Polar Titans & Our Own Intrinsic Motivation

Last Sunday I dropped into The South Pole Inn in Annascaul, Co. Kerry to honour Tom Crean. He was a titan of the heroic age of polar exploration. He was born in Annascaul and the pub he ran after his polar exploration ended in 1916 still serves beer and is a memorial to his incredible life.

Mark with Eileen Percival who runs The South Pole Inn

Mark with Eileen Percival who runs The South Pole Inn

Simone, my fiancée, and I toasted him with a beer named after him and Simone described to me the 18/35 logo on the pint glass. Although I had read almost all the stories of polar exploration before my own Antarctic adventure six years ago I couldn’t remember the significance of those numbers. Surrounding us on the walls of the pub were articles covering Antarctic exploration. Crean was on teams led by both Sir Ernest Shackleton and Captain Robert Falcon Scott. As Michael Smith, author of “An Unsung Hero”, points out Crean spent more time on the ice than either of those two Polar heroes performing pivotal roles on three of the four major British expeditions to Antarctica.

Mark with Tom Crean Beer glass

Initially he served under Scott on the Discovery from 1901 to 1904, then on his fatal Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole from 1910 to 1913 and finally on Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition on Endurance from 1914 to 1916.

It was during Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition when Tom Crean made the numbers 18 and 35 his own. At only 168 statute miles (270 km) from the Pole, Scott ordered Tom Crean, William Lashly and Lieutenant Edward Evans to return to base. Scott recorded the sorrowful moment in his diary: “Poor old Crean wept …” Scott went on to reach the South Pole only to find Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s flag planted there first. Scott and his team then died on the return journey.

As Crean, Lashly and Evans made it off the polar plateau one month after leaving Scott and the others, Evans began to display the debilitating symptoms of scurvy. In the harness for up to thirteen hours a day, Crean developed snowblindness and hauled the sledge, his eyes bandaged with a tea leave poultice. Risking crevasses, broken bones and certain death the three lashed themselves to the sledge and slid 2,000 ft onto the Beardmore Glacier to save three precious days of marching and food. But then Evans collapsed and with 2 weeks to travel before the safety of Hut Point, Crean and Lashly began hauling Evans on the sledge.

On the 18th February 1912 they arrived at Corner Camp with food running low. They had one or two days’ food left, but still four or five days’ man hauling to do. So, facing death, Crean volunteered to go for help. He had no sleeping bag or tent and was already physically exhausted. Lashly held open the round tent door flap to allow Evans to see Crean depart, Evans remembered: “He strode out nobly and finely – I wondered if I should ever see him again.” Yet, with only two sticks of chocolate and three biscuits (keeping one in his pocket for emergencies) Crean completed the 35 statute miles (56 kms) in a punishing 18 hours. The rescue was successful and Lashly and Evans were both brought to base camp alive. Crean more than earned the Albert Medal, then the highest award for gallantry.

Crean’s own survival, the rescue of his companions and his desire to return to Antarctica again despite this experience intrigues me. Simone and I travelled on to Dingle for the next couple of days and as I sat in the spring sunshine I thought about Crean and those explorers from 100 years ago. I can understand the motivation for Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott – the adventure, the recognition, the money and the influence. My own 43 days in Antarctica racing to the South Pole was fuelled by my desire to compete, to do something bigger than me, bigger than my blindness, maybe to take a small place in polar history. Everyone else, including me, seemed to have an obvious reason to be there. But why did Tom Crean keep going back? He was not an officer or a leader of any of the expeditions; he gained very little public recognition or wealth. So, what drove him to go? What allowed him to survive?

I asked Crean’s biographer, Michael Smith, and he said, “Crean was the type of man who wanted to see what was over the other side of the hill”. So, maybe curiosity and adventure were the drive. It also may have been that the other side of the hill was a great deal better than life in Kerry in the late 19th century; maybe joining the British Navy was just a job? But this was a job that required him to endure torturous conditions, to put his life on the line. The story goes that the men who joined Shackleton did so in response to his newspaper ad for the Endurance expedition: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” I am interested in the type of people who would reply to such an ad, because I think motivation is rarely about the extrinsic factors, it’s rarely about money, recognition or status. They are all so easily granted and easily taken away. People like Crean have a drive that comes from somewhere else, somewhere deep within, something intrinsic.

Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, whose name and face were on my skis that took me to the South Pole wrote about this:

“It is within us all, it is our mysterious longing to accomplish something, to fill life with something more than a daily journey from home to the office and from the office, home again. It is our ever present longing to surmount difficulties and dangers, to see that which is hidden, to seek the places lying away from the beaten track; it is the call of the unknown, the longing for the land beyond, the divine power deeply rooted within the soul of man; it is this spirit which drove the first hunters to new places and the incentive for perhaps our greatest deeds – the force of human thought which spreads its wings and flies where freedom knows no bounds.”

Perhaps Nansen articulates what we must try to find as we explore our own frontiers when he says, ‘…it is within us all…’ Whatever the challenge, the motivation to keep going must come from somewhere deep inside us. External motivators are always temporary. The answer to the question of why we do what we do is an internal one, often held privately, but one that if answered honestly will be the one that gets us there. I know that Crean must have had an answer to that question when he walked those 18 hours to cross those 35 miles of ice, uncertain if help would be waiting at the end. If he didn’t, he would never have made it.

Mark and Simone outside the South Pole Inn

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