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Cold Burial: A True Story of Endurance and Disaster

Cold Burial: A True Story of Endurance and Disaster

by Clive Powell-Williams

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For schoolboys in the 1920s, too young to have experienced first-hand the horrors of World War One, theirs was yet the age of adventure. Their imaginations fired by the exploits of Robert Scott, T. E. Lawrence, Ernest Shackleton, and George Mallory, and by the novels of John Buchan and Jack London, they dreamed of exploring and conquering new frontiers. Lawrence


For schoolboys in the 1920s, too young to have experienced first-hand the horrors of World War One, theirs was yet the age of adventure. Their imaginations fired by the exploits of Robert Scott, T. E. Lawrence, Ernest Shackleton, and George Mallory, and by the novels of John Buchan and Jack London, they dreamed of exploring and conquering new frontiers. Lawrence had retreated from public life, and Scott, Shackleton, and Mallory were by then all dead, but their heroic feats remained the measure of British manhood, the standard to be carried forward.

In the Spring of 1926, Edgar Christian, a young man of eighteen fresh out of public school, joined his dashing cousin, the legendary (if somewhat self-styled) adventurer Jack Hornby, and a friend named Harold Adlard on an expedition into the Barren Lands of the Canadian Northwest Territories. The plan was to hunt caribou and trap for fur. For young Edgar, the Barrens expedition offered a chance to prove himself and to find his direction in life; for Hornby, a veteran of the Great War as well previous forays into the Northwest (he was known in some quarters as "Hornby of the North"), it represented his latest date with disaster. Together they would demonstrate that civilized men could survive, even thrive, in one of the world's most inhospitable regions. They were proved wrong.

Based in large part upon a diary left behind by Edgar, discovered when his body and those of his companions were found two years after their deaths, Clive Powell-Williams' account of the expedition is a gripping narrative of innocence and experience, youthful idealism and unyielding nature. It matters little that we know in advance the tragic outcome, for in its unfolding Cold Burial recounts a tale of courage, folly, and ultimately redemptive love that will haunt readers long after they've read the last page.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Powell-Williams reconstructs the doomed 1927 expedition of renowned adventurer Jack Hornby to Canada's Northwest Territories, using the diary of his 18-year-old cousin and fellow traveler, Edgar Christian. Hornby was part of a wealthy, aristocratic family whose lifestyle he rejected. On a trip home to attend his father's funeral, Hornby so captivated his young cousin with romantic tales of the wilderness that Christian soon begged Hornby to allow him on a trip to the Barren Lands of the Northwest Territories. This was a return trip for Hornby, then in his mid-40s, to the harsh, uninhabited land (temperatures of -30 degrees Fahrenheit were not unusual). Yet according to the author, Hornby, driven by an exaggerated sense of his invincibility and distracted by an unrequited love affair, prepared badly for the trip. He mistakenly decided not to take sled dogs, traveled with inadequate food and clothing, and miscalculated the availability of caribou for hunting. Christian's diary, found two years later along with three dead bodies (Hornby's friend Howard Adlard had also joined them) in the rough cabin they built, describes how the men were critically weakened by starvation and cold. As the last survivor, Christian provided a harrowing account of the deaths of Hornby and then Adlard before the diary broke off. In the end, Hornby's is an arresting story of a reckless wilderness gamble that did not pay off. Photos not seen by PW. (Feb.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1926, the Barren Lands of the Canadian Northwest Territories were rightly regarded as an inhospitable region of appalling weather where the threat of starvation, accident, and loneliness always lurked a place where men (i.e., Europeans) would be tested to the limit. Troubled World War I veteran Jack Hornsby, a drifter and adventurer, had been there and he had liked it. He organized an expedition with two young and inexperienced friends, with the intention of wintering north of the Great Slave Lake. They would hunt and trap to support themselves, and Hornsby would collect scientific data. Hornsby was knowledgeable about the region, but he failed to make basic preparations despite warnings. After many hardships and colossal mistakes in judgment, all three died. Two years later, Mounties found their bodies, letters to parents, and the detailed diary of one of Hornsby's friends. The author has used the diary and a number of surviving letters to reconstruct the adventurers' trip in great detail. An interesting counterpoint to the many stories of survival under harsh conditions but rather depressing. For comprehensive subject collections. Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In 1929, Canadian Mounties found three skeletons in a cabin in the Arctic regions of the Northwest Territories. They also found a diary, which forms the basis for this book.

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Cold Burial

A True Story of Endurance and Disaster

By Clive Powell-Williams

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2002 Clive Powell-Williams and Robin Blake
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6979-0


Hornby of the North

In the winter of 1924, surrounded by a vast sub-Arctic wilderness, Captain James Critchell-Bullock sat inside the dug-out that he and his travelling partner John Hornby had excavated with their own hands. Wrapped to the best of his ability against the intense cold, he was writing in a folio notebook – his journal. It was Christmas Eve.

