Nearly 80 years ago to the month, Admiral Byrd was ensconced in his Little America quarters under the Antarctic snow cover. Byrd Antarctic Expedition II had as its mission the documentation of weather patterns and meteor activity (which influences long range communications) in the vast, frigid nothingness. Radio communications were essential to survival both bodily and mentally. Little known to the outside world, or even to his encamped companions, Admiral Byrd had nearly succumbed to noxious fumes from the electrical generator he used to power his radio. Alone at an outpost and desperately ill, he choose to suffer silently and maintain his duties rather than compromise the mission. One of the photos included in this January 1939 issue of Boy's Life magazine shows the Admiral at his radio set with his hand on a telegraph key.
This edition of Boys' Life, BTW, is the one that Ralphie Parker is shown reading in bed in the movie A Christmas Story.
The second in command of the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition describes an epic of the ice.
|About noon on August 8th, 1934, I came to the surface
from my well-lighted and
comparatively warm quarters underneath the snow at Little America and stared
south into the forbidding darkness and utter desolation of the Antarctic night. I
was desperately tired and my body seemed to sag under the weight of the furs
and woolens that I was wearing. A few hours previously Demas Waite, and I,
had staggered back to camp defeated in a bitter battle with the hostile
elements that fashion the screeching blizzards and hazardous trail of this frigid
For the second time we had failed to reach Advance Base
- a tiny shack which
Shortly we would be pitting ourselves once more against
Comparatively few people realize that Antarctica is in
the grip of
Although Advance Base, as we
When I first conceived my plan
of going to Advance Base my motives
atmosphere I had made some startling discoveries. The thought struck me that simultaneous observations at a point further south should yield data of considerable scientific value. Advance Base was the place. Simultaneous observations from Little America and Advance Base would give a triangular sighting of the heavens, with a base line of 123 miles, that would be admirable for the purpose. But how could I secure the Admiral's permission to go out there?
Experience had taught me his great concern for the safety of his men and I knew that I would have to put forth a very compelling reason if I hoped to win his consent to such a hazardous venture. I based a request on the importance of the meteor observations I expected to make, and on my opinion that with favorable weather and a few breaks in luck we had at least an even chance of getting through. With obvious reluctance he gave his assent, qualifying it, however, with the strict provisions that "above all tractors must be absolutely certain not to lose trail or give out of fuel" and that "no risk be taken with the lives of men."
No.·1 tractor, the best of three machines we had at Little America was selected for the trip, and while it was being conditioned we loaded two sleds with approximately a ton and a half each of provisions and. gear. At 2:20 P.M., in the full of the moon on July 20th, we headed south into the Antarctic night, lighted out of camp by a few hand-flares that shed an eerie glow on our departure. My companions were Skinner, tractor driver, Waite, radio operator, and Flemming and Petersen. I planned to leave Flemming and Petersen at Advance Base as observers should we be successful in making it.
Beyond the glare of the flares navigation became difficult. At the very start we found that the trail which had been blazed and marked with flags when Advance Base was laid down in March, had been badly drifted with most of the flags either completely covered over or blown to tattered shreds. Gropingly the tractor blundered slowly ahead through the blinding smother of snow that engulfed us soon after we left the camp. Continually we lost the. trail and spent precious time and fuel cruising about to regain it. As we proceeded the temperature dropped steadily until it stood at 58 degrees below zero.
Admiral Byrd at the radio key in his lonely little shack after the rescue. At left the "door" to the quarters, the cabin completely buried below. The other pictures show some of the ice conditions met by Dr. Poulter's party on their tortuous drive to Advance Base.
By midnight we had made good 17 miles, although we had actually covered more than 50 miles in our blind progress and camped for a short rest. In a few hours we were moving again into conditions that became progressively worse. Lurching along the tractor felt its way forward foot by foot. Petersen and I spelled each other astride the hood fanning the snow with a search-light and directing Skinner to the easiest going. The heat of the engine was of small comfort as the thermometer had slid down to 75 degrees below zero and the chill struck to our very marrow. At this extremely low temperature our furs froze to the hardness of armor and the funnel-shaped sheepskin masks which we wore to protect our faces constantly clogged with ice from the breath which froze as quickly as it was exhaled. All .of us were suffering severely from exposure, but we had. embarked on a mission from which we were not lightly to be turned aside.
By 6:30 P.M. on the 22nd we had struggled through 54 miles to the northern edge of the Valley of Crevasses, a wide depression slashed with a crazy pattern of chasms of varying widths and depths. If we had had daylight we probably could have made an attempt to thread our way through the maze of pits that lay before us, but in the darkness of the night it would have been utter folly.
We couldn't get through them, and we couldn't get around them, as. we had no effective navigational instruments or aids that would enable us to lay out a route. Even the friendly light of the stars was denied us as the sky was thickly overcast. Confronted by this dilemma I reluctantly gave the order to return to the base where I hoped to devise some method of navigation that would permit us to chart and hold a course.
