Admiral Byrd — Lessons in Solitude From Antarctica

The world’s first man to set foot on the South Pole and explore Antarctica was Admiral Richard Byrd, who had a career that spanned military service in WWI through the Korean War. He died just after his 80th birthday, never reaching out for society or wanting help from anyone else.

Admiral Richard Byrd was an American aviator and polar explorer. He participated in the first flight over the South Pole, the first expedition to cross the North Pole, and made several other exploratory trips.

Many people are familiar with the historic race in 1910 between Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott to be the first to reach the South Pole, as well as Scott’s untimely conclusion.

Most people are also familiar with Ernest Shackleton’s remarkable leadership, which saved the lives of all of his men when their effort to cross Antarctica in 1914 went catastrophically wrong.

Fewer people are aware with another Antarctic adventure story, that of Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s almost five months alone at the bottom of the globe in 1934.

While Byrd was one of the most well-known men of his day (getting an unprecedented three ticker tape parades), his renown has faded in comparison to that of other arctic explorers, maybe because his expedition was so unique. Rather of enlisting the help of a large group of men and embarking on long journeys over land and water, Byrd traveled alone and did not cover any significant distance. Rather, he remained in one area, alone: a little house covered by snow and ice. Despite the fact that Byrd’s voyage was not outward but inside, his trek to the furthest limits of isolation covered a lot of land, encircling the human soul and his position in the cosmos.

Why Did Byrd Choose to Spend a Season at the Bottom of the World in Solitude?

“I feel it is something that individuals who are tormented by the complexity of contemporary life would instantly grasp.” We’re stuck in a whirlpool of winds that are blowing in all directions. And in the midst of it all, the thinking man is compelled to wonder whither he is being blown, and to want urgently for a peaceful location where he may reason undisturbed and take stock.” –Alone, Richard E. Byrd

The “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” had come to an end by 1934. Much of the continent had been explored and surveyed, and the pole had been reached using “manual” methods (dog sleds and skis) and a great deal of effort. More terrain was crossed with increasing ease as technology advanced, and few polar “firsts” remained.

Admiral Richard Byrd's portrait.

Byrd was a highly decorated naval officer and aviator who earned twenty-two citations and special commendations during his career as a military pilot, the third man to fly non-stop across the Atlantic, and a polar explorer, including the Medal of Honor, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Navy Cross, and the Lifesaving Medal (2X).

Byrd was already the most well-known of those who did, having served as navigator on the first flights to the North and South Poles.

Despite these achievements and the massive ticker tape that followed them, Byrd writes in his compelling, must-read book, Alone, that the aftermath left him with a “certain aimlessness.” He wanted to not just cross another new frontier and take on another brave, publicly acknowledged endeavor, but also to solve a nagging sense he had in his private, personal life — a niggling emotion that “focused on little but more regrettable omissions”:

 

“Take, for instance, books. There was no limit to the number of books I promised myself I’d read, but I never seemed to have the time or patience to do so. It was the same way with music; there was a passion for it — and, I think, an indefinable desire for it — but no will or chance to disturb the routine that most of us have learned to adore as life.

This was also true in other areas, such as new ideas, thoughts, and advances about which I had little or no knowledge. It seemed to be a constrained way of life.”

To satisfy these desires, Byrd devised a scheme that would kill two birds with one stone: he would man “the first inland station ever manned on the world’s southernmost continent” alone throughout the long, dark Antarctic winter. Byrd would set up camp at Bolling Advance Weather Outpost in Antarctica’s colder, much more desolate interior, while the rest of his expedition crew stayed at the Little America base near the shore of the Ross Ice Shelf.  

The ambitious (some would say foolish) venture had a stated scientific purpose: to collect data on meteorological and astronomical phenomena. Byrd, on the other hand, stated that he “truly wanted to go for the experience’s sake” — “to attempt a more rigorous living than any I had experienced.”

The experience would undoubtedly be physically demanding.

Despite the fact that Byrd would be confined to a hut buried under the snow, he would emerge many times a day to collect metrological readings and would still have to endure in “the worst cold on the face of the world.” The hut’s walls and ceiling would gradually become enclosed in a coating of ice while temperatures hovered around -60 outside and were subzero even inside: it was occasionally -30 when Byrd awoke from his sleep in the morning, and the hut’s walls and roof would slowly become encased in a layer of ice. If anything went wrong, rescue was almost 100 miles distant, through terrain that would be hard to travel in the dead of winter in Antarctica.

