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, snowy landscape. The roof of the igloo had collapsed and night was falling. I didn’t know it at the time, but my desperation and discomfort came in handy 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 feisty daughter, Sofia, who embark on a cross-country skiing journey deep within Norway’s Arctic Circle. For Erik, it’s a chance to bond properly with his remaining daughter after a tragic accident. For Sofia, it’s the proof she needs that her father cares. But things quickly go wrong in the White Desert, and soon father and daughter are running for their lives.
In 2003, I went on a cross-country skiing trip with three Norwegian friends and my brother James. I am half Norwegian on my mother’s side and spent many childhood holidays in the country’s fjords and mountains. But now I wanted a real adventure. We started from the Finse station (the village used for training expeditions by explorers Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton) in the municipality of Ulvik in Vestland and crossed the county of Viken, following Lake Ustevatn towards the small mountain town of Geilo. Behind us, to the southwest, was the mighty Hardangerjøkulen Glacier, used as the location for the ice planet Hoth in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. In front of us, a moor interrupted by many invisible lakes, streams and rivers covered with ice and snow. We would cover the 39km on cross-country skis, stopping to build an igloo for five where we would sleep before leaving the next day.
It is normal for skiers to make such trips, staying overnight courtesy of the Norwegian Trekking Association, which operates more than 550 cabins throughout Norway. Few rely on building their own homes along the way. However, my friend Tore, who invited me on this trip, is a bit… different. He regularly builds an igloo next to the ski lift on the Geilo slopes so that he can enjoy free accommodation for a week.
During the train journey to Finse (at 1,222 meters, the highest point in Norway’s rail network), I saw an eagle soaring above the snow-covered fir trees and took that as a good omen. I should not have. When I arrived, I put on my red gaiters, lifted my bag, got off the train, and took a deep breath of the crisp mountain air. I had worked hard on my physical condition for this trip. I felt ready.
My backpack was already heavy and I had attached a large iron shovel to it. I put on my skis and left after the others. I had covered 20 meters on the first slope when my skis crossed and I crashed to the ground, the snow shovel hitting me on the head as I landed in a tangle of limbs and skis.
Damn that eagle. I realized, to my horror, that it was all a mistake and that I was not competent enough to ski with those sturdy Norwegians. Of course, they were too generous to say the same, 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 skiing a few times when I was very young.
I did my best, but that first day was difficult. The vast Hardangervidda plateau is well above the treeline and the wind can be intense. At one point James disappeared behind a rock to pee, but I hoped he was calling a helicopter. No chance. After rebuilding the igloo, we climbed into it, passed a flask of whiskey, and thawed a meat and vegetable stew. The leftovers froze overnight and we repeated the process for breakfast. It was relatively warm inside the igloo. Only -1°C, which ultimately isn’t warm enough for me to actually sleep. The water running over my head didn’t help. Nor snoring. The Norwegians had done this kind of thing during their compulsory military service; we were the “new recruits”, so they put us in the middle where it was hottest.
The next morning, after sinking my feet into frozen ski boots that I had 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 is plenty of space in which the imagination can run 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 traces of a story began to appear in my mind.
James and I never completed the trip. After a few days, we took a break, having learned from two policemen passing by on snowmobiles that there was a station several kilometers away. We were fit, but too inexperienced with cross-country skiing techniques, and we knew we were holding the others back.
And so, when the going got tough, we hit the road – only the other way. The next day we were back in our cabin by the fjord, fishing and drinking beer and playing a lot of our strengths.
But that story idea stayed with me for 17 years, waiting for the right moment to emerge, like a body from the snow. If I had written it at the time, it would have been a very different story. There would have been gunfire 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 has become what it was meant to be. For me, Where Blood Runs Cold is an exploration of suffering and the human will to survive, but there is another underlying theme: a father’s struggle to let go and his child’s struggle to carry on without him.
In truth, my disastrous cross-country ski trail still haunts me a little. Looking on the bright side, I at least got a novel out of it.
Where Blood Runs Cold by Giles Kristian is published February 24 by Transworld for £14.99. Order your copy for €13.04 at guardianbookshop.com