/ / / The Coldest Night

The Coldest Night

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December, 2009: We turn up in the Norwegian town long after bedtime, as the snow is just finishing. Tent poles are peering out of our small bags, and we look around at the darkened buildings dotted here and there. Sometime in the last half an hour of our journey, exhilaration from plains of frozen snow has turned into a speckle of hesitation, an unsure footstep onto an ice-flattened street.

Snow from days or weeks ago, scattered with dry grit, is still clinging to low rooftops. Pavements are covered by a fresh coat, obscuring afternoon shuffles and evening wanders. In the distance, to our north and our south, mountains gather up against the wind. The snow is clear and unbroken there.

“That way?” we dither and dather, and waddle in our layers towards the nearest coat of white, away from the very quiet and slightly sodden streets.

After a walk too short to be satisfying, like an afternoon hike that unexpectedly stops at the back of a building site, we come to an expanse of empty space. It is white and clear, and we take a step away from the path, and it comes up almost to the top of our winter boots. Another step comes to the knees.

Then it comes out, in dribs and drabs; the truth that we hadn’t recognised before. “I didn’t know there was going to be snow like this everywhere,” she said. “We can’t camp in snow. Not in this tent.”

“You didn’t?” I said, looking in confusion at the ground. “But it’s the middle of winter.” We hadn’t read any guidebooks before going, but I assumed snow was to be expected. “I didn’t know we couldn’t camp on snow,” I admitted. Until this day, I had never put up a tent. I had never really lain on snow, but I had expected it to pack solid under our bodies.

“How are we going to put down the tent pegs?”

“Oh.” I gazed around, hoping the bare trees would sprout bountiful answers.

We unsurely inched along the small stretch of land, looking quizically at an underpass lit by a dim street light. Was this a bed? The edges of the path were hard granite that gave way to solid snow. Small and welcoming chalets twinkled in the darkness; on inspection, it was only the reflected light from the street lamps that lured us in.

Making small circles back in the centre of town, we wandered into the empty first level of a car park to find facilities. An old and unused car exit, half snowed over, gave a wide view out onto the distant mountains. After laughter and discussion, we unroll our sleeping mats here, pressing our sleeping bags around our bodies and reluctantly removing only one snow-sprinkled layer from our bodies.

We huddle close. No cars pass. No wind whistles.

I am mad, I thought as I drifted in and out of a cold sleep; I am mad. Yet how bizarre, how incomprehensible, that a sleep on a cold snow drift with a view of the frozen stars could be my most memorable night in a lifetime of warm and comfortable evenings.