Military history

6. THE AVALANCHE

WHEN EINAR left Jan in the kitchen at Bjorneskar and went to fetch his father, Bernhard Sörensen, the old man was in bed. Einar called to him from the bottom of the stairs, and when he woke up and asked what the matter was, he said, “Come out, Father. I want to talk to you.” He was not sure if he ought to tell his mother.

Bernhard, who was 72 at that time, came down and listened to Einar’s story, leaving his wife upstairs. When he had heard it all, he went back to his bedroom and began to put on his clothes. Fru Sörensen asked him where he was going.

“We’ve got to take the boat out,” the old man said. “There’s a man who wants to cross the sound.”

“But now, at this time of night?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he said.

“It’s a terrible night.”

“So much the better. We’ll go down to Glomma and cross with the wind. Now, don’t worry. He must get across, you see. It’s one of those things we mustn’t talk about.”

When he was ready he left her, with no more reassurance than that, to the traditional role of women in a war. She spent an anxious night at home, waiting for Bernhard, to whom she had then been married for fifty years.

But he was enjoying himself. Jan had been worried at asking a man of his age to cross the sound on such a night of wind and snow. It was a row of ten miles across and back. But Bernhard laughed at his fears. When he was a young man, he had rowed to the Lofoten fishing and back every year, and that was two hundred miles. He did not think much of the rising generation. “In my day,” he used to say, “it was wooden ships and iron men, and what is it now? Iron ships and a lot of wooden men. Why, do you know,” he said, as they went down to the boathouse at the water’s edge, “do you know, there was a young fellow taken to hospital sick only the other day. And do you know why he was sick? Because he’d got his feet wet. I’ve had my feet wet for over seventy years. Come along boy. Across the sound is nothing. We’ll swindle the devils out of one corpse, eh?”

The old man’s good humour was catching, and Jan himself was elated at the prospect of reaching the mainland. The news of the fate of his friends had not shocked him very deeply in itself. Like everyone who took part in that kind of operation, they had all left England with a small expectation of life, and death loses its power to hurt when it is half-expected. Besides, he had thought of them as dead ever since he had seen them lying on the beach in Toftefjord. It distressed him more to learn they were captured alive and had lived for another three days, because for their own sakes and from every point of view it would have been better if they had been killed in action.

But apart from the matter of emotion, the story had a minor lesson to teach him. Hitler himself had just issued an order that everyone who took any part in this kind of guerilla action was to be shot, whether he was in uniform or not. They had all known this before they left England; but if the order was meant to be a deterrent, it was accepted as a compliment. So far as Jan knew, this was the first time since the order was made that a crew had been captured, and he had still had a half-formed belief that a uniform might give some protection. He was still dressed as a sailor himself; but now it seemed rather absurd, on the face of it, to try to cross Norway in such a conspicuous rig. But to change it was easier thought of than done. It had been simple enough to swap underclothes with the Pedersen family, but it was different to ask someone to give him a whole civilian outfit when he had nothing to give in exchange and no money to offer. But anyhow, when he came to think of it carefully, it could not make very much difference. The Germans knew he was still at large, and he could never pass himself off as a local civilian without his civilian papers. If he kept out of sight of the Germans, his uniform might be a disadvantage; but on the other hand, he thought to himself, it was warm.

But at that particular moment when they got into the boat and took up the oars, the naval uniform was an embarrassment, because Einar and Bernhard took it for granted that he was a naval rating, and he felt that he ought to offer to row. He had rowed before, but only on lakes when he was trout fishing; and when he tried one of the heavy sweeps in the high sea which was running off Bjorneskar, all he managed to do was knock the tops off the waves and splash the old man who was sitting astern. He had to make the lame excuse that he was too tired, and Bernhard took over, probably not surprised to find that the navy was not what it had been.

Bernhard referred to the Germans as devils. Devil is one of the few serious swear words in the Norwegian language, but he used it with a lack of emphasis that made it rather engaging. It was as if he could not bring himself to utter the word German. “You see the point of land over there?” he would say to Jan. “That’s Finkroken. There are seventy devils there. They’ve some damned great cannons, and searchlights. We’ll give them a wide berth. And down there ahead of us, that’s Sjursnes. That’s where the patrol boats lie. A whole company of devils there too. But don’t you worry. They won’t get you this time, boy. We’ll swindle them. We’ll steer between them.” And he chuckled with joy, and heaved on his massive oar.

