from Chapter 1
14 October 1899
Finnmark, Northern Norway, within the Arctic Circle
It is true of the northern lights, as of many other things of which we have no sure knowledge, that thoughtful men will form opinions and conjectures about it and will make such guesses as seem reasonable. But these northern lights have this peculiar nature, that the darker the night is, the brighter they seem, and they always appear at night but never by day, and rarely by moonlight. They resemble a vast flame of fire viewed from a great distance. It also looks as if sharp points were shot from this flame up into the sky, they are of uneven height and in constant motion, now one, now another darting highest; and the light appears to blaze like a living flame . . .
-kongespeilet (The King's Mirror), c. 1220-30, Norse epic
It was ten in the morning and -25° Celsius when the group left the small mining town of Kaafjord for the summit of Haldde Mountain, Haldde being a Lappish word for "guardian spirit." The cold should have scattered the clouds but halfway to the top the wind engulfed the men in blinding eddies of snow and ice. Their guide, Clement Isaakson Hætta, was a Lapp who had abandoned the traditional activity of herding reindeer to become the local postman serving the few Norwegians, Swedes, and immigrant workers from Finland, the Kvens, living in this northerly outpost. Short, with bandy legs, he bent his body at the hips into a right angle and pushed on through the storm like a swaying battering ram. Firmly wrapped around his wrist were the leather reins of the leading reindeer that was struggling to pull a sled piled high with a bizarre cargo of instrument boxes, trunks, and tripods. Seven reindeer, similarly yoked, were lashed behind the leader, and roped to them were five huddled figures.
Directly behind Hætta was the instigator of the expedition, Kristian Olaf Birkeland. He yelled to the guide above the screeching wind wanting to know whether it was safe to continue. He could not hear the response, as the storm scrambled Hætta's words and Birkeland was partly deaf from conducting noisy radio-wave experiments as a student. Festooned with reindeer skins, he appeared shorter than his five feet five inches. Only thirty-one years old, he was already balding across the dome of his fine-boned scalp. The snow stuck to his round spectacles but he had long given up scraping ice off the lenses and instead squinted between the rims and his fur hood. This unlikely adventurer had been made a professor of Norway's only university one year previously. He was the youngest of his colleagues in the Faculty of Science and Mathematics, his prophetic genius as a scientist emerging in his twenties when he solved problems that had defeated some of the brightest minds in Europe. Despite his youth, Birkeland was not a fit man; he loathed physical hardship and was more accustomed to long hours in the laboratory, hunched over diagrams and experiments. It was a comment on his devotion to scientific discovery that he was stranded on a mountain in eighty-kilometer-an-hour winds that howled continuously.
The storm was worsening; the men had been walking for six hours and had covered a distance that would take only two in good conditions. The guide shuffled onward, chewing on black tobacco, damp wads of which he spat into the wind. To reach the summit of the mountain, and the hut that would provide them with shelter, it was necessary to leave the narrow plateau they were traversing and climb the exposed mountainside. The peak they were heading toward was engulfed in a mass of swirling snow and ice as dense as black smoke.