However, the psychological rigor of the encounter would be just as high.

The barren environment would be cold and gloomy, with the sun setting during the Antarctic winter and not rising again until the spring, ushering in a “long night as black as that on the dark side of the moon.”

No other person, seen or unseen, would exist within a 123-mile radius, and Byrd’s only contact with the outside world would be intermittent radio exchanges with the men back at Little America; even in these communications, while Byrd could hear the men on the other end, he would only be able to respond through international Morse code. He would go for weeks without saying anything.  

Byrd would have no external stimuli other than his books, his phonograph, and what he could see in the ice environment since he lived in a “world [he] could traverse in four strides going one way and in three strides going the other.” For months on end, there would be practically no change in his daily routine; “Change in the sense that we know it, without which existence is barely acceptable, would be nonexistent.”

 

Finally, the quiet that would follow this solo journey would be “taut and enormous,” evoking the “fatal emptiness that occurs when an aviation engine stops off suddenly in flight.”

All of these factors, however, made the concept more appealing to Byrd, not less:

“Out there on the South Polar barrier, in cold and darkness as complete as the Pleistocene, I should have time to catch up, to study, think, and listen to the phonograph; and, for maybe seven months, remote from all but the most basic distractions, I should be able to live exactly as I chose, obedient to no necessities but those imposed by wind and cold, and to no man’s laws but my own.”

“To know that type of experience to the fullest, to be alone oneself for a time and to enjoy peace, calm, and isolation long enough to find out how nice they really are,” Byrd longed.

Byrd received his dream as well as much more than he bargained for during his stay in Latitude 80° 08′ South.

What Byrd Learned After Spending Five Months Alone in Latitude 80° 08′ South 

Book cover of "Alone" by Richard E.Byrd.

“Yes, the seclusion is more than I expected.” –Alone, Richard E. Byrd

While Byrd did not go far on this voyage, the insights he gained are considerably more helpful than those gained by conventional explorers on their far-flung journeys. They address the concerns that every male experiences – loneliness, alienation, monotony, and a lack of change — in a big way. Byrd’s struggle would be to discover significance in the ordinary – a problem we all confront, although to a lesser extent.

Byrd gathered numerous insights on these matters through months of unbroken reflection and a level of deliberate seclusion few people have ever experienced. During his lonely stay at the bottom of the planet, he came to the following realizations:

We don’t need as much as we believe.

Admiral Richard Byrd smoking pipe sitting in a hut.

Byrd returned to his “Advanced Weather Base” hut in 1947, picking up and smoking a pipe he had left there 12 years before. 

The main thread running through Byrd’s experience with isolation is how it assisted him in removing the unnecessary in order to concentrate on what was genuinely essential and meaningful:

“My sense of values is shifting, and many things that were before in flux in my mind now seem to be solidifying. For the first time in my life, I can discern what is wheat and what is chaff.”

This screening process would involve Byrd’s more abstract thoughts and philosophy, as we’ll see. It would, however, change his perspective on material items.

Two snow tunnels next to Byrd’s modest cabin carried a sufficient quantity of all the supplies a man may need to exist alone for six months: candles, matches, flashlights, batteries, pencils and writing paper, laundry detergent, food, and so on. Apart from these necessities plus a shelf of books and a box of phonograph recordings, Byrd’s home lacked many of the creature pleasures, conveniences, and amusements that most contemporary men enjoy. He just had one pair of clothing, one chair, and one little burner to cook with.

 

Byrd thought on the process of distillation that his life had undergone:

“However, wasn’t this enough?” It came to me at the time that half of the world’s perplexity stems from a lack of understanding of how little we need.”

“It was extremely beneficial for me,” Byrd concluded, “since I was learning what the philosophers have long harped on — that a man may live meaningfully without multitudes of goods.”

Exercise helps you keep your sanity.

Despite the chilly, possibly inertia-inducing circumstances, Byrd managed to get in some exercise almost every day. (Remember this entry from Byrd’s notebook the next time you think it’s “too cold” to go outdoors and exercise your body: “It was clear and not too cold [today] – just 41 degrees below zero at midday.”) He believed that his regular exercise helped him maintain not only his physical but also his mental health.

Byrd would lay on his bunk in the mornings while the water for his tea boiled up and perform fifteen various stretching exercises. He noted in his notebook, “The stillness during these initial few minutes of the day is usually unpleasant,” and “My workouts assist to jolt me out of this.”

