LOST IN A BLINDING whiteout on a frigid day in 1896, encrusted in ice, the two Norwegian brothers finally stopped skiing. Disoriented and directionless, Roald and Leon Amundsen decided to bivouac. They dropped their immense backpacks, stepped out of their seven-foot-long skis, and began burrowing into a snowdrift.
After digging two cramped holes side by side, like shallow graves, they crawled into reindeer-hide sleeping bags. They were shivering terribly. It was January in the mountains of southwestern Norway, when snow and wind, darkness and biting cold—the wolves of winter—conspire to kill the unprepared. Having skied for three weeks to traverse the 100-mile-wide Hardangervidda Plateau, wandering in blizzards and bivouacking repeatedly, they were thin and weak. Their stove was inoperable, and they hadn’t had food for two days.
During the night, blankets of snow piled up on them, at first muffling the sound of the roaring wind, eventually extinguishing it. The moisture from the brothers’ slow breathing iced the interiors of their snow holes. The snow’s weight nearly cemented their bodies in place. They were almost buried alive.
The next day, when 23-year-old Roald woke up, he found himself encased in ice, unable to move. But Leon, 25, having kicked off the snow through the night with berserk exertion, was able to escape. Only the tips of his brother’s boots were still visible. Leon dug frantically for more than an hour, pulling Roald out just before he asphyxiated.
Later that day, the brothers skied south off the Hardangervidda. Frozen and hungry, they found their way to Mogen, a cluster of log cabins on the northern edge of a body of water called Vinjefjorden.
“They were saved by a farmer just over there,” says Kjersti Wøllo, sliding homemade reindeer sausages onto my plate and pointing through a steamed window at the spot. Wøllo and her partner, Petter Martinsen, operate the cross-country ski hut at Mogen, which they’ve opened early, in March, just for us. My brother Steve and I have come to Norway to retrace the Amundsen brothers’ journey across the Hardangervidda, partly as a tribute to our heritage (our mother’s side of the family is Norwegian) and partly to better understand the courage and drive that made Amundsen unquestionably the greatest polar explorer of all time. Mogen is halfway along our ski route. For four days straight, we’ve been grinding into 60-mile-per-hour headwinds.
“Amundsen gave the farmer a compass for saving their lives,” says Wøllo, a classic Norwegian beauty in her thirties, whose hair is pulled back in a thick ponytail. “His great-grandson still has it.”
The attempt was Amundsen’s second at crossing the largest mountain plateau in Northern Europe; the first, in 1893, ended after a 40-below open bivouac in which he nearly froze to death. The Hardangervidda had turned out to be almost unconquerably cold and storm-whipped: the perfect polar prep school. Amundsen would later wryly recall that his ski traverse “was as strenuous and dangerous as any of my following trips.… [T]he training proved severer than the experience for which it was preparation, and it well-nigh ended the career before it began.”