To Build a Fire

"You were right, old hoss; you were right," the man mumbled to the old-timer of Sulphur Creek.

Happy Wednesday and welcome to all our new subscribers — over 100 new readers have joined since the last deep dive article!

Weekly readers will know that I have been reading a bit of Jack London lately, and this email is inspired by one of London’s most popular short stories.

If the To Build a Fire section is a bit long for the time you have, see the TL;DR section towards the end of this note for a shorter summary. Takeaways for investors, builders, and ourselves are in the last section below.

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What is the coldest outside temperature you've experienced?

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On my end, the coldest place I’ve been is Harbin, China. Many years ago, I spent December through February in the city — the coldest time of the year — and at night it would get to be -15 to -20 °F. I can’t imagine a colder temperature.

Jack London

Jack London (1876 - 1916) was famous for his vivid literary depictions of survival in the harshest of natural environments. His best-known novels, The Call of the Wild and White Fang, set in the harsh Canadian wilderness and written from the perspective of animals as opposed to humans, captivated readers worldwide.

London's stories felt authentic as his adventurous life, from sailing to Japan and joining protest armies to his days as an oyster pirate and chasing after gold in the Klondike, provided a latticework from which to paint. His versatility as a novelist, short story writer, and social activist — combined with his ability to translate personal experiences into compelling narratives — made him one of the most popular authors of his time.

Despite his success, London's life was not without its challenges. He struggled to make good financial decisions and was often extended beyond his means despite substantial income. Alcohol was an escape from this reality, and his health declined before he grew old. He died in 1916 at the age of 40.

One of London’s most famous short stories (~7,000 words) is To Build a Fire, which he first wrote in 1902 and subsequently re-wrote with material improvements in 1908.

We are exploring the 1908 version below.

To Build a Fire

Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little traveled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and he paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o'clock. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky

Ahead of the man lay a difficult trek through the Yukon wilderness. At that time of year that far north, the sun barely peaked its head over the horizon to mark the break between night and day.

While he had become accustomed to dark, cold weather, he was a newcomer to the land and this was his first winter this far north.

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, traveling 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 numb nose and cheek-bones with his mittened hand.

Previously in the company of others — who called “the boys” — the man had decided to take a longer route back to camp to scout potential timber harvesting locations for the Spring. The search completed, he was starting on his way back.

But the cold that morning surprised him — it was colder than anything he had experienced — but he marched forward regardless, alone but for a husky that trailed behind him.

The animal was depressed by the tremendous cold. It knew that it was no time for traveling. Its instinct told it a truer tale than was told to the man by the man's judgment. In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty below zero; it was colder than sixty below, than seventy below. It was seventy-five below zero.

The man did not realize the extent of the cold — to him, it was just cold. Very cold, yes — but that was all he thought about it.

He kept himself warm by moving at a quick pace. He hoped to reach his companions by dinner time that evening. Lunch — bacon and biscuits — was packed tightly against his chest to prevent it from freezing as he marched. He was making good time and looked forward to building a fire and sitting down for lunch once he covered another 10 miles and came to a fork in the creek he was following that he knew lay on the way toward camp.

It would be about half-past noon then.

Once in a while the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold and that he had never experienced such cold. As he walked along he rubbed his cheek-bones and nose with the back of his mittened hand. He did this automatically, now and again changing hands. But rub as he would, the instant he stopped his cheek-bones went numb, and the following instant the end of his nose went numb.

Despite inevitable frostbite to his cheeks and nose, the man pushed onward.

Empty as the man's mind was of thoughts, he was keenly observant, and he noticed the changes in the creek, the curves and bends and timber jams, and always he sharply noted where he placed his feet… he knew also that there were springs that bubbled out from the hillsides and ran along under the snow and on top the ice of the creek.

He knew that the coldest snaps never froze these springs, and he knew likewise their danger. They were traps… when one broke through he kept on breaking through for a while, sometimes wetting himself to the waist.

He kept his pace, and at half-past noon he was indeed at the fork in the creek he expected. Elated at the progress he had made, he sat down.

He unbuttoned his jacket and shirt and drew forth his lunch. The action consumed no more than a quarter of a minute, yet in that brief moment the numbness laid hold of the exposed fingers. He did not put the mitten on, but, instead struck the fingers a dozen sharp smashes against his leg. Then he sat down on a snow-covered log to eat. The sting that followed upon the striking of his fingers against his leg ceased so quickly that he was startled…

He had forgotten to build a fire and thaw out. He chuckled at his foolishness, and as he chuckled he noted the numbness creeping into the exposed fingers. Also, he noted that the stinging which had first come to his toes when he sat down was already passing away. He wondered whether the toes were warm or numb. He moved them inside the moccasins and decided that they were numb.