Two hours along the homeward trail the fury of the Antarctic was loosed upon us in a screeching blizzard. It struck with the suddenness and fierceness of a wild animal making a kill. Breath and visibility were cut off simultaneously. Shot by the irresistible force of the gale the powder-like snow drove through every crack and crevice of the tractor and, accumulating under the hood, it soon choked the carburetor and stalled the engine.
Stiff and numb from biting cold that tore at us with relentless savagery, we crawled into our sleeping-bags to await the end of the blow. The shrieking and buffeting of the wind tormented us cruelly at first, but our exhaustion was so great that we all went to sleep eventually. Twenty-six hours later, the storm having abated, we dug the tractor and sleds out of the six-foot drifts in which they were buried and limped dejectedly back to camp. We reached Little America about 8:30 P.M. on the 23rd.
A few hours rest put us in shape to tackle the problem of navigation which we had to solve before making another try. We hit upon the plan of using a geologist's sensitive compass which we could line up with range lights fashioned by building snow beacons about four feet high and putting a lighted candle in a chamber hollowed out at the top of the beacon. Facing the chamber with a thin sheet of pyralin would permit the light to shine through and protect the candle in all but the strongest winds.
Despite our eagerness to be off again, Haines, our weather man, warned us of continued wretched weather and counseled delay until conditions became more settled. Our enforced wait of approximately two weeks was irksome in the extreme as four months of the night had already passed and we were very anxious to take advantage of the remaining two months for our observations, also we were beginning to become a little uneasy about the Admiral. Nothing definite disturbed us, just a haunting suspicion engendered by an obvious weakness and halting in his radio messages. His contacts were always cheerful.
While conditions on August 4th were not to our liking, I decided that we would wait no longer. I reduced the crew to three, Demas, tractor driver, Waite, radio operator; and myself. Once more we were lighted out of Little America by sputtering flares and our tiny caravan clanked away into the night. Trouble met us on the edge of the camp. The blizzard that we had weathered on the previous trip had smothered all traces of former trails and we couldn't find the passage through the pressure-ice. Pioneering a new trail through fantastic ice structures that reared into the darkness in bewildering confusion promised to be no easy task. For hours we floundered about completely baffled.
Scouting ahead on skis, the tractor at my heels, I pulled up sharply on the edge of a yawning crevasse. Through the darkness I could barely discern the ghostly line of the, opposite lip - it must have been a .hundred feet across. A few feet further and the tractor would have crashed to oblivion in its icy depths. Plunging off to the west we sought a way around it. I mounted to the top of the cab and played the search-light ahead. Nosing along on an apparently smooth surface, a tremendous boom, and a jarring lurch of the tractor left me clinging to the upflung edge of the cab. Almost instantly the furious grinding of the treads, as Demas with rare presence of mind opened the throttle wide, reechoed the thunderous roar of crashing ice and snow. For a second or so it seemed that we must slide backward over the brink of the crevasse that had suddenly opened under us, but gradually the treads dug down to firmer footing and slowly we inched back to safety. But the second sled, with more than a ton of our provisions and gear aboard, had disappeared.
Approaching carefully the ragged rim of the crevasse we discovered our sled lying, overturned, on a huge block of snow that had wedged itself about fifteen feet down. Retrieving it was a ticklish job. We lowered Demas on a stout rope, and as he unloaded the sled we hauled the material up, piece by piece, on hand lines. The knowledge that at any instant the snow block might crumble and drop him into the fearsome darkness below lent a tension to this labor that stretched our nerves to the breaking-point.
Eight hours of back-straining work put us on the move again only to run into a howling blow that forced us to camp for six hours. Pushing forward after the storm, by a lucky chance we hit the passage through the pressure-ice. Clear of the pressure we built our first beacon. It looked a pitifully puny thing in that black immensity, but in these miniature light-houses lay our only hope for steering the tortuous course to Advance Base.
By the evening of the 5th we had made twenty miles. A rising wind whipping hard dry snow horizontally in a milky mass reduced visibility to zero, so we laid up until noon of the 6th. We had made barely three miles on the 6th when Demas reported that the tractor was not responding properly to the throttle. With the thermometer at 58 degrees below zero, he made a hurried check-up and declared "The clutch is worn out - we can't go on." It was more than exasperating. Hard as was the decision I had to order a return to Little America, and leaving the loaded sleds cached beside the trail, we started nursing the tractor back toward the base.
Our return trip was a sore trial. Continued low temperatures - 60 degrees below zero - caused ice crystals to form in the gas line stalling the motor frequently; our fan belt parted and we repeatedly fashioned sorry substitutes from alpine rope; the radiator boiled dry and we stopped every mile or so to stuff it with snow; but we crawled into the base at 3 A.M. on the 7th, tired, hungry, dirty, cold - and chagrined. The implacable Antarctic had beaten us again.
We found the camp in a state of suppressed tension. The suspicion that had been slowly seeping through the base had crystallized into a conviction that the Admiral was in peril. His halting messages, spelt out laboriously on a hand-cranked emergency radio-set in groups of three or four words with a request to "wait" between each group, his uncertain sending, and his periods of unexplained silence compelled the conclusion that he was having a difficult time. We expected no direct confirmation of our suspicions because we knew that the rigid code of honor to which he adhered would preclude his involving his men in any dangers that were not definitely a part of their duties. A direct query "Are you hurt?" "Are you ill?" brought the response - after an over-long wait, "Please don't ask me to crank any more. I'm O.K."