The captain, late of the Indian Army's 18th Lancers, was meditating gloomily on his position. The dug-out was collapsing. Food and fuel supplies were low and his dog was dying. He was otherwise alone.

Alone in a dug-out beneath the sand and snow when but one thousand miles away homes are alight with fairy lights and decorated with those little frills pertinent to Christmastide.

Looking up from the page, he tried to visualize festivity. In a hazy, golden montage, Christmases past rose before his mind – fat dogs panted before huge log fires, aunts gossiped interminably, uncles slumped and snored in armchairs. He heard Christmas carols and hunting horns. He smelled roast goose, a balloon of good brandy, spruce needles in the carpet.

He glanced moodily upwards at the ominously sagging roof of his present dwelling. At any moment it might give way, cascading three tons of icy gravel on top of his head. Shifting to a more comfortable position in this cramped space, he inadvertently tipped one of the crazily misshapen spars that propped the roof. Sand spattered around him on the frozen floor and he stiffened until the sand stopped falling. Then he resumed his meditation on solitude and desolation.

Alone in this awful shack of continual discomfort with its subsiding walls and crazy roof, likely at any moment to fall and entomb me in a living grave. Alone with sufficient wood to make only one more fire. Alone with a dying dog whose foot is stinking with the decay consequent on frostbite. Alone with but the howl of the blizzard outside to cheer me and the thoughts of peace and happiness and the faces of loved ones coming to mind – only to remind me more and more of my deep loneliness.

The underlying reason for Critchell-Bullock's precipitate descent into misery is not explicit here. Certainly the cold was very bitter – minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit is not unusual in these latitudes. Bad weather could imprison a man inside for days at a time and the cabin was a place of little ease. Dimly lit by 'candles' fashioned from string and fox fat, the interior stank of greasy smoke, suppuration and eviscerated game, while the constant fear of bringing down the roof restricted any freedom of movement. Yet it was neither cramp, nor cold, nor even hunger, that gnawed most at Critchell-Bullock's spirit. It was Hornby.

Jack Hornby was his expedition partner and the senior man. He was supposed to provide inspiration and help, yet he was not here. In fact, the matter was worse even than simple dereliction. Critchell- Bullock had hero-worshipped Hornby, and the expedition had taken all his money. He was being repaid with nothing but bitter disillusionment.

* * *

Critchell-Bullock, at twenty-six, was a veteran not only of the Western Front, but of the Palestine campaign and the Desert Mounted Corps. He had retired from the army in the summer of 1923 and had come to North America in the hope of a brighter future, combining suitable adventure with reputation and profit. His encounter with Hornby had occurred in Edmonton just a few weeks after landing, when they had come upon each other in the restaurant of the King Edward Hotel.

This interesting new acquaintance, Critchell-Bullock gathered, was the forty-three-year-old son of a famous cricketer back in England. But many years earlier, Hornby had rejected his wealthy background for the frontier life, specializing in winter travel of a kind not for faint hearts. Accessible only by canoe and dog team, his favourite resort was the Barren Lands, otherwise known as the Barren Ground or, simply, the Barrens: a frozen hell so harsh and ruthless as to cut down any white man or Indian unable to match it in the game of jeopardy and survival. Such terms might have been calculated to attract Critchell-Bullock's interest. He was actively seeking new sporting challenges, more extreme than anything he had encountered before.

He quickly decided that, in Hornby, he had found his guide and mentor. Hornby had, according to his own often-repeated claim, 'out-Indianed the Indians' in order to make the Barren Lands his own. The claim was even substantiated by articles about him in the Edmonton press. There were other men – trappers, adventurers – who could make a similar case, but none had the public charisma and private charm of Jack Hornby.

Hornby was, by any standards, a man out of the ordinary. Only five foot four, he had developed over many years a down-at-heel, Chaplinesque image. He let his curly hair grow long and tangled. He wore ragged trousers and old tailor-made shirts filched from his father, and sported a grubby overcoat with a moth-eaten astrakhan fur collar, of a cut long out of style. On the rare occasions when he visited London, he would turn up at a smart hotel attired in this way for luncheon appointments and escape being bounced by the porter only by virtue of his faultless old-Harrovian vowels. Hornby's wardrobe became a few degrees less shabby as he got older – since the War he had always travelled with a dinner jacket, even into the Barrens – but the contrast between that impeccable upper-class accent and his dishevelment was nevertheless striking. Socially, he was often withdrawn, but just as frequently there were phases of sparkling humour and vivacity and, at these times, everyone was struck by his piercing blue eyes. Although normally bare-headed (in an era when men universally wore hats), he sometimes adopted a shapeless peaked cap that, in photographs, gives him the anachronistic look of a beatnik. The image is not inappropriate. Hornby was in all essentials a prototype drop-out.

