January 4, 1911: A parting on the Plateau

–excerpt from “Sailor on Ice:  Tom Crean” by David Hirzel

So this would be the great parting.  Some would go forward, some return.  The fates of all who had struggled equally to gain this far advance would now fall out to different advantage.  There was no doubt about it at all; the South Pole was British now.  It was theirs for the taking.

Bowers could barely contain his excitement during his farewell breakfast in the tent with Crean, Lashly, and Lt. Evans.  The meal itself wasn’t much, just the usual sledging fare heated over the hissing primus.  The sound of the burner spoke for them; the words they shared were few.  Words themselves could bear little weight or value in comparison to the great challenge they’d undertaken together to reach this place.  What, after all, could be said that was not already understood?  Sledging, like life before the mast, reveals the best and worst in every man who lives it.  Strengths and weaknesses alike are exposed in the shared trials from which there is no escape.  Here, over time, the bonds of friendship are forged which will never be easily broken.

Then camp was struck.  The clatter of the tent-poles, the scrape of the canvas folding upon itself, the clink of the cooker laid into its carrying-case—each sound had a sudden, peculiar, final ring to it.  The breaking-down took a while, longer perhaps that it should have to see to it that everything was well and properly divided.  The change from two four-man teams meant that much of the depot supplies would have to be recast into three- and five-man units, with no mistakes in the division.  They’d reached the place of final separation, ten thousand feet up on the plateau, and Scott was anxious to get on with it.  With a hundred and forty-eight miles remaining to the Pole, from this point on it was a sure thing.

The immense dome of the sky, overreaching all, closes at all directions with the unbroken prospect of the stark and windswept plain.  Eight men alone together breaking down and packing their gear, their little all, marked the center of this void.  They were more than a long way from home, from succor and repletion.  Their dark forms, stooped over the flattened tents, the last homestead they will share together, intensified the emptiness of this frozen desert.

The three men of the last supporting party came along on the first leg of the march south, helping with the Pole Party’s sledge another five miles until Scott called a halt.  There had to be a point, a place where no further help was needed, and each team must look to its own affairs.  Here was the true farewell, the final goodbye.  They shook hands all around, and spoke their few parting words–best wishes for success to the Pole, and for a safe and speedy return home.  One by one, Crean made his last farewell with each.  Titus Oates, always the gentleman, albeit with a cavalryman’s facility with language, had changed the sailor’s view of what a soldier could become.  Lieutenant Bowers–dear, happy chirpy Bowers, tireless faithful Birdie whose short legs and stout little frame had always taken on more than their share of any burden and could be counted on to see the Pole party to their destination and home again.  Dr. Wilson, the steady hand guiding the higher purposes of two magnificent expeditions, now going forward to realize the greatest temporal goal as well.  And Scott, his Captain.  Years of constant companionship between the captain and his coxswain had engendered a friendship that transcended society’s constraints.  Scott was, like any man a mix of strengths and weaknesses; of his great courage and charisma there was never any doubt.  Crean knew him, and loved him, better than any other man.  They would meet again in a few months back at Cape Evans, and next year it would be off together onto a new ship.

For a few parting seconds Crean and Taff looked at each other, past the white patches, shredded skin, blistered lips, frosted whiskers, each into the other’s eyes deeply as only true friends can look who know it will be some long time before they meet again.  Whatever there was to say had been said, in actions if not words, over the course of years and shared experience. . . . Crean and Evans, the cobbos parted.

The last supporting party gave three cheers for their friends.  There could be no more fitting, or more desolate, setting for this last farewell.  Here the great cathedral spread under the vaulting dome of the sky, nave and transept 87 degrees 19 minutes south by 160 degrees and 40 minutes east.  There was nothing against which the sound could echo and amplify.  Instead, the wind flattened it and carried it away, rendered it pitifully weak against the vast emptiness of the plateau.  They stood watching until their feet began to grow cold, then turned away homeward.  The two teams went their separate ways, one into the great unknown, the other back along the long homeward trail, following their own footsteps across the featureless plain.  North and south they walked, opposite ends of a straight line that grew in length with every step, a tenuous thread laid out along the meridian, a last communication that would be severed in time by wind and drift.  From the top of a rise Crean could see ahead his party’s own sledge in the distance, a black mark against a white backdrop that had no limit but the horizon.  Turning, he saw that their companions had at last vanished from view.

Now they were three.  There were, perhaps, no three men lonelier in all the world.  The remoteness of their advanced position was exceeded by only that of the five who were now on their way to the Pole.  But, in their suddenly diminished company, they felt their isolation yet more acutely.  It drew them together, men and officer, encircled them and seemed to ease the proper distinctions of rank and class.  Leaning into the harness, they knew already how much they would miss the cheerful companionship of their tentmate Birdie Bowers, ever-optimistic, ever-energetic, and the determined swing of his short and sturdy footsteps in the traces alongside.

The journey back to Hut Point and safety would be long one, a dreadfully extended haul on foot under any circumstances.  Coupled with the outward march to this Godforsaken place, it would give them for a brief moment the distance record for the longest polar march ever done–1,300 miles for the round-trip give or take a few.  It was not a record that brought much joy in the contemplation.  Before long it would be exceeded by that of the Pole Party, who would also enjoy that other, dearer, record of having been the first men to stand on the South Pole of the Earth.  Some were bound for glory, others for the muted praise that accrued to those who toiled in support.

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