Finding the right clothes was more time-consuming than the three flights and a boat ride it took to reach my destination above the Arctic Circle. Once in the frosty fjords of Norway, I assumed all thoughts about apparel were behind me and I could focus on watching troops shoot in the snow. However, upon arrival at the barracks in Aasegarden, where nato trains its toughest men for extreme cold, I was steered to a conference room for what was billed as the most important briefing of all: The Clothing Lecture.
“Everyone must take this lesson,” explained Lieutenant Colonel Lars Sundnes, as he switched on the PowerPoint. “For a 100-percent chance of survival, 20 percent is the proper clothing and 80 percent is knowing how to use it.”
Bundle up A Norwegian Army officer at the Allied Arctic Training Center in Bardufoos, Norway, demonstrates the layers of clothing soldiers wear while conducting operations in the Arctic Circle. (Robert Nickelsberg)
The presentation included an assortment of brass from different military powers who held forth on the proper garments to fight the cold. One slide ominously showed men gasping as they tried to claw out of a glacial lake. Animal fur did not provide enough protection. Dogs that helped rescue people from avalanches were relegated to kennels when the mercury dipped below minus 4 Celsius. “There has never been a piece of research that shows you can acclimatize to extreme cold,” cautioned Major Simon Guest, a medic with the British Royal Marines. “Your body can acclimate to high altitude by producing more red blood cells. But you can’t get used to extreme cold.”
Got it. Then it was on to an exhibit room, where a young recruit who resembled a Ken doll stood at attention in his skivvies. A colonel barked orders to put on a succession of garments designed by scientists to maximize heat preservation and minimize sweat.
“Mesh!” On went a fishnet vest.
“Long shirt and pants!” The colonel fingered the material. “Seventy percent wool and 30 percent polyester. You have to get the right mix.”
“Parka! Gor-Tex! Shell!” Three layers of pants and jacket followed. The colonel stuck his fingers inside Ken’s waistband. “Note: Trousers should be a size too large to allow for air flow.”
Then it was “Headgear!” (a cap liner and balaclava). “Hands!” (mittens and a Gor-Tex shell). “Feet!” (the boots resembled my Sorels, and over them went an insulated sack).
Once Ken was layered up to resemble the Michelin Man, the colonel moved on to inspect my gear. He pronounced the $800 worth of purchases “adequate,” and I was allowed to venture outside.
There awaited a majestic wilderness of fjords and peaks. The frozen landscape was pristine, except for men doing sniper practice. I quickly realized that black clothes were as bad as purple. Everyone wears white to blend in with the snow. Black makes you an easy target. I was a sitting, or standing, duck.
While the soldiers skied with 100 pounds of gear on their backs, I simply watched. The human body creates heat as it moves, and after a few hours of immobility, my lungs burned with each breath; icicles formed inside my nose; my toes were numb and the snow glare hurt my eyes. Worse, I couldn’t take notes. The gloves were so thick that I had to remove them to grip the ballpoint pen, which in any event didn’t write because the ink had frozen. The tape recorder wasn’t functioning either; the cold had drained the batteries. I managed to revive the equipment with a hand-warmer in my pants pocket, but the major showing me around grew nervous every time I took off the gloves to write. He checked for white spots on my skin, which was a sign of afflicted flesh.
Suddenly, he began to jump up and down like a frenzied kangaroo.
“Frostbite,” he said through gritted teeth. “Had it a dozen times in the toes. Hurts like anything.”
I began hopping, too.