Jan was more than content to leave it to Einar and Bernhard to get him across the sound. This was the second consecutive night he had been without sleep, and he had been on the go all the time. He was too tired to take any notice of the flurries of snow and spindrift, or the steep seas which bore down on them out of the darkness to starboard, or of the searchlights which endlessly swept the sound and sometimes appeared as a dazzling eye of light with a halo round it when a beam passed over them. Einar and his father were sure they would not be seen, so long as the snow went on falling, and they were not bothered about the patrol boats, although they were crossing their beats. “No devils at sea on a night like this,” the old man said. “There’s not a seaman among them.”

Jan did not care. The mainland was close ahead, and Einar had given him the things which he coveted most in the world just then: a pair of ski-boots and skis. In an hour or so, he would finish with boats and the sea, and enter a medium where he would feel at home. Among the snow mountains on skies he would be confident of outdistancing any German. He could go where he wished and depend upon no one. Even the Swedish frontier was only sixty miles away: two days’ journey, if all went well; and the Germans had lost his trail. He needed one good sleep, he thought, and then he would be his own master.

It was about three in the morning when Bernhard and Einar beached the boat on the southern shore. Jan jumped out thankfully. The others could not afford to wait. To take advantage of the wind on the way back home, they would have to row close under the devils’ gun battery at Finkroken. They thought they could bluff it out if they were seen, so long as they were not too far away from home, but it would be better not to have to try. So as soon as Jan was ashore with his skis, they wished him luck and pushed off and disappeared: two more to add to this list of chance acquaintances to whom he owned his life.

There were small farms along the water’s edge just there, with houses spaced out at intervals of two hundred yards or so. The people who owned them pastured sheep and cattle on the narrow strip of fertile land between the sea and the mountainside, and eked out a living by fishing. The Sörensens knew everyone who lived there, and had said he could go safely to any of the houses. They had specially mentioned a man called Lockertsen. He lived in a farm called Snarby, which was a little larger than the rest, and he had a thirty-foot motor-boat which might come in useful.

Jan would gladly have set off there and then without making further contacts. He felt guilty already at the number of people he had involved in his own predicament; and besides, this series of short encounters, each at a high pitch of excitement and emotion, was exhausting in itself. He longed to be able to sleep in barns without telling anyone, and take to the hills again each morning. But before he was fit to embark on a life like that, he had to have one long sleep whatever it cost him, and that night he could only count on a few hours more before the farms were stirring. He reluctantly put his skis on his shoulder and went up through a steep farmyard to the house which was nearest. He crept quietly round the house till he found the door, and he tried the handle. It opened. As it happened, this was Snarby.

Fru Lockertsen said afterwards it was the first night she had forgotten to lock the door since the occupation started. In ordinary times, of course, nobody thought of keys in a place like that; it was not once in a year that a stranger came to the door. But now, when you could always see a German patrol ship from the front windows of Snarby, you felt better at night behind a good lock; and when she was woken by blundering footsteps in the kitchen, the first thing she thought was that some German sailors had landed. She prodded her husband and whispered that there was somebody in the house, and he listened, and dragged himself out of bed, and went to see what was happening.

Lockertsen was a big heavily-built man like a polar bear. He was a head taller than Jan and looked as though he could have picked him up and crushed him; and probably that is what he felt inclined to do. He was intensely suspicious. Jan told him his story, and then told it all over again, but every time he told it Lockertsen had thought of new doubts and new questions. He simply refused to believe it, and Jan could not understand why. But the fact is that Jan was so sleepy that he hardly knew what he was saying. His explanation was muddled and unconvincing, and the way he told the story made it sound like a hastily-invented lie. The only thing that was still quite clear in his head was that he must not say where he had come from. Somebody had brought him across from Ringvassöy, he insisted; but he refused to say who it was and could not explain why he refused to say it. To Lockertsen one naval uniform was probably much the same as another, and Jan had obviously landed from the sound; and the only navy in the sound was German. It seemed much more likely that he was a German deserter. Even the toe would have fit that explanation. Everyone had heard of self-inflicted wounds.

