For 80 years the polar medals belonging to Antarctic explorer Tom Crean lay at the back of an old wardrobe at the family home of his granddaughter in Kenmare, Co Kerry. For Aileen Crean O’Brien, 55, the items were very important family possessions but for anyone interested in exploration they were of huge national significance.
The medals were awarded for Crean’s exploits including his part in the heroic rescue of the crew of the James Caird lifeboat which put to sea when the ship the Endeavour became jammed in pack ice on the Antarctic shelf on Ernest Shackleton expedition of 1916. The navigation of that small boat across towering seas to South Georgia 1,500km distant through icy winds is regarded as the greatest-ever feat of navigation. Crean’s subsequent crossing of the unmapped mountains of South Georgia with Shackleton and Frank Worsley to seek help for their shipmates is regarded as one of the greatest feats of mountaineering ever.
The treasured medals were brought back into the limelight with the interest and subsequent publication of Michael Smith’s An Unsung Hero in 2000 detailing the exploits of the man from Annascaul, Co Kerry. And then the germ of an idea took hold with Aileen — to honour her grandfather in some manner.
Fast forward 16 years and she is about to depart for the southern hemisphere to recreate her grandfather’s epic journey across South Georgia. She will brave the same towering seas and cross the same inhospitable mountains. She is guided by Shackleton’s motto ‘by endurance we conquer’. By the sounds of it, she will need every ounce of that.
“Tom was an inspiration to us when we were growing up. My grandmother Nell lived with us for 20 years and all his stuff and memorabilia was in the house. I became very curious about this man who went to the southern hemisphere three times and what drove him,” she says.
“As the centenary approached I said it’s now or never. I made the decision ‘I have to go’. She set about putting her team together.
First, her partner Bill Sheppard. Second, her two sons to continue the family tradition, Cian 27, and Morgan 24. Then two very experienced mountain leaders Stephen Venables and ‘Crag’ Jones.
After the idea took hold, the Irish group undertook some intensive training in the McGillycuddy’s Reeks with adventure specialist Nathan Kingerlee from Killarney. The group then based themselves in Zakopane, Poland in January and February for further training in the Tatras Mountains in randonne ski touring (uphill and downhill), crevasse rescue and avalanche prevention and rescue.
”The lads were already skiiers but Bill had to lean to ski from the get-go,” says Aileen.
On September 21 they will fly to Madrid, Santiago, Chile and then onto the Falkland Islands. There they will meet skipper of the Pelagic boat Skip Novak, who will sail the party in his 50ft boat to South Georgia. Novak was an important contact supplied by fellow Kerry person Mike Barry, who was the first Irish person to reach the South Pole.
There they rendezvous with Venables and Jones, who will have just completed another trek in South Georgia, and take a breather. Once acclimatised they will ski across the Shackleton Traverse — going across Crean Glacier and around Crean Lake along the way. They will finish the expedition at the old whaling station at Grytiken before sailing back up to the Falkland Islands to catch flights home to Ireland in October. Grytiken was the whaling station where Crean, Worsley and Shackleton, weak from hunger, stumbled out of the frozen mountains to be met by the astonished Norwegian whaling party. Nobody had ever crossed those mountains before.
It took Crean’s group 36 hours but Aileen and her team are allowing four days for the crossing. The entire trip will take 35 days. They will spend 14 days encamped on South Georgia practising ski touring, observing the magnificent wildlife and most importantly, visiting the grave of Shackleton. Then it’s back aboard the Pelagic and recrossing the southern Ocean to the Falklands and the flights home.
It’s going to be a long journey from Tom Crean’s Fish and Wine restaurant in Kenmare to the southern hemisphere and back but Aileen’s grandfather, in spirit, will be with her every step of the way.
“To follow in his footsteps and do that crossing and to get an idea of what he went through and what he saw and for my sons to experience that with me, maybe it will bring out a sense of adventure and let them realise that anything is possible in life, you just have to set your mind to it,” she says.
Aidan Dooley will perform his one-man show based on the life of Tom Crean in the Kenmare Bay hotel on September 18 as a fundraiser for the expedition.