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The Last Viking

Norwegian cross-country skier Vegard Ulvang has won Olympic gold before and most likely will again. That's the easy part of his life

It is early December, and Norway's greatest Olympic hero, cross-country skier Vegard Ulvang, sits in a tiny hotel bar in the Dolomite Alps of Italy, where he is training at high altitudes with the Norwegian team. He speaks calmly about the tragedy that shattered his world less than two months before. On Oct. 13 his older brother, Ketil, who was also Vegard's best friend, disappeared while running home at dusk in high winds and falling snow across a low mountain outside their hometown of Kirkenes, which is 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle and just eight miles west of the Russian border. Ketil has not been seen since.

"I was here in Italy when word came, and then I was home for three weeks searching on skis, 50, 60 kilometers every day," says Vegard. "Ketil had run this mountain 100 times maybe, and we don't know what went wrong. An accident and he couldn't move? Hit a rock? Broke his leg? Hit his head? Fell in a lake? We had helicopters, dogs, heat-seeking lasers, hundreds of searchers, sometimes thousands. We took all the most possible routes from Point A to Point B, and we found nothing. It was very hard both physically and mentally—very hard."

When he pauses, he is asked how he thinks this might affect him during Norway's own 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. "It's strange," he says. "For an athlete the Olympics means having a deep concern about the small details of his physique—small muscles, small sore throats, small blisters, small aches. I was here in Italy, concentrating completely on these details, when I heard about Ketil. I went home, and for those three weeks I didn't think for one second about the Olympics or the details of my physique. In truth, at that time the Games became such a lesser event in my life that they didn't exist at all."

If Ketil's death lessened the significance of the Olympics in Vegard's mind, it has only served to increase the Norwegian public's fascination with Vegard. "The interest in Norway in me and this Olympics is crazy," he says. "People follow me every step I take. The pressure can be felt at all times."

Given the passion with which Norwegians worship any champion in their national sport of cross-country skiing, it's not farfetched to wonder whether this athlete from the farthest northeast corner of the Norwegian Arctic has become the most famous man his country has ever known. The editor of Ulvang's hometown newspaper says, "Well, no, not when you think of Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Grieg." A taxi driver in Oslo says, "Well, no, I believe our kings all were a little more famous than Vegard."

But all the Ibsens, Griegs and Olafs will, at least temporarily, vanish into obscurity in the adoring eyes of 4.3 million Norwegians if Ulvang wins a gold medal next month. And if he ends up with more than one—say, he gets three golds and a silver, as he did in the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville—Norwegian history will have to be recast to include a new hero whose reputation approaches not only those of writers and kings, but also those of Norway's legendary Viking warriors and arctic explorers.

The 30-year-old Ulvang is the epitome of the Norwegian dream in which rugged individualism overcomes a hostile climate. When he is not skiing, he lives a life of high-risk adventure that few men have ever been fit enough or brave enough to try.

He has crossed Greenland on skis, climbed the highest mountain peaks on three continents, traversed Outer Mongolia on a horse, canoed in Whitewater rivers of Siberia and braved the bullets of Sarajevo to bring financial aid and moral encouragement to that blood-soaked former Olympic city. With Ketil and a friend he has skied Alaska's treacherous Mount Denali (a.k.a. McKinley); on that trip—in an agonizingly ironic episode—he rescued his brother after Ketil plunged through thin ice on an arctic lake.

In sum, Ulvang is at work on a life only a legend could live, and the epic quality of it elevates him above mortals who happen to win Olympic gold. This includes teammate Bj‚àö‚àèrn Daehli, 26, who also came home from Albertville with three golds and a silver and may do even better in Lillehammer than Ulvang. It includes his longtime nemesis and traveling companion in Siberia and Mongolia, Vladimir Smirnov, 29, the former Soviet competitor now skiing for his native Kazakhstan, who took two silvers and a bronze in 1988, followed last year by two silvers and a bronze at the world championships in Falun, Sweden.

