Tuesday, 2 March 2010
With the Winter Olympics done and dusted, I am reflecting upon the medal table and wondering what it is that makes certain nations so spectacularly brilliant at dealing with the hardships winter can throw at them. Since Canada was the host nation this time around, it was particularly sweet for them that they should have scooped up the most medals. But like Norway, a quick look at the geography of the country explains why Canadians also like a bit of snow and ice.
I’m looking at the wall beside me. If I suppose the entire expanse of the wall represents Canada, then it turns out almost 90% of the Canadian population are living in the skirting board. The rest of the wall is one, big, white, frozen wilderness. Whether it is winning the Winter Olympics or a straightforward willingness to explore if not survive, being able to cope in the wilderness seems to nurture Olympians. It is as though the great wild areas of Russia, Poland, Kazakhstan, Sweden, Canada, Norway and others determine the characteristics of each population.
Today I sought my daily dose of wilderness by notching up the Ks skiing around yet another Norwegian lake. It was cold, icy and unpopulated, but a long way from the utter bleakness and bitter exposure of Norway’s true wilderness. I know this because I have seen it...but, being a wimp, only from the inside of a car. However, it was the journey of a lifetime.
Exactly one year ago, we drove over one of the most extraordinary roads in the world. The Hardanger Plateau is the highest plateau in Europe, a vast, bleak, barren place, not for the faint-hearted, even in a car. It was extraordinary to discover that there was a road right across it, and even more astounding to find the road was open, despite a good 15 feet of snow in places. We were to be escorted over this unending expanse of snow in a convoy of about 100 cars, with a snow plough at the front, and one at the rear. It was a journey I’ll never forget.
Considering we were driving on nothing but impacted ice, the speed was impressive with our leader setting the pace at a good 60 kph. Driving towards the startlingly bright sun was one thing, but having to peer through the blinding white to see where the white road met the white wall of carved-out snow was quite another. So the TA, (Technical Assistant), drove with fixed concentration, while I was on photographic documentation duty.
I have never seen so much white in my life. I imagine heaven must look like this, but warmer. The Vikings reckoned Hell was a cold place, rather than fiery hot, and I could see why. Wind blew white swirls of snow into our windscreen, soft drifts disguised the route, and the car ahead disappeared in and out of the whiteness. The low, bright sun shone mercilessly out of a brilliant sky. If the planet had been square, then this must surely be one of the edges.
Once or twice an ancient, lonely hytte could be seen poking out of the snowfields. I wondered what sort of person could ever be enticed to use a place of such exquisite bleakness.
Entice is the word. Wilderness is curiously enticing. Its dangers are extreme, its challenges huge and its demands unforgiving. The adrenaline rush offered by the great wildernesses can be desperate, even fatal. But as long as human beings are liable to succumb to addictions, there will be some for whom wilderness will always prove irresistible. It’s an addiction that forces exploration, a draw that has always tempted the Norwegians, and for which they are rightly famous.
My own addiction is a good deal more convenient and lies in simply reading about explorers as they conquer wilderness. This literary genre saves me a good deal of bother, and allows me to imagine me all the energy-sapping coldness I need. A little ski round a lake is one thing...tackling Hardanger quite another. I have decided that reading about the exploits of others as I rest my aching ski-muscles by the fire is considerably less arduous than the hardships people like Nansen and Amundsen had to endure.
But those are stories are for another day.
Posted by Returning Scot at 15:42