As you may know if you’ve been following this blog for long, I am something of a fanatic of the literature of polar exploration. I’ve recently branched out to other kinds of exploration, and have found that almost equally delightful, but for me there’s something particular about the cold and the men who choose to subject themselves to it. Franklin, Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen, Peary, Cherry-Garrard, Nansen — what a roll call of heroes, whose blossoms of frostbite and sodden reindeer mukluks have entertained me for years!
And now, I can add to this list Admiral Richard Byrd, whose memoir Alone chronicles the five winter months he spent at Advance Base, over a hundred miles from the rest of his men at their station at Little America at the South Pole. The reason for creating Advance Base was primarily to have a meteorological station. In 1934, they were just beginning to understand that the polar ice caps are some of the world’s weather-makers, cooling the air and pushing it down to create currents that go around the globe. No one had ever taken readings any farther inland than the coast, because it was so difficult and rigorous even to get there, let alone live there. Byrd and his men wanted to find out about temperatures, wind speeds, storms, drift, and other incidental phenomena like meteorites and the aurora australis. Byrd was convinced that two men living together in such close quarters would soon learn to hate each other, so he took on this solitary job himself, partly out of bravado and partly out of curiosity: would his mind, his philosophy, sustain him alone, in the dark, for nearly eight months, March through October?
For about the first third of this book, I was engaged, but not any more so than I usually am when reading about exploration. Yes, okay, it’s cold, I kept thinking. It’s dark. It’s tedious to keep to a routine by yourself. You’re listening to the gramophone, you’re keeping a journal, you’re avoiding frostbite, good for you. At least you’re not wet. The level of detail was pretty interesting, but not fascinating.
But then. Then! In May 1934, not quite three months into Byrd’s stay, he was felled by an invisible enemy: carbon monoxide poisoning. It was at this point that the book became impossible to put down. Byrd didn’t know what was making him sick and weak, causing him unbearable pain, making him faint, causing him to vomit up everything he ate, and giving him severe depression and headaches. He suspected fumes, but he didn’t know whether they were from a leaky stove, from the lanterns he was using, or from a gasoline-powered generator. He couldn’t stop using any of those things, since they were the only things preventing him from freezing to death in the dark, or from being cut off from radio contact with Little America. He had to keep lighting the stove, even when he was almost too weak from the poisoning to fuel it. He had to keep the generator running, even when he had to crawl on his hands and knees to do so. He lost sixty pounds. He couldn’t go outside. And he couldn’t tell his men at Little America what was happening, because he knew they would risk everything in the winter blizzards to come and get him, and he couldn’t be responsible for their loss of life.
Modern treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning involves oxygen treatments, hyperbaric chambers, medications for the nausea and seizures. Byrd had none of that. He had temperatures that fell below -70 degrees, and endless night, and no one but himself to depend on. The way he found his way through it, and his eventual rescue, made for a riveting, breathless story.