Military history

14. ATTEMPT ON THE FRONTIER

WHEN A message reached Mandal to say that Jan was still up on the plateau and still alive, they began to make final preparations for an all-out attempt on the frontier as soon as the blizzard died down. For the last few days, they had not been expecting to have to try it, because when they looked up towards the loom of the mountains through the wildly driving snow, it was incredible that up there, away beyond the very top of Kjerringdal, there could be a man still living. But the fact that he had survived so far made it seem all the more worth while to try to save him. The preparations were rather grim. They knew they were running a big risk of never coming back, either because of some disaster on the plateau or through getting lost or interned in Sweden. But if a sick man could exist on the plateau, it would have been a disgrace to admit that four fit men could not try to move him across it to safety.

The plan for getting the Lapps to help had fallen through, at least for the time being. The ski-runner who had gone out from Kaafjord to look for them had come back, just missing the worst of the blizzard, but the news he had brought was discouraging. The reindeer were still much farther away than they usually were at that time of year. He had followed their migration track back across the plateau to the south-east for over fifty miles before he sighted the vast herds, halted and digging for the moss beneath the snow. The Lapps he was looking for were camped among them in their deerskin tents.

He was criticised afterwards for not having made allowance for the queer psychology of Lapps. He had broached the subject of Jan and the journey to the frontier while he was sitting with the Lapps in a tent which was full of women and children; and the Lapps had simply refused to say yes or no. They were friendly, as Lapps always are, but they would not give the least sign of whether they might be willing, or even whether they really understood what they were being asked to do. People who knew the Lapps well, being wise after the event, said they would never commit themselves to any decision while their families were listening.

Certainly the mental processes of Lapps are very strange. They do not seem to grasp the idea of expressing an opinion. On a matter of fact which is within their own experience they will be quite dogmatic and clear-headed; but their minds do not work in terms of probabilities, and if they are asked whether something is likely to happen, they are genuinely puzzled and think the question is foolish. People tell the story of a Norwegian tourist who wanted to fish for salmon and asked a Lapp if he thought he would be able to get one in a particular local river; and the Lapp, who knew him well, shook his head with a sign, and answered: “Really, I sometimes think you Norwegians are crazy. How could I answer a question like that? Of course there are plenty of salmon in the river, but why should you think I can tell if you can catch them?”

This curious limitation naturally makes it difficult for a Lapp to make up his mind what he is going to do. When there is a question of immediate action, provided it is something to do with reindeer or the technique of wresting a living from the arctic, he may be a shrewder man than anyone; and he can think ahead in terms of the unalterable cycles of nature, the rising and setting of the sun, the seasons and the movements of the deer. But in other matters, he is no good at all at planning things far ahead.

So the question which was put to the Kaafjord Lapps was one which they were probably incapable of answering. The ski-runner did not ask them to come at once, because he knew they could not leave their reindeer, and the herds could not be hurried. The question was whether they would help Jan when they arrived with the herds at Kaafjord, and this was too far ahead for them to contemplate. It probably bogged their minds in impossible speculations. Endless imponderable ideas would have upset them and confused them: their reindeer might be sick, the weather might be bad, they might be sick themselves: anything might happen. Nobody, in fact, could have promised more at that moment than that he would do his best when the time came, and a Lapp either cannot think in such vague terms or cannot express them in language. His answer must be precise and literal. A Lapp could only say, quite definitely: “When I get to Kaafjord, I will take a man to Sweden”; and to say a thing like that would be absurd. After all, a Lapp would reason, by that time the man might be dead; and then, if he had said he was going to take him to Sweden, he would look ridiculous.

So for the present this scheme was at a standstill. The people in Kaafjord still hoped that when the first Lapps actually arrived there, they would be able to persuade them to do the job. But the migration was late already, and the blizzard would hole it up still further. None of the herds would get there for three or four days, at least, after the weather improved. The Mandal people thought this was too long to wait, especially on the mere chance that any Lapps would agree.

The blizzard, in fact, began to moderate on the day after Marius and Agnethe made their expedition, and on the following night a third party of volunteers made the ascent of Kjerringdal. They took with them everything they could muster for a long journey, but nobody in Mandal possessed the proper equipment for a winter encampment on the plateau. The Lapps, primitive though they are, would have been far more suitably fitted out, with tents of hide, and clothes of reindeer skin with the hair left on, and with centuries of experience of going to ground when the arctic weather was at its worst. In fact, the most elaborate civilised camping outfit would be less suited to those arctic uplands than the Lapps’ equipment, which is entirely home-made of various parts of reindeer; and the best which could be found in Mandal was far from elaborate. Nobody even had a tent, or a stove which would burn in a wind, because nobody in living memory had ever needed to make such a winter journey. But in a place like Mandal, people never waste time in wishing for things which they have not got; they make do with what comes to hand. They could only hope the weather would not be bad.

As soon as they got within sight of the meeting-place that night, they saw the flag. They hurried down towards it on their skis, shouting the password, “Hallo, gentleman!” For the first time, Jan heard this joyful and comic greeting, and he shouted “Hallo, there!” in reply; and in a minute his solitary grave was surrounded by helpful strangers who hacked away its walls and dragged him bodily out on the sledge to the world which he had not seen for a week and had not expected ever to see again.