The argument went on for a solid hour, and it only ended then because Jan could not talk any longer. His speech had got slow and blurred. He had to sleep. It was a pity, and he was resentful that the man did not believe him. But he was finished. He had taxed his endurance too much, and left himself without the strength to get away. Let him report him if he liked; there was nothing more to be done about it. He lay down on the rug in front of the kitchen stove. He heard Lockertsen say: “All right. You can stay there till half-past five.” At that, he fell deeply asleep.

Lockertsen spent the rest of the night pacing up and down the kitchen and trying to puzzle things out, and stopping from time to time to look down at the defenceless, mysterious creature asleep on his floor. Many of the doubts which had afflicted the shopkeeper came to him also, and they were strengthened for him by the fact that the stranger had come from a place where he knew there were Germans. But Lockertsen was a man of difficult calibre. He had plenty of courage. He was only determined to get the truth out of Jan, if he had to do it by force. He was not going to act one way or the other until he was sure.

Some time while Jan was sleeping the big man went down on his knees on the hearthrug and searched through his pockets. There was nothing in them which gave him a clue, and Jan did not stir.

He had said he could sleep till 5.30, and at 5.30 he shook him awake. The result of this surprised him. Jan was subconsciously full of suspicion, and leapt to his feet and drew his automatic and Lockertsen found himself covered before he could move.

“Take it easy, take it easy,” he said in alarm. “Everything’s all right.” Jan looked round him and saw that the kitchen was empty, and grinned and said he was sorry.

“You can’t lie there all day,” Lockertsen said. “The wife’ll be wanting to cook. But I’ve made up my mind. You can go up in the loft and have your sleep out, and then we’ll see what’s to be done with you.”

Jan gratefully did as he told him; and when he woke again in the middle of the day, refreshed and capable of explaining himself, Lockertsen’s distrust of him soon disappeared. Fru Lockertsen and their daughter fed him and fussed over him and Lockertsen himself grew amiable and asked him where he was going. Jan answered vaguely, “Over the mountains,” and Lockertsen offered to take him part of his way in the motorboat if that would help him.

Jan’s idea of where he was going was really rather vague. By that time, by process of subconscious reasoning, he had decided to make for Sweden. He knew he ought to tell London what had happened. At headquarters they would soon be expecting signals from his party’s transmitter, and they would already be waiting for Brattholm to get back to Shetland. In a week or two they would give her up as lost, and when no signals were heard they would probably guess that the whole party had been lost at sea. No one would ever know, unless he told them, that he was alive, and sooner or later, in the autumn perhaps, they would send another party. It would really be stupid for him to try to work on alone when nobody in England knew he was there. Any work he could do might clash with a second party’s plans. The proper thing for him to do, he could see, was to get into Sweden and fly back to England and join the second party when it sailed.

To go to Sweden was a simple aim. If he kept moving south, he would be bound to get there in the end. But nobody he had met had had a map, even of the most misleading sort, and he could only plan his route from recollection. He was now on the very end of one of the promontories between the great fjords which run deep into the northern mountains. To the west of him was Balsfjord, and to the east Ullsfjord and then Lyngenfjord, the greatest of them all, fifty miles long and three miles wide. All the promontories between these fjords are high and steep. The one between Ullsfjord and Lyngenfjord in particular is famous for its mountain scenery: it is a mass of jagged peaks of fantastic beauty which rise steeply from the sea on either side. Away from their shores, these promontories are not only uninhabited, they are deserted, never visited at all except in summer and in peace time by a few mountaineers and by Lapps finding pasture for their reindeer. Along the shores there are scattered houses, and roads where there is room to build them.

Jan’s choice of route was simplified by the fact that Tromsö lay to the west of him, and the farther he went that way the thicker the German defences would become. Apart from that, he had to decide whether to keep to the fjords and make use of roads when he could find them, or to cut himself off from all chance of meeting either friend or enemy by staying in the hills.

Lockertsen’s advice was definite. On the shores of the fjords he would run the risk of meeting Germans, which would be awkward; but to cross the mountains alone at that time of year was, quite simply, impossible and suicidal, and nobody but a lunatic would try it.

