Alone: The Classic Polar Adventureby Richard E. Byrd, Richard E. Harrison
When Admiral Richard E. Byrd set out on his second Antarctic expedition in 1934, he was already an international hero for having piloted the first flights over the North and South Poles. His plan for this latest adventure was to spend six months alone near the bottom of the world, gathering weather data and indulging his desire “to taste peace and quiet long
When Admiral Richard E. Byrd set out on his second Antarctic expedition in 1934, he was already an international hero for having piloted the first flights over the North and South Poles. His plan for this latest adventure was to spend six months alone near the bottom of the world, gathering weather data and indulging his desire “to taste peace and quiet long enough to know how good they really are.” But early on things went terribly wrong. Isolated in the pervasive polar night with no hope of release until spring, Byrd began suffering inexplicable symptoms of mental and physical illness. By the time he discovered that carbon monoxide from a defective stovepipe was poisoning him, Byrd was already engaged in a monumental struggle to save his life and preserve his sanity.
When Alone was first published in 1938, it became an enormous bestseller. This edition keeps alive Byrd’s unforgettable narrative for new generations of readers.
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By Richard E. Byrd
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1966 Marie A. Byrd
All rights reserved.
1933: THE IDEA
BOLLING ADVANCE WEATHER BASE, WHICH I MANNED ALONE during the Antarctic winter night of 1934, was planted in the dark immensity of the Ross Ice Barrier, on a line between Little America and the South Pole. It was the first inland station ever occupied in the world's southernmost continent. My decision to winter there was harder, perhaps, than even some of the men at Little America appreciated. For the original plan had been to staff the base with several men; but, as we shall presently see, this had proved impossible. In consequence, I had to choose whether to give up the Base entirely—and the scientific mission with it—or to man it by myself. I could not bring myself to give it up.
This much should be understood from the beginning: that above everything else, and beyond the solid worth of weather and auroral observations in the hitherto unoccupied interior of Antarctica and my interest in these studies, I really wanted to go for the experience's sake. So the motive was in part personal. Aside from the meteorological and auroral work, I had no important purposes. There was nothing of that sort. Nothing whatever, except one man's desire to know that kind of experience to the full, to be by himself for a while and to taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good they really are.
It was all that simple. And it is something, I believe, that people beset by the complexities of modern life will understand instinctively. We are caught up in the winds that blow every which way. And in the hullabaloo the thinking man is driven to ponder where he is being blown and to long desperately for some quiet place where he can reason undisturbed and take inventory. It may be that I exaggerate the need for occasional sanctuary, but I do not think so—at least speaking for myself, since it has always taken me longer than the average person to think things out. By that I do not mean to imply that, before I went to Advance Base, my private life had not been extraordinarily happy; actually it had been happier than I had had right to expect. Nevertheless, a crowding confusion had pushed in. For fourteen years or so various expeditions, one succeeding the other, had occupied my time and thoughts, to the exclusion of nearly everything else. In 1919 it was the Navy's transatlantic flight; in 1925, Greenland; in 1926, the North Pole; in 1927, the Atlantic Ocean; 1928-30, the South Pole; and 1933-35, the Antarctic again. In between there was no rest. An expedition was hardly finished before I was engaged in putting a new one together; and meanwhile I was lecturing from one end of the country to the other in order to make a living and pay off the debts of the completed expedition, or else scurrying around to solicit money and supplies for a new one.
You might think that a man whose life carries him into remote places would have no special need for quietude. Whoever thinks that has little knowledge of expeditions. Most of the time they move in fearful congestion and uproar, and always under the lash of time. Nor will they ever be different, so long as explorers are not rich men and so long as exploration itself deals with uncertainties. No doubt the world thinks it is a fine thing to reach one pole, or both poles, for that matter. Thousands of men have devoted the best part of their lifetimes to reaching one pole or the other, and a good many have died on the way. But among the handful who have actually attained Latitude 90°, whether North or South, I doubt that even one found the sight of the pole itself particularly inspiring. For there is little enough to see: at one end of the earth a mathematical spot in the center of a vast and empty ocean, and at the other end an equally imaginary spot in the middle of a vast and windy plateau. It's not getting to the pole that counts. It's what you learn of scientific value on the way. Plus the fact that you get there and back without being killed.
