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The Tracks of Heroes

Three U.S. veterans help commemorate the 80th anniversary of a World War II commando raid in Norway. By Mitch Utterback

“WHY ARE YOU DRAGGING that snow tire?” someone
asked me.

They missed the biathlon, roller skiing, orienteering, hut to hut trips, and backcountry skiing in Colorado’s White River National Forest we had already done.

“I’m training for a ski expedition across Norway to commemorate a World War II mission,” I replied.

“OK. Sounds cold. Good luck!” they said, sounding polite but confused.

In February 1943, Norwegian commandos overcame starvation, blizzards, and the German Army to accomplish one of World War II’s most audacious sabotage operations. The stakes could not have been higher–their mission was to disable a component of Hitler’s atomic weapons program and slow the progress on the Nazi A-bomb.

Eighty years later, we had plenty of cold, as well as good luck, when we cross-country skied from Vemork in southern Norway, east to the border with Sweden. Our 12-man international expedition of military veterans from the U.S., U.K., and Norway were retracing the route of the “Heroes of Telemark,” as they are often referred to, and known in Norway as the “Heavy Water Saboteurs.”

Books, miniseries, documentaries, and movies have told their story over the years. Most recently, the movie Oppenheimer made mention of Nazi Germany’s race for the atomic bomb and their need for something produced at the time only in Norway—heavy water.

British-trained Norwegian saboteurs parachuted into their homeland in late 1942 and early 1943, landing on the remote Hardangervidda—Norway’s desolate and forbidding mountain plateau. On the night of Feb. 27, 1943, nine of them skied down from the plateau, crossed a deep river gorge thought impassable by the enemy, and, after midnight, snuck into the factory at Vemork, where the heavy water was produced.

They blew up the facility and escaped before the Germans knew what had happened. Back on the Hardangervidda, they split up, five of them making for the border with neutral Sweden, 369 miles away. They all made it safely and soon reported back to England. Within months, they returned to Norway by parachute to conduct other secret missions against the German occupiers.

Our veteran group did not parachute in (unfortunately), but started our trek, organized by the Scottish adventure travel company SOE Expeditions (, inside the same room—now a museum, where the sabotage was conducted. From there, we climbed to the edge of the Hardangervidda, snapped into our skis and headed toward Sweden. Long days carrying or pulling our gear in subzero weather, were followed by nights in warm, dry huts—the same used by the saboteurs.

We slept outdoors the last night, and skied into Sweden in the morning, crossing the border at the same location the heroes did in March 1943.

We accomplished our goal to experience exhaustion, hunger, storms, and life-threatening cold like the saboteurs had. We went through it in their honor, but also for ourselves—to recall what it means to be a member of a small team, in difficult circumstances, focused on an objective greater than yourself—and succeeding.

—Mitch Utterback

Three U.S. veterans help commemorate the 80th anniversary of a World War II commando raid in Norway.

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