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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Reading List: Alone

Byrd, Richard E. Alone. Washington: Island Press [1938, 1966] 2003. ISBN 978-1-55963-463-2.
To generations of Americans, Richard Byrd was the quintessential explorer of unknown terrain. First to fly over the North Pole (although this feat has been disputed from shortly after he claimed it to the present day), recipient of the Medal of Honor for this claimed exploit, pioneer in trans-Atlantic flight (although beaten by Lindbergh after a crash on a practice takeoff, he successfully flew from New York to France in June 1927), Antarctic explorer and first to fly over the South Pole, and leader of four more expeditions to the Antarctic, including commanding the operation which established the permanent base at the South Pole which remains there to this day.

In 1934, on his second Antarctic expedition, Byrd set up and manned a meteorological station on the Ross Ice Shelf south of 80°, in which he would pass the Antarctic winter—alone. He originally intended the station to be emplaced much further south and manned by three people (he goes into extensive detail why “cabin fever” makes a two man crew a prescription for disaster), and then, almost on a lark it seems from the narrative, decides, when forced by constraints of weather and delivery of supplies for the winter, to go it alone. In anticipation, he welcomes the isolation from distractions of daily events, the ability to catch up reading, thinking, and listening to music.

His hut was well designed and buried in the ice to render it immune from the high winds and drifting snow of the Antarctic winter. It was well provisioned to survive the winter: food and fuel tunnels cached abundant supplies. Less thought out was the stove and its ventilation. As winter set in, Byrd succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning, made more severe by fumes from the gasoline generator he used to power the radio set which was his only link to those wintering at the Little America base on the coast.

Byrd comes across in this narrative as an extraordinarily complex character. One moment, he's describing how his lamp failed when, at −52° C, its kerosene froze, next he's recounting how easily the smallest mistake: loss of sight of the flags leading back to shelter or a jammed hatch back into the hut can condemn one to despair and death by creeping cold, and then he goes all philosophical:

The dark side of a man's mind seems to be a sort of antenna tuned to catch gloomy thoughts from all directions. I found it so with mine. That was an evil night. It was as if all the world's vindictiveness were concentrated upon me as upon a personal enemy. I sank to depths of disillusionment which I had not believed possible. It would be tedious to discuss them. Misery, after all, is the tritest of emotions.

Here we have a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral, Medal of Honor winner, as gonzo journalist in the Antarctic winter—extraordinary. Have any other great explorers written so directly from the deepest recesses of their souls?

Byrd's complexity deepens further as he confesses to fabricating reports of his well-being in radio reports to Little America, intended, he says, to prevent them from launching a rescue mission which he feared would end in failure and the deaths of those who undertook it. And yet Byrd's increasingly bizarre communications eventually caused such a mission to be launched, and once it was, his diary pinned his entire hope upon its success.

If you've ever imagined yourself first somewhere, totally alone and living off the supplies you've brought with you: in orbit, on the Moon, on Mars, or beyond, here is a narrative of what it's really like to do that, told with brutal honesty by somebody who did. Admiral Byrd's recounting of his experience is humbling to any who aspire to the noble cause of exploration.

Posted at January 20, 2013 23:34