Now, I had been to both poles. In prospect this had promised to be a satisfying achievement. And in a large sense it had been—principally because the poles had been the means of enabling me to enlist public support for the full-scale scientific program which was my real interest. The books of clippings which my family kept up grew fat, and most of them said good things. These were among the tangibles of success, at least in my profession; these, plus goodwill, were the visible assets, although I should point out that the wisest among us, like conservative accountants, seldom carry the latter item in excess of $1.
But for me there was little sense of true achievement. Rather, when I finished the stocktaking, I was conscious of a certain aimlessness. This feeling centered on small but increasingly lamentable omissions. For example, books. There was no end to the books that I was forever promising myself to read; but, when it came to reading them, I seemed never to have the time or the patience. With music, too, it was the same way; the love for it—and I suppose the indefinable need—was also there, but not the will or opportunity to interrupt for it more than momentarily the routine which most of us come to cherish as existence.
This was true of other matters: new ideas, new concepts, and new developments about which I knew little or nothing. It seemed a restricted way to live. One might ask: Why not try to bring these things into daily existence? Must you go off and bury yourself in the middle of polar cold and darkness just to be alone? After all, a stranger walking down Fifth Avenue can be just as lonely as a traveler wandering in the desert. All of which I grant, but with the contention that no man can hope to be completely free who lingers within reach of familiar habits and urgencies. Least of all a man in my position, who must go to the public for support and render a perpetual accounting of his stewardship. Now, it is undeniably true that our civilization has evolved a marvelous system for safeguarding individual privacy; but those of us who must live in the limelight are outside its protection.
Now, I wanted something more than just privacy in the geographical sense. I wanted to sink roots into some replenishing philosophy. And so it occurred to me, as the situation surrounding Advance Base evolved, that here was the opportunity. Out there on the South Polar barrier, in cold and darkness as complete as that of the Pleistocene, I should have time to catch up, to study and think and listen to the phonograph; and, for maybe seven months, remote from all but the simplest distractions, I should be able to live exactly as I chose, obedient to no necessities but those imposed by wind and night and cold, and to no man's laws but my own.
That was the way I saw it. There may have been more than that. At this distance I cannot be sure; but, perhaps, the desire was also in my mind to try a more rigorous existence than any I had known. Much of my adult life had been spent in aviation. The man who flies achieves his destiny sitting down. Conflict, when it rises between the ship and the medium, comes to him indirectly, softened and stepped down by the mechanical advantage of the controls; when the conflict reaches the ultimate decision, the whole business is transacted one way or another in a matter of hours, even minutes and seconds. Where I was going, I should be physically and spiritually on my own. Where Advance Base was finally planted, conditions are not very different from what they were when the first men came groping out of the twilight of the last Ice Age.
That risks were involved, all of us knew; but none, so far as we could foresee, that were too great. Otherwise, as leader of a big polar expedition, and subject to all the responsibilities implicit in command, I could not have gone. That I miscalculated is proved by the fact that I nearly lost my life. Yet, I do not regret going. For I read my books—If not as many as I had counted on reading; and listened to my phonograph records—even when they seemed only to intensify my suffering; and meditated—though not always as cheerfully as I had hoped. All this was good, and it is mine. What I had not counted on was discovering how closely a man could come to dying and still not die, or want to die. That, too, was mine; and it also is to the good. For that experience resolved proportions and relationships for me as nothing else could have done; and it is surprising, approaching the final enlightenment, how little one really has to know or feel sure about.
