Some survival stories are so horrifying you can’t imagine how a person made it through. It’s one thing knowing you mustn’t fall asleep for 36 hours because you’ll succumb to exposure and never wake up, or that you have to chop off your toes to prevent gangrene. But lying lost in a snow-hole unable to move for several weeks, staring death in the face? That’s more than any human could bear. But it happened in northern Norway during the second world war in one of the most remarkable survival stories of them all. I’m attempting to follow the trail of one man’s extraordinary ordeal in a weekend. It won’t be nearly so arduous, but with the below-freezing, wind-tunnel conditions, looming mountains and utter remoteness of the place – not many to hear me cry out in these parts – I’m daunted.
We lift off for Tromsø, which sits almost at the top of Europe, three and a half hours from London. Ski touring in northern Norway has had a high cool quotient for a couple of years now. The flights even work for weekends, although this will be a particularly tough one given the Norwegians’ famed hardiness – and that’s when there isn’t a war on.
The flight gives me time to re-read David Howarth’s We Die Alone, from which this awful story of endurance comes. It describes how SOE agents were sent to Norway in 1943 on a mission to build a resistance network. After eight days spent crossing the North Sea, they were betrayed in an instant by a civilian shopkeeper. Eleven men were killed on the spot, or captured and later shot. Only one, Jan Baalsrud, escaped by haring up a hillside shooting at his pursuers and clambering out of sight. It was the start of a 200km evasion – and eventual escape – over an unimaginable 60 days.
Touchdown in Tromsø. But I’m headed two hours further on, to a remote valley called Manndalen. As I drive, the snow on the round-topped mountains glows in the moonlight. For a while, the road diverges and I have to turn off Baalsrud’s trail – in places the country is so rough there’s no way through by car – but I rejoin it near the Lyngen Alps, a range of mountains rising to 6,000ft, tall enough not to have been brutalised by glaciers.
It was here that Baalsrud’s real troubles began. After that first unfortunate contact, other people had taken him in, helped him and passed him on, like a talisman of defiance. At one point he was given some skis and – after passing straight through a German dawn patrol – he set off up into these mountains to get away, confident that no German could keep up. But in a storm, he became disoriented. Then, after 24 hours of white-out, he was caught in an avalanche. And for three days after that, he wandered, snow-blind, without food, frostbitten and delirious. Randomly, he made his way off the mountains and eventually, miraculously, bumped into a tiny hut. As I drive, I can see the lights of Furuflaten, a village on the opposite shore of Lyngen fjord. Then I pass Baalsrud’s “Hotel Savoy”, where he lay for 12 days.
At Manndalen I meet Henrik Solberg, a ski guide, and his colleague Steffen. Henrik offers alpine touring in the Lyngen Alps across the fjord, but we have decided on Nordic skiing above Manndalen itself, up on the glacier where Baalsrud was hidden for weeks. He gives me a quick brief, tracing Baalsrud’s route on the map – by the time he reached here, he was so weak he was confined to a sledge and had to be dragged by local Manndalen men. Then it’s time for some sleep.
It is just approaching dawn when we get ready at the foot of the Kjerringdal, the side-valley used by the Manndalen men to rescue Baalsrud. In the wan light I see the mountains loom above us – 3,000ft colossi leaning into the wind and racing clouds. Henrik waves goodbye to Steffen, who sets off on a ski‑doo to ferry the night’s equipment to the top of the valley. We’re carrying just a daysack each. We are on Nordic skis – the toes are fixed but the heels are unattached, so we can walk uphill on skins. They have edges and are more flexible than Alpine touring skis. Most importantly, the lighter boots will make travel more comfortable over the plateau.
Then the graft begins. Step after carefully slid step we head up the slope, through spindly, leafless trees into a monochrome world of white, black and endless shades of grey. We are cutting a trail six inches deep into new snow held on hardpack. We take it steady: you don’t want to build up a sweat; later it will freeze on you, which is uncomfortable and even dangerous. And carefully: any immersion – breaking through into a river, for instance – can be hazardous. Your every decision is affected by the climate here. I hold off looking back until we’re above the treeline. Then I am surprised how much the perspective has changed. Houses look tiny below, cars like dinky toys.
