It was meant to be a routine ski-touring holiday in Norway for Val Hamilton and her husband. Then, just a fortnight before leaving, came news of a tragedy...
The BBC 10pm headline: Two skiers die in Norway. Instantly my attention switches from book to TV. Other stories are trailed but I'm not listening - it must be someone at a resort, gone over the back and got lost... But it's not. It's two "cross-country skiers" caught in a blizzard in the Hardangervidda near Finse. A third member of the party was rescued by chance by a Norwegian Red Cross team out training. Oh hell.
This first reaction is followed quickly by the more selfish one of "my poor mother" - because in ten days' time Graham and I are due to head to Finse to begin a week-long ski tour across the Hardangervidda. It will be our thirteenth winter trip to Norway, 11 of which have been spent hut-to-hut touring, usually just the two of us. During this time we have had our share of bad weather and minor epics, but the tale we tell on our return, to parents at least, is of exhilarating skiing between picturesque huts in wonderful scenery with interesting company.
The detail on TV is sketchy, so I go to the computer and see what more I can find, first on the BBC web pages, then on Norwegian news sites. I learn that the skiers had been going from Finse to Kjeldebu, a trip we have done but which is not in our plans for this year. Seemingly two Norwegian skiers made the journey OK but were then stormbound. They said that the Brits were not well equipped and one did not have suitable skis. They were from the Inverness area and included a father and son: the father survived, the son did not.
A disturbed night as different scenarios run through my head. Even if the weather was bad, why hadn't they all survived? Benightment in Norway isn't uncommon, in fact stopping and digging in is absolutely standard practice. Most ski-tourers carry sleeping bag, karrimat and shovel. I used to think this was largely for show until a few years ago when we met a couple of very fit young Norwegians who, two days earlier, had been forced by wind and snow conditions to stop and snow-hole between Finse and Kjeldebu. It was no big deal to them: that's what they carried the gear for. Not a particularly pleasant way to spend the night, but they survived and went on to the hut the next day.
There is nothing urgent to be done at work, and my job involves sitting at a computer all day, so the temptation to try and find out more is too great. I surf and dig, mining websites and news feeds, mailing lists and blogs. I discover the diminishing law of returns for mailing lists: every thread deteriorates to garbage after ten posts maximum. Frustratingly, the information is constantly conflicting. I need to know what happened. If the guys were underequipped, then it's no less tragic but it has less direct impact on us. It starts to emerge that they were out for two nights. The assumption has always been you just have to wait out the passing storm and move on next day. So could we survive two nights in a snowhole? There's talk of rain, too - which, when skiing, is harder to cope with than snowfall. As well as the physical difficulty of skiing through heavy wet snow, it's depressing: it's not meant to rain on a ski trip. Eventually I feel self-indulgent and make myself stop, trying to immerse myself in work instead.
More information drips out. The Norwegian version of events of the skiers being underequipped is still quoted, but there's a conflicting report from a British skier of "the biggest rucksack I've ever seen". But then this account talks of the group skiing in the opposite direction, from Kjeldebu to Finse. I had thought "unsuitable skis" meant they were too light, but then a friend hears from his Norwegian students that the skis were too heavy. On the Thursday, the survivor, Rupert Wilson, gives his own detailed account of how his son, Peter, and friend, Jim Ross, died. He defends their equipment and experience and denies that they ignored advice not to set off.
Graham and I know from long experience that the Norwegians have a very traditional attitude to gear: outerwear is mostly red proofed cotton jackets and trousers, wool is favoured over synthetics and they usually carry their sleeping bags and mats on the outside of their rucksacks. We favour mountaineering sacks with everything concealed inside, so a snap Norwegian judgement of what a British skier carries might be inaccurate.
Despite this, it's time to re-evaluate the gear we intend to take. Over the years we've been reducing the weight, partly by buying lighter kit, but also last year by cutting out the stove and billy. These go back in this time. You can't take fuel on a plane, and obtaining it in Norway can be a problem, but we should have time to find some in Oslo. We take both gas and meths stoves, giving a better chance of finding something usable. We have intended getting an emergency shelter for years - even spending a wet hour in Fort William trying them out in Blacks - but we now buy a £50 rip-stop nylon four-person Bothy Bag without even hunting for the cheapest deal.
On Sunday a blizzard is forecast but we feel the need to push ourselves. A combination of miserable weekend weather and consecutive colds means I've had no hard hill days this year. Last year by this time we had climbed three Munros in winter conditions. We walk through the Garadhban forest above Drymen and head up rough ground to Gualann, a 461m lump. The wind is vicious with driving snow. Barely able to stand on the summit, we get out the Bothy Bag. It takes three attempts to get it even vaguely comfortable and the nylon flaps violently, but it's soon warm and we can stop safely in conditions that would otherwise have been impossible.
That evening the weekly parental phonecall is going well until an afterthought question: "Those men in Norway?" "Yes..." "Do you know where they were?" "Yes..." "Is that where you're going?" "Yes..." (I've never been able to lie to my mother). Then come ten minutes of disclaimer: we're not doing the same route, we know our limitations, we've nothing to prove... Am I convincing anyone?
Graham has a similar conversation. His dad asks, "Why didn't they phone for help?" We don't know. We've never taken a phone to Norway, don't even know if it would work.
The week passes in continuing apprehension. New gloves are bought, books are weighed, Graham decides to take his thermarest which he'll strap outside his rucksack in fine Norwegian style. And we pack the phone.