They talked all round the subject several times. Jan listened to everything that Lockertsen suggested, intending as usual to take the advice which suited him and forget about the rest. In the upshot, Lockertsen said he would take him in his motorboat that night as far as he could up Ullsfjord, and land him on the far shore, the eastward side. There was a road there which ran up a side fjord called Kjosen and crossed over to Lyngenfjord through a gap in the mountains. Then it ran all the way to the head of Lyngenfjord; and from there there was both a summer and winter road which led to the frontier. It was true that the road itself might not be much use to him. It ran through several small villages on the fjord, which would be sure to have garrisons. Beyond the end of the fjord, the summer road of course would be buried in snow and the winter road, which crossed the frozen lakes, was certainly blocked and watched by the Germans. But at least this was a line to follow, and it skirted round the mountains.

Jan hated the thought of putting to sea again, but the lift he was offered would put him twenty miles on his way, and he accepted it. When it was dark, he said good-bye to Fru Lockertsen and her daughter and went down to the shore again. Lockertsen rowed him out to the motor-boat, which was lying at a buoy, and a neighbour joined them. There was fishing gear on board, and Lockertsen and the neighbour meant to use it, when they landed Jan, to give themselves a reason for the journey. They started her up and cast off, and put out once more into the dangerous waters of the sound.

Jan made them keep close inshore, so that if they were suddenly challenged by a German ship he could go over the side and swim to land. So they crept up the sound under the shadow of the mountains. But nothing happened; they slipped safely round the corner into Ullsfjord, and in the early hours of the morning put Jan ashore on a jetty at the mouth of Kjosen.

Neither Lockertsen’s warning, nor the maps and photographs he had studied, nor even the fame of the Lyngen Alps had quite prepared Jan for the sight which he saw when he landed at Kjosen. It was still night, but ahead of him in the east the sky was pale; and there were the mountains, a faint shadow on the sky where the rock was naked, a faint gleam where it was clothed with snow. Peak upon peak hung on the breathless air before the dawn, immaculate and sublime. Beneath their majesty, the enmity of Germans seemed something to be despised.

He saw the road, beside the shining ribbon of the fjord; it was the first road he had seen in all his journey. He put on his skis with a feeling of exaltation and turned towards the frontier. The crisp hiss of skis on the crusted snow and the rush of the frosty air was the keenest of all possible delight. He knew of the danger of garrisons in the villages on the road, and he knew that the largest of them was only five miles ahead, but at that time and in that place it seemed absurd to cower in fear of Germans. He determined to push on and get through the village before the sun had risen or the people were awake.

The name of the village is Lyngseidet. It lies in the narrow gap between Kjosen and Lyngenfjord. In peace, it is a place which cruising liners visit on their way to North Cape. From time to time in summer they suddenly swamp it with their hordes of tourists; the people of the village, it is said, hurriedly send lorries to Tromsö for stocks of furs and souvenirs, and the Lapps who spend the summer there dress up in their best and pose for photographs. In war time it was burdened with a garrison of more than normal size, because it is the point at which the main road crosses Lyngenfjord by ferry.

Jan expected to find a road block on each side of it, and probably sentries posted in the middle, but on skis he felt sure he could climb above the road to circumvent a block, and to pass the sentries he relied on his speed and the remaining darkness.

He came to the block, just as he had foreseen. It was a little way short of the head of the fjord at Kjosen. There was a pole across the road, and a hut beside it which presumably housed a guard. He struck off the road up the steep hillside to the left. As he had thought, on skis it was quite easy; but it took longer than he expected, because there were barbed-wire fences which delayed him. One of his ski bindings was loose as well, and he had to stop for some time to repair it. When he got down to the road again a couple of hundred yards beyond the block, it was fully daylight.

He pushed on at top speed along the road. He knew it could not be more than two or three miles to the village, and he ought to be through it in ten or fifteen minutes. It was getting risky, but it was worth it; to have stopped and hidden where he was would have wasted the whole of a day, and the thought of the distance he might cover before the evening was irresistible. There was a little twist in the road where it rounded a mass of rock, and beyond it he could already see the roofs of houses. He turned the corner at a good speed.