Every day, Byrd went for a 1-2 hour stroll outdoors (which included doing a dozen different exercises along the way, like knee bends). These excursions gave him exercise, fresh air, and a change of scenery, as well as a lot of mental rest and elevation:

“The final half of the walk is the nicest portion of the day for me, the time when I’m closest to being at ease with myself and my surroundings.” Life’s thoughts and the nature of things flow effortlessly, so smoothly and organically that it seems as though one is swimming peacefully in the cosmos’ vast river. I experience a kind of cerebral levitation during this hour, albeit my thoughts are generally on earthly, practical things.” 

Much of our behavior is influenced by external factors.

“A guy had no need for the world here – especially not the world of comfortable security and conventional manners.”

The more time Byrd spent away from the common world, the more he noted how the trappings of civilisation began to melt away, and how “a life alone essentially eliminates the necessity for outward demonstration”:

“Solitude is a great laboratory for observing the degree to which people influence one’s manners and habits. My table manners are appalling – I’ve regressed hundreds of years in this regard; in fact, I have no manners at all.”

Even cursing, which is often considered to be done for one’s personal benefit, was mostly performative, according to Byrd:

“Now I seldom ever curse, despite the fact that at initially I was eager to lash out at everything that tested my tolerance. Attending to the electrical circuit on the anemometer pole is just as frigid as it was at the start; nonetheless, I labor in silence, knowing that the night is wide and cursing can scare no one except myself.”

 

Byrd’s hair had become long and unkempt (he preferred to keep it that way, as it kept his neck warm). After being bitten by hundreds of frostbites, his nose turned red and bulbous, and his cheeks burned. Despite this, he “determined that a guy without ladies around him is a man without vanity,” and his more barbaric and untidy appearance did not disturb him in the least.

“On account of its propensity to ice up from the breath and freeze the face,” he cut his beard “simply because I have realized that a beard is an awful inconvenience outdoors.” He did take a bath every evening, keeping himself extremely clean, but he did it not out of etiquette, but simply because it felt nice and kept him comfortable, he says. In his diary, he wrote, “How I appear is no longer of the utmost significance; all that counts is how I feel.”

“I seem to recall reading in Epicurus that a man living alone lives the life of a wolf,” Byrd reflected on the process of reverting back to a more basic, “primitive” condition.

It’s not that after leaving Latitude 80° 08′ South, Byrd decided that manners and other externally conditioned behaviors are pointless and continued to live like an uncultured savage; on the contrary, once back in the United States, he resumed acting like an officer and a gentleman. But he never forgot that civilization is an externally conditioned patina over a more primitive mode of existence, and that much of what we do is a type of theater – although a highly useful one.

A Daily Routine Can Bring Peace and Power

“I’d always known that the best long-term protection against my unique circumstances was an organized, harmonic routine.”

While Byrd learned that living in isolation had many benefits, he was also acutely aware of its drawbacks. Mostly, it was the feeling of being pursued by the phantom of terrible loneliness, which Byrd found “too huge” to handle “casually.” “I can’t think about it,” he realized. “Otherwise, I’m doomed.”

Byrd set out to create a busy, yet organized daily schedule for himself in order to keep the sadness of solitude at bay. He confesses that it was not an easy effort since he is “a rather casual guy, influenced by feelings as frequently as by necessity.” Nonetheless, throughout his time at Advance Base, this “most unsystematic of people” tried to be systematic, since he considered the development of fixed habits as critical to maintaining his psychological stability.  

Byrd’s daily regimen has two components.

To begin, he packed each day with maintenance tasks, allowing himself roughly an hour to do each one. Regardless of whether he completed the job or not, he moved on to the next assignment once the sixty minutes were up, vowing to finish any undone work the following day. “I was able to demonstrate a little progress on all the major chores each day in this manner,” he continues, “but also without growing bored with any of them.” This was a means of adding diversity to a situation.” As he continued to ponder, having a timetable in this manner allows him to:

 

“It gave me an incredible feeling of control over myself while also imbuing even the most mundane tasks with meaning.” Without something or anything like, the days would have been meaningless, and without meaning, they would have ended in disintegration, as days always do.”

The second key to Byrd’s daily routine’s effectiveness was keeping his attention off the past and on the present. By experimenting “with fresh strategies for expanding the substance of the hours,” he was aiming to “extract every ounce of distraction and creativity contained in my immediate surroundings.”

