The story of the ‘Heroes of Telemark’ is one of my favourite adventure stories. The true story (as opposed to the confection of nonsense filmed by a Hollywood studio and starring Kirk Douglas) is told best by Knut Haukelid, one of the participants, in his book ‘Skis Against The Atom.’
Knut and a select group of Norwegian commandoes from the British-run ‘Special Operations Executive’ parachuted onto the Hardanger Plateau in Norway in October 1942. Their orders were to prepare for the arrival of a much larger force of British Commandoes, who would arrive at a later date by glider.
The plan was that these British Commandoes, guided by the Norwegians, would raid the hydro-electric facility at Vemork and destroy the ‘heavy water’ manufacturing equipment inside. It was a mission of almost inexpressible importance, as ‘Heavy water’ is a vital ingredient in the manufacture of atomic weapons. That Hitler never managed to develop an atomic weapon is due, at least in significant part, to the efforts of the ‘Heroes of Telemark’.
The original plan, however, was to meet with tragic disaster. The gliders, being towed by Halifax bombers, hit bad weather on the flight over from Scotland and crashed far from their intended rendezvous. Those who were not killed in the crashes were interrogated, then murdered by the Gestapo.
The Norwegians went on to spend the winter living high on the plateau, hiding from the Nazis. Their survival skills were tested to the maximum as they contended with bitterly cold temperatures and a severe shortage of food. Eventually, they were reduced to living on lichen scraped from the frozen ground.
At last, in the February of 1943, six more Norwegian commandos parachuted onto the Hardangervidda. This tiny band of men then carried out an audacious raid on the plant at Vemork, successfully destroying the heavy water manufacturing equipment inside. A hair-raising chase ensued and the team split up to make their escape, vanishing into the heart of the plateau they knew so well.
The story of the raid is a story that resonates with all the qualities of classic heroism - sacrifice, endurance, bravery, comradeship and humility. It is a story that fascinated me as a child and still does today. It is, perhaps, the perfect adventure story.
I was in Sheffield and I was bored. I looked out of my window. It seemed to have been raining for months. I missed the mountains. I missed empty spaces. There were too many people here. People everywhere. I mean they were perfectly nice, as people go, but there were just too damn many of them. Too many cars on the roads, too many shoppers in the supermarket; even too many people in the bloomin’ countryside. Too many people doing too many things in too little space.
I peered again through the window at the soggy English twilight. Still raining.
The TV sat silently in the corner. There would be nothing worth watching. Five whole channels of total rubbish. My eyes swept the room and fell upon my bookshelves.
Great books, but I’d read every last one. I wandered over anyway, in case I fancied reading any of them for a second, or third, time. I ran my fingernail along the spines; it made a ‘tuk-tuk-tuk’ noise as it jumped from book to book. I stopped and peered closely at one faded spine amongst a shelf of faded spines.
‘Skis Against The Atom’ it said, and I smiled. I pulled it from between its brothers and retreated to the sofa. I didn’t read it, not properly; I just leafed through it reading short passages - reminding myself of the most exciting bits.
I looked outside again at the rain soaked, leaf strewn street, where huddled forms in long coats hurried, shoulders hunched against the cold and damp of the British autumn. The streetlights were flickering on uncertainly and cracks of yellow light shone in the curtained windows of people’s houses. I grimaced into the gloom.
“Nuts to this," I growled, "I’m off to the Hardangervidda.”
I couldn’t leave at once of course. I would have to research my destination, book flights, look out my mountaineering gear and would probably have to buy some new kit too - I’d never been anywhere quite as cold as the Hardangervidda. Oh yes… and I’d have to learn how to ski.
The Hardangervidda is a vast mountainous plateau in central Norway, indeed it is the largest in Europe, covering 6500 square kilometres. It is, in effect, another world elevated 1000 metres above our own, locked in a bitter winter for six months of the year. The famous Norwegian explorers Amundsen and Nansen both went there to train and prepare for polar expeditions. In winter, skiing is the only sensible way to get around.
