Forty-six years ago, the Virginian, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, was the first man to spend the winter alone in the Antarctic interior. He did so for much the same reason that lures people there today. "I really want to go for experience's sake," he wrote in his extraordinary book "Alone."
"Aside from the meteorological and auroral work, I had no important purposes. There was nothing of that sort. Nothing whatever, except one man's desire to know that kind of experience to the full, to be by himself for a while and to taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good they really are."
As it turned out, Byrd nearly died of Carbn monoxide poisoning from a faulty stove. But even so, the months he spent in the perpetual winter night, taking scientific measurements, gazing at auroras, reading books and listening to music -- much as Mark Smith, Bob Squires and other modern 'winter-overs' do today -- afforded some of the most edquisite moments of his life.
His descriptions of the Southern Lights are memorable. "At first it was a sheaf of tremulous rays; then it became a great river of silver shot through with gold. About 10:30 o'clock, when I pushed open the trapdoor for a last look, it was a swollen mass of gauzy vapor which lay sprawled uneasily through the zenith, between the northern and southern horizons. It began to pulsate, gently at first, then faster and faster. The whole structure dissovled into a system of virescent arches, all sharply defiant. Above these revolved battery upon battery of searchlights, which fanned the heavens with heightening lustrousness. Pale greens and reds and yellows touched the stately structures; the whole dark sky came to life."
Byrd reported the same kind of depression, the same lethargy that winter-overs do today. At 60 degrees below zero, he said, "you can hear your breath freeze as it floats away, making a sound like that of Chinese firecrackers." He found himself watching the sinking sun "as one might watch a departing lover," and he wrote in his diary: "One may be a long time realizing it, but cold and darkness deplete the body gradually; the mind turns sluggish; and the nervous sytem slows up in its responses. This morning I had to admit to myself that I was lonely. Try as I may, I find I can't take my loneliness casually; it is too big. But I must not dwell on it. Otherwise I am undone."
And, after it all, Byrd had a few words of wisdom for would-be explorers. "Thousands of men have devoted the best part of their lifetimes to reaching one pole or the other and a good many have died on the way. But among the handful who have actually attained Latitude 90 degrees, whether North or South, I doubt that even one found the sight of the pole itself particularly inspiring. For there is little enough to see: at one end of the earth a mathematical spot in the center of a vast and empty ocean, and at the other end an equally imaginary spot in the middle of a vast and windy plateau.
"It's not getting to the pole that counts. It's what you learn of scientific value on the way. Plus the fact that you can get there and back without being killed."