In practice, this meant pushing himself to achieve a little bit better each day, therefore maintaining his emphasis on positive growth:

“I attempted to cook faster, take better weather and auroral observations, and do everything more methodically. My objective was to master the impinging moment completely. I took longer walks and read more books, and I kept my mind on a higher level. To put it another way, I worked very hard to take care of my business.”

In order to squeeze more information out of his hours, he had to make the most of the little distractions he had. Even though he conducted his daily excursions in various directions from his hut, the scenery remained essentially the same no matter which way he went – a stretch of white, ice monotony to the horizon. “Yet,” Byrd observes, “I could make every stroll seem distinct with a little ingenuity.” As he walked, he imagined himself walking around his hometown of Boston, repeating Marco Polo’s historic adventure (which he was then reading about in a book), or even learning about life during the Ice Age. “It was never necessary for the pathways to get rutted.”

“The ones who survive with a degree of enjoyment are those who can live deeply off their intellectual resources, like hibernating animals feed off their fat,” Byrd noted, when it comes to going through a tough, mainly unchanging season of life.

Don’t stress over things you can’t change.

“Why, I wondered, do we tire the mind with little grievances?” The wickedness was plenty for the day.”

Byrd’s sole means of communication with the outside world was a radio, which he used to converse with the guys at Little America. But, rather than making him feel less apprehensive, he discovered that listening to these reports made him feel more anxious.

This was particularly true when the troops back at base delivered news from across the country or the world. After “curiosity led [Byrd] to ask Little America how the stock market was doing,” he realized it was a “ghastly error.” The bad news depressed him (this was during the Great Depression); before leaving the United States, Byrd had invested some money in the hopes of gaining money and defraying the expedition’s expenditures. Much of that money had vanished, and all he could do now was sit passively at the bottom of the globe, obsessed by the helpless sensation of powerlessness.

 

“There is no way on earth that I can change the situation,” Byrd ultimately realized. “Worry is therefore unnecessary.”

He would then handle the reports he received from Little America in the same Stoic manner, “clos[ing] off [his] attention to the tiresome intricacies of the world” and focused solely on what he could control:

“The few pieces of international news that [were] read to me looked nearly as useless as if they were read to a Martian.” My world was protected from the effects of global economic upheavals. Advance Base was designed to work with a variety of legislation. It was enough for me to say to myself when I woke up in the morning, “Today is the day to replace the barograph sheet, or Today is the day to fill the stove tank.”

While Byrd couldn’t do much about world events from his cabin in Antarctica, he couldn’t have done anything either if he had been at home. It begs the question, “Is there any purpose to keep up with the news?” for all of us.

Without struggle, there is no peace, beauty, or joy.

There were several very exhilarating moments throughout Byrd’s adventure. Here are a few examples of how he revels in solitude’s sublimity and “the pure pleasure of silence”:

“I understand now, more than ever before, how much I’ve yearned for anything like this.” I have to admit that I am ecstatic.”

“I finally got what Thoreau meant when he remarked, ‘My body is entirely sentient.’” There were times when I felt more alive than I had ever felt before. My senses sharpened in new directions, and the random or mundane activities of the sky, the earth, and the spirit, which I would have disregarded if I had noticed them at all, became fascinating and portentous.”

“I was simply aware of a mind completely at ease, a mind drifting on the smooth, romantic waves of imagination, like a ship reacting to the power and purpose in the encompassing medium.” A man’s moments of tranquility are limited, but those that he does have will last a lifetime. The stately echoes lasted a long time, and I found my measure of inner serenity. Because the world was like poetry back then — poetry that is ’emotion recalled in serenity.’”

“I owned everything: the stars, constellations, and even the earth as it spun on its axis.” If profound inner peace and thrill can coexist, then this, I thought, should be what possessed the senses.”

“It seems like my ideas are coming together more effortlessly than ever before.”

These triumphs, however, did not come without struggle and sacrifice. They were made feasible not in spite of, but because of, Byrd’s challenging and unfriendly circumstances. His thoughts on watching a spectacular display of colors explode over the Antarctic sky apply equally well to everything else he saw on his solo expedition:

“What a lovely day it has been.” Despite the fact that the sky was almost clear, an impalpable haze lingered in the air, most likely due to dropping crystals. It vanished by mid-afternoon, and the Barrier to the north was bathed in a beautiful pink light, pastel in its delicacy. The horizon line was a great slash of scarlet, brighter than blood, and over it welled a straw-yellow ocean, the shores of which were the night’s endless blue. I stood there staring at the sky for a long time, thinking that such beauty belonged in faraway, hazardous regions, and that nature had good cause to demand particular sacrifices from those determined to see it. “This cool but vibrant afterglow was my recompense for the departure of the sun, whose warmth and brightness were enhancing the landscape beyond the horizon,” I said, feeling alone.

