Excerpt from The Northern Lights by Lucy Jago, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Northern Lights

The True Story of the Man Who Unlocked the Secrets of the Aurora Borealis

by Lucy Jago

The Northern Lights
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    Sep 2001, 320 pages
    Oct 2002, 320 pages

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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.

From The Northern Lights: The True Story of the Man Who Unlocked the Secrets of the Aurora Borealis, by Lucy Jago. © September 25, 2001, reprinted by permission of the publisher, Knopf.

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