Fifty yards ahead was a crowd of German soldiers. They straggled across the road and filled it from side to side. There was not time to stop or turn and no place to hide. He went on. More and more of them came from a building on the left: twenty, thirty, forty. He hesitated for a fraction of a second but his own momentum carried him on towards them, and no challenge came, no call to halt. They were carrying mess tins and knives and forks. Their uniforms were unbuttoned. He shot in among them, and they stood back to right and left to let him pass, and for a moment he looked full into their faces and saw their sleepy eyes and smelled the frowsty, sweaty smell of early morning. Then he was past, so acutely aware of the flag and the NORWAY on his sleeves that they seemed to hurt his shoulders. He fled up the road, expecting second by second and yard by yard the shouts and the hue and cry. At the turn of the road he glanced over his shoulder, and they were still crossing the road and going into a house on the other side, and not one of them looked his way. A second later, he was out of sight.

The road went uphill through a wood of birch, and he pounded up it without time to wonder. After a mile he came to the top of the rise. The valley opened out, and ahead he saw the village itself, and the spire of the church, and the wide water of Lyngenfjord beyond it, and the road which wound downhill and vanished among the houses. He thrust with his sticks once more, and began a twisting run between the fences of the road. He knew he would come to a fork at the bottom, in the middle of the village. The left-hand turning ran a little way down Lyngenfjord towards the sea and then came to and end; it was the right-hand one which led to the head of the fjord and then to the frontier. He passed the first of the houses, going fast. The church was on the right of the road and close to the water’s edge. There was a wooden pier behind it, and down by the churchyard fence where the road divided a knot of men was standing.

A moment passed before he took in what he saw. Two or three of the men were soldiers, and one was a civilian who stood facing the others. Behind them was another pole across the road, and one of the soldiers was turning over some papers in his hand.

About five seconds more would have halted him among them at the roadblock, but there was a gate on the right which led to a garage in a garden and it was open. He checked and turned and rushed through the gate and round the garage and up the steep garden and headed for some birch scrub behind it. There were shouts from the crossroad, and as he came out into view of it again beyond the garage two or three rifle shots were fired, but he reached the bushes and set himself to climb the mountainside.

In Toftefjord when the Germans were behind him, he had been afraid, but now he was elated by the chase. With a Norwegian’s pride in his skill on skis, he knew they could not catch him. He climbed up and up, exulting in the skis and his mastery of them, and hearing the futile shouts grow distant in the valley down below. He looked back, and saw a score of soldiers struggling far behind him up his trail. He passed the treeline and went on, up onto the open snow above.

Up there, he met the sunshine. The sun was rising above the hills on the far side of Lyngenfjord. The water below him sparkled in its path, and in the frosty morning air the whole of the upper part of the fjord was visible. On the eastern side and at the head he could see the curious flat-topped hills which are the outliers of the great plateau through which the frontier runs; and far up at the end of the fjord, fifteen miles away, was the valley called Skibotten up which the frontier road begins. To see his future route stretched out before him added to the joy he already felt at having left the valleys and the shore: he was almost glad of the accident which had forced him to grasp the danger of taking to the hills. And seeing the fjord so beautifully displayed below him had brought back his recollection of the map. There had been a dotted line, he now remembered, which ran parallel to the road and to the shore. This marked a summer track along the face of the mountains; and although it was the same map as the one of Ringvassöy, the track had probably been put in from hearsay and not surveyed, yet if it had ever been possible to walk that way in summer, it ought to be possible now to do it on skis in snow. At least, there could not be any completely impassable precipice, and so long as the fjord was in sight he could not lose his way.

He stopped climbing after about 3000 feet, and rested and looked around him. The pursuit had been given up, or fallen so far behind that he could not see or hear it; and up there everything was beautiful and calm and peaceful. At that height he was almost level with the distant plateau, and he could see glimpses here and there beyond the fjord of mile upon mile of flat unbroken snow. But on his own side, close above him, the mountains were much higher. He was on the flank of a smooth conical hill with the Lappish name of Goalesvarre, and its top was still 1500 feet above him; and behind it the main massif of the Lyngen Alps rose in a maze of peaks and glaciers to over 6000 feet.

