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.
Our next activity was avalanche mapping. My enthusiasm for arctic reporting was waning; all I could think of was food. The soldiers are fed 6,000 calories a day to make up for all they lose in the cold. I was probably burning off as much just by shivering. I fondly recalled breakfast, which consisted of a mound of salmon, herring, lamb, potatoes, hamburgers, liver, eggs, and sausages. Why, oh why, didn’t I go back for seconds?
I was shaken from my cravings by the sight of the avalanche expert, Jacob Helgersen, scampering up the hill like Jesus walking on water. I, in contrast, sank knee-deep into the snow, pulled down by the Sorel blocks. A half hour later, I caught up with Helgersen. He was standing in a freshly dug hole five feet deep, and whacking at the side of it with a shovel. The snow crumbled at the third blow. “This is bad,” he muttered, picking up his tools. Helgersen rushed off, calling over his shoulder, “If there’s an avalanche, make an air pocket with one arm. Push the other above the surface. Hopefully, a rescuer can spot you.”
I willed the Sorels to move faster.
The trip wrapped up with a camping excursion by the side of a frozen lake. Norwegian troops travel in comfort, and our tent came equipped with reindeer skins and a stove. The soldiers set up a florescent green stick outside to mark where to pee, so that we wouldn’t get lost in the frigid dark. Overhead, the Northern Lights put on a spectacular show.