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.

One of the guys warmed cocoa on the stove. It smelled divine, and the major reminded everyone to stay hydrated because of all the sweating in heavy clothes. But then I thought about standing by the pee stick in the permafrost. Temperatures had dropped and the wind was picking up. I politely declined the drink, and contemplated the long night ahead.


More in Feature

Déjà news

Read More »

Judith Matloff is a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is a veteran foreign correspondent, who teaches a course on conflict reporting at Columbia, and is the author of Fragments of a Forgotten War and Home Girl.