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.”