It was not until he rested there that he had leisure to think of his fantastic encounter with the platoon of soldiers. At first it had seemed incredible that they should have taken no notice of him and let him pass; but when he came to think it over, he saw that it was typical of any army anywhere. It was like the search in Ribbenesöy: one expected the German army to be more fiendishly efficient than any other, but it was not; or at least, not always. He could imagine a British or Norwegian platoon, or an American one for that matter, shut away in a dreary post like that, with nothing whatever to do except guard a road and a ferry where nothing ever happened. With one section on guard at the roadblock, the others, to say the least of it, would never be very alert, and just after reveille they would not be thinking of anything much except breakfast. If someone in a queer uniform came down the road, the guard must have let him through, they would say, and that was the guard’s funeral. The officers would know all about it, anyway, whoever he was. Nobody would want to make a fool of himself by asking officious questions. And the uniform itself, Jan reflected, would have meant nothing to them in a foreign country. Probably none of them knew that the word norway was English, any more than you would expect an English soldier to know the German word for Norway. For all they knew or cared, he might have been a postman or a sanitary inspector on his rounds; anything was more likely, far inland, than meeting an enemy sailor on skis. Sooner or later, one of them might mention it to an n.c.o., who might pull the leg of the corporal of the guard next time he saw him, and by the evening perhaps it would come to the ears of the platoon commander, who certainly would not want to report it and would spend a lot of time questioning his men to prove to himself that it was really nothing important.

But of course the guard on the roadblock in Lyngseidet was a more unfortunate encounter. They certainly knew he was up to something illegal, because he had run away, and they knew fairly exactly where he had gone. That incident was bound to be reported, at least to battalion headquarters. He could not be sure if they had seen the uniform, or whether headquarters would put two and two together and guess that the man who had been seen in Lyngseidet was the one who had escaped in Toftefjord. It depended how many other people in the district, for one reason or another, were on the run. At the worst, it meant they had picked up his trail again, and if they thought it was worth it, they might put extra patrols in the country he had to pass through. He wondered how badly they wanted to catch him.

In any case, the best thing, as ever, was speed: to travel faster than they would think he could possibly travel. And now he had the means to do this, because people who do not know much about skis can often hardly believe the distance an expert can go on them in the course of a day. The Germans would not know much about them unless they were Bavarians; and even people who ski in the Alps are inclined only to think of skiing downhill, and going uphill by lifts or even railways. Cross-country ski-running, uphill and down, is a particularly Norwegian activity, and a Norwegian skier on holiday, or merely on a journey, thinks nothing of fifty miles a day.

So Jan set off with confidence, and even with a certain amount of pleasure, in anticipation of the run. He imagined himself staying at about 3000 feet, following the contour along the fjord and keeping the water in sight. But of course no mountainside, even the side of a fjord, is quite so regular and simple. He had only gone a few miles along the slope of Goalesvarre when he found a side valley in front of him which ran deep into the mountains. As he approached it and the head of it opened up, he saw the smooth snow surface of a glacier in it, and even the glacier was below him. Rather than try to cross it, he went right down to the valley bed below the ice and climbed up it again on the other side.

Beyond the valley there was another minor hazard of a different kind. The side of the fjord became steeper, and finally sheer. To get past this cliff he might have gone over the top; but it was very high, and to the right of it, on the inland side, there was a col which seemed a more sensible line for the summer track to follow. It looked as though it would lead back to the fjord five miles or so beyond. So he headed for the col, and very soon he lost sight of the fjord.

By then it must have been about eleven o’clock in the morning, and he had covered something like twenty miles since he left the boat at Kjosen. It was good going, and everything looked promising; but it was just before he reached the col that the weather changed again.

It came over the high summits on his right, first the white wisps of clouds like flags on the highest peaks, and then the stray gusts of wind and the darkening of the sky. The sun went in, and the snowfields lost their sparkling clarity and detail and became monotonous and grey, and the air at once struck chill. And then the snow began to fall, softly at first but more heavily minute by minute as the wind increased and the clouds descended. With the same abruptness that he had seen in Ringvassöy, the storm swooped downward and enveloped him in a whirling white impenetrable wall.

