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More than once recently, I have lain awake counting the sirens going up the otherwise empty streets of Manhattan, wondering if their number might serve as a metric for how bad the coming day would be. But I know that none of my days could approach what Adm. Richard E. Byrd, the American arctic explorer, endured in 1934, when he spent five months alone in a one-room shack in Antarctica, wintering over the long night.
January 2020 was the 200th anniversary of the first sighting of Antarctica, by Russian sailors. Byrd’s account of his 1934 ordeal, “Alone,” published in 1938, has been sitting by my bedside; call it the ultimate experiment in social distancing. At the time, Byrd was already famous for having been the first person to fly over the North Pole (although some researchers have disputed that claim) and, later, over the South Pole. He had received three ticker tape parades on Broadway.
“My footless habits were practically ruinous to those who had to live with me,” he wrote. “Remembering the way it all was, I still wonder how my wife succeeded in bringing up four such splendid children as ours, wise each in his or her way.”
He also drank a lot — perhaps, his companions later suggested, because he was quietly terrified of the flying that made him famous. Several of Byrd’s Arctic and Antarctic expeditions were sponsored by The New York Times. He was a personal friend of Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher of the newspaper from 1935 to 1961. On his first expedition to Antarctica, in 1929, Byrd mapped and named a number of mountains and other features on the continent, including several for the members of the Sulzberger family, which still runs The Times.
On his second expedition to Antarctica, from 1933 to 1935, Byrd, accompanied by a crew of more than four dozen men, sled dogs and a cow, hoped to increase the scope of his efforts from his established base on the coast, called Little America, into the interior of the continent, where the weather dynamics were unknown. He hit on the idea of wintering over through the entire dark Antarctic night, from April to October, to make meteorological and other scientific measurements. The Advance Base that Byrd and his crew eventually established was 178 miles away — a treacherous, crevasse-laden journey across the Ross Ice Shelf.
‘A more rigorous existence’
Byrd originally envisioned a three-man team for the mission, but he decided that the expedition could not afford that many. And just two men, locked in a hut for six months of dark and cold, would probably kill each other, he concluded. So it would have to be one person alone. As the leader of the expedition, he felt obliged to assign himself to the job, despite a shoulder injury he had incurred just a few weeks earlier.
In the book, Byrd conceded that he hungered for the ultimate solitude. There were all those books he wanted to read. He brought a windup record player with him, so he could listen to classical music.
“Out there on the South Pole barrier, in cold and darkness as complete as that of the Pleistocene,” he wrote, “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.”
He added: “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. … Where I was going, I should be physically and spiritually on my own.”
In late March 1934, a convoy of tractors and sledges delivered Byrd’s supplies and his cabin to the site; Byrd flew in by plane. Once the sun set, on April 12, he would be stuck. No plane could fly in again until the sun returned in October. He had forbidden the tractors to attempt the crossing in the darkness, for fear of losing his men.
Much of “Alone” is a testament to the idea that you should be careful what you wish for. Byrd at first took comfort in his routine of weather observations and in constantly rearranging his supply closets. But a month in, he realized that he was being poisoned by the fumes from his oil-burning stove. “What I had not counted on was discovering how closely a man could come to dying and still not die, or want to die,” he wrote in the opening pages of his memoir.
His cabin was buried in the snow, to present a low profile to the wind; the only way out was through a hatch in the roof. (An interior door opened to tunnels in the snow where he stored provisions.) Sometimes Byrd barely had the strength to open the hatch. Outside, he kept course by means of a series of bamboo poles he had laid out, but he worried about losing track of them and falling into a crevasse. Once, he returned from an errand outside to find the hatch frozen shut. Scrambling for his life in the dark in a blizzard, he stumbled on a shovel and managed to pry it open.
Solitaire on ice
On the page, Byrd’s voice cries out like the merciless Antarctic wind. He sits in his sleeping bag playing solitaire. He bangs around in the dark, fetching food and fuel from his storage tunnels. (His diet consisted largely of dried vegetables and the occasional “treat” of a frozen piece of seal meat.) He registers the ice crawling up the inside walls of his cabin, and the drifts of snow that cover him whenever he manages to lift the hatch to peer out at the weather and tend his instruments. Weakened by the carbon-monoxide fumes from his stove, he throws up most of his food. He stares at sleeping pills and wonders if he should take them.