From such material, myths spring up, compounding truth and imaginative embellishment. This was the man who had, on one occasion, run a hundred miles in twenty-four hours and, on another, raced a train on foot for a bet. In 1913, guiding two French missionary fathers who were attempting to make contact with the natives of Coronation Gulf on the Arctic Ocean, he had outfaced an Eskimo who was determined to murder them all.

The Great War gave added impetus to Hornby's fame. After volunteering as a private soldier, he'd shipped to the Western Front, been gassed at Ypres, taken a commission, and won a Military Cross at the Somme. Back in postwar Canada, he had canoed to the uninhabited eastern end of Great Slave Lake, built himself a cabin and survived alone through two of the coldest winters on record. At one point the thermometer dipped to –62°F. At another, weakened by starvation, he crawled on all fours across half a mile of lake ice to lift his fishing hooks.

Within a few days of their first meeting, Critchell-Bullock had convinced himself that he was destined to travel with this living legend, and he at once made a pious resolution. He vowed to:

devote my time, energy, and money to a series of investigations, and to be satisfied as recompense with the pleasure of having been instrumental in placing on record a survey of the life and activities of a man who knew more about the natural phenomena in the Treeless Northern Plains than any other man living.

Hornby was flattered, of course. Critchell-Bullock was a younger man of his own class who, in the army, had already known some rugged living, but desired to test himself against even greater hardships. He also had money to invest in a suitable expedition. Hornby decided to take him on, and the pair became inseparable around Edmonton.

They hatched a scheme for a two-man scientific and trapping expedition into the Barrens, even securing a modest government commission to report on geophysical conditions, climate and wildlife. In addition they meant to trap furs, which, said Hornby, would earn them a fortune on their return. At the same time, Critchell-Bullock meant to make commercially valuable cinematographs of the rarely seen Barren Ground fauna. So it was in the triple expectation of esteem, adventure and profit that they assembled their outfit – seven tons of equipment at a personal cost to Critchell-Bullock, so the captain claimed, of $40,000. The game was afoot.

It was summer 1924 when the pair canoed north to Fort Reliance, the then-deserted trading post at the end of Great Slave Lake, and from there proceeded up a steep portage to the level of Artillery Lake, which extends northward as far as the Barrens. At its far end, a few miles above the watercourse which connects Artillery and Ptarmigan Lakes and is known as the Casba River, they constructed their ramshackle dug-out and settled in for winter.

The Barrens offered many experiences of extraordinary beauty, even of epiphany. One clear, still winter evening, across two miles of snowscape, they saw through hunting glasses the eyes of a wolf pack glinting in the setting sun. Alone at night in their sleeping bags, they listened to the whisper of mouse paws running through a maze of tunnels two feet beneath the snow. They gazed at the Aurora Borealis and heard, from a distant river, 'ice cracking like big guns'. In summer heat, they watched the rare and secretive musk-ox roaming its favourite habitat, rattling through the willows on the banks of the Thelon River, bellowing and burbling as it went. And they saw with amazement the mighty seasonal migration of the caribou herds, when, over a couple of days, two thousand animals thundered past the camp in a haze of dust and flies. If a lake or river blocked their path, the caribou plunged unhesitatingly in and swam for it, their tails lifted fastidiously out of the water.

But, for all these marvels, Critchell-Bullock quickly discovered the innumerable ways in which that dismal country could depress and torment him. In summer, there was the heat and savage biting flies, and in autumn torrential rain, smothering snow and ferocious wind, 'as bad as the torque side of a fast plane'. During the eight-month winter they faced the cold with minimal resources of food and fuel, and the quality of their shelter was a chronic worry. This tiny, shifting and unsafe structure had been excavated from the side of an esker – one of the long, sand-and-gravel ridges, formed from the beds of sub-glacial ice-age rivers, that are found snaking for miles across the Barren Ground. Using an axe, a trenching tool and a shovel, Critchell-Bullock and Hornby, with the help of two trappers, the Stewart brothers, had created a rectangular cavity of about ten by seven feet, and six feet six inches deep, in the lee side of the esker, sheltering it from the worst of the arctic winds. The walls were revetted with brushwood and moss in an attempt to prevent crumbling, and the brush roof, weighted with tons of gravel and sand, was supported by a ramshackle structure of bent and stunted branches scavenged from the area, which was sparse in timber. The door was accessed through a long snow tunnel and, with only a tiny window installed, practically no natural light was admitted. The interior of this cramping, snow-buried hut is well caught in Critchell-Bullock's pencil sketch. They had no plates or utensils apart from a frying pan and a few old gasoline tins. There were no shelves, no cupboards, no chairs or tables. The only 'furniture' consisted of the two men's beds, their cabin trunks and an old soap-box. The bunks were used not just for sleeping and sitting but as a butcher's block for skinning, gutting and cutting up meat and fish. It was a space hardly more comfortable than an enlarged wolf's den, and rather less well- appointed than a dug-out on the Somme.

