ENDURANCE EXPEDITION 1914 – 1917
Shackleton knew Tom Crean well from the Discovery Expedition, and also knew of his exploits on Captain Scott's last expedition. Like Captain Scott, Shackleton trusted Tom Crean: he was worth, in Shackleton's own word, "trumps". Tom Crean joined Shackleton's Imperial Transantarctic Expedition as second officer, with a varied range of duties. In the absence of a Canadian dog-handling expert who was hired but never appeared, Tom Crean took charge of one of the dog- handling teams, and was later involved in the care and nurture of the pups born to one of his dogs, Sally, early in the expedition.
By 19 January 1915 the expedition's ship, the Endurance, was trapped in the pack ice. In the early efforts to free her, Tom Crean narrowly escaped being crushed by a sudden movement in the ice. The ship drifted in the ice for months, eventually sinking on 21 November. Shackleton informed the men that they would drag the food, gear, and three lifeboats across the pack ice, to Snow Hill or Robertson Island, 200 statute miles (320 km) away. Because of uneven ice conditions, pressure ridges, and the danger of ice breakup which could separate the men, they soon abandoned this plan: the men pitched camp and decided to wait.
They hoped that the clockwise drift of the pack would carry them 400 statute miles (640 km) to Paulet Island where they knew there was a hut with emergency supplies. However the pack ice held firm as it carried the men well past Paulet Island, and did not break up until 9 April. The crew then had to sail and row the three ill-equipped lifeboats through the pack ice to Elephant Island, a trip which lasted five days. Tom Crean and Hubert Hudson, the navigating officer of the Endurance, piloted their lifeboat with Tom Crean effectively in charge as Hudson appeared to have suffered a breakdown.
On reaching Elephant Island, Tom Crean was one of the "four fittest men" detailed by Shackleton to find a safe camping-ground. Shackleton decided that, rather than waiting for a rescue ship that would probably never arrive, one of the lifeboats should be strengthened so that a crew could sail it to South Georgia and arrange a rescue. A group of men led by ship's carpenter Harry McNish began modifying one of the lifeboats the James Caird in preparation for this journey, which Shackleton would lead. Frank Wild, who would be in command of the party remaining on Elephant Island, wanted the dependable Tom Crean to stay with him; Shackleton initially agreed, but changed his mind after Tom Crean begged to be included in the boat's crew of six.
The 800-nautical-mile (1,500 km) boat journey to South Georgia, described as one of the most extraordinary feats of seamanship and navigation in recorded history, took 17 days through gales and snow squalls. After setting off on 24 April 1916 with just the barest navigational equipment, they reached South Georgia on 10 May 1916. Shackleton, in his later account of the journey, recalled Tom Crean's tuneless singing at the tiller: "He always sang when he was steering, and nobody ever discovered what the song was ... but somehow it was cheerful".
The party made its South Georgia landfall on the uninhabited southern coast, having decided that the risk of aiming directly for the whaling stations on the north side was too great; if they missed the island to the north they would be swept out into the Atlantic Ocean. The original plan was to work the James Caird around the coast, but the boat's rudder had broken off after their initial landing, and some of the party were, in Shackleton's view, unfit for further travel. The three fittest men—Shackleton, Tom Crean, and Worsley—were decided to trek 30 statute miles (48 km) across the island's glaciated surface, in a hazardous 36-hour journey to the nearest manned whaling station.
First Recorded Crossing
This trek was the first recorded crossing of the mountainous island, completed without tents, sleeping bags, or map—their only mountaineering equipment was a carpenter's adze, a length of alpine rope, and screws from the James Caird hammered through their boots to serve as crampons. They arrived at the whaling station at Stromness, tired and dirty, hair long and matted, faces blackened by months of cooking by blubber stoves—"the world's dirtiest men", according to Worsley. They quickly organized a boat to pick up the three on the other side of South Georgia, but thereafter it took Shackleton three months and four attempts by ship to rescue the other 22 men still on Elephant Island.