* * *
Now, I have started out in this vein because a misunderstanding arose in some quarters concerning my reasons for occupying Advance Base alone. Indeed, some people disputed my right to do what I did. What people think about you is not supposed to matter much, so long as you yourself know where the truth lies; but I have found out, as have others who move in and out of newspaper headlines, that on occasion it can matter a good deal. For once you enter the world of headlines you learn there is not one truth but two: the one which you know from the facts; and the one which the public, or at any rate a highly imaginative part of the public, acquires by osmosis. It isn't often that the one person centrally involved ever hears about the second kind; his friends see to that. Nevertheless, I happen to be privy to several of the gospel truths circulated about Advance Base. God knows, there may be others, but these could hardly be improved upon. One is that I was exiled by my own men. Another is that I went out there to do some quiet but serious drinking. In the past such tales would have shocked me; most certainly they would have made me mad. But not now.
The one criticism that might have given me pause was disposed of by my friend, Charles J. V. Murphy, a member of the expedition. Before leaving for Advance Base I asked him to look out for my affairs in collaboration with the Second-in-Command, Dr. Thomas C. Poulter. My announcement that I would occupy Advance Base alone was not wirelessed to the United States until I was actually established there. It said simply that I was going because I wanted to go. My friends received the news with different emotions. Radio messages poured into Little America during the next forty-eight hours. Most of them were from men whose judgment I value. Considering the little that they had to go on, I must say that they were surpassingly fair. And yet, for every message of approval, there were three of puzzlement or forthright disapproval. I was urged —virtually ordered—to reconsider. My going off, they said, must end in disaster, almost certainly for myself and probably for the fifty-five men presumed to be left leaderless at Little America. The head of a great geographical institution warned that, if anything went wrong at Little America during my absence, my disgrace would be worse than that of Nobile, whose crime lay in leaving his shattered dirigible before all of his men were taken off. A banker friend said flatly that the whole idea was a reckless whim and that any shame in withdrawing would be more than offset by the escape from the consequences which must flow from my decision, if persisted in.
All of these messages were addressed directly to me, but they went to Charlie Murphy. He was in a tough spot. The winter night was coming on, the cold was deepening, and I know that he himself was troubled on my account. He knew how close was my friendship with these men in America. To each man he replied that I was where I was for a deliberate and useful purpose; that the tractors were on their way from Advance Base back to Little America and a return trip would expose other men to considerable risks; that in his opinion I was irrevocably resolved on my course; and that, because my psychological burdens were already heavy enough, he did not propose to add to them by informing me over the radio that my friends were in a panic. Therefore the messages were being filed at Little America for my return in October. Then it was March. And six months of darkness and cold would meanwhile intervene.
But of all this, of course, I had not even a hint. I am glad this was so; for I was human enough not to want to be misunderstood, at least by my friends—I wasn't big enough for that. In his radio conversations with me at the time Murphy was always cheerful; he never mentioned what had happened. And, for that matter, I never asked him what my friends thought, for the reason that I didn't want to know. I suspected, of course, that there would be criticism; but I couldn't do anything about that; my bridges were burned behind me. Whether I could have been persuaded to turn back if Murphy had passed those messages on is a matter I shall not undertake to answer. It would be stupid to do so. Hindsight has a way of inventing different compensations and motives. My only purpose in bringing the matter up now is to illustrate some of the misunderstandings that attended the manning of Advance Base and the different pulls that rise inevitably to deter the man who tries something out of the ordinary.
* * *
Advance Base was no reckless whim. It was the outcome of four years of planning. The original idea came out of my first expedition to the Antarctic, and was an indirect by-product of my interest in polar meteorology. Of all the different branches of science served by a soundly constituted polar expedition (on the last we served twenty-two branches) none to the popular mind has a more practical value than meteorology. The farmer whose livelihood comes from crops, the people whose stomachs are kept full by these crops, the speculators who gamble in them, the industrialist whose factories depend upon the farmer's purchasing power, the sailor on the seas—all these and others, even to the casual holiday tourist, have a vital stake in weather. But few of them appreciate the extent to which the poles enter into their local schemes.