We crest the rise – skins off – and head south. The skis run well over the young snow and we slide over the rolling uplands. We climb here, contour and then telemark down in that unlikely balletic style, knee bent on the forward ski, heel up at the back, poles hanging down from outstretched arms.
This treeless plateau is a vast stretch of rolling white, an incredibly harsh environment. It makes Baalsrud’s survival all the more astonishing. Henrik points out a rock in the distance – the Gentleman Stone, so called after the password, “Hello, gentleman”, and chosen as the handover point from the Furuflaten rescuers to the Manndalen men. Everyone was operating clandestinely at huge personal risk (if discovered, they would have faced possible execution). But after Baalsrud was dragged up here and installed, the snow came; he was buried and lost. Cries of “Hello, gentleman” in the middle of the night went unheard. The men probably skied over the top of him. He lay there for about 10 days.
We find a hollow and stop for a bite to eat, Henrik recounting episodes from his five tours of Afghanistan. Then we’re on the move again. We weave among the rolls in the ground, sliding over ice and snow darkened only by shadow and occasional rocks. The wind gets up again and howls bitterly; we strive against it. This place is bleak, there’s no doubt, but somewhere out there, beyond the small summits, lies the border with Sweden. Baalsrud would reach it eventually, but not without help from Lapp reindeer herders, who needed persuading. After what seems like an age traversing a wind tunnel, we swing east and Henrik points out another rock, where Baalsrud hid, barely alive, for another 20 days – and amputated nine of his toes. Eventually he was so weak – just 35kg – rescuers had to bring him down to shelter.
Descending the steep section back into Manndalen is the most challenging and daunting moment of the day (now imagine dragging a man on a sled). It’s easiest – though hardly easy – to traverse back and forth and scissor-turn. Eventually, we make it to flat ground and slide between the birch and willow trees along a frozen river. It’s dark by the time we arrive at Lilledals Gammen, a tiny communal hut, 15ft by 12ft, nearly buried in snow. The entrance had been dug out earlier by Steffen and the supplies installed. We get a fire going and the hut warms surprisingly quickly. Over a petrol burner, Henrik cooks up reindeer bourguignon and mash, followed by a tonnage of chocolatey stuff, brandy and fireside tales. Then, finally, the deep sleep of the well‑exercised.
Everyone who does this sort of thing knows about “morale”. It’s hard to drag yourself out of your bag into the cold. After a slow breakfast we set out back up the valley to a cleft in the hillside – now known as Baalsrud’s Cave – where the escapee lay for another four days.
I chide myself at my slow start. Just imagine the test of mental strength for someone sick, in mortal danger, momentarily exhilarated by human contact and then left alone for days on end. Unable to move, Baalsrud would starve to death if his comrades couldn’t come. And then the constant mental churning: “Should they take the risk? What if they had already been caught?” He could no longer pretend to be an active soldier. Apparently, he finally decided to shoot himself… but was too weak to cock his pistol.
Eventually the Lapp herders were enticed with brandy and tobacco, and Baalsrud was dragged back up onto the plateau – for yet another week alone. But then, at long last, he was loaded onto a reindeer sledge and taken south to Sweden. Even over the border, it took three weeks for him to reach a hospital and safety.
Henrik and I head back down the valley, picking up the equipment on the way, he pulling a pulk, I carrying a rucksack. It tests my balance severely as we pass once more through the spindly trees. Modern Norway has intruded since Baalsrud’s time. A set of powerlines marches down into Manndalen, follows the valley for a while, then climbs out again. Daytrippers arrive on their ski-doos. One of them offers to tow us for fun. Henrik hitches the pulk, we each grab a leash and are dragged behind… until I end up headfirst in the snow.
On the flight back to London via Oslo, in a (comparatively minor) state of exhaustion, I muse on this extraordinary story. So few of us are tested like this nowadays that it’s impossible to imagine how we would fare. As We Die Alone puts it, Baalsrud simply had “a stubborn distaste for dying in such gruesome circumstances”. But the most amazing thing: a year later, he was back in Norway on another SOE mission.