The man was a bit startled — this was a level of cold he hadn’t expected to meet. He stood and stamped around until feeling returned to his feet. As he stomped around the log, his mind thought back to stories he had heard from old men when he first arrived in the Yukon.

He had been told to never travel alone when it is fifty below zero.

That man from Sulphur Creek had spoken the truth when telling how cold it sometimes got in the country. And he had laughed at him at the time! That showed one must not be too sure of things. There was no mistake about it, it was cold. He strode up and down, stamping his feet and threshing his arms, until reassured by the returning warmth. Then he got out matches and proceeded to make a fire…

He knew how to build a fire, and in no time he had a flame roaring to life. He thawed out his body and ate his biscuits while protected from the weather by the fire, satisfied with his conquest of the cold.

Once he finished eating, he smoked his pipe, put back on his mittens, took a chew of tobacco, and called the dog to follow him away from the warmth and back into the frigid wilderness towards a camp still hours away.

The dog was disappointed and yearned back toward the fire. This man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing point. But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge. And it knew that it was not good to walk abroad in such fearful cold. It was the time to lie snug in a hole in the snow and wait for a curtain of cloud to be drawn across the face of outer space whence this cold came.

But the dog had no choice — together, they were going to battle the frost.

And then it happened. At a place where there were no signs, where the soft, unbroken snow seemed to advertise solidity beneath, the man broke through. It was not deep. He wet himself halfway to the knees before he floundered out to the firm crust.

He cursed his bad luck out loud. A second fire must now be built.

He would be delayed getting into camp where the boys were waiting for him. But there was no option — no matter how fast he could move, his feet would freeze if they were not dried before he continued. He gathered dry underbrush from several small spruce trees and struck a match to small piece of birch bark.

He knew there must be no failure. When it is seventy-five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire--that is, if his feet are wet.

His feet were already beginning to freeze, and his fingers had lost their sensation the moment he removed his mittens to build the fire. The blood in his body was no longer being pumped to his extremities by a constant march forward — instead, it was retreating to his core.

He fed the birch-bark flame with small twigs, and gradually larger and larger branches and then finally his second 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.

Now blessed with a flame, the man needed to get dry. He started to remove his frozen footwear, but he had made a mistake. He had built his fire directly underneath a large spruce tree.

It had been faster — it was easy to pull the dead wood from the tree directly into the fire — than what tradition would dictate as best: building the fire away from any structure that was heavily laden with softly packed snow.

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 disordered snow.

Dumbfounded, the man stared at what might be his own death sentence. The old man from Sulphur Creek had been right — maybe a man shouldn’t travel alone at fifty degrees below. But it did not matter. He would have to build a third fire.

He quickly gathered new tinder materials, but was surprised at the the lack of sensation he had while doing so. The man knew his hands were at the end of his arms, but he had to watch his hands pinch together to confirm he was, in fact, holding anything.

He reached for the matches in his pocket. He knew they were there — but his fingers no longer did. Haphazardly, he tore at his pockets and out fell the matches into the snow. Reaching for them, his fingers could not close.

Desperate, he bit at the matches and finally got them in between the palms of his hands as his fingers were stuck unmoving. Striking the entire set of matches against his leg, he succeeded in lighting them. With the bunch of matches burning into his numb fingers, he held his lifeline to the birch he had aggregated until he finally felt enough pain underneath the numbness that he could take it no more.

The blazing matches fell sizzling into the snow, but the birch bark was alight. He began laying dry grasses and the tiniest twigs on the flame. He could not pick and choose, for he had to lift the fuel between the heels of his hands. Small pieces of rotten wood and green moss clung to the twigs, and he bit them off as well as he could with his teeth.

He cherished the flame carefully and awkwardly. It meant life, and it must not perish.

The withdrawal of blood from the surface of his body now made him begin to shiver, and he grew more awkward. A large piece of green moss fell squarely on the little fire. He tried to poke it out with his fingers, but his shivering frame made him poke too far and he disrupted the nucleus of the little fire, the burning grasses and tiny twigs separating and scattering.

He tried to poke them together again, but in spite of the tenseness of the effort, his shivering got away with him, and the twigs were hopelessly scattered. Each twig gushed a puff of smoke and went out.

The fire-provider had failed.

He began to panic. It was no longer a question of frostbite — it was life and death, with the odds stacked against him.

The man looked down at his hands in order to locate them, and found them hanging on the ends of his arms. It struck him as curious that one should have to use his eyes in order to find out where his hands were. He began threshing his arms back and forth, beating the mittened hands against his sides.