"Vegard is a little bit more special than some of us," Daehli says. Pierre Gay-Perret, a Chamonix-trained mountain guide who introduced Ulvang to climbing on France's Mont Blanc in 1989, and made both the trans-Greenland trek and the Mount Denali ascent, speaks with awe of his friend: "He is always interested in everything, not only sports. He can speak to the king, he can speak to newspapermen. He lives in flat country, yet he has the mountaineer's foot. It is difficult to find any man with so many interests. His parents did this for him, I think."

Vegard's father, Arne, and his mother, Ingrid, are school-teachers in Kirkenes—he teaches history and Norwegian, she taught physical education before retiring. Both possess a passion for nature and the outdoors that they passed on to their three children—all sons. Ketil was two years older than Vegard, who is two years older than Morten, who is now 28 and works as an administrator of fire, police and ambulance services in Kirkenes.

To hear his local admirers tell it, Vegard could have been another kind of champion had he chosen a different sport. Herbert Randal, president of the Kirkenes ski club and owner of a sporting goods store, recalls, "I've known Vegard since he was newborn. If he had started orienteering early, he'd be the best in Norway. He was a good footballer, a very good gymnast. His brothers were good, too—Ketil was one of the 100 best cross-country ski racers in Norway, and Morten was the fastest skier of the three, but he saw how hard Vegard trained and decided not to do that."

Though there is plenty of snow around Kirkenes from September to May, choosing to be a ski champion there is not easy. During most of December and January all is darkness, except for an eerie twilight that begins in midmorning and ends before 2 p.m. During those weeks the streetlights burn all the time and no one drives without headlights. Serious young ski racers have two choices for intensive cross-country training: use a lighted ski track on the outskirts of town or strap on a headlamp and charge across the desolate tundra and low-shouldered mountains outside town. The Ulvangs did both.

It used to be said that Kirkenes was too flat, cold and dark to produce world-class cross-country racers, but, Randal says, "Vegard turned all of that completely around. He said, 'We have more winter than anyone, so therefore this is the best place for ski racing on this earth, not the worst.' And then he proved it."

It took awhile for proof to appear. Although Ulvang started in World Cup competition late in the winter of 1984, it was not until 1989 that he won his first race—a 15-kilometer classic (as opposed to a race in which the radical skating, or freestyle, technique was permitted). He went on that year to win another event, which just happened to be the Super Bowl of cross-country races, the 50-kilometer classic at the Holmenkollen in Oslo.

Why did he need so much time to become a winner? "I had a lot to learn," says Vegard. Arne, wise teacher that he is, spoke philosophically of his son's early career: "Winning or not, he was always among the very best in the world. In the American culture finishing first is emphasized over everything else. Norwegians are not like that. We get satisfaction from being among the best."

In 1990 Vegard went winless but nonetheless earned the overall World Cup title. Then he won one event in '91 and followed that with his stunning Olympic performance in '92 on the relatively high-altitude courses of Les Saisies. In superb shape for thin-air competition after training in Italy, he nailed golds in the first two races—the 30-kilometer and 10-kilometer classics—then had a hand in his country's victory in the 4 x 40-kilometer relay and came in second in the 15-kilometer freestyle.

Norwegians may not emphasize finishing first, but they don't get mad when one of their countrymen does just that. After Ulvang's second gold there was singing and dancing in the cold, twilight streets of Kirkenes. "It was like Rio de Janeiro," says editor Randi Fl‚àö‚àètten-Andreassen, who put out the first ekstra of the thrice-weekly local newspaper, S‚àö‚àèr-Varanger Avis, since 1958, when some Norwegian spies had been caught in the region leaking NATO secrets to the Russians across the nearby border. Ulvang put Norway into a rapturous state that was prolonged by Daehli's three victories, which gave the Norwegian men an astounding sweep of cross-country gold. Ulvang was nicknamed the Terminator by CBS and even was taped doing a Schwarzenegger imitation in which he growled, "Hasta la vista, baby." The businessmen of Kirkenes gave him a summer cottage in the mountains, and SAS renamed one of its planes Vegard Viking.

