back. All three, but Shackleton in particular, would suffer greatly on the return journey, from frostbite and scurvy. As their journey progressed, Shackleton was unable to haul the sledge and stumbled alongside, and on occasions, he had to be placed upon the sled, such was his condition.  The last of the dogs which had accompanied the men, also died on the return trip. Scott and Wilson worked tirelessly to ensure that Shackleton would survive the ordeal, and deserve great credit for their efforts. They eventually returned to the ice-bound Discovery on 3rd February 1903 after a round trip of almost 1,000 miles.

Somewhat against his will, Shackleton was sent home on the relief ship Morning, on Scott’s orders. Scott wrote, that at this point he felt Shackleton “ought not to risk further hardships in his present state of health”.
It is often speculated that this was to cause a rift between Scott and Shackleton. What is certain though, is that Shackleton was spurred on to launch his own assault on the South Pole, which he duly did aboard the Nimrod in 1907. He would not achieve the Pole on this expedition, but he did set, yet another Farthest South record of 88º 23’S, along with Wild, Marshall and Adams, when they stood less than 100 miles from the South Pole, before they were compelled to abandon their effort.

It is also worth noting that Scott abandoned the notion of using dog teams to haul provision sledges, after their poor performance on this venture. Both he and Shackleton opted to use ponies instead, on their subsequent expeditions – The Nimrod (Shackleton), and the Terra Nova (Scott). Whilst the dogs hadn’t performed well on the Discovery’s southern journey, not enough emphasis was given to the facts that none of the men were trained to use the animals on ice, and mistakes had been made when calculating food rations for the animals.

Amundsen would later demonstrate just how efficiently dog teams could perform, with trained handlers and proper food.

Wild, Shackleton, Marshall & Adams aboard Nimrod, after their return from 88º 23’S.

Tom Crean – Christmas Day 1902. – Tom Crean