I was not down-hearted, however. It was the end of November and my research indicated that the best time to visit the Hardangervidda was in spring. April and May gave the best combination of daylight hours, fine weather and good skiing. The grip of the British Autumnal Depression that held me meant I couldn’t wait till May, so I booked my flights for the middle of April. That gave me four months to learn how to ski.
I bent to the task of preparing for my little personal expedition in a manner that may (or may not) have impressed Amundsen himself, enrolling myself in ski lessons at Sheffield Ski Villlage, a dry ski slope on the other side of town. Unfortunately, a severe inflexibility in my hips (which I would later learn was due to osteo-arthritis) meant I couldn’t properly perform a ‘snowplough’ - that most basic of skiing manoeuvres. Fortunately, several seasons of snowboarding compensated for this disability and I was soon performing the ugliest parallel turns the world has ever seen.
Equipment was the next priority. The Hardanger is a harsh, unforgiving place and I could make no compromises in this regard. Luckily, I already had most of the gear I needed; the mountaineering kit I’d used in other parts of the world would also be suitable for the Hardangervidda.
The only things I really needed were snow-pegs for my tent and a new down jacket. My old one had been on its last legs for years and emitted clouds of feathers every time I moved. By flapping my arms vigorously and squawking I could do quite a passable impression of an angry chicken. A trawl of the January sales provided me with a toasty sleeping bag of a jacket made right there in Sheffield.
Despite not being a skier, I did own a pair of skis. They were a pair of monstrously long Volkl touring skis with vintage Silvretta 404 bindings, which had been very generously given to me by a friend. I bought a pair of the cheapest Scarpa touring boots I could find and was ready for action.
Finally, I sent a group email to my friends. In it, I championed the great and noble rewards of adventurous endeavour. The glory of hard won achievements, the satisfaction of demanding work in the toughest of environments and the opportunity to exhibit stoicism in the face of bitter hardship. I also waxed lyrical on the beauty of the frozen plateau and harsh purity of its frigid landscape. There were no people on the Hardangervidda and none of the vapid comforts of bourgeois civilisation. Just us, our wits and the minimal equipment in our packs. Wouldn’t it be great?
I expected a clamorous reply, eager pledges to join my expedition or die in emasculated shame. I checked my inbox daily.
Dammit. I should have promised them soft beds, good food and pretty girls. Oh well, you live and learn.
Four months later I was there, taking the tiny antique cable car that climbed about two thirds of the way to the plateau from the valley. Below me - a white zigzag among the dark pine trees - was the track that the ‘Heroes of Telemark’ had used to escape to the plateau immediately after their successful raid on Vemork Hydro. Next to me in the cable car, however, was something even more diverting. Dressed in a blue cotton parka and woollen mittens, was one of the most beautiful girls I’d ever seen.
“Hello.” I said, with a hint of Sean Connery about my accent. “Where are you off to?”
“We,” she indicated her friends, “are off to spend the night in a snow hole on the plateau.”
Good God. I had found my perfect woman.
“I shee. That shounds wonderful.”
“And you?” she asked.
“I’m planning to shpend shix days up there. Although, I have a tent.” I said, as though my tiny nylon shelter was an Aston Martin DB7.
All too soon the cable car reached its destination and the Scandinavian beauty and her friends were attaching their Nordic skis and setting off with light over-night rucksacks towards the plateau. Stepping in to my heavy alpine skis and shouldering my enormous pack I made a valiant effort to keep up, but true love soon disappeared into the gathering dusk and I was left alone, making my lonely way up into the vastness of the plateau.
This was the first time I’d ever skied on snow, the first time I’d skied wearing a pack and the first time I’d ever used my inherited vintage touring skis. In fact it was the first time I’d ever been ski touring. A lot of firsts, I reflected, for the start of a six day expedition into the heart of Europe’s largest mountain plateau.
