I was exhausted. My gloves were wet and the sweat had started to freeze on my skin. No hotels for miles around. No houses. Nothing but a barren, treeless, snowbound landscape. The roof of the igloo had collapsed and it was getting dark. I didn’t know it at the time, but my despair and discomfort would come in useful 17 years later when I sat down to write my new novel, Where Blood Runs Cold. The book tells the story of Erik Amdahl and his spirited daughter, Sofia, who embark on a cross-country ski trip deep into Norway’s Arctic Circle. For Erik, it’s the chance to bond properly with his remaining daughter after a tragic accident. For Sofia, it’s the proof she needs that her father does care. But things soon go wrong in the white wilderness, and before long, father and daughter are running for their lives.
In 2003 I undertook a cross-country ski trip with three Norwegian friends and my brother, James. I’m half Norwegian on my mother’s side and had spent many childhood holidays by the country’s fjords and mountains. But now I wanted a real adventure. We would start at the station in Finse (the village used for expedition training by explorers Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton) in the municipality of Ulvik in Vestland and make our way across Viken county, following Lake Ustevatn towards the small mountain town of Geilo. Behind us, to the south-west, was the mighty Hardangerjøkulen glacier, used as a location for the ice planet Hoth in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Before us, a moorland interrupted by numerous unseen lakes, streams and rivers covered in ice and snow. We would travel the 39km on cross-country skis, stopping to build a five-man igloo where we would sleep before setting off again next day.
It’s normal for skiers to make such trips, overnighting courtesy of the Norwegian Trekking Association, which runs more than 550 cabins all over Norway. Few rely on building their own accommodation en route. Still, my friend Tore, who invited me on this trip, is a little … different. He regularly builds an igloo beside the ski lift on the slopes at Geilo so he can enjoy rent-free accommodation for a week.
On the train journey up to Finse (at 1,222 metres the highest point on the Norwegian railway network) I saw an eagle gliding above the snow-sheathed firs, and took that as a good omen. I shouldn’t have. On arrival, I put on my red gaiters, hefted my pack, stepped off the train and took a deep breath of the crisp mountain air. I had worked hard on my fitness for this trip. I felt ready.
My rucksack was already heavy and I had strapped a full-sized iron shovel to it. I clipped into my skis and set off after the others. I had made it 20 metres down the first slope when my skis crossed and I crashed to the ground, the snow shovel smacking me on the head as I landed in a tangle of limbs and skis.
Damn that eagle. I realised, to my horror, that his whole thing was a mistake and I wasn’t proficient enough to be skiing with these hardy Norwegian guys. Of course, they were too generous to say as much, and at least a face full of snow hid my blushes. You see, I was used to downhill skiing and had only tried cross-country a couple of times when I was very young.
I tried my best, but that first day was rough. The sprawling plateau of the Hardangervidda is far above the timber line, and the wind can be intense. At one point, James disappeared behind a rock for a pee, but I hoped he was calling in a chopper. No such luck. After we’d rebuilt the igloo, we clambered in, passed round a hip flask of whisky and thawed out a meat and vegetable stew. The leftovers would freeze overnight, and we would repeat the process for breakfast. It was comparatively warm inside the igloo. Only -1C, which, as it turned out, is not warm enough for me to actually sleep. The water dripping on my head didn’t help. Nor the snoring. The Norwegian guys had done this sort of thing during their compulsory military service; we were the “new recruits”, so they put us in the middle where it was warmest.
Next morning, after I’d forced my feet into frozen ski boots that I’d foolishly left outside my sleeping bag, we set off again. The thing about a long ski trip is that you have plenty of time to think. There’s a lot of space in which the imagination can go wild. Maybe the snowy landscape is a metaphor for the blank page, but I got to thinking, what if someone was after us and wanted to kill us? That’s all it takes. The first tracks of a story began to appear in my mind.
James and I never finished the trip. After a couple of days, we made a break for it, having learned from two police officers passing on snowmobiles that there was a station several kilometres away. We were fit, but too inexperienced with the techniques of cross-country skiing, and we knew we were holding the others back.
And so, when the going got tough, we got going – only in the other direction. The next day, we were back in our cottage by the fjord, fishing and drinking beer and very much playing to our strengths.
But that idea for a story would stay with me for 17 years, waiting for the right time to emerge, like a body from the snow. Had I written it back then, it would have been a very different tale. There would have been guns and drama in the snow, but I think it wouldn’t have gone much deeper. Now, with more years on my back, and having become a father too, the story became what it was meant to be. For me, Where Blood Runs Cold is an exploration of suffering and the human will to survive, but beneath this is another theme: of a father’s struggle to let go, and his child’s struggle to go on without him.
In truth, my disastrous cross-country ski strip still haunts me a little. Looking on the bright side, at least I got a novel out of it.
Where Blood Runs Cold by Giles Kristian is published 24 February by Transworld for £14.99. Order your copy for £13.04 at guardianbookshop.com