Roped behind a breathless Birkeland came Bjorn Helland-Hansen, a gifted student in the medical department of Christiania University who was training to be a surgeon. Talented in science as well as medicine, he had attended Birkeland's lecture course and been inspired to join him on this adventure. He had just celebrated his twenty-second birthday. Tied to him was Elisar Boye, a Latin scholar who had been the first to volunteer for the expedition, presenting himself just a few hours after Birkeland posted a notice on the boards in the main hall of the university, requesting strong and able science students for a unique expedition to the Arctic Circle. At first Birkeland had thought that a Latin graduate would be of little use to him on a scientific mission, but Boye explained that he had achieved the best mark possible in mathematics, and eventually Birkeland relented in the face of the young man's enthusiasm. Boye looked much younger than his twenty-two years, with a smooth, pale complexion and clear blue eyes, on this day hidden inside his reindeer hood. He had stopped trying to see where he was going through the lashing snow and simply followed the direction of the tugging rope. Behind Boye came Kristoffer Knudsen, a twenty-three-year-old telegraphic engineer who had been working for the Norwegian railway until Birkeland lured him away with promises of adventure and pioneering science. He did not know the other members of the group and was the quietest when they began the ascent. As the storm intensified, he retreated ever further into his jacket and squinted at the ground immediately before his feet through the hairs of his hood. The tallest in the party, Sem Sæland, brought up the rear. Just turned twenty-five, Sæland had studied mathematics, astronomy, physics, and chemistry at the university, then traveled to Iceland, where he spent a year teaching before returning to Christiania University for further studies. There he met Birkeland, and was so interested in the professor's ideas that he had volunteered to join him on his expedition. Sæland repeatedly checked the knot in the rope linking him to the others as the driving snow was so thick he could see no more than a few centimeters beyond his nose.
By four o'clock the light was fading. Hætta decided that they should turn round and head back down the mountain, but then immediately changed his mind, suggesting they continue to the hut as it could not be more than two kilometers away and it would be more difficult to go down than up. He cajoled and harried the reindeer, which would not face the wind and nervously shook their heads at the sharp points of ice pricking their eyes and noses. It was impossible to sit in the sleds as they lay so close to the ground that the men were pelted with ice and small stones. Soon some of the reindeer lay down flat and refused to move. Hætta, a large part of his face white with frostbite, followed their lead and threw himself onto his sled, declaring he could go no further and could not find the way forward. He told Birkeland to continue without him, keeping the wind in his face, but the professor knew that abandoning their guide would be a fatal mistake and told the group to make camp as best they could. Hætta crawled under his sled while the others dragged the remaining sleds and baggage to form a barricade, behind which they erected a low tent. They struggled into their reindeer sleeping bags with all possible haste while Helland-Hansen weighed down the guy ropes with boxes and trunks. By the time he entered the tent less than five minutes later, the tips of his fingers had turned white with frostbite.
For twenty hours the five men lay in the cramped tent. They rubbed Helland-Hansen's fingers every quarter of an hour in an attempt to bring them back to life, and almost as regularly one of the five men had to push snow from the roof of the tent to prevent the suffocation of all those inside. Wherever there was a little shelter the snow heaped into thick, compact drifts that would trap them in a freezing vise if allowed to settle. They had nothing to drink or warm themselves with, having been assured by Hætta that the ascent was a matter of six hours' gentle climbing with a short, steep section at the summit. Birkeland had half a loaf of bread in his jacket that he tossed to Hansen in the darkness, hoping some food might distract him from the pain in his hands, but the noise of the wind was so great that he did not hear Birkeland yelling to him to eat the bread, and it froze to the consistency of rock within a few minutes. Gradually the little light that glowed through the snow-filled air was extinguished by the black night that fell by five o'clock. Inside the tent Birkeland was painfully aware that only a thin strip of canvas trembled between them and the lethal storm outside; one fierce gust and it could be ripped off. Without the tent they would be unlikely to survive.
The men lay shivering in their sleeping bags, dozing fitfully through the night but being frequently awoken by particularly violent blasts of wind and ice or by hunger and thirst. They had put a bucket of snow inside the tent in the hope that it would melt with their body heat and they would have water to drink, but it remained frozen. Birkeland felt responsible for the safety of his talented charges who had followed him on this hazardous expedition. Aware that this area sometimes experienced week-long tempests of unbroken ferocity, he worried throughout the night about how they could survive if the storm continued the next day. Lying awake listening to the air howling through the mountain pass and over their tent, he waited for the slightest sign that the gale-force winds were easing.
At ten the following morning Birkeland untied one of the leather strings holding down the tent flap but could see no more than a meter ahead. Not until midday did the wind abate sufficiently to risk venturing out. Birkeland banged on Hætta's sled to make sure the postman was still alive. Hætta shouted in reply that he was too cold to move but Birkeland insisted that they take advantage of the lull. Camp was struck, the sleds reloaded, and a reluctant Hætta once again led the group onward. They had only a few hours of daylight left to make the ascent, and without food and water it was imperative they find the shelter.