Previously, Vegard had indicated a distaste for the Vikings. "They were not nice," he said. "The Vikings were uncivilized, and they killed a lot of people. I'm not so sure we should be considering them as role models." But he thawed in the warmth of national adoration and says now, "Oh, well, they weren't all bandits. Some were probably nice enough."

After Ulvang's gold rush, the Norwegian media began to dig around in his private life, and they were amazed at what they found. He had always been known for his myriad outdoor pursuits, but it turned out that he was operating on a totally different scale. In the summer of 1989, he went climbing on Mont Blanc, at 15,771 feet the highest peak in Western Europe. His guide was Gay-Perret, and for eight days they trekked on skis, attaching skins to climb snowy inclines.

Ulvang was hooked on mountains. "We have nothing in Kirkenes higher than 500 meters," he says. "It is so flat that we must go far away if we want to climb." In the summer of 1990, Vegard, Ketil and Gay-Perret went far away indeed—to Denali, at 20,320 feet the highest peak in North America. Gay-Perret, who had climbed Denali solo three years before, says, "It was so tough, I wasn't sure about them. They had no experience, they were from outside the mountains." The trio approached from the north—"the tourists' route," says Vegard—and made the summit after 11 days. Then the party followed the relatively unused south descent. "We were quite alone, me and my brother and Pierre," says Vegard. It took seven days to get to the edge of Wonder Lake. "We were tired after so many days on the mountain, and we were hurrying. We went onto the ice, checking every 100 meters or so with an ice axe. My brother went 20 meters ahead of us. Then he fell through the ice."

Ketil calmly removed his skis, laid them across the hole in the ice and leaned his arms on them for support. Standing on solid ice, Vegard tied a climbing rope to Gay-Perret and then tried skating out to his brother. Before he reached him, the ice broke, pulling both men in. They scrambled out and back to shore, then Gay-Perret pushed himself out on skis, only to have the ice break again. After he got out, Vegard tied a stone to the rope and tossed it across the ice to Ketil, who was able to slip the rope around his arm. As Vegard pulled, the ice under Gay-Perret broke again, and he went in again. Vegard pulled them both out through jagged ice, although by now Ketil was slipping into shock.

"This all took 15 minutes," recalls Gay-Perret, "and Ketil could not have stood another minute in the water." Ketil remained unconscious despite attempts to revive him and seemed to be succumbing to hypothermia, so Gay-Perret dashed for an old gold-mining village at the end of the lake. "I ran like hell and I got to the village and I saw a guy on a mountain bike," says Gay-Perret. "But I was a little crazy from freezing in the water, and I thought he was a big black bear. I was scared as hell until I realized, No, it's a guy on a bike. My face was bleeding from where the sharp ice pieces had cut it, so I guess maybe he was as scared as I was." The cyclist called the park rangers, and they sent in a helicopter for Ketil, who by then had been revived by Vegard.

The following summer Vegard and Gay-Perret set out to cross Greenland on skis via the 570-kilometer route that had been followed by Norway's first superstar polar explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, when he and his party of five became the first people to traverse the frozen island, in 1888. The sensation of traveling over the immense, empty terrain gave Ulvang an odd thrill: "The special feeling is you know there is nothing but changeless glacier for 300 kilometers in all directions. Except north, and there it goes for 4,000 kilometers or more. I have never felt so small, never."

But why—why—did he make this exhausting trip over terrain that quite literally numbs the mind? "I went," says Ulvang, "because it made me just one experience richer."

The next enriching undertaking, in the summer of 1992, was of monumental proportions: an expedition with a group of wealthy and adventurous Norwegians to climb the highest peaks on five continents. The mountains targeted were Denali, Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet) in Tanzania, Puncak Jaya (16,500) in New Guinea, Elbrus (18,510) in Russia and Aconcagua (22,834) in Argentina. Because of travel delays, mistiming and bad weather, the group made just three summits—Kilimanjaro, Puncak Jaya and Elbrus—but Aconcagua, with its notoriously violent winter climate, produced a thrilling close call.