The fact that Critchell-Bullock had been left alone that Christmas, to fall prey to his brooding and despair, seems indicative. Hornby himself had turned out to be incapable of staying put. Rather than devote time to fixing the house, or carefully cleaning the pelts they had trapped, he continually invented pretexts to disappear into the white void beyond the camp. He made futile, wide-ranging trips after caribou and firewood, trekked thirty miles down to the cabin of the Stewart brothers merely to pay his respects, or battled his way back to Reliance to fetch unnecessary items from a cache they had left there – only to return without them. But Critchell-Bullock's mood was complicated. He did indeed find it hard to cope without Hornby, but found it just as tough when he was present. In Edmonton the captain had loved and been inspired by the man. Not any more.

To Critchell-Bullock's tidy military sensibility, his partner's slovenly habits around camp were particularly repellent. He had become 'a white man who had largely gone native', a man who 'was prepared to live in squalor for longer periods than most'.

He never bathed or washed his hair. He declined to use hot water for his occasional ablutions, 'because hot water opens the pores and lets in the dirt'. He always used a stick for toilet paper, and he boasted that he had owned no underwear for twenty years.

Nor could Critchell-Bullock rely on Hornby for civilized talk. While he did not expect wit and amusement from trappers like the Stewarts, still less from the wandering Indian bands they occasionally met, he thought he could rely on Hornby to keep his mind responsive. But whenever they found themselves cabin-bound together above the Casba River, he no longer recognized the fascinating raconteur of their Edmonton days. Hornby refused to engage in serious conversation – at least as Critchell-Bullock conceived the term – but mainly confined himself to boasting and aggrandizement, opinionated theorizing and contrariness.

He was fond of making such pronouncements as: 'If I were King there would be no wars. There is no man living who could beat me in a straight fight. The Government ought to give me Artillery Lake as compensation for all the hardships I have endured on behalf of the North. The North has never known such a traveller as I. Hardships and the ability to starve like a gentleman are the only criteria of a good traveller. My name will live in history as I have made the greatest of all contributions to the North Country. I am the only white man with whom the Indians and Eskimos know they can safely leave their women.'

These caustic reflections were written a quarter-century after the events they describe, as a contribution to a projected Encyclopaedia Arctica. The essay is an overview of Hornby's life and legend, a piece which sets out to show its author undeceived by the Hornby myth. Yet Critchell-Bullock's overall tone is more often one of exasperated tolerance compared with the hatred and despair which occasionally overflow into his diary.

But the diary is by no means all bile and self-pity and, after the depth of winter passes, its mood gradually lightens with the lengthening days. There are further outbursts of complaint, but Christmas Eve's entry is the nadir of Critchell-Bullock's disappointment. After it, the text becomes more realistic, as he is driven to accept the Barrens – and his companion – on their own terms. He now knows that Hornby is not the genius he had thought he was. But with that insight come renewed (if occasional and fleeting) moments of good fellowship, humour, courage and achievement.

It had turned out to be a good winter for trapping, with the valuable white fox especially plentiful. They made four hundred fox and wolf pelts, which they proposed to take out by dog sled and then, as the snow and ice disappeared, by canoe, following the almost unprecedented seven-hundred-mile route down the Thelon River to Hudson Bay. But the Thelon was a daunting proposition. It had been descended by white men on only four or five previous occasions, none of them transporting such a heavy load of furs.

Time was pressing. They had to reach Hudson Bay before the freeze-up or else spend a futile winter at Chesterfield Inlet. So now, in June, they set off to find a short-cut to the great river by striking due east from the Casba. For several weeks they were lost. A series of violent blizzards forced them repeatedly into shelter and, whenever the weather cleared and they could travel, they found the snow mushy, or else too thinly crusted, which made transporting the canoes by sled maddeningly difficult. The dogs were practically useless for the task and so they man-hauled, having no choice, as melting ice continued to clog the lakes and streams until the end of June.


Excerpted from Cold Burial by Clive Powell-Williams. Copyright © 2002 Clive Powell-Williams and Robin Blake. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

A teacher at St. Martin's School in Middlesex, England, Clive Powell-Williams was introduced to Edgar Christian's diary by the archivist at nearby Dover College, to which Christian's grieving parents had donated it after its discovery. Fascinated by what he read, Powell-Williams spent nine years researching the story behind the diary. The result is Cold Burial: A True Story of Endurance and Disaster.

A teacher at St. Martin's School in Middlesex, England, Clive Powell-Williams is the author of Cold Burial: A True Story of Endurance and Disaster.

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