Admirable Byrd

This past March marked the 60th year since the death of Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr., USN (October 25, 1888 – March 11, 1957). Admiral Byrd had the privilege of being a naval officer during the time when the United States Navy was still involved in exploring Planet Earth.

Richard E. Byrd Commemorative Stamp, 1988, Scott Number 2388

Byrd was one brave soul. In his 68 year life span, he explored the North and South Poles, Antarctica, the Arctic Circle, and Greenland, but it was his exploration of Antarctica that proved to be his crowning achievement.

Byrd first laid eyes on the white continent on Christmas Day, 1928. In Little America, he writes, “In the distance, it appeared low and flat, not yet impressive, but there it was, the mysterious Barrier.” The Ross Ice Shelf on Antarctica became the site of Little America, the first human outpost on the continent.

Byrd’s explorations earned him the Medal of Honor, the rank of Rear Admiral in the United States Navy, dozens of lesser awards, and membership in the prestigious Explorers Club. The most significant achievement, in my view, was the four and a half months he sent alone at the Bolling Advance Base, 125 miles South of Little America. Byrd overwintered at the Advance Base, capturing meteorological data. Bolling was not an easy place to live. The hut where Byrd lived was buried in the ice to provide some protection from the howling winds and bitter temperatures which on a good day hovered between 50 and 75 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Byrd cooking on the stove
Byrd cooking in his hut at Bolling Advance Base

Byrd was the sole inhabitant of Bolling Advance Base. He reckoned that a team would eventually disintegrate into factions punctuated by quarrels and disagreements. Better to go it alone.

To remain mentally sharp, he devised a system for handling the daily chores required for running the station in solitude, “If the time was not sufficient, well and good; let the job be resumed another day. It was wonderful to be able to dole out time in this way. It brought me an extraordinary sense of command over myself and simultaneously freighted my simplest doings with significance. Without that or an equivalent, the days would have been without purpose; and without purpose they would have ended as such days always end, in disintegration.”

Byrd’s Second Antarctic Expedition, 1933, Scott Number 733

Managing to stay warm in subzero temperatures required the use of a heater and stove. It was the stove that nearly killed him.

From the first day of Byrd’s long endeavor at Bolling, carbon monoxide had been building up in the confines of the tunnels and shack. The stove that provided warmth and cooked his meals was slowly killing him. The poisonous air brought Byrd to a condition close to death; so close that he recalled, “the fear was gone…. When hope goes, uncertainty goes, too; and men don’t fear certainties.”

Using the stove sparingly, and by forcing himself to eat Byrd survived until a rescue team could arrive. Without the stove for heat, temperatures soon droped to well below freezing inside the hut. With each passing day, death remained nearby, sure to last long after the poison ended Byrd’s life.  By sheer willpower, Byrd managed to survive an ordeal that would have killed a lesser man. Byrd wrote of his ordeal in Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure, published in 1938. His story retains its vividness even after 65 years have passed.

Ever the philosopher, Byrd’s last lines in the book are perhaps the most meaningful, “A man doesn’t begin to attain wisdom until he recognizes that he is no longer indispensable.”

Byrd, R. E. (2003). Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure (Reprint edition). Washington, DC: Island Press.

Byrd, R. E. (1930). Little America (1st edition). Putnam.


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