The summit of Aconcagua had only been reached a dozen or so times in cold months before these Norwegians tried to attain it that May. The climb went well to about 16,600 feet, where Ulvang and Odd Eliassen were selected to make the final charge to the top. The weather was calm when they started but viciously cold, at -40°F. At about 19,000 feet, Eliassen feared he had frozen his toes and returned to the lower camp. Ulvang, still a novice climber, went on alone.

"At 22,000 feet a terrible storm came in," he recalls. "I was only 800 feet from the top, but the wind became too strong to stand upright. I began crawling on all fours toward the summit. Then the wind blew even stronger, and the snow and fog became so heavy I couldn't see. I knew there were very steep falls on the south side of the summit. I turned to go down. The new snow was up to two meters deep as I went lower. Avalanche danger was getting bigger by the minute."

He descended in the blinding blizzard to 16,600 feet and joined the rest of the party, and they skied first to the bottom of the mountain and then another 20 miles back to civilization.

Last summer Ulvang's adventures were only slightly less melodramatic: He and Smirnov traveled across Mongolia and wound up held by police for a few days because of a mix-up over the whereabouts of a guide. Then in September, Ulvang left training in Italy and took a United Nations plane into Sarajevo as a representative of Olympic Aid, a Lillehammer-based program to contribute funds to worthy causes in troubled countries. To his amazement, the uniform he had worn in Albertville brought almost $10,000 in an auction in Norway to help finance a Red Cross hospital in the ravaged Bosnian capital. When Ulvang went to the hospital for the dedication, he was stunned by the horror. "My god, they were firing shells at us even as the dedication went on," he says. "The hospital was next to the Olympic Stadium, and I was shocked that it has been all but destroyed, and the floor where they had the opening ceremonies is a graveyard. Every life in Sarajevo seemed to be shattered."

He had no way of knowing that his own life would be shattered only weeks after his return from Sarajevo.

Ketil, a physical therapist, was a smiling blond man with a lean, athletic body. On Oct. 13 he had visited the school in Bugoynes, about 80 kilometers from Kirkenes, to give the students advice and instruction on everything from proper posture to fitness training. He rode back toward Kirkenes in a car with two other physiotherapists and got out in the village of Neiden, where he visited a young skier to deliver a training program and speak briefly with her father, saying he expected to reach his house outside Kirkenes in time to watch the Norway-Poland World Cup elimination soccer game on television that night. The father said to Ketil, "Don't go," adding lightly, "there are bears up there." Ketil got back in the car, then hopped out near Munkeneset, which is about 25 kilometers from where he and his girlfriend lived. His two colleagues knew he was planning to run home from there, and they watched in the rearview mirror as he strapped on a belt with a drinking bottle on it, and then they drove on to Kirkenes. The wind was blowing hard, it was snowing a bit and the temperature was just below freezing.

When Ketil was last seen, it was about an hour before dark. The trip over the 300-meter-high mountain to his home was about 25 kilometers and should have taken less than two hours. There was no track to follow; Ketil could have taken any number of routes through the sparse trees, since he had done it many times, as often in the dark as not. He wore a wool cap, a wool jersey under a windbreaker, full-length training pants, running shoes and waterproof socks. He was in superb condition, capable of running steadily for 12 to 15 hours.

When he had not appeared at home by 8 p.m., his brother Morten, an uncle and a friend ran over the route Ketil most likely would have followed. On top of the mountain, they found tracks they were sure were Ketil's. The tracks were scattered over 1.5 kilometers, but they led to nothing. At about 9:30 p.m. the weather turned fierce, with howling winds and as much as two meters of snow in drifts on the mountain. The searchers built a big fire at the crest, hoping to give Ketil a beacon in the storm.

The next day word went out all over Norway that Ketil was missing. Hundreds of searchers arrived, including Vegard. Scuba divers plunged into lakes and ponds to see if Ketil had become disoriented and run onto thin ice by mistake.

Vegard and his family charged on skis and on foot through the trackless area, racking up mile after desperate mile, searching by day with binoculars and dogs, by night with head lamps and flashlights. They found nothing.

