This year at Christmas I received a copy of Admiral Richard Byrd's book Alone as a gift from my parents. I didn't know much about Richard Byrd before reading the book. I had a vague recognition of him as some sort of early polar explorer. Indeed, he was an early explorer. He was the first to fly over both the North and South Poles, in 1926 and 1928 respectively. His North Pole flight is somewhat controversial; there is some question as to whether he actually reached the pole. Regardless, during the 1930s he pushed the frontiers of polar exploration, and had a long and distinguished career in the United States Navy.
In 1934 Byrd led one of a series of expeditions to Antarctica. In an effort to gather weather data from as far south as possible, he decided to spend the winter alone in the Antarctic interior, while the rest of his expedition remained along the Antarctic coast. He hauled a custom designed shelter to 80 degrees south latitude and buried it in the Antarctic snow. In complete darkness, he spent 4 months alone with temperatures ranging from -20 to -80 degrees F. His book tells the story of that adventure.
I'm an avid reader and have spent countless hours with the works of my favorite writers - Muir, Thoreau, Abbey, Leopold and many others. Some of Byrd's writing in this book is among the best I have read in some time. His simple and direct style leaves the gravity of his trip understated. That trait was common in the early 20th century writers. Humility is not so common now. I found the book thoroughly entertaining, but I was most struck with his reflection of how the day to day struggle impacted his point of view on life back in warmer climes. Nearly all writers of human adventure and exploration try to capture those lessons, but Byrd does it particularly well. He talks at length about how he worked to set up his camp with what he needed to survive, but nothing else. Nothing superfluous. Everything he needed was in one small space.
He tells harrowing stories of life in the cold and dark. Several times a day he would climb to the surface to take measurements of the temperature, wind and other weather conditions. His descriptions of the gear he used, and his struggle to stay warm will make you run for the closet and hug your fluffiest down parka and your beefiest sleeping bag.
In my favorite passage, Byrd discusses what he had learned as he was halfway through the winter. I think this sentence sums up what so many other writers have expressed in different words as they sought to convey what they gain from time in the wilderness, or on other exotic or challenging adventures.
The second half of his winter alone is quite an adventure. I won't spoil it for you. Do yourself a favor before winter ends. Get a copy of Alone. Then brew your favorite hot drink and enjoy some good writing. I promise you that no matter how cold it is where you are, you will feel warm and grateful when you finish reading Alone.
As a special bonus, the first person who asks can have my copy. My wife and I have read it - it's yours so long as you will pass it along to someone else when you are done with it. Drop me a note from the Contact page and I will send it your way.
UPDATE: The book's been claimed. Cheers.