Solitude: Alone by Admiral Richard E. Byrd
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In 1934, explorer Richard Byrd spent five months manning a weather station alone, 123 treacherous miles away from the rest of his expedition team in Antarctica. After an accident, he became extremely ill and remained weak and debilitated for the rest of his stay. However, he did his best to pretend all was well during regular radio check-ins so others on his expedition team wouldn’t risk their lives trekking through icy snow, winds and darkness to rescue him. Two aspects of Byrd’s account of the ordeal raise issues for introverts: 1)The human capacity to endure months of total isolation (could you?) and 2)The moral dilemma Byrd confronted in weighing his desire to survive against his duty not to endanger the other members of his team.
Stationing just one man at the remote weather station throughout the long, dark Antarctic winter was not the original plan. Given the challenge of hauling and supplying a shack by snow tractor from the base at Little America, Byrd proposed they send three men there. Two men would sooner or later claw at each other’s throats, he felt, whereas three would provide more interpersonal variety and balance. But a cascade of small catastrophes made it clear that only enough supplies for one man could be transported before the onset of winter storms would make travel impossible. After that point, 24-hour darkness would descend for six months. Magnetic compasses don’t work well at the poles, and even in clear weather, no headlights would be strong enough to prevent a rescue vehicle from plunging into deep crevasses scattered along the route.
Besides the scientific goals for the weather station, Byrd yearned for private time “to reason undisturbed, take inventory, sink my teeth into some replenishing philosophy” and be obedient “to no man’s laws but my own.” When he set off with the crew that would assemble his custom-fabricated insulated hut for him and then leave, he carted along dozens of books, some favorite phonograph records and his shaving kit. The outdoor temperature was already 43 degrees below zero and would dip to 61 below as the men put up the hut with him. Before all those helpers left, Byrd reiterated that if they lost radio contact with him for an extended time, they were under no circumstances to mount a rescue.
Alone, he had plenty to fill his days, including going outside to note the numbers on the weather instruments at set hours, writing down the shapes and colors of the aurora, chopping ice away from the ventilation pipes of his hut, jerry-rigging repairs to this and that, and recording the day’s events in his diary. Three times a week he had radio contact with Little America, with the guys bantering with him via radio telephone and Byrd telegraphing his replies in clumsy Morse code.
Although he had moments of restlessness or melancholy, Byrd often experienced the serenity and oneness with the stillness of his surroundings that he had been hoping for. But that tranquility shattered one day about two months after he arrived. As he walked into the supply tunnel, it billowed with fumes that knocked him out. From that time on, he struggled, weak, dizzy and losing consciousness or vomiting from time to time. He realized that poor ventilation had poisoned him with carbon monoxide, and he knew that even with the best medical care, recovery would take weeks or months. Yet no one could feed him, fill the stove to heat the hut, melt ice into drinking water and so on except himself.
“My chances of recovery were slim,” he wrote in Alone. “All that I could reasonably hope for was to prolong my existence for a few days by hoarding my remaining resources; by doing the necessary things very slowly and with great deliberation.” He just barely managed to send innocuous Morse code during subsequent radio check-ins. When he had a bit of strength, he described his exertions and fears in his diary, downplaying their severity because he figured his family would read the entries after would-be rescuers discovered his body.
Byrd never seriously considered confessing his never-improving illness to the crew back at the base or asking them to risk their lives to rescue him. On the contrary, he did his utmost to pretend he was well. Even when asked directly, “Are you injured? Do you need a doctor?” he said nothing. But his incoherent or skipped Morse-code transmissions raised such suspicions that the crew created a pretext for sending a snow tractor out to his hut two months earlier than originally planned. Byrd accepted the pretext, knowing that he continued to hover on the brink of death. After having to turn back twice because of stormy weather or mechanical breakdowns, three men in a tractor finally lumbered toward him at 1 or 2 miles per hour. It took months for the rescued Byrd to regain his health and four years before he felt able to look back and write Alone.
From an introvert point of view, let’s consider first the human capacity for solitude. Introverts have a much greater tolerance than extroverts for alone time. Yet solitary confinement, apart from any other physical deprivation or harm, is in itself taken to be an extreme, possibly unendurable psychological punishment. Byrd blithely assumed that he could easily endure seven months of isolation at the weather station. What’s the longest time you ever spent completely alone, and was it frightening or blissful?
Second, let’s discuss the moral qualms Byrd felt and acted on with respect to letting his crew know how badly he needed a rescue. Despite being desperately weak and sick, he didn’t want to put any pressure on the men to save his life. This drove home to me how interdependent we all ultimately are, regardless of how much we might prefer self-sufficiency. Do you agree with Byrd’s course of action? Or do you feel he would have been justified to provide honest updates on his condition?
And as a bonus topic for discussion, in the final pages of Alone Byrd mentions that he never described to the buddies who rescued him his struggles prior to the rescue, and they never asked exactly what had happened before they arrived. Byrd attributes this to “pride” – his ego and the other men’s respect for his dignity. But I wonder whether this reticence belongs to an implicit code of manhood, or whether it reflects how introverts rely on unspoken communication and reserve (or perhaps both). Tell us what you think about this in the discussion thread.
Coming up in the Introvert Book Club:
August 2022: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
September 2022: Collected Poems by Emily Dickinson
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