 

Without going to the bottom of the planet, Byrd would not have been able to observe such vistas. Without experiencing soul-crushing loneliness, he couldn’t have gained any soul-expanding insights. There can’t be any sweetness if there isn’t any bitterness.

Byrd was hunting for serenity and found it, but he quickly clarified that the “peace I describe is not passive.” “It has to be won,” says the narrator.

“True serenity is the result of struggle, which includes things like work, discipline, and excitement. This is also the path to power. Sensuality and flabbiness, which are dissonant, might result from an inactive peace. It is often essential to fight in order to reduce disagreement. This is the conundrum.”

Family is the only thing that matters in the end.

While Byrd had two healthy, insight-filled months of seclusion, circumstances at Advance Weather Base took a near-fatal turn after that, and Byrd’s stay there was cut short.

Something went wrong with the furnace he used to heat his hut, and carbon monoxide started to flow into his cramped living quarters. He would, however, freeze if he switched off the stove at night. As a result, he was compelled to alternate between turning it off during the day and opening the door open for fresh air, and letting it run while he slept. Byrd became deathly sick and could hardly function, which he kept hidden for two months from the guys at Little America because he didn’t want them to endanger their lives by launching a rescue effort after him.  

Though it may seem corny, Byrd saw his “whole life pass in review” as he reached death’s door. I understood how erroneous my sense of values had been, and how I had failed to see that the most essential things in life are the plain, homely, unadorned things.”

In the big scale of things, the task he had gone to the base to accomplish, the data he had obtained, looked like trash to Byrd. He understood that the true heart of life was with his wife and children at home:

“At the end of the day, only two things important to a guy, regardless of who he is: his family’s devotion and understanding.” Anything else he makes is insubstantial; they are ships at the mercy of prejudice’s winds and tides. The family, on the other hand, is an eternal harbour, a peaceful harbor where a man’s ships may be allowed to swing to the moorings of pride and loyalty.”

“The Universe Is Not a Chaos, It Is a Cosmos”

Before he became ill, Byrd had one of his most profound epiphanies, which concerned nothing less than the nature of the cosmos and man’s role within it.

Byrd saw not just beauty, but also a pattern in the spectacular expanse of black sky and the awe-inspiring dance of Antarctic auroras over it. He heard the flow of a well-orchestrated rhythm as he listened into the solitude’s silence:

“Here were the inexplicable processes and powers of the universe, all in harmony and devoid of sound.” That was the end of it! A soft beat, the strain of a perfect chord, maybe the music of the spheres, emerged from the quiet.

 

It was enough to capture that beat and be a part of it for a little minute. I had no question about man’s oneness with the cosmos at that moment. That rhythm was too ordered, too harmonic, too flawless to be a result of chance — that there must be purpose in the whole, and that man was a part of that whole, not an accidental offshoot — came the conviction. It was a sentiment that went beyond reason; it reached to the core of man’s misery and discovered it to be unfounded.”

There was no specific statement on the nature of God, theology, the genuine religion, or the correct denomination as a result of this discovery. Byrd simply came to the conclusion that the world was not a random chaos, but a designed cosmos, and that “there is limitless proof of an all-pervading intellect for those who seek it.”

Conclusion: Begin Your Own Solitude Expedition

Richard Byrd with a sextant.

“What remained of my youth, possibly my vanity, and definitely my cynicism, stayed permanently at Latitude 80 08′ South.” On the other side, I did take away something I didn’t have before: a modest set of ideals and an appreciation for the pure beauty and marvel of being alive. My beliefs have not changed as a result of civilization. I’m living more simply and peacefully now.”

What would happen to your mind if you were to spend a lengthy amount of time alone and silent, away from all sources of distraction? What discoveries would you make? Is it possible that they’ll be the same as Byrd’s? Different?

While most of us will never experience the type of long-term, all-encompassing silence that Richard E. Byrd did, we may all discover more pockets of it in our everyday lives. For a few seconds, we may all turn off the noise and see more clearly those thoughts and discoveries that nudge us closer to awareness, only to be driven away by another distraction.

We may all go on our own solitary journeys, explore the deeper layers of quiet, and come to new realizations by traveling to a different soul latitude.

 

 

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