I wasn’t completely unprepared, however. Over the years I had climbed a lot of mountains in a lot of different places and was more than comfortable travelling and sleeping in alpine environments. As long as I didn’t mess up a turn and break my leg I should be fine.
I reached the edge of the plateau just as night was falling and realised I’d better pitch my tent before it got dark. Finding a suitably sheltered spot, I un-shouldered my pack, stamped down the snow with my skis and pitched my tent. As a precaution, I also piled up a little snow in a low wall around the tent to act as a wind-break.
I was knackered. It had been a long day; a five hour bus trip from Oslo, followed by a two mile run in ski boots to catch the last cable car, then a long climb to the plateau above. Not to mention the stress of so many new experiences in such an unforgiving environment.
I forced myself to cook up some pasta for dinner then climbed into my sleeping bag. It was a calm night; the merest wind rippling the flysheet of my tent as I drifted off to sleep. I was very tired and my shoulders still ached from the unaccustomed weight of my pack, but I was very satisfied. I had made it, I was on the plateau. For the next six days I would be adrift in an endless white landscape. No particular place to go, no definite destination to head for. Just a pair of skis, a pack full of gear and a vast area of wilderness to explore.
The next morning I woke with the sudden recollection that I was somewhere special. The cold pinched at my face and a soft white light illuminated my cramped nylon world. I could hear the hiss of minute particles of ice being blown against the flysheet. I was really here! I was thrilled by the fact that I was on the Hardanger plateau, a place that had held an almost mythical status for me since childhood. It was like being in the Congo, up Everest or on the South China Sea.
The day was cold and low cloud limited the visibility a little, but I could still see a short distance through the mist. The plateau seemed to consist of a treeless, undulating landscape of rolling hills and low crags. Everything lay under a thick blanket of pristine snow. I set off north, straight towards the heart of the plateau.
I needn’t have worried about my lack of skiing ability. The going was easy, even for someone as hopeless as I was. I skied along, the only sound the clack of my binding at the end of each sliding footstep.
It was an extraordinary experience, travelling across the plateau. It was so unlike anywhere I’d ever been before. I felt so small, so unutterably insignificant and began to imagine how I must look from afar - a tiny speck in a sea of white, barely moving against the immeasurable enormity of the frozen landscape.
My route took me over low hills and along a wide valley, across a frozen lake and on into the wilderness. When I stopped for lunch the silence astounded me. There really was no noise out here at all. Nothing. Not the faintest whisper of sound. The vulgar crunch and squelch of my mastication seemed loud enough to echo from the surrounding hills.
That evening I arrived at my destination early enough to pitch my tent a little more thoroughly, as I planned to spend a couple of nights at this location. I dug down a foot or so into the snow and stamped out a flat platform. The tent was pitched as before, using my shiny new snow pegs and my ice axe and shovel to secure guy lines.
Having done this, I selected a nearby snowdrift and cut out blocks using my snow saw. These I used to construct a wall around my tent. By the time I had finished you could only just make out the top of the tent above the wall. I was to become very pleased I had taken the trouble.
Tired as before, I cooked up some pasta, read some of my book (Ray Mears ‘The Real Heroes of Telemark’ - a fine read if you are interested) and fell into a deep sleep.
The first I knew of the new day was the whip and crack of the tent shaking in a strong wind. It was bitterly cold and the inside of my tent was covered with a thick layer of frost. Every time I moved a white cascade would fall onto my sleeping bag. This was to be avoided, as I knew the frost would eventually melt and make the down in my sleeping bag wet - which would render it almost useless as an insulator.
Lying still, I listened to the wind howling across the plateau and tearing at the flysheet of my tent. Despite only a few inches of it sticking out above the thick wall of snow blocks, the tent was rattling and snapping vigorously. I dreaded to think what would be happening if I had not bothered to build the wall.
