Posts Tagged ‘Richard Byrd’

Richard Byrd: Alone

May 23, 2017

I’m more than a little surprised by how many interesting books I come across when reading French newspapers and magazines; on a recent trip I went with a list of four books I wanted and came back with them all plus another must-have… and this was one of them, although originally written in English and available at a high price; the new French edition was nicely produced and sensibly priced.

It’s an astonishing piece of exploration and travel writing from the 1930s: Richard Byrd (a US admiral) was an explorer who (among other things) set up a base on the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf, from which a small station a couple of hundred miles further inland was also set up, in order to make meteorological observations during the polar night; because it was a dangerous task, Byrd, as expedition leader, decided to undertake the task himself, spending several months alone in the polar darkness.

He’s fully aware of the risks he’s taking, and begins with acute and almost disinterested self-observation. He knows he could fall ill, injure himself, get lost whilst outside, suffer from the fumes of his stove, and is several days from possible help or rescue. But it’s the psychological effects of solitude he is initially interested to observe in himself and record; he’s a very intelligent and literate man and so does this well and interestingly.

The horror then starts, and it is truly shocking. He nearly dies from carbon monoxide poisoning because of a malfunctioning generator which drives the wireless transmitter he uses to keep in contact with his base, and as a result of this, realises that certain symptoms he had previously been experiencing show that his heating stove – on which his very life obviously depends – has also very slowly and insidiously been poisoning him. And the depths of polar winter, night, storms and cold – we are talking up to minus 70 Fahrenheit here – are approaching. If he cannot function to keep himself warm, he will die. And if he overuses his stove, it will also kill him…

Recovery from severe carbon monoxide poisoning is truly horrific, from his description: it will take months for his liver and spleen to repair his blood. He can hardly eat, vomiting most things, has appalling headaches, his eyesight is affected and he becomes physically very weak. Nevertheless he attempts to continue his weather recording, rations his use of the stove to a few hours a day because it is not possible to repair or modify it, endures dreadful cold, and will not call in help because it would mean others risking their lives.

I’ve read a number of accounts of men coping with extreme conditions, and this sits alongside voyages like Shackleton’s, or, at the other extreme, journeys through places like the empty quarter of Saudi Arabia; the effects of the poisoning were truly scary and Byrd admits freely that there were times he almost succumbed to the temptation to give up: another of the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning is the inability to sleep; he had strong sleeping tablets with him, which he did not give in to the desire to take… I can see why it took four years and considerable persuasion to get him to commit his account of those months to paper. It’s an astonishing read, an account from a true explorer who was unafraid to take risks and almost paid with his life.

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