Finding The Right Way To Battle The Chill
To build the fire he had been forced to remove his mittens,
and the fingers had quickly gone numb. His pace of four miles
an hour had kept his heart pumping blood to the surface of
his body and to all the extremities. But the instant he stopped,
the action of the pump eased down. The cold of space smote
the unprotected tip of the planet, and he, being on that unprotected
tip, received the full force of the blow. the blood of his
body recoiled before it. The blood was alive, like the dog,
and like the dog it wanted to hide away and cover itself up
from the fearful cold. So long as he walked four miles an
hour, he pumped that blood, willy-nilly, to the surface; but
now it ebbed away and sank down into the recesses of his body.
The extremities were the first to feel its absence. His wet
feet froze the faster, and his exposed fingers numbed the
faster, though they had not yet begun to freeze. Nose and
cheeks were already freezing, while the skin of all his body
chilled as it lost its blood.
But he was safe. Toes and nose and cheeks would be only touched
by the frost, for the fire was beginning to burn with strength.
He was feeding it with twigs the size of his finger. In another
minute he would be able to feed it with branches the size
of his wrist, and then he could remove his wet footgear, and,
while it dried, he could keep his naked feet warm by the fire,
rubbing them at first, of course, with snow. The fire was
a success. He was safe. He remembered the advice of the old-timer
on Sulphur Creek, and smiled. The old-timer had been very
serious in laying down the law that no man must travel alone
in the Klondike after fifty below. Well, here he was; he had
had the accident; he was alone; and he had saved himself.
Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought.
All a man had to do was to keep his head, and he was all right.
Any man who was a man could travel alone. But it was surprising,
the rapidity with which his cheeks and nose were freezing.
And he had not thought his fingers could go lifeless in so
short a time. Lifeless they were, for he could scarcely make
them move together to grip a twig, and they seemed remote
from his body and from him. When he touched a twig, he had
to look and see whether or not he had hold of it. The wires
were pretty well down between him and his finger ends.
All of which counted for little. There was the fire, snapping
and crackling and promising life with every dancing flame.
He started to untie his moccasins. They were coated with ice;
the thick German socks were like sheaths of iron halfway to
the knees; and the moccasin strings were like rods of steel
all twisted and knotted as by some conflagration. For a moment
he tugged with his numb fingers, then, realizing the folly
of it, he drew his sheath knife.
But before he could cut the strings, it happened. It was his
own fault or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built
the fire under the spruce tree. He should have built it in
the open. But it had been easier to pull the twigs from the
brush and drop them directly on the fire. Now the tree under
which he had done this carried a weight of snow on its boughs.
No wind had blown for weeks, and each bough was fully freighted.
Each time he had pulled on a twig he had communicated a slight
agitation to the tree – an imperceptible agitation,
so far as he was concerned, but an agitation sufficient to
bring about the disaster. High up in the tree one bough capsized
its load of snow. This fell on the boughs beneath, capsizing
them. This process continued, spreading out and involving
the whole tree. It grew like an avalanche, and it descended
without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was
blotted out! Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh and
The man was shocked. It was as though he had just heard his
own sentence of death. For a moment he sat and stared at the
spot where the fire had been. Then he grew very calm. Perhaps
the old-timer on Sulphur Creek was right. If he had only had
a trail mate he would have been in no danger now. The trail
mate could have built the fire. Well, it was up to him to
build a fire over again, and this second time there must be
from To Build A Fire
a short story about his days
in the Yukon by Jack London
first published in 1902
in Youth’s Companion