Eventually, despite the cramped nature of my one man tent, I managed to manoeuvre myself and my sleeping bag into my gore-tex bivibag. This would protect the bag from the frost, keeping it dry and warm. Having done so, I unzipped the door and took a look at the day.
It was as grim as it sounded from inside the tent. The plateau was shrouded in thick mist, reducing the visibility to a few metres, and a violent wind shrieked across the plateau. My face was battered with spindrift as soon as I stuck it out the door and I withdrew it quickly, shivering with distaste at the weather.
Retreating into the depths of my sleeping bag, I considered my position. The weather was far too foul to go anywhere today. However, I had food, coffee, a warm sleeping bag and a good book to read, so all was not lost. With a certain cosy satisfaction, I settled down to make the most of my stormbound day.
The bad weather continued for the rest of the day. The wind flung waves of spindrift over the protective snow-wall and my little enclosure began to fill up. At about 3 pm I had to get up to shovel out the snow that had collected and was threatening to collapse the tent.
It wasn’t till evening that the wind died away and the visibility improved. As the sun set it lit the clouds with a pale pink light and I felt a little more optimistic about tomorrow.
“Red sky at night…” I said to myself and ducked back ‘indoors’, before I got too cold.
Sure enough, the next day was entirely different. If anything, it felt even colder and there was still a brisk wind threatening frostbite to exposed skin; but climbing from the white horizon shone a painfully bright sun and only the faintest rags of high altitude cloud hung in the clear blue sky. With sunglasses protecting my eyes from the brutal glare and with every inch of my skin covered, I set off to explore the plateau.
Surveying the map, I picked out a peak that stood out higher than any of those around it. The undulating nature of the plateau meant it was difficult to see great distances and I wanted to find a vantage point where I could really appreciate the scale of the plateau.
It took me the morning to reach its lower slopes. It was a magical morning, skiing across a pure white landscape under the azure dome of the sky. The sun glistened from ice crystals in the snow, making it look like the Hardangervidda had been sprinkled with microscopic diamonds. In exposed places the wind picked up the tiny broken shards of snowflakes and blew them across the plateau at ankle height until they came to rest in a hollow or joined up to form long, delicate sastrugi.
None of the peaks of the Hardangervidda rise very far above the plateau and it was only a short distance to the top. As I climbed however, the wind strengthened and the cold became even more intense. I had to I stop to put on my new down jacket and a pair of thick mittens.
It was approaching 1 pm as I skied the last few yards to the summit. A rocky outcrop promised to provide just enough shelter for a comfortable lunch. Overhead the sky was still clear, deep blue and all around was the ubiquitous pristine blanket of white snow. For the first time since I’d arrived on the plateau I could see for miles. Indeed, it almost seemed like I could see to the edge of the world.
To the south, amongst a vast landscape of rolling white peaks, I could just about make out the dark scar in which Vemork and the neighbouring town of Rjukan lay. To the north lay the isolated heart of the Hardangervidda. I could see hundreds of square kilometres with a single sweep of the eyes, but I could not see a single human being.
There would be other people of course, Norwegian ski-tourers exploring the desolate heart of their most beautiful country. But I could not see them, not a single soul in all this wilderness. It was as though the Hardangervidda was mine and mine alone.
The snap decision to come here had seemed absurd at first, even to me. I couldn’t ski, no-one I knew wanted to come with me and all I knew about the place I had learned from a book about a World War Two commando mission. My decision had been made in impetuous ignorance; not so much based on a desire to come to the Hardangervidda but on a desire not to be in Sheffield on a rainy November evening.
As I stood on that wind-torn summit, however, I knew the decision had been the right one. I was in one of the most spectacular wildernesses I had ever seen. All around me was natural grandeur - beautiful, awe inspiring and severe. Despite the constant wind and the biting cold, I felt supremely comfortable here. I had travelled a long way to an entirely unfamiliar place - to suddenly find myself at home.