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I Retraced the Steps of WWII Ski Saboteurs

Trip Reportbelinda kirkComment

At the top end of a deep, sunless valley in Norway is the Vemork Hyro power plant, site of one of the most daring sabotage raids of the Second World War. 12 men camped out and traversed inhospitable conditions to reach the plant, which was being used to produce heavy water for the Nazis. Their mission, based on little intelligence and much courage, was one of the most successful acts of sabotage in the war. This past winter, a group of friends and I travelled out to Norway to do a winter camping ski tour in the land of the saboteurs.

Norway is home to Europe’s highest arctic plateau, the Hardangervidda. With an average height above sea level of 1,100m, this area of southern Norway is cold and exposed to the elements in winter. On the South Eastern edge of the Hardangervidda is the town of Rjukan, our destination.

We decided to start our ski tour at the point that the saboteurs exited the Rujkan valley back on to the Hardangervidda plateau and to follow partly their escape route and partly their attack route over the next week. Our aim was to get up on the plateau before night fall, and having already had a busy day organising the logistics of our trip we would only just make it out of the tree line before dark.

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The hard compressed paths of the snowmobiles made it easier for us to walk up to the plateau with our skis strapped to the pulkas, but these paths only went so far and after a few kilometres we put our skis back on. 

We were very careful not to get too hot pulling the pulkas: sweating in such an environment is inviting real danger. Constant adjustments of our clothing were made to keep us just on the right side of cool. Generally, the rule of these sorts of trips is: “Be Bold Start Cold!”. This is because it is best to be chilly at the beginning of a day’s skiing that to sweat and be damp later. This is especially important if you are not sleeping in heated tents or huts, because it is difficult to dry your kit out at the end of the day.

We made it to the plateau and continued for a kilometre or so to the first flat spot we could find to put up our tents. The stoves were lit and pots of snow with some water from our flasks were set to melting for our dinner. It is very important to add some water to the pots of snow, snow is a great insulator and if left on its own in a pot the bottom part of the snow will melt but the top will form a seal and not melt. At worst, this can damage your cooking pot and at best is a waste of precious fuel. Knowing this, we had made sure that we had some water left at the end of each day to help with the snow melting process. Once we had eaten, the team gathered in one of the tents to enjoy a cup of tea together and discuss the details of the next day.

The next morning we performed our morning routine which was to become very familiar and slick by the end of the trip. Once we were up and packed we found our skis to have been encrusted with ice crystals born on the wind overnight.

We took it in turns to pull the pulkas, but sometimes a whole day would pass with one person pulling and one person breaking trail and navigating. The extra effort and concentration need to pull a pulka makes navigation difficult so the navigator didn’t pull the pulka unless there was a clear path to follow. It is much easier to pull the pulkas along a path that has already been created by someone skiing in front. We took the decision to take two pulkas with us, one for each tent pair. This is a contentious issue as having the weight of two people’s kit and food make the pulka pretty heavy. The plus side of only having two pulkas is that we could at least have a break from pulling for some of the day.

We continued skiing north all that day, stopping only briefly for drinks from our flasks and for a very quick lunch. While you are skiing the muscles in your body generate heat, especially when exerting the extra effort needed to pull a pulka. As soon as you stop your body cools down very quickly so breaks are necessarily short, if they are longer than 5 or 10 minutes we would take out our big down jackets to keep us warm.

That evening we put up our tents and made hot drinks and dinner to rewarm our cold bodies. Having snow all around you to turn into drinking water is great: as long as you have enough fuel and a working stove to melt it. My stove was not working very well so Daniel and I spent the best part of an hour fixing and cleaning it. I had done this before I left, but it still needed some more work. Luckily, Daniel is a great engineer and soon it was back running on full power. 

The next day on our route we were heading in to the wind and sun for a large part of it. This is difficult for different reasons, when the wind is strong and you have to face into it, exposed flesh can get frost bitten very quickly. We continually checked each other’s cheeks and noses to see if they still responded to the sensation of touch. We also had to apply sun screen to stop or faces getting burnt. It was quite a strange situation with the possibility of getting frost bite and sun burn the same day.

That day the wind was strong and made skiing difficult, we decided to drop down to the edge of the plateau to spend the night out of the wind. As soon as we got off the high ground it seemed like a different world: we had the head space to regroup on the edge of the tree line. After going in to the wind all day I ended up with a stalactite on my face, I had a cold just before I left for Norway and the last effect of it was clinging on with determination.

Once we had descended only 50m - 100m descent the weather was positively balmy, clear sunny skies and no wind to torment us: a very enjoyable camp. Daniel and I used our skis and snow shovel to make a perfectly flat area to set up the tent. Once the snow had been trampled with the skis we left it for 15 minutes and it became rock hard. We had also got into the habit of digging a cold well at the entrance to our tent to give somewhere for the cold to go. This had the added benefit of making a seat for us to sit on out of the wind. We then turned our pulka over to create a table in the vestibule of our tent. It was all very civilised.

That night was one of the best we had. Our night time routine was slick; we had plenty of hot drinks and a stunning view down in the valley. As the night closed in the clouds parted to treat us to some stunning stars and we enjoyed our shelter from the wind immensely. 

The next day, we headed down the valley to a hut to dry our kit out which was getting damp, and lucked out by meeting Tor who let us use his drying room. In no time, we were back out camping in the snow. After a good night’s sleep our party had to divide, as Matt had started to lose sensation in his finger tips and they were showing the signs of frost bite. He headed back down the valley to spend the night indoors and the three of us continued back up on the arctic plateau.

We wanted to dig a snow cave to sleep in, something that we had hoped to do since the beginning of the trip. We found an area in the lee of a slope that was not steep enough for an avalanche risk but was possibly deep enough to dig a snow cave. My only concern was that the snow wouldn’t be deep enough, and that it wouldn’t be of good enough quality for making a cave.  Sadly, as I dug further back into the cave, the concerning sound of metal on stone revealed my worst fears: there was not quite enough snow for a cave. The snow was not deep enough by between 1 – 2 feet and this would have meant that our sleeping platforms would not allow us to stretch out fully making for an uncomfortable night. But, not letting this dampen our spirits, we used the sheltered platform that we had created as the base for our tent. This worked well, especially because the sheltered snow hole gave us a space to cook and eat.

The next morning was our last. We got up and loaded our sled, visiting the Vermork Hydro Power Plant and using the route the Saboteurs used to descend into the Rujkan valley. By this point, our respect for those brave men had swelled even further. My adventure into the land of the saboteurs was humbling, exhilarating and a true adventure.

 

Words: Henry Landon

For more writing by Henry, click here


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