It had happened before, and it gave him no cause to be alarmed, because all the sudden storms he had seen in the last few days had been short, and had ended as suddenly as they had begun. It was annoying, the more so now that he had skis. In his rubber boots the storms had not made much difference to his speed. He had plodded on all through them. But now he could not make use of his extra speed. He could hardly see five yards in front of him, and any slight downward grade might lead to a sudden drop. He had to be able to stop at any moment, and on slopes which he might have run at full speed he now had to check, and creep down circumspectly. It was not only slow, it was twice as tiring.

Nevertheless, he pressed on, hoping and still expecting to see the lightening of the cloud which would be the sign that the squall was passing and that a few minutes more would bring sunshine again with the snowcloud whirling away towards the fjord.

But no sign came. On the contrary, the wind went on increasing. It was getting worse than anything he had experienced before, and as hours passed he had to admit to himself that this was not merely a squall. It was useless to rely upon its ending. He ought to act as though it might last for days. That meant that he must find shelter, and to find it he must get down to the fjord again.

But before he had come unwillingly to this decision, a new aspect of storm began to manifest. The surface of the lying snow began to creep, first in whorls and eddies, and later in clouds which forced him to shut his eyes and put his hand over his mouth to keep the driving snow-powder out of his throat and lungs. When the very surface he stood on began to move, there was nothing stable left for his eyes to be fixed upon, when he stood still, the snow silted into the tracks which he had made, and then it was only by the wind that he could have any idea which direction he had been going. Each little slope which faced him then became a new problem in itself. Each one which he saw from the bottom vanished into the shifting mists a few feet above his head, and each of them might be the foot of a great mountain or the whole of a tiny mound. From the top of a slope he could not tell whether it was five feet in height or a thousand. He only knew that somewhere about him the surface plunged down in sheer chasms to the fjord waters three thousand feet below, and that somewhere it rose three thousand feet above him to the soaring crags he had seen in the light of the dawn.

He guided himself by the wind, keeping it on his right. The right side of his body was coated with ice; it matted his hair and his week-old beard, and his right hand grew numb. He had tried to keep on in the direction he had been going when the storm came down, because he believed it would lead him to lower ground. But after some hours he began to doubt even the wind. He would sometimes have sworn that he had travelled for fifty yards in a straight line, and yet the wind which had been on his right swooped down on him from ahead. It seemed to be eddying down from the higher mountains, perhaps following valleys which he could not see. He stood still to test it, and even while he stood still it changed direction. Without the wind to guide him, he was lost.

Some time during that day he stopped and tried to dig himself into the snow to wait for the abatement of the storm, because he despaired of finding the way out of the mountains. But as soon as he crouched down in the little hollow he scraped out, the cold attacked him with such violence that he knew he would die here if he rested. He had often read that if you lie down and sleep in a blizzard you never get up again. Now he knew it was true: it would not take very long. He got up and put on his skis and struggled onwards, not caring much any more which way he was moving, but moving because he did not dare to stop. Towards the end of the day his wandering became quite aimless and he lost all sense either of time or space.

One cannot say whether it was the same day or the next that he first perceived a continuity in the slope of the mountain. He was going downhill. By then he had devised a plan for descending slopes which had probably already saved his life. When he came to a void, he gathered a big snowball and kneaded it hard and threw it in front of him. Sometimes, above the sound of the wind, he heard it fall, and then he went on; but more often it vanished without any sound at all, and he turned aside and tried another way. Now, edging cautiously down a slope and throwing snowballs, he saw rock walls both to right and left of it. It was a watercourse. He knew it was possible, or even likely, that it led to the top of a frozen waterfall and that he was running a serious risk of stepping on to the ice of the fall before he could see it. But at last it was something to follow which must lead in the end to the sea. He crept down it with infinite caution, testing every step for hidden ice. He saw little bushes and knew he was getting low. And then, directly below him, there was a square block which loomed dark in the snow. He ran joyfully down the last few yards towards it, because he thought it was a house. But it was not. It was only an enormous isolated rock. But it had a hollow underneath it, like a cave, and he squeezed in there, lying down because it was not high enough to crawl. As soon as he lay down, in shelter from the wind and snow, he went to sleep.