Most of us have a schoolboy's understanding of the theory of simple circulation: a cold current of air flowing inexhaustibly from the poles to the equator, a counter current of warm air returning poleward above it; and the two together creating the endlessly renewed interchange which is the breathing of the globe. The extent to which the poles influence the weather is still a subject for speculation. Some authorities go so far as to say that each pole is the true weather maker in its respective hemisphere. This latter belief has been formulated in Bjerknes' theory of the polar front, which undertakes to explain atmospheric circulation in terms of the effects produced by the interaction of masses of polar-cooled air, the so-called polar fronts, with the masses of warm equatorial air into which they intrude.
Although a knowledge of polar meteorology is indispensable for enlightened long-range forecasting, we really know very little about it. And, because of the need for more information about the general laws of circulation, the first concern of an expedition leader is to see that his meteorological department is strongly staffed. This obligation has been earnestly met by most expeditions. The results, nevertheless, have been meager; for Antarctica has been under scientific investigation for less than half a century; and, so far as weather data are concerned, the bulk of the knowledge is represented by the work of perhaps a dozen well-found expeditions.
For a continent having an estimated area of 4,500,000 square miles, this is not much of a showing. Or so it seemed to me. In the course of my first Antarctic expedition, I was struck by the thought that the most valuable source of meteorological data was still left untouched. What data existed had for the most part been collected at fixed bases on the Antarctic coast or on islands adjacent to the coast; by ships exploring contiguous waters; and by field parties poorly equipped for research making fast summer dashes inland. Meteorologically, the interior of Antarctica was a blank. No fixed stations had ever been advanced inland; no winter observations had ever been made beyond the coast; and the fragmentary data collected by sledging parties covered only the comparatively mild summer months. Yet, inland, beyond the moderating influence of the seas which surround the continent, was the coldest cold on the face of the earth. It was there one must look for typical continental conditions. And it was there that I proposed to plant Advance Base. There, where weather is manufactured. The data accumulated by a station like Advance Base when correlated with data gathered simultaneously at Little America, ought to throw a highly revealing light on the facts of atmospheric phenomena in high southern latitudes. Why should a civilization as technologically alert as ours continue to tolerate a situation that allows ruinous storms, kindled long before at remote storm centers, to break without adequate warning upon the civilized parts of the world? Only recently Mr. Willis R. Gregg, chief of the United States Weather Bureau, predicted the establishment in the polar regions of robot observers which would flash data by wireless to stations in lower latitudes. That way, meteorologists could watch conditions as they develop in the main amphitheaters of meteorological action, and plot their charts accordingly.
I rather wish I had thought of that myself, because Advance Base was intended to be the pilot station for a polarwide system of similar outposts, except that it was to be manned by flesh and blood instead of a mechanical brain untroubled by cold and darkness and memory. Our original plan was decidedly a daring one. In the preliminary discussions with Bill Haines, then, as on the second expedition, my Senior Meteorologist, I never pretended that the idea was more than speculative. In other words—great stuff, if we could do it. Where we finally decided to aim for was the foot of the Queen Maud Mountains. Even with that, we realized that we were probably over-reaching ourselves. It meant hauling tons of supplies some 400 miles across the crevasse-ridden Ross Ice Barrier and relying upon tractors whose capacities on Barrier surface would have to be determined by guess and by God.
Excerpted from Alone by Richard E. Byrd. Copyright © 1966 Marie A. Byrd. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd (1888-1957) was an international hero best known for his accomplishments in pioneer aviation and polar exploration. Recipient of the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor for navigating the first flight over the North Pole in 1926, he also was honored for his 1927 trans-Atlantic flight. In subsequent expeditions to the South Pole he discovered new land and collected important scientific data. His books Little America and Skyward, both straightforward accounts of his polar expeditions, were followed by Alone in 1938. Byrd wrote Alone in response to requests from people all over the world wanting to know the true story behind his ordeal.
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