Tragedy in the cold

I like books about exploration and endurance, possibly because these are things I would never do myself. Very many of this type of book illustrate the fact that to undertake extreme events of this sort it is necessary to be well prepared and that, sadly, not everyone does enough to keep themselves safe. Cold Burial by Clive Powell-Williams is the story of a tragedy that didn’t need to happen and which was caused by the carelessness and arrogance of one man.

In 1926 Edgar Christian travelled from Britain to Canada to spend time with his uncle Jack Hornby. Edgar was young and looking for adventure. Jack was older and had lived a life of adventure and exploration in Canada for some years, although a previous winter in the snows when he and a friend had tried to make a fortune trapping animals for their fur had not ended well. Jack told a good story and was very charming so his family in England seem to have attributed to him greater skills and experience than he actually possessed.

Jack decided to take Edgar into the North of Canada for the winter mainly as an adventure although they disguised it by adopting a scientific aspect to their trip. They took with them Harold Adlard who also had no experience. They would take supplies, trap animals for fur and live off the herds of caribou that migrated through the area – they expected to be gone all winter.

The author has gathered evidence from newspaper articles of the time, letters sent home and Edgar’s diary which survives. He follows the journey of the three men and notes their preparations, what they expected to happen and what they told other people. He also notes the mistakes that were made and the warnings that experienced people offered to the party before they left. He then describes the attempts to find the men over the next two years and the effect on their families of what has happened.

You know from the beginning that this story will not end well – the title is suggestive for a start. The author never hides that but he shows clearly how the group got into trouble. As the leader and the only experienced person of the three, Jack was responsible for the party and he made some very bad decisions resulting in mistakes which could not be rectified in time to save the men.

I found this book absolutely gripping as the story continues remorselessly to tragedy because of the misplaced trust in the leader of the group. It’s ultimately very sad and the writer is clear about where the blame must be laid and what might have been done to save the expedition. This is a very readable history.

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