The Classic
Polar Adventure

Admiral Richard E. Byrd
(Island Press)
Richard E Byrd was born in the right century (19th) to be an adventurer --- which he was --- but in the wrong one (20th) for his type of adventure: that of going off on his own into the wilds to the far north or the far south for glory and no little fame. But unlike many of his fellow explorers and adventurers of the day, many of Byrd's victories were tainted.

He was one of the first to fly the Atlantic between the United States and France --- even though Charles Lindbergh beat him by a few weeks. He was, supposedly, the first to fly to the North Pole --- although that particular first was discredited later by statements by his pilot and with scientific calculations based on his own notes.

He actually did fly over the South Pole, but his adventures in the Antarctic were to be forever overshadowed by what came to pass at what was called the Advance Base, 120 miles south of Little America --- all the subject of this book as narrated by him.

Plans were for Byrd and two companions to spend the winter of 1934 on the Barrier --- a thankless waste of ice, snow, winds, fog, darkness and implacable loneliness. But the Admiral, at the last moment, decided that he should stay alone the entire 204 days, from March to October. Since he was boss, who could say no?

By means of tractors, he and his hut --- along with plentiful food, fuel, and scientific instruments --- were transported across the treacherous ice to the base. His only contact with Little America was a large, gas driven radio transmitter (along with an emergency low-power set up). These were good for contact, but worth little as help. Everyone knew that during the bitter winter to come, they could not reach him --- their primitive tractors could barely make it across the icy waste even in times of good weather. During his time there, temperatures could and did reach 84° below, the winds were of the wildest, and the ice pack was pitted with dangerous crevasses.

But all were hopeful of the outcome: he was well stocked; all contingencies had been thought of (they thought); and the Admiral, as stoic and resourceful as he was, could be counted on to take care of himself. The disasters that occurred were a surprise, and his narrow escape forms the basic thread of the story of Alone.

§     §     §

Byrd is a good writer. At times, his descriptions of the solar spectacles, the mirages, the brilliant stars, and the ever-changing auroras reach into the realm of poetry.

"I saw the blank northeastern sky become filled with the most magnificent Barrier coast I have ever seen, true in every line and faced with cliffs several thousand feet tall. A mirage of course. Yet, a man who had never seen such things would have taken oath that it was real. The afternoon may be so clear that you dare not make a sound, lest it fall in pieces." Then,

    And on such a day I have seen the sky shatter like a broken goblet, and dissolve into iridescent tipsy fragments --- ice crystals falling across the fade of the sun. And once in the golden downpour a slender column of platinum leaped up from the horizon, clean through the sun's core; a second luminous shadow formed horizontally through the sun, making a perfect cross. Presently two miniature suns, green and yellow in color, flipped simultaneously to the ends of each arm. These are parhelia, the most dramatic of all refraction phenomena; nothing is lovelier.

He concludes: "In the northeast a silver-green serpentine aurora pulsed and quivered gently. In places the Barrier's whiteness had the appearance of dull platinum. It was all delicate and illusive. The colors were subdued and not numerous; the jewels few; the setting simple. But the way these things went together showed a master's touch."

It is what we would call now "a minimalist performance." And in his own way, Byrd was a minimalist; thus he could be seen to be in his element in such a delicate environment.

He was also sloppy. I don't mean in dress and action and speech: no, in those, he was always the perfect English admiral. He was a slob in another way. His preparation for his six months alone was awful.

Like his famous --- and martyred --- predecessor, Robert Falcon Scott, his arrogance damn near killed him. (If you have any doubts of the reasons for Scott's famous and ghastly death, you only have to read his preparations for his journey: horses in a decidedly unhorsey environment; a scow from New Zealand to the Antarctic that was dangerously overloaded; a provisioning that showed a foolish lack of foresight. Scott and several companions died because he was a terrible planner. For proof of this, see The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.)

The key to Richard Byrd's survival was not to be his sturdy character ... but his gasoline heater. His tiny hut was constructed 10,000 miles away and delivered to Little America, then to the Barrier. But, quite obviously, it was not tested at the site. The doors quickly warped in the icy moisture and would not shut properly.

More ominously, the chimneys for the heating apparatus and the gas-powered "transmitter" were flawed --- so deeply flawed that they continually leaked carbon monoxide into the hut. In any closed space, carbon monoxide can incapacitate not to say kill a person. It is impossible for one to survive this most pernicious gas, CO. It goes directly from the lungs into the bloodstream, binding with oxygen, depriving the body of its single most important survival mechanism.

Within a few weeks of Byrd's self-imposed exile, he was dying. His journal entries telling of his inability to eat, headaches, backaches, dizziness, fainting fits, throwing up --- combined with the brutal cold that would attack fingers, toes, eyes, cheeks, nose and mouth, plus the other horrors of an hostile environment, along with the degradation of a man used to robust mental health.

The recounting of these horrors make up the bulk of Alone --- and, in its own gory way, it makes for fascinating reading. Although we know he is going to make it (he wrote the book four years after) we still come under the spell of a man who is dying, not understanding exactly why he is dying.

Byrd's vigorous but declining efforts to make it through the increasingly dark days without keeling over are combined with his self-destructive need to convince those at the home base that he was really doing fine. All the while. there are his occasional bursts of lovely prose (you can hear your breath freeze as it floats away, making a sound like that of Chinese firecrackers) --- all this makes for a book that is not only exotic, but a gripping adventure tale from the pen of one who knows how to set out a stunning, make-you-not-want-to-put-it-down story.

--- Lolita Lark

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