Those of the men who had been there on either of the earlier climbs were amazed that they had not found him. They thought they had actually skied over the top of him while he was buried there; and this is not impossible, even though he never heard them, because four feet of snow absorbs a lot of sound, and his senses were probably not so acute as he may have thought they were.

Without wasting more time than it took to explain to him what they were doing, they lashed him to the sledge again and started off on their desperate bid to cross the plateau on the way to the Swedish border. When they climbed out of the valley, their hopes were high, because they had found him without the delay of searching. Even Jan, who had learnt not to hope for much, was cautiously happy to be on the move again, and could not help thinking how few were the miles between himself and Sweden.

But from the beginning, their progress was very slow. The plateau is much more difficult ground for man-hauling a sledge than the flat ice-fields of the Arctic and Antarctic. None of the plateau is flat. It is covered all over with miniature hills and valleys. Hardly any of the hills are more than one or two hundred feet above the valleys, but one is always going either uphill or down. This is no obstacle to a skier, because the time which he loses in climbing is made up on the free runs down. But the sledge could never be allowed to run. Hauling it up the hills was slow, and going down again it always had to be checked so that it did not get out of control. Both were equally tiring. Once, the sledge did get away on a downward slope, and Jan careered madly down the hill, feet first, lashed down and helpless. But luckily the slope was smooth and the sledge did not overturn, but came to rest on a level snowfield at the bottom, with the breathless skiers chasing close behind it.

The maze of little hills, jumbled together without any form or pattern, also destroys any sense of direction. It is impossible to keep a straight compass course. Probably the best way to steer is by the sun, but when the sky is heavily overcast, as it was on that day, one has to stop every few minutes to take bearings. In normally open country, one can take a bearing of a landmark two or three miles away, and then make towards it. But on the plateau, one can seldom see far ahead and there are seldom any recognisable landmarks. If one happens from one hilltop to sight a conspicuous rock on a distant skyline, one loses it again in the valleys, and before one has reached it it seems to have disappeared. There is only one way to avoid making useless deviations, and that is to stop at the top of each tiny hill or ridge and take a bearing of some stone or fold in the snow on the next, which may be only a hundred yards away. It takes time, and a lot of patience.

As the four men, with Jan’s helpless body dragging through the snow, crept farther and farther into this wilderness, steering south towards Sweden, the endless hills which were still ahead of them, with their endless petty checks and obstacles, began to seem like an impenetrable web. In forcing a way through them, they were not limited by the mountaineer’s usual worry of being benighted. There was still a fortnight before the sun would actually be above the horizon night and day, but it was quite light enough for the party to keep moving through the night. The only limit to the journey was their own endurance. A time would come when they would have to try to sleep, and they were so poorly equipped that they could not expect to sleep soundly enough to restore their strength to normal. After a sleep, the second stage would be slower and shorter than the first; and the first was being so desperately slow that a new danger began to loom ahead: the danger of reaching the point of exhaustion before they came to Sweden, and after they had gone too far to be able to get home again.

So as they went on, their hopeful spirit faded, and gave way to a growing fear that they were trying something entirely beyond their powers. None of them wanted to be the first to admit defeat, and they went on a long way after it was hopeless. What finally turned the doubt into despair was the weather. During the morning the wind had sprung up again, and the snowclouds began to pile up and darken the southern sky. It looked as if the improvement in the night had only been a lull, and as if the blizzard was going to start again, as furiously as ever. They halted on top of a hill. They had been hauling the sledge for six hours then, apart from the four hours’ climb up Kjerringdal. None of them knew how far they had come, but there was certainly a long way still to go. It was the sort of unwelcome decision which nobody needs to discuss. With hardly a word between them, they turned the sledge round and started back towards Mandal.

During the long weary hopeless journey back, the blizzard did come on again in earnest, and proved the decision was right. Going back, the wind was almost behind them; they could never have made any progress going south against it.

When at last they got back to the steep edge of Mandal, they found they were some distance farther up the valley than the point they had started from. This was simply due to the difficulty of setting a course on the plateau, but it had some advantages. To climb straight down into the valley from where they were would avoid Kjerringdal, which was certain to avalanche at any minute. There was no point in going all the way back to the place where Jan had been lying when they found him.

The question arose again of what to do with Jan. Remembering the experience of being hauled up the mountain, he was still very reluctant to go down again. Apart from the pain of it, it would have been such a depressing step in the wrong direction. Besides, he could see that the Mandal men were dog-tired. They had been at full stretch for something like sixteen hours, and for tired men to try to lower him down to the valley in the blizzard had obvious risks for them all. They themselves thought that if he could face another few days on the plateau, he would really be safer there. He decided to stay.

They found him another rock which would serve as a landmark, and dragged him to the foot of it. They untied him from the sledge, and stowed their spare food beside him, and then they built a low wall of snow to shelter him from the wind. This was all they could do for him, and in fact it was all he wanted. When it was finished, and they had promised to come up again, they turned downhill for home, and all vanished into the mist of snow, and left him alone again. For all the day’s journeying, he was about two miles nearer Sweden than when he started.

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