That rock is the first identifiable place which Jan came to on that journey. It stands in a narrow valley called Lyngdalen. It is only about ten miles in a perfectly straight line from Lyngseidet, where the roadblock was: but nobody knows where or how far he had been before he got there.

At the rock he made a mistake which was nearly fatal. There is an acute bend in the valley just there. As he approached it, down the northern side, the valley led on in two directions, one only a little way to the left and the other equally little to the right. Downstream was to the left, and that way the valley ran without any hazard straight down to Lyngenfjord, five miles below. To the right the valley led gently up to the foot of the highest mountain in north Norway, the peak of Jaegous; in fact, Jaeggevarre towers over the upper valley and closes it with a sheer bastion 3000 feet high and three miles long. But in storm, when neither the mountain nor the valley walls were visible, the place was a trap. A great moraine nearly closes the valley at that point. The summer river passes it through a gorge. But in winter the gorge is full of snow, and the immediate foreground of the valley floor slopes down to the right, upstream. When Jan woke up and crept out of the crevice below the rock, the storm was still raging. He saw nothing except the foreground, and he put on his skis again and set forth, downhill, towards the right, away from Lyngenfjord and all possible help or safety, into the very heart of the highest hills.

He was beginning to suffer from exposure by then, and one cannot deduce how long he had been stormbound, or whether it was night or day. When one’s body is worn by a long effort at the limit of its strength, and especially when its function is dulled by cold, one’s mind loses first of all its sharp appreciation of time. Incidents which are really quite separate become blended together; the present and the immediate past are not distinct, but are all part of a vaguely defined present of physical misery. In a person of strong character, hope for the future remains separate long after the past and present are confused. It is when the future loses its clarity too, and hope begins to fade, that death is not far away.

Jan’s mind was certainly numbed and confused by then, but so far he had not the slightest doubt about the future, and he was still thinking clearly enough to use the common sense of the craft of mountaineering. Now that he had found what he knew was a river valley of considerable size, he did not expect any trouble in following it to the sea; and so he was astonished and baffled when he found the ground rising in front of him again. He had come to what he thought was a frozen lake, though in fact it is only a level part of the valley floor, and he followed what seemed to be the shore of it, with the valley wall above him on his right. He came to the end of it expecting to find its outflow; but there was still a steep slope above him and he could not see the top. He went right round the lake till he came back to the moraine where he had started; and there for the second time he missed the snow-filled gorge. Search as he might, he could not find the outlet. He seemed to be in the bottom of a bowl, with the lake on his left as he circled round it and unbroken snow-slopes always on his right. There was nothing for it except to give up the hope of going on downhill. He had to start climbing again.

His choice of direction then, if it was not at random, was probably governed by the light. In the thickest of cloud and snow one sometimes has an impression of greater darkness where a steep rock face is close above. The side of Lyngdalen may have thrown extra darkness, and so may the sharp bend downstream in the narrow valley. But upstream Jaeggevarre stands farther back, and in that direction there is less to obscure the light. Jan may have concluded that this was south, or that it was really the lower reaches of the valley. At all events, he began to climb that way. He went up diagonally, hoping and expecting all the way to find an easing of the gradient and a sign that the valley went on beyond. Very soon he lost sight of the bottom, but although he climbed on and on, he could not see the top. He was on a slope of snow which in his restricted vision seemed eternal; on his left it vanished into invisible depths, and on his right it merged in the cloud above. In front of him and behind him, it was exactly the same: his ski tracks across it disappeared a few seconds after he made them. It was a world of its own, dizzily tilted on edge, full of the tearing wind, with himself for ever at the centre and the farthest edges diffuse and ill-defined.

Suddenly with lightening speed the snow slope split from end to end and the snow below his feet gave way. He fell on his side and snatched at the surface, but everything was moving, and the snow fell upon him and rolled him over and over. He felt himself going down and down, faster and faster, fighting with roaring masses of snow which were burying him alive. It wrenched and pounded his helpless body, and choked him and battered him till he was unconscious. He fell limply in the heart of the avalanche and it cast out his body on the valley floor below. Down there he lay still, long after its thunder had echoed away to silence.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!