As the six men trudged on, the snow finally stopped and only tiny ice crystals spun in the eddies of wind left behind by the fierce zephyrs now en route to central Finnmark, Kautokeino, and the Lapp reindeer camps of the plains. The clouds dispersed as quickly as they had arrived, and in the gathering twilight the Pole Star appeared, reassuring and constant. Without the cloud cover the cold intensified rapidly, and moisture frosted on their lips, while their breath trailed behind them in crystal plumes. The drifting snow made walking in boots impossible, so the men strapped small skis to their feet. The undersurface of the skis was covered in reindeer skin in such a way that gliding forward was easy but the hairs sticking in the snow prevented them from slipping backwards. Nearly two hours later they reached a gently sloping plateau at the foot of the summit. Hætta pointed to the top of the peak. In the deepening twilight the group could faintly discern the shape of a small building. The sky was almost dark and the final slope was littered with sharp, icy rocks and narrow crevices. The reindeer coughed and snorted with the effort of pulling the heavy sleds up the incline and the group stopped frequently to allow them to rest. At the steepest sections, the men put their weight behind the sleds and pushed with all their failing strength as the delicate-limbed reindeer slipped and scrabbled on the icy rocks and patchy snow. After twenty minutes of backbreaking struggle the exhausted group arrived at a small area of smooth snow, a ledge of flat ground at the base of the final peak. Above them stood their sanctuary, a black shape against an inky sky.
In the dark the men could discern a small stone building with wooden steps leading up to the doorway in a low tower. After struggling to crack away the ice that had sealed the door to the jamb, Birkeland managed to get inside. It was nearly seven o'clock by the time the stove was lit and a bucket of snow brought in to thaw. Hansen immersed his hands in it in the hope that the frostbite could still be reversed. The others unpacked the sleds and staggered up the slope with the boxes and bags.
As the last of the packages were carried in and Hætta tethered the reindeer, a crack appeared in the night. On the eastern horizon the darkness was splitting to reveal a gentle, tremulous luminescence-just a sliver, a streak. One by one the men stood still on the summit and stared at the vision appearing before them. The streamer of light began to move toward them in a huge arc across the heavens, pulsating and writhing as it advanced. The streak became a pennant with points of light coursing down in parallel lines like the strings of a harp, attached at one end to heaven and at the other to the sinuous curve of light as it crept from horizon to horizon. Then another bolt of the green-white light stretched out beside the first and both arced together. Even more wildly the strings were plucked and the shapes changed to the music-now curling, now forming great circles, then breaking again to roll away to join another arc of green-white light. No one spoke. The hairs on the backs of their necks stood up, as if awoken by static electricity. Birkeland understood for the first time why the Lights had defied neat explanation: they appeared not to belong to Earth but to space. Seemingly beyond human comprehension, they reached straight into the souls of those who witnessed them as an appearance of the angelic host or the Holy Spirit might do. The glowing banners in the sky were so entrancing that the group forgot the cold and remained outside, entering the hut occasionally to eat or drink but re-emerging to watch the breathtaking display dancing over their heads. Only Hortta did not look. He took the reins and bells off his animals and went into the hut without an upward glance.
For the Lapps, the Northern Lights were a fierce and powerful presence. They were the messengers of God, to be respected and feared. Hortta had removed the harnesses from the reindeer to avoid attracting their attention, for Lapps believed that whistling, waving handkerchiefs, or the sound of tinkling bells would provoke the Lights into attacking the offender. Stories abounded of Lapps who ignored this warning being struck down, their charred reindeer jackets remaining as a warning to others. The Lapps would chant a special rhyme repeatedly if they feared that they had angered the Lights:
The northern light, the northern light
Hammer in its leg
Birch bark in its hand.