Writers don’t do much, do they? It’s others who have the adventurous lives. This was brought home to Amanda Mitchison recently when she had the slightly eerie experience of speaking to someone who is, very nearly, a character out of one of her own novels. This might sound odd but she can explain.
A couple of years ago I wrote a children’s adventure story called Mission Telemark. The novel is based on true events – on the extraordinary exploits of some Norwegian agents who the Allies parachuted into the Telemark region of occupied Norway in the winter of 1942. They were bound on a secret sabotage mission to prevent Hitler from being able to making an atomic bomb.
Their adventure involved extreme feats of courage and endurance. The agents had to ski across the frozen, arctic wastes of the Hardanger mountain plateau. Then, after months living in a tiny wooden summer hut in the mountains and surviving off reindeer meat, they scaled cliffs by night and launched their attack on Vemork power station where ‘heavy water,’ an essential ingredient for making nuclear weapons, was being manufactured. The mission was successful – Hitler’s heavy water supplies were destroyed and, amazingly, no one was killed or seriously wounded.
This extraordinary raid gave me the bones for a wonderful adventure story. The setting also gave me the opportunity to be a bit nerdy about snow holes and different models of Second World guns and vintage spying aides, such as watches that were really compasses and dead rats stuffed with explosives. (During WW the British really did manufacture explosive rats).
But in order to make a satisfying read for children I also took some liberties with the real story. In particular, I included a girl in the mission. (Why should boys have all the adventures?) I made my girl character – she is called Ase – small, dark, fierce and incredibly fiery. She is also very brave and, being a competition gymnast, keeps ferociously fit. When confronted with a bear, she just does a back flip to discombobulate the animal.
Then, this week, an equally redoubtable but REAL female with a similar taste for adventure bounced into my life. I’ve been speaking to Lucy Shepherd, a film production student at York University, who was the only woman to take part in a trip earlier this year which retraced the route taken by the original Telemark heroes. The group, headed by ex SAS captain Neil Laughton, spent nine days skiing across the frozen Hardanger plateau and camping in minus 20 degrees centigrade. They were raising money for the Royal Marines Charitable Trust.
Lucy describes herself as ‘enthusiastic, tenacious and driven.’ She is tall and blond and doesn’t, of course, look at all like my Ase. But, just like my character, Lucy is extremely fit (she thinks nothing of running 10 miles around York) and enjoys physically arduous, high adrenalin experiences. She has skied exactly the same route that I wrote of in my novel. She has visited the same huts, and experienced the same cold. Of course, compared with the original Telemark heroes and my adventurers, some things have been easier and safer for Lucy and her companions – there aren’t German soldiers hunting them down and the group travelled with sat nav, ration packs, and avalanche probes.
But other elements of the journey have remained very much the same. For days and days Lucy lived in the same clothes, putting her boots (in her case just the boot liners) into her sleeping bag every night and peeing into bottles when it was too cold to go out.
On the journey Lucy tells me she heard the terrible bellowing sound of a lake of ice cracking beneath her, an experience Ase undergoes in my novel. Lucy also had to climb hills of soft snow pulling a sledge and feeling it trying to tug her back down the slope. She even tasted ‘reindeer moss’ –the semi-digested stomach contents of a dead reindeer which was a food the Telemark saboteurs relied upon for vitamin C.
Most people can’t describe the experience of eating reindeer moss without swearing, but Lucy just murmurs, ‘It’s like off cheese, or off yoghurt.’
I ask her what surprised her most about her trip. I’m expecting her to remark on the horribleness of having your nose run and turn into a mini glacier on your upper lip. Or maybe she will tell me about the about the awfulness of reconstituted food? But Lucy rises above the indignities of arctic living conditions. She says, ‘I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. Cross country skiing in good weather is lovely.’
Next year Lucy is hoping to join an expedition to take wounded service men and women paramotoring (that means paragliding with an engine on your back ) from Mount Kenya to Mount Kilimanjaro.
Hats off to her.
Mission Telemark is now available in paperback 978-1406345377 published by Walker Books at £6.99.