The Friday flight to Torp is fine. We arrive in Oslo on time and find gas at the fourth outdoor shop we visit, so the meths stove can be left at the hotel for our return.
The slow but comfortable train journey up into the mountains. As we climb above the snowline at about 950m, I feel my mood lift - a genuine physical sensation in response to the wide expanse of snow, the light, the air. I remember why we're doing this. Off the train at Finse at 1200m in the middle of nowhere. The hut is a one-kilometre ski from the station and, having learnt the hard way on our first visit in the 1980s, we've put on our boots on the train and are ready with hats and mitts. But it's warm, we can see where we're heading, there's no wind - and it's the most welcoming we've ever seen the place.
The hut is busy, but we get a bed in a dormitory (we've slept on the floor in the past). There is the usual multilingual buzz, although English is spoken extensively by all nationalities. Because it is so accessible, Finse is more like a city youth hostel than a normal Norwegian mountain hut. The atmosphere feels no different from usual. I'd half expected and dreaded special treatment - a cross-questioning about our experience and equipment once the staff knew where we were from - or worse, some form of Diana-flowers memorial. We hear no one speak of the deaths.
Not a restful night. Of the 20 folk in the dorm, 15 are wide awake listening to the other five snoring. It's like a Serengeti watering hole at the end of a drought, with every variety of snore known to sleep researchers. To my surprise, I don't wake until 7:45am - breakfast time - and we're first up. No one else seems to realise that it's the weekend when the clocks change across Europe. Sunday morning at Finse can be a scrum with queues for the toilets, for breakfast, and to pay, but the time-change spreads the load. We are ready to leave by 9:15am in conditions which the hut warden describes, in English, as "outstanding".
This first day to Krækkja will be the longest: 24km of undulating but not difficult terrain, and, for the first 6km, the same as the route for Kjeldebu. And it goes well. The pack is a constant presence but not a burden, and there's no need to consult the map: the lines of birch-twig stakes marking the route stretch into the distance. We find a rhythm, there's no buffeting wind to disrupt us. As the sun gains power we get hot, but shedding (and carrying) clothes is a small price for being able to take a leisurely lunchstop, or to adjust boots not worn for a year, with no fear of numb fingers. Only two weeks earlier, conditions had been so different. Suddenly Krækkja is beneath us. Five and three-quarter hours without having pushed ourselves. It's a huge relief: this is going to be OK. The lump in my stomach, present for the past ten days, starts to dissolve.
A spell of superb settled weather. Cloudless skies with cold nights and mornings, warming gradually with the sun. It's hot at times, especially as we're skiing south directly into the sun. We wear less and carry more, and the snow is tarmac-hard, pounding our feet; but these inconveniences are overwhelmingly outweighed by the benign atmosphere. We check the phone a couple of times each day: it's not like Scotland - there is full reception every time.
There are two contrasting aspects of ski-touring in Norway: there's the sense of isolation and space, the huge white vistas and the solitude during the day, and then there are the sociable hut evenings with interesting people and wide-ranging conversation.
Talk is often of topics far removed from skiing, but this year, the further we move from Finse, the more people seem ready to talk about the tragedy. Most have not altered their plans, though Alena and Dave, a Sheffield couple on their first unguided trip, started from Geilo rather than Finse to avoid the demanding first day. Various Norwegians stress their engrained acceptance of the need to turn back at times. It's a principle of the ski-touring code: "There is no shame in turning back". Stopping early enough is also seen to be crucial and when Graham shows Dave and Alena how to dig a snowhole, they all conclude that you have start doing this long before you're knackered. The Norwegians are restrained in their comments although the tenor is that foreigners have disproportionately more accidents. But there is no overt criticism, just sadness.
In investigations of industrial accidents, the phrase "a catalogue of errors" tends to recur. That's how it should be: industrial processes should have numerous safety elements in place such that one small mistake does not have a disastrous outcome. In other areas of life, driving being one, hillwalking another, a single error of judgement can have huge consequences. The research into luck that I advocated in 1994 (see TAC17 p17) still hasn't occurred, but we all know that sometimes you're lucky and get away with it, sometimes you don't.
We meet one group at Hein who are pushing their luck a little and might benefit from a less ambitious plan. The five Heavy Heroes of Telemark are a motley crew of loud "lads" led by ex-Marine Dave and including three first-time skiers with varying levels of fitness. Our initial reaction on hearing that they are taking the same route as us is to consider alternatives so as to avoid them, but they prove to be great company. We are happy to see them en route and look forward to each evening's instalment of tall tales, most of which are probably true.
When our paths diverge, we bid a surprisingly sad farewell to the Heavy Heroes - then continue south to the unstaffed Helberg hut, named after one of the original Heroes of Telemark. The weather is still good, but it's a hard day with various climbs and descents in softening snow. At the hut, we sit outside in the sunshine chatting to a couple of strapping Norwegians whom we have followed all day but who are reluctantly heading out to Rjukan that evening. They give us their spare emergency almond cake, we give them our unused gas canister. Then the hut door opens: "I thought I recognised those voices: do you want a cuppa?" Our old friends Bob and Graham B are in residence. We knew they were coming to the area but had thought it was the previous week. There are only the four of us in the hut that night, so it's a great chance to catch up. We ski out to Rjukan next day and on the Sunday all travel to Oslo together: an unexpected contrast to the usual anticlimax of the journey home.
A perfect end to the perfect trip. So lucky.
TAC 71 Index