Emerging onto a 3,000-foot plateau in central Norway, the snow tyres of the minibus sliding and biting the icy road, a wintry vista unfolds and the moment freezes. To the east, hundreds of miles of virgin tracks glide enticingly away through the countless conifers of Rondane National Park; to the west, the Scandinavian sun melts over the darkening domes of the Jotunheimen range, its last watery rays winking the promise of adventure through drifting clusters of snowflakes. I can’t wait to get out there. True, I’ve never tried cross-country skiing before, but putting one foot in front of the other can’t be that hard, can it? Before this trip is over, I will rue my over-confidence.
For now, though, a welcome hot drink by a log fire awaits at the Wadahl Hotel. It’s here we meet our hosts and instructors for the next few days – Nick, a languidly composed former Infantry officer and highly qualified ski instructor; Tony, a clipped and courteous ex-Royal Marines officer in the John Mills mould; and Pat, a serious mountain man even by the admission of his hugely experienced colleagues. Between them they can point to close on a century of military service, not to mention expertise in teaching leadership and organising expeditions to such forbidding places as Antarctica, South Georgia and Everest. Nordic Challenge, the company formed by Nick and Tony in 2003, aims to give guests of all shapes, sizes and ages the distilled benefit of this vast know-how.
In the morning, after a buffet breakfast worth coming for in itself, there are chores to be tackled before we can hit the tracks. First it’s necessary to select the right clothes – light layers of absorbent and breathable fabrics – followed by just the right kind of ski wax for the conditions (a ‘mild’ minus three). All that’s needed then is a pair of slipper-like boots that click into the skinny skis at the toe only, allowing the heels to lift and making it possible to ski uphill as well as down. Thus equipped, we’re ready to kick out into the wild whiteness.
At first, the going is good. All we’re asked to do is slot our skis into inches-deep railtracks carved by a snowplough, and shuffle forwards. Then Nick informs us that we haven’t actually started yet – the trick to this kind of skiing is to ‘jog’ along, keeping the centre of gravity low, flinging out the sticks to the rear, transferring your weight squarely from foot to foot and letting the skis slide. It’s a lot to remember, and getting the knack entails much flailing around like a tortoise on its back, not to mention a conscious effort to ignore apple-cheeked Norwegian children swishing past with innate poise. When the timing comes together, though, the sense of oneness with the Christmas-card surroundings is as thrillingly clear as the Nordic air.
Before long, the effort needed to keep the skis parallel leaves me puffing; thickening snowfall is filling in the tracks and the spindrift (my new word for the week) is swirling on the breeze. It’s time to flop, with cheeks burning, in a ridiculously cosy log cabin complete with open fire, and get to know the seven other members of my group. One of them, an “author and eccentric” called Sue, turns out to be a retired policewoman-turned-shepherdess living a hardy, isolated life in the Yorkshire Dales; another, Andrew, is a rugby player hoping not to fall on his oft-injured shoulder. Then there’s Vena, budding novelist and keen swimmer (who’s already done 30 lengths of the hotel pool early that morning) and Claire, a sociable specialist in strategic marketing and self-styled couch potato, who definitely wasn’t in the pool at dawn.
Whether it’s the tingling mountain air, or the superbly sugary hot chocolate and waffles, everyone’s on a rarefied high and ready for anything – which is just as well, for with military precision, our hosts are outlining some optional activities for us to sample.
The first of these, dog sledding, involves yoking together half a dozen raring-to-run Alaskan huskies, stepping up onto the back runners of your sled, hoisting the ice anchor and whisking off in convoy around a circular course. I quickly master the rubber footplate that curbs the dogs’ progress (or so I think) and soon I’m nurturing fantasies of triumphant Polar expeditions – even as we round a tight turn and my stabilising leg sinks up to the waist, capsizing the sled and tipping out my passenger, the unfortunate Claire, head-first. For a few long minutes we’re in deep snow, so to speak, with the dogs still surging ahead and Claire buried upside down. I feel a bit ungallant about leaving her like that, but the golden rule, we were told, is to “never let go of the sledge”.
An hour later, having scrabbled out of our powdery predicament, we’re standing at the top of a worryingly sheer tobogganing track, and Claire has seen an early chance for retribution: this time, I’m going to be the passenger. The young hut attendant squeezes go-karting helmets onto our heads and shows us the steering bar and the brake, neither of which seem to interest Claire much. In the 42 breathless seconds that follow (I’m videoing our dramatic plunge), we veer across the sheet ice, accelerating all the time, and into rougher regions off the main track. There’s a shriek as we hit something under the surface (a rock, a root, a reindeer?), the sledge stops dead and I continue the descent by air, executing a double somersault as pure as the drift in which I come to a crumpled halt. We count the cost – my knee, her ribs – and, for the second time in as many hours, chastened yet helpless with exhaustion and laughter, start digging ourselves out of an embarrassing mess. This time without the help of huskies.
Later we realise how much worse our tumble might have been, and that this kind of environment must be treated with more respect than we’ve shown it so far. We’re not the only ones to have picked up minor knocks – Sue’s colourful elbow draws admiring murmurs back at base – so we resolve to act more responsibly. Bumps and bruises notwithstanding, though, I know I haven’t had so much fun in one day since I was three.
Next day, we’re split into two biathlon teams – Shackleton and Scott. As John, a professional photographer, astutely points out, both groups seem destined for glorious failure: one missed its goal and survived, the other reached it and perished. We’re shown how to use the weighty .22 rifles, which have a range of one kilometre, and asked to take five pot-shots at five tiny targets while still out of breath from completing a ski circuit. Scott edges the contest, but again at a price: Andrew falls on his bad shoulder, makes a “you guys go on without me” speech, and plods back towards the hot chocolate hut in the manner of Captain Oates.
Over dinner, the consensus is that none of us has lived life this intensely for some time; a few are already speaking of plans for next year. After all, Norway has unanswerable advantages as a winter sport destination: boundless miles of pristine scenery, a season that lasts until May, the chance to ski the length of the country in hut-to-hut stages and full-on, no-mobile-signal wilderness for the serious adventurer.
The week winds up with a taste-of-Norway trip to Lauvåsen (by minibus for most; only two of the group are deemed capable of covering the 10km on skis without doing themselves an injury). It’s here we encounter Norway’s answer to the après-ski excess of the Alps: good company by the fireside and linie aquavit, a flavoured spirit distilled from potatoes. We’re talked through aquavit etiquette, which consists of holding the glass to your chest, inhaling the aroma, taking a sip and making eye contact with your neighbour – a social custom that only consolidates the bonds that have developed between us in a short time. True to the pattern of the week, I overdo things again, recklessly knocking back shots that have no effect at all until I hit the freshest air in the world, with predictable consequences. By the time I get home, I’m still wondering if it was all a dream. Of course it was.