He did this for five minutes, violently, and his heart pumped enough blood up to the surface to put a stop to his shivering. But no sensation was aroused in the hands. He had an impression that they hung like weights on the ends of his arms, but when he tried to run the impression down, he could not find it.

Fear further welled up inside him. He stood up and began to run.

The dog joined in behind and kept up with him. He ran blindly, without intention, in fear such as he had never known in his life. Slowly, as he plowed and floundered through the snow, he began to see things again, the banks of the creek, the old timber-jams, the leafless aspens, and the sky.

The running made him feel better. He did not shiver. Maybe, if he ran on, his feet would thaw out; and, anyway, if he ran far enough, he would reach camp and the boys…

His theory of running until he reached camp and the boys had one flaw in it: he lacked the endurance.

Several times he stumbled, and finally he tottered, crumpled up, and fell. When he tried to rise, he failed. He must sit and rest, he decided, and next time he would merely walk and keep on going.

But his strength never returned. He finally felt warm. He imagined his companions coming to find him — imagined going back to the States and telling of how cold it could really get.

He drifted on from this to a vision of the old-timer on Sulphur Creek. He could see him quite clearly, warm and comfortable, and smoking a pipe.

"You were right, old hoss; you were right," the man mumbled to the old-timer of Sulphur Creek.

And finally the man was fully silent. The dog waited. Eventually, it whined disapprovingly and crept closer to the man, only to recoil at the smell of death. It looked up at the stars, turned and trotted away in the direction of the camp it knew, where food and fire would be waiting.


A newcomer to the frigid Yukon forests of Canada, sets off through the wilderness to meet-up with companions after scouting a detour in search of timber that could be harvested in the spring. The temperature has plummeted to a bone-chilling −75 °F, and despite warnings from locals about the dangers of traveling alone in such extreme conditions, the unnamed man ventures out alone but for the company of a dog. The dog’s instinct tell it of the dangers ahead, but it reluctantly follows the man into the spruce-covered landscape.

As the pair traverse the Yukon terrain along the banks of a frozen creek, the man takes great care to avoid patches of thin ice concealed by snow. He sets out at 9am with the aim of reaching his companions’ camp by 6pm that evening.

At half-past noon, the man pauses to build a fire and warm himself while he eats his lunch. However, shortly after resuming his trek, he breaks through a patch of thin ice, soaking his feet and lower legs. He is forced to stop once again and build another fire to dry himself. It would be inviting death to continue wet at these temperatures — and he knows it.

Choosing a spot beneath a tree for the fire, he pulls twigs from a brush pile to feed the flames. Soon a fire is roaring. However, his decision to ignore best practices and build so near a tree ultimately undoes his efforts. A large amount of snow, agitated by the removal of branches to build the fire, falls from above, extinguishing the fire.

The man begins to lose sensation in his extremities, and the gravity of the warnings about the life-threatening danger posed by the extreme cold finally dawns on him. His hands are freezing — literally — and he cannot move his individual fingers.

In a desperate attempt to light another fire and without the use of his individual fingers due to frost, he strikes all of his matches at once, burning himself in the process. While trying to rekindle a flame, he inadvertently pokes the burning twigs apart with his frozen fingers, extinguishing his last lifeline.

In a last-ditch, panicked effort to restore his circulation, the man tries to run toward the camp — still hours away — but he stumbles and falls repeatedly in the snow before he can no longer push himself back to his feet.

As the cold hastens its conquest towards the man’s core, he remembers the warnings he received about traveling alone as he falls asleep for the last time. The dog, after some time, turns and trotts up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew was its destination, in search of the food and fire it knew it could find there.


As always, let me know what takeaways I missed or of real-world examples / expanded ideas from which other subscribers would benefit — Thank you!

For Investors:

1. Some situations are “too hard” and you should avoid them

2. After a certain point, not all outcomes can be improved with effort

For Builders:

1. Lack of preparedness kills

2. Negative events compound if they are not dealt with quickly

3. History rhymes, so take lessons from those that built before you

4. Avoiding best practices in exchange for speed will bite you

For Us:

1. You can always outspend what you earn

2. Arrogance deafens our ears to what we need to hear

3. Self-reliance only takes you so far; relationships can help take you the rest of the way

If you found today’s issue interesting, more than anything, I would appreciate it if you forwarded this email to someone that might find it meaningful. It is a big deal to me whenever someone reads my work, and I appreciate your support.



Twitter / X: @HistoryEJ

Disclosure: Nothing in this article constitutes investment advice. More detailed disclosure here.

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