Land of the Midnight Senn

Stephen Senn

It was the court case of the decade in Tromso and the prosecuting counsel was enjoying playing to the gallery. He turned and shot the defendant a look that would have curdled reindeer milk. "So, Mr Jakobsen," he paused for dramatic effect, "where were you on the night of 23 November to 21 January?"

I told this joke on the course that I gave at the end of March at the University Hospital of North Norway in Tromso, and it got a laugh but let's be honest, when was the last time that you woke up of a morning and said "goody, goody, statistics"? Statistics was the subject of my course. If you are unfortunate enough to belong to the vast majority of mankind which does not find statistics the most exciting subject on earth then, anything by the way of light relief may be welcome. But in fact light relief, or the relief of light, was the point of the joke. I was explaining why I was there in March, somewhat later than invited.

Tromsdalstind from the hotel bedroom

This was the invitation

Dear Stephen
We would appreciate it very much if you were interested to visit Troms
Present plan is as follows, but we are of course open for any input:
Time: November or first part of December 2006
Duration: Altogether 2-3 days Target group: Researchers and clinicians working with Randomised Clinical Trials in Norway.
What can Tromso offer in November? It is the dark season, and it's quite fascinating. Northern lights (suggest 50% probability) There may be opportunities for skiing (suggest 50% probability), Troms by night is lively, can offer excellent fish meals (suggest 100% probability).

You have to admit it's a cunning invitation to a statistician. Describing the Northern lights, the fish and the skiing in terms of probability. You may say that 50% probability is not high. Have you tried skiing in Scotland? I'd take those odds anytime. But I am also not a fool. Tromso may be the Paris of the North and the nightlife may be famous but I had this sneaking suspicion that the reason they were so keen to have their statistics course in the dark of the long Polar night was that there was nothing better to do. "When should we have the statistics course? " "Why don't we have it in spring when the skiing conditions are perfect or in summer with the wonderful light?" So I replied

"Dear Sameline, Thanks for this. Hmm... Norway in the dark. Although I am a frequent visitor to Norway and have even been north of the Arctic Circle, that would be a new one for me."

Which is how we ended up with a course Monday 26 and Tuesday 27 March or nearly didn't. I had mentioned my ambition to climb Tromsdalstind (1238m), a magnificent mountain that dominates the views from Tomso. "So you want to go up Tromsdalstind? No problem," said Sameline. And she was as good as her word because on Saturday 24 March Sameline and I went up Tromsdalstind. Oh and did I mention the dog. She was called Molly.

Did I mention the dog?

The Friday had been a little taster. We had done a short tour to the west. Fantastic views and some wind. Easy I thought. No sweat. Who says that ski-touring is strenuous? I'll show these Norwegians a thing or two. We also have snow where I'm from. (No I don't mean Scotland, I mean Switzerland.) I should have known better. Pride comes before a fall or in my case, before a whole heap of falls.

Delicately, tenderly and with great trepidation we covered our first obstacle sheet ice in the car park. Then we were in the lift to the long shoulder of Tromsdalstind. We arrived just after 11:00. The conditions were perfect. OK. So I lied. They weren't perfect. There was a strong wind and the snow was crusty but there was snow everywhere from peak to sea and there was sunshine in abundance to light it. The views were stupendous. The mountain did not look far away. In the winter sunshine it looked positively enticing.

At least that's what I thought at 11:00 but by 14:30 having negotiated some surprisingly deep and hidden dips in the ridge we were following and the mountain still did not look far away. The trouble was that it didn't look much nearer then it did at 11:00. We stopped to have a late lunch. Two of us had been going well. Sameline was as fit as a fiddle. Did I mention the dog?

Approaching the summit. The view to the southeast.

At 16:15 we reached the summit. Did I mention the dog? The views were fantastic with fjords, sea, islands and a whole heap of mountains, including the Lyngen Alps in sight. However, a snell wind was blowing and there was a distinct look of late afternoon about the place. "Is it a homing sort of dog," I wondered, "a find its way in the dark sort of dog, a bring help if needed sort of dog, an unerringly finding collapsed party sort of dog or just a humiliating foreign tourists sort of dog?"

A steep slope of alternating ice and crust followed and it wasn't long before I had my first fall. Several falls later I was cursing under my breath. A few falls after that and it was good for the sake of international harmony that Sameline was now out of earshot.

Late afternoon and a long way from home.

Then crack. No not a bone, a ski-stick. "Great", I thought. "Night rushing on, I am on an Arctic mountain, with only one ski-stick and facing a re-ascent to reach the point at which I can descend to the valley. It's not one dog I need here but a whole pack of huskies, oh and a sledge." Sameline was unfazed. "Here, take my ski-stick I can manage with one." This was hard to swallow. Not the ski-stick, but my pride. We Swiss did not give women the vote until 1970 by which time Norway may have had a female president for all I know. Having to rely on a woman to get you out of trouble, not to mention skiing like an amateur, is humble pie for a Helvetian. I thought about it for at least one second and accepted.

It was just as well that Sameline led the way. That meant that she didn't have to worry about the holes in the snow at irregular intervals. Quite why is it I enjoy ski-touring? Sometimes I wonder. At last we were back at the car. Only the ice to negotiate. In the dark. Two of us seemed remarkably fit. Sameline was showing no sign of tiredness. One of us was dog-tired. Did I mention myself?

"What will you do tomorrow?" Sameline asked. "There's a nice ski-tour that you can do on the Troms island itself." "Aye right", I thought. "I'll check it out," I lied.

Sunday was devoted to a lot of sleeping. Nary a ski-tour in sight. Monday, the course started. It was blessed with a high degree of empathy. For once it was not just the students who were fighting sleep.

Just imagine if it had taken place in the dark.

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