I have not often declared out loud my love for an inanimate object. I have been lost on mountains plenty of times, but never alone, and never north of the Arctic Circle. So it was a day for firsts. And a day for learning lessons. The circumstances that led to my predicament were a mixture of bad luck and poor judgement, this latter particularly unforgivable since people have been teaching me good outdoorsmanship since I was a little boy.
Some lessons reinforced:
1. Eat properly. I was in a hurry, so breakfast was a couple of pieces of Ryvita with Jarlsberg. Lunch was forgotten. I should have remembered from two weeks of the Coast to Coast that cold leeches energy especially well from tall, slim people.
2. Take enough water. You still drink when it’s cold. Drinking snow doesn’t help much, in fact it seems to make it worse and it hurts your stomach. I took a half bottle of water for a whole day.
3. Going downhill in snowshoes takes a lot longer than you think it will.
4. Don’t follow the tracks. Even the machine-ploughed ones. They are not what is on your map.
5. Above all, use and trust your compass.
It was by casually neglecting these last two points, and particularly the last piece of Alan Naylor wisdom, that led to me coming over a ridge and seeing in the distance the town I thought I’d been walking away from for the previous two hours. I was almost back where I’d started. There were still two or three hours before dark. There was a moment of intense irritation, which quickly subsided. I found two distinctive hills on the map, and sighted a couple of lines with my compass to get a rough idea of where I was. Pride, and in a lesser quantity, sense, sent me onward. You never go back unless you really have to. I set off walking again in the right direction. I had already finished my water.
Coming over the top some time later, the weather turned. The snow and the wind started to pull at me. Descending was difficult and slow in my snowshoes. Some patches were hard-blown and you skidded across them; some were soft and you sank suddenly and tripped. I started to get thirsty and cold. I undid my pack to get a jacket out, forgetting, as you do when the cold gets a hold of you and you don’t notice, that my map was tucked in the waistband. It took off, opening up immediately like a grinning, taunting ghost covered in multicoloured spiders. I dropped my pack and bolted after it full pelt, leaping in long jumps with the big aluminium frames strapped to my feet, slipping and sliding on the steep slope. Each time it disappeared round the curve of the hill I went after it, and it emerged just a little further ahead of me on the other side. I knew I could get it. The heels of my long snowshoes tangled as I ran, and I hit the ground hard, face first. Half a mouth of snow, freezing your teeth. The map flicked across, scarcely twelve feet away, and I was straight up again.
Then I stopped. I was not going to catch it. I’d gone almost up to my elbows in the snow, the curse of a fellow who always rolls his sleeves, and now I couldn’t feel my fingers. My pack was the important thing. It had food and warmth, and I’d left it. I retraced my steps until I found it and put on my coat, then took a while trying to pull on my gloves with numb fingers. I did it with my teeth eventually. There were broad moose tracks, the size of cows’ hooves, crossing my path.
I tried to visualise the map. The mountain I was on, and in fact the collection of peaks around me, were bordered on the west side by the fjord, and on the east side by a river. My little engineer’s compass was still in my pocket. So as far as I could remember, all I needed was to go east until I hit the river, then turn south and follow it until I found the cabin, hoping that I hadn’t overshot it.
It seemed like a long way, until, following my compass into the wind, I crested a hill and saw the river. The water itself was frozen and covered deep in snow, but the life around it was there, a strip of blackened birch furring the valley floor and thinning up towards me. There was no sign of a hut.
I descended slowly and awkwardly, entering the treeline far above where I reckoned the river was. I could beat myself up about my mistakes later. Coming through the trees, I stumbled upon a set of fresh ski tracks heading south and up the valley side. The hut had not been on the valley floor. Would I find it? Maybe this person had been heading there, and knew where it was. Following ski tracks was a bad idea, but I was pretty sure there was no reason to trace this valley apart from the hut. Only a Norwegian would be out on cross-country skis here. The tell-tale V-shapes in the snow and the deeper marks of a tow-sledge. A Norwegian would know where they were going.
I planted myself in the tracks, entrusting myself to the competence of a complete stranger who I would never meet. I was getting tired now. Arms folded, head down, short, dragging steps, my feet shaking. I should hastily point out that I was not in any real danger. It was a simple lack of food, water and courage, the last of which I could sort. A few hours to the west was a road, and if I wanted to turn tail and drag myself there, which I could at a stretch, then someone would find me. So I was safe, but cold and miserable in the twilight, which was enough.
It occurred to me that there was another reason why a lone Norwegian might be following this valley. The wide, cloven moose tracks I had seen above were still dotted about. I daydreamed bleakly about finding frozen brown blood pools at the end of the tracks. It would have been savage revenge for animal kind if a big old caribou had led first one of these blue-eyed hunters, then an aching Yorkshireman, on a merry chase.
Finally the tracks stopped and turned around. Stopped absolutely nowhere, for no discernible reason. But he had led me far enough. In the distance, directly in front of me in the failing light, was a little black rectangle, with an even tinier black square in the middle of it. I was all good.
‘You beauty!’ I said out loud.
I trudged the last twenty minutes to Blakolloien very slowly, and outside found a woman in her forties shoring up a sledge. She smiled and waved. Inside the little eight-man hut I found two twin girls, maybe eleven or twelve, lighting a wood-burning stove, with two younger boys in the bunks, reading comics in the last of the light. I melted some snow and drank a couple of cups of tea, then, in that very Norwegian sense of the communal, the lady invited me to share their food. She was a translator into Russian, working in the northern ports of Murmansk and Archangelsk. Old Pomor trading ports enjoying renewed business with Norway since the end of the USSR.
We had sausages and powdered mash then pancakes, and I taught the children how to make swans out of folded paper – another one of those many useless skills that has proved its worth eventually, like the jigsaw piece you finally find you can use. I helped Mariane wash up, then lay on my bunk, writing in my notebook while she read stories to the children.
The second night I was on my own. During the morning, a gruff, unfriendly man called Ole Wille arrived on a snowmobile. Together we unloaded a trailer full of firewood. I learned later in the DNT office in Tromso that there had been a real problem in the winter. Some reindeer herders had stayed in each of the huts for a couple of weeks without telling anyone, then a couple of weary hikers had got to Blakolloia and found that there was almost no wood or gas left. They used the last couple of logs then reported the lack of firewood when they came back down.
In the real heart of winter, with 24-hour darkness, a hut without a gas canister or wood is not much shelter. This man Ole Wille took his snowmobile out in the cold and the dark and to re-stock the huts. Once again that rude Nordic reserve belied a sort of rough kindness.
Deprived of my map, I spend the day skirting the high points of the valley ridge, returning to Blakolloia in the evening. I chipped some wood and feathered it with my knife, then shaved a pile of tinder. It lit beautifully with a single match. After supper I lay back by the light of a candle and listened to nothing, and was happy.