“The dark side of man’s mind seems to be a sort of antenna tuned to catch gloomy thoughts from all directions,” he wrote of a particularly bitter day early in June. “I found it so with mine.”
But such is the character of an intrepid explorer that Byrd still enjoyed it. “Alone” is full of lyrical descriptions of auroras uncoiling like serpents across the sky, folding stars into their wavering fabric of light.
“The universe is not dead,” he wrote on June 2. “Therefore, there is an Intelligence there, and it is all pervading. At least one purpose, possibly the major purpose, of that intelligence is the achievement of universal harmony.” He added: “The human race, then, is not alone in the universe. Though I am cut off from human beings, I am not alone.”
At one point, Byrd estimated that he had lost 60 pounds. Every day he had to decide: run the stove to stay warm, and possibly suffocate because of the fumes, or breathe safely and risk freezing.
Then, on July 5, his electrical generator broke, leaving him unable to run his radio. He had an emergency radio, which he could crank by hand and tap out a Morse code signal. But he was too weak, especially with his injured shoulder, to work it. Eventually he rigged it so that he could pedal it with his feet and tap out messages.
By then his colleagues at Little America had grown worried about him. He had forbidden them to try any sort or rescue before daylight reappeared in September, fearing that they would get lost or stumble into a crevasse in the dark. But they cooked up an excuse to go anyway, in the name of science: They would triangulate observations of meteor showers.
Byrd, afraid to reveal the depths of his situation, grudgingly approved the plan, but secretly he was desperate for them to come. Twice in July they set out and had to turn back. On the anticipated days of arrival, Byrd hauled himself out of the shack and sent up flares to guide his rescuers home, but nobody came.
Rescue by tractor
Finally, at midnight on Aug. 11, the sledges and tractors arrived in a blaze of searchlights and a rumble of engines. Byrd greeted them with an offer of soup, then collapsed at the foot of his ladder. He later claimed that the ordeal had humbled him such that he handed over command of his next adventure flight to a younger colleague.
“A man doesn’t begin to attain wisdom until he recognizes that he is no longer indispensable,” he wrote at the end of “Alone.” The book became an international best seller. The expedition also recorded more than two dozen reels of film; in 2015, 10 salvaged reels were turned into a documentary film.
Byrd, of course, is not alone in the pantheon of heroes of solitude. John Fairfax, an Englishman, rowed across the Atlantic by himself in 1969. Coincidentally, he reached Florida on July 19, the day before the Apollo astronauts landed on the Moon. On that epic trip, Michael Collins became another hero of solitude, orbiting the moon by himself for 28 hours while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the lunar surface. Then there are the heroes of involuntary solitude: people like Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3, who was sentenced to four decades of solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit and somehow survived with his sanity.
Byrd’s tale is a stark illustration of the privations to which humans will subject themselves, and their families, in the service of whatever they deem a greater glory: God, the unknown, their nation, science, humanity. And it is a reminder of what we will ask of those who spearhead the push outward beyond the glaciers and clouds of Earth to worlds where things really get freaky and uncomfortable, as NASA and other proponents of space travel discuss sending crewed missions to the moon and Mars. Out there, going for a walk outdoors will never be a real possibility.
Today, slightly more than 200 years after it was first sighted, Antarctica is an international science preserve. Many nations have bases there, including the National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, one of the world’s most important astronomical sites. Scientists winter over in conditions more comfortable than those experienced by the inhabitants of a nuclear submarine or the crew of a trip to Mars. They can go outside, and can email their families and colleagues.
Lately the sirens in New York have quieted, and spring has come to the city. Flowers and trees are in bloom along the Hudson. At this time of year, on the path I like to take, there is typically a family of geese waddling around and dodging joggers. I look forward to seeing them all again soon.