The Meaning of Winter — Part One

So there I was, crowded into a tiny, ramshackle waiting room with 18 other students, all of us furiously and claustrophobically pulling on boots and head lamps, struggling with worn-out ski skins and buckles. Everytime the door was opened, a rush of subzero air, and beyond was white snow so thick it almost hid the darkness.

The first hint that I might have bitten off a bit more than I could chew came when the train missed our station. That’s right — in the swirling snow it had gone right past little Hallingskeid, lost as the population of ski cabins is in the endless white expanse of wintry inland Norway.

The train ride was incredible beautiful… at least until we got passed the tree line, and it got dark and started snowing.

We objected — they apologized — and the train came to a screeching halt. As other passengers looked around, confused, the conductor came onto the intercom:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are returning to Hallingskeid.”

And the train went backwards, retracing the frozen tracks in order to grudgingly open a single door in the baggage car, and let us hurry off and into the waiting darkness.

The station was dark and skeletal, coated in ice a foot thick in places, a yard in others. Once it was similar to other high mountain Norwegian stations, like those at Myrdal and Finse, despite being unmanned and the least frequently used stop on the Oslo-Bergen line; but a fire tore through it in the summer of 2011, a passing train caught in the inferno. The station has not really been rebuilt, and perhaps will never be. Today, it’s little more than a tired mess of ice, ash and brand new railway signage — with one small, wooden waiting area.

And there, I snapped on my skis and contemplated my own mortality.

On my skis in better days.

I had no idea what I was doing. Yeah, sure, I’d “stood on skis” (the Norwegian term, oddly apt in my case) before — twice on well-maintained ski slopes in the light of day, once on an immaculately-manicured indoor track. I suddenly doubted that any of it had prepared me to ski through a snowstorm on unknown cross-country terrain.

The door opened again. Two of the trip leaders had been outside, scouting out conditions.

“Take your skis off,” they said. “We’re walking. Headlamps on. Single file. If you start falling behind, scream. You don’t want to get lost tonight.”

I ended up third in line. The headlamp’s beam was of limited currency. Sometimes, when we stopped for half a moment, I saw Torgeir checking his map and his compass. Mostly, though, I just saw Freddie’s retreating back a few feet ahead of me — and snow. Snow everywhere.

I held my skis horizontally, awkwardly in my arms, the poles and the shovel and the avalanche probe hanging from my backpack. With a good step, I sank in only to my knee, and could more or less keep walking. With a bad step, the snow would give way suddenly, and I would fall in to my thigh and fall forward into the powder.

We walked for the better part of an hour. I was determined not to fall behind, but my energy was flagging. Just as I thought to myself that, in a minute, I would have to say something, we stopped.

At first, I wasn’t sure why. Then I saw a bit of roof sticking out of the snow, near Torgeir’s feet. We were currently standing a few feet over the door. We’d made it — but for this little Missouri girl, the adventure was far from over.

The cabin door in daylight (oddly enough, bad photo-puns aside, I don’t have any pictures of the darkness or the snowstorm.)

Tasks were delegated quickly, as more people straggled in out of the snow and a few Norwegian, who had grown impatient with the trudging, slid gracefully in on ski.

You and you — dig out the front door.

You and you — the outhouse. (That way, about 30 meters — yeah just push the shovel down into the snow every once in awhile until you feel the roof down there.)

You and you — go see if we can get into the river, dig some steps down and break the ice if you can.

You — start a fire.

You — melt snow.

You newbies — well, just go inside. Try your best to stay warm and out of the way.

Safe within Kreklingbu’s walls

Before I knew it, we were all inside. Nineteen bodies in the one-room cabin, the temperature inside starting to rise to a toasty 50 degrees. The wood fire and the candles hung and set throughout lent a cozy orange glow to faces and walls. I was feeling better — safer — almost normal. We slept that night two to a twin bed and people packed onto the floor as tight as the camping mattresses would fit. And with the wind howling outside the door, I was grateful for the crowd.

Continue to Part Two!

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