He wasn't "O.K." - he couldn't be - but his steadfast refusal to worry us by any intimation that all was not well revealed a consideration for us that affected us deeply. Whatever menace threatened him, he chose to meet it alone and unaided - his inflexible code demanded this.
While Demas. Waite, and I snatched it few hours disturbed sleep, tractor No. 3 was tuned up, and at 1:20 A.M. on August 8th, in a temperature of 44 degrees below zero, we set out again. By great good fortune we struck the passage through the pressure-ice without loss of time. Clearing the pressure we picked up the sleds that we had cached on the trail and had made thirty miles before decreasing visibility, due to wind-borne snow, forced us to camp.
Moving forward again when visibility improved we were aided by the beacons which we built, as we went along and by the approach of the annual dawn which now afforded an hour or so of smeary twilight ,at noon each day. By the evening of the 9th we fetched lip at the 50-mile point. Reaching the northern edge of the Valley of Crevasses we altered our course to swing around it. If we could .gain the other side the most baffling part of the journey would be behind us. Cautiously, laying our route by the microscopic light of the beacons, we hitched along on the detour.
Lowering temperatures and furious winds plagued us and the physical strain began taking toll of our endurance. We had been hammering ahead continuously for more than twenty-six hours since we had last camped at the thirty-mile point, but there was no lime to rest for we were making good progress and felt it necessary to keep going as long as we could stand it.
By 7:45 on the morning of the 10th we had worked around the Valley of Crevasses and picked up signs of the old trail that had been broken in March. Despite our exhaustion we were elated as we anticipated easier going from there on. But misfortune was in the offing. The generator on the tractor began to go bad and the ignition became erratic. Soon the generator gave up the ghost entirely, and in the feeble rays of flashlights we replaced it with a spare that we carried. Bitter work, this. At 3:45 on the afternoon of the 10th we were at 81 miles with about 50 miles to go to reach our objective.
Again generator trouble assailed us. The brushes on the spare wore down rapidly under the punishing going and we had to whittle small blocks of wood to wedge them to a contact. The exposure of hands and faces entailed in this job was plain torture. After each halt to repair the generator we would climb wearily back to our respective places - Demas at the wheel, Waite at the radio, and I on top of the cab where I could throw the rays of the search-light on our path - and grind on again .
About 10 P.M. on the 11th I was startled by the sudden appearance of a bright bluish glare on the horizon dead ahead. It was unmistakably a magnesium flare. We had made good time since the early afternoon and if my calculations were correct we were nearing the region in which Advance Base was located. Demas and Waite had also seen the glow and pounded frantically on the roof of the cab. It could have but one meaning - there was only one human being in all the sweep of the Antarctic continent south of Little America, Admiral Byrd. In my excitement I loosed my hold on the search-light and was almost lost overboard as the tractor jerked forward when Demas impulsively gave it the gas.
Just before midnight, as we topped a slight rise, the beam of the search-light picked out a fur-clad figure walking somewhat unsteadily toward us. "Hello, fellows" it said, "come below, I have some hot soup for you."
As, later, we looked at Admiral Byrd in the close confines of his 9 x 13 foot shack under the snow, and noted the ghastly wasting of his sturdy body, the gray pallor of his tightly-drawn skin, and the weak hollowness of a voice that seemed to come from somewhere outside his body, we were appalled. A great pity, that brought moisture to our eyes, welled up in us as we mentally cataloged the marks of some monstrous torturing ordeal that had scarred him; but he told us nothing that would satisfy our burning curiosity, instead he treated the situation as unconcernedly as though we were daily visitors. His chief anxiety was for us.
It was months after we had returned to Little America that we learned, little by little from various sources, something of the mighty trial of flesh and spirit that had so nearly cost him his life. Stricken down on May 28th by poisonous fumes from a tiny engine that powered his radio set and a faulty oil stove, for more than three months the Admiral utterly alone, had waged a grim fight against desperate illness and the pitiless cold of Antarctica, Almost insurmountable odds.
As gradually we added to our scanty knowledge of his incredible experience, we at length realized that through months of excruciating suffering and though daily facing death, he had deliberately chosen to die rather than send out an "S.O.S." that might have endangered the lives of those of us who would have gladly responded to his call. Such is the stature of .the man whom we were all proud to term leader - and comrade.
The return trip to Little America which we delayed until October as the Admiral was too weak to be moved before then was made without mishap. We had, aside from the boon of comparatively moderate weather, the advantage of full daylight and the marked trail which we had cut on the outward journey.
Admiral Byrd himself in his recently published book Alone (Putnam $2.50) tells the amazing story of his experience at Advance Base; a thrilling story of an adventure in solitude under conditions that those who have never known the hideous cold, the labor that mere existence without any real comfort entails or the horror of excruciating suffering without anyone to give companionship or care, can scarcely comprehend. And this despite the vivid way in which the explorer describes his ordeal.
Posted July 8, 2014