After four days the police said they had to stop searching because it was getting too costly. They had already spent two days beyond their usual limit in hunting for Ketil, presumably because he was Vegard's brother. Now Randal, president of the ski club, took charge of the search. "We advertised for people who might have knowledge of Ketil," says Randal. "We got 90 telephone calls from mystics and parapsychologists who said they could see him. We had 43 special dogs—volunteered free—searching the woods for 12 days. We had several hundred thousands of kroner sent here to pay for the search. We had businesses give their employees days off with pay to keep up the search. We also had calls from a few people who claimed they had seen a jogger on the road—a taxi driver said he'd seen a jogger wearing a drinking belt like Ketil's—and this opened a new line of search."

Perhaps Ketil had turned back from the mountain in the bad weather and begun to run home along the highway. But if so, what happened to him? This became the most sinister theory of all. Because of the proximity of the Russian border, the roads and some fingers of water from the Barents Sea near Kirkenes are used by bootleggers and smugglers. "It is all hypothetical," said Randal, "but some people think that Ketil was hit while he ran by some Russian criminal smuggling in a car and that he was then taken away and dumped in a grave in the forest or in the sea."

It was one of the biggest searches ever in Norway. Norway's most famous private detective, Ola Thune, who has solved some of the country's most puzzling crimes, was hired. He concluded that Ketil's death occurred on the mountain, not on the road.

Vegard isn't so sure: "The road theory is still possible, I think. It is very unusual for anyone to run on that road, and we have at least three people who say they saw a man that evening. But we don't know. Maybe we will never know." The search by family and friends did not wind down for three weeks, and Vegard, Morten and their parents were exhausted when it was halted in early November. Randal recalls, "People were angry, they were weeping when we stopped, but there was no more money. And there was no more hope. Maybe it was a criminal act by smugglers on the highway, but I think he fell in a lake. We have had other people lost up there, and we always find them—sometime."

The 5,000 residents of Kirkenes are a protective family, for they have suffered much together. As an iron-mining town in the early 20th century, Kirkenes was the center of labor violence and dissent. During World War II the town was bombed and burned by Soviet planes because of its occupying German garrison of 100,000 troops, who failed again and again to capture the U.S.S.R. port of Murmansk. During the cold war the people of Kirkenes experienced the tension of living a stone's throw from the only border in Europe shared by the Soviet Union and a NATO country. And there is the killing arctic presence: the darkness, the snow, the cold, the mourning for a neighbor lost just outside town.

Gay-Perret finds that these godforsaken environs are a source of great strength. "Vegard's power comes from here," he says solemnly. "When you live so far north, the families are really something. These are people from nature. They don't go to the cinema, they go to the mountain, to their cottage where they have no electricity. They have a sauna, they go jump in the snow afterward. They have a lake, they drill through the ice and catch fish, then build a fire and cook the fish. Not many places ever heard of life like this."

Back in Italy, Ulvang mourns his brother even as he labors to condition himself in the altitude of the Dolomites, and he wonders if the exhaustion of the loss will affect his performances in Lillehammer. "I feel physically quite strong, but we can only wait until the races begin," he says. His results thus far this World Cup season are not particularly encouraging: after four stages, Ulvang was in fifth place overall.

But for Ulvang the challenge of sustaining his legend with another harvest of Olympic gold is far less daunting than the heartbreaking mission he will soon face: "I will go home in the spring, and I will look for him until I find him."




When he isn't kayaking in Norway, Ulvang may be found hitting the heights in Mongolia with Smirnov (opposite, left).



After skiing to three golds in Albertville, Ulvang bundled off to Siberia for whitewater canoeing.



[See caption above.]



He has conquered the land and sea, so why not the air? Ulvang (red helmet) tried skydiving over Rena, Norway.



Ulvang has hung tough in the Alps (top) and in Greenland, which he skied across. "I have never felt so small, never," he said.



After Ketil (left) disappeared on Oct. 13, virtually the entire town of Kirkenes helped in the search, one of the largest in Norway's history. Helicopters, dogs and heat-seeking lasers were employed—to no avail.



[See caption above.]



The ride has been rough for Ulvang (here on his trip to Mongolia), who lost his best friend when his brother vanished.