In These Last Days Of Winter – On Freezing To Death

I’ve been morbidly fascinated with hypothermia for ages. I even learned how to do SFX makeup which makes me look as though I have frostbite. My fascination has been mounting these past few days, as I’ve been racing through short stories where the protagonists are faced with death by cold, researching into the stages of hypothermia, reading about dead climbers on Everest whose bodies have become markers, and refreshing my memory about the fate of dozens of polar explorers, including Captain Scott and his party.

Two of the stories I read include Frozen Alive by Peter Stark and To Build A Fire by Jack London. Stark’s brilliant story (it’s really, really brilliant, please read it) begins when a man’s Jeep ‘spins lazily off the mountain road and and slams backwards into a snowbank…’ With his car trapped, our protagonist decides to ski the ‘five or six miles’ to where his friends wait with warm food, wine and firelight. To do so is a terrible idea though, as he soon discovers.

“It was a mistake, you realize, to come out on a night this cold. You should turn back. Fishing into the front pocket of your shell parka, you fumble out the map. You consulted it to get here; it should be able to guide you back to the warm car. It doesn’t occur to you in your increasingly clouded and panicky mental state that you could simply follow your tracks down the way you came.”

Frozen Alive, Peter Stark

Stark deftly weaves horrifyingly engrossing realities of the effects of hypothermia into the narrative. We learn, for example, about three hikers who died in 1964 from hypothermia on a windy, rainy English moor, despite the temperature not even falling below freezing.

“But for all scientists and statisticians now know of freezing and its physiology, no one can yet predict exactly how quickly and in whom hypothermia will strike—and whether it will kill when it does. The cold remains a mystery, more prone to fell men than women, more lethal to the thin and well muscled than to those with avoirdupois, and least forgiving to the arrogant and the unaware.”

Frozen Alive, Peter Stark

Frozen Alive is a story which I happened upon entirely by chance, but it’s enriched my knowledge of hypothermia no end, as well as showing me the direction in which it’s possible to take short stories.

To Build A Fire was just phenomenal. The version I read – there are two – was the version published in 1908. Our protagonist is a fool of a man and a newcomer to the boreal forest of the Yukon Territory. It’s a dangerously cold Winter’s day, and he’s en route to visit a prospectors camp, despite having been warned of the risks of venturing out alone with the temperatures so low. Though our unnamed protagonist isn’t entirely alone. His dog, who knows, based on instinct, that it’s too damned cold to travel, reluctantly follows.

“He plunged in among the big spruce trees. The trail was faint. A foot of snow had fallen since the last sled had passed over, and he was glad he was without a sled, travelling light. In fact, he carried nothing but the lunch wrapped in the handkerchief. He was surprised, however, at the cold. It certainly was cold, he concluded, as he rubbed his numbed nose and cheek-bones with his mittened hand. He was a warm-whiskered man, but the hair on his face did not protect the high cheek-bones and the eager nose that thrust itself aggressively into the frosty air.”

To Build A Fire, Jack London

London’s storytelling is unparalleled. To Build A Fire is terrifying, riveting and brutal. If I had a chance to bring a writer back from the dead and question them on their process, I’d bring back London, no hesitation. I won’t tell you whether our cocksure protagonist arrives at the prospectors camp or not, because I really hope you’ll read the story and find out for yourself.

“The sight of the dog put a wild idea into his head. He remembered the tale of the man, caught in a blizzard, who killed a steer and crawled inside the carcass, and so was saved. He would kill the dog and bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them. Then he could build another fire.”

To Build A Fire, Jack London

There have been a couple of films made based on To Build A Fire, that I’ve been able to find. I’ll leave them here in case you want to take a journey to the freezing Yukon with a man and his dog. The first, directed by David Cobham, was broadcast in 1969. The second is a beautiful animated feature from 2016. Directed by FX Goby, it was made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of London’s death. There’s another film by a director called Robert Spindler, but I’ve been unable to find it in its entirety, which is hellishly frustrating because it looks really good.

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