Monica Kristensen is the crime queen of Svalbard
London, the 1980s: One click. Two clicks. Three clicks. Lord Snowdon takes just twelve exposures. Queen Elizabeth’s former brother-in-law is a world-famous portrait photographer for Vogue magazine and has taken iconic portraits of celebrities such as David Bowie and Lady Diana.
This is Monica Kristensen
Lives: Kongsvinger, Norway.
Family: Married to Arne Roy Solås, daughter Emma
Education: Majored in theoretical plasma physics, Master’s in Polar Administration, Doctorate in Applied Mathematics/Glaciology
Occupation: Author, polar researcher
Career: Led several polar expeditions. Headed MET Norway’s Forecasting Division of Northern Norway. Worked as a manager at mining company Kings Bay in Svalbard. Was Secretary-General of the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue and Head of the Norwegian Genetic Resource Council. Has published nine books.
Now he turns the camera on a beautiful Norwegian woman. She has no makeup and is wearing a rope and a giant polar fur from the British Museum. It’s heavy as lead and has the nauseating smell of old blubber. A husky has fallen asleep at the woman’s feet.
The blue-eyed, blonde haired woman is Monica Kristensen. She’s 38 years old, and has already earned a doctorate in glaciology and a major in theoretical plasma physics. She has just become the first woman to follow in Roald Amundsen’s footsteps to the South Pole. She is about to appear in the fashion bible Vogue.
Almost 30 years later, Kristensen has few wrinkles nor looks weathered by age. We meet on a cold and clear March day at the Holmenkollen Park Hotel. The snow sits heavy on Oslo’s roofs. The hotel is buzzing but nobody notices the polar researcher who once upon a time made headlines around the world when she led polar expeditions in the footsteps of the great Norwegian explorer.
“I feel so sorry for Roald Amundsen as I sit here,” she says, staring at photographs in the hotel’s Explorer suite of the first man to reach both the North and South Poles. Through the window of the suite, Kristensen looks down on the museum where Fram, the ship in which Amundsen sailed to Antarctica in 1910, is displayed.
She speaks with sensitivity and empathy about the Norwegian polar hero who disappeared in the Arctic in 1928, somewhere near Bear Island in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago. Amundsen was undertaking a rescue mission to search for missing polar colleagues. But just what happened to him and his crew is one of the last remaining mysteries of polar history.
This autumn, Kristensen is publishing a book about the final year of Amundsen’s life. “The book has a serious message,” she says. “It’s about how Norway treats its polar heroes. This small country has a hard time with its heroes and idols. It builds them up and then knocks them down.”
Since her polar exploring days, Kristensen has become a critically acclaimed crime writer. Her stories are about crime busting hero Knut Fjeld, the fictional District Governor of Svalbard, a place she clearly loves.
“There’s a feeling of being close to outer space there,” she says. “All the phenomena of the skies are so close. The Northern Lights may look better in Tromsø, but Svalbard has a better setting. There’s something about the light, the darkness, the shadows, the loneliness, and the animals. Svalbard is its own country, where nature characterizes and rules the people. Not the other way around.”
Kristensen got to know Svalbard through her work there as a climate researcher. She was also a director of the Kings Bay mining company, which is based at Ny Ålesund on Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard Archipelago. Over time, she gradually came to understand her true calling. “Through my writing I want to explain Svalbard to people,” she says. “The light. The loneliness. The magic. The feeling of being so close to outer space.”
Kristensen was in Svalbard in the early 1980s, just after graduating in glaciology, when the Norwegian cold war thriller Orion’s Belt was filmed there. Around this time she also worked on a documentary about the 1962 tragedy at Kings Bay in which 21 miners were killed in an explosion. Its repercussions brought down the government of Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen.
She quickly realized that all the elements of a crime series could be found on the frozen mountain slopes of Svalbard. Including the fear of being attacked by polar bears. The possibility that emergency aid will arrive too late if anything happens to you. The cold that sneaks in under your clothes and grabs you suddenly like an eagle’s claw. The chance that someone might disappear without a trace in the abandoned mining shafts.
“The unique thing about Monica Kristensen’s Svalbard series is that she’s able to incorporate all of her scientific background and her tremendous expertise in the polar region elegantly and easily in a series of classic thrillers,” says Kristensen’s literary agent, Anneli Høier of Copenhagen.
As well as having a rational scientific sensibility, Kristensen also has what could be described as a spiritual connection to Svalbard. She says that she has “sensed God” in the endless icy wilderness.
“I remember being on an expedition to Antarctica and a Benedictine monk on the ship wanted to know how it felt to be in the magical land, where there is almost no life,” she recalls. “I told him about an expedition to Svalbard and how after a month of scientific experiments at night and sleeping during the day, you get so sensitive to all sensory input that you become tremendously in awe of nature.
“For me, the universe is never quiet. It hums. If you ever go to Ny Ålesund on Svalbard in the summer, you’re sure to hear the universe humming loudly. It’s like a smile across the whole landscape.”
‘There’s something about the light, the darkness, the shadows, the loneliness, and the animals’
But it hasn’t all been smiles for Kristensen. In Antarctica on Boxing Day 1993, an accident occurred that changed her life.
She was on her third expedition to find Amundsen’s tent, which had been abandoned by the Norwegian legend and was now somewhere under the ice near the South Pole. Once located, the tent was to be displayed at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer a few months later.
The whole of Norway was following the search, giving both encouragement and criticism. “Turn back before it’s too late!” and “Leave the tent where it is!” were just some of the newspaper headlines.
The expedition team had narrowed down the location of the tent to the nearest hundred meters, when Kristensen, sitting among the Christmas decorations in a cotton tent, received a shocking message: Two colleagues had fallen into a crevasse over 600km away. One was rescued after six hours, but the head of logistics, Jostein Helgestad, died.
“It was absolutely horrible for everyone,” she says. “I was terribly sorry for many years. Although it wasn’t anyone’s fault,
I felt that the responsibility was mine as the expedition leader. If anyone was to blame, then it would have to be me.”
Kristensen never found the tent. She didn’t go on any more expeditions. Instead, she began to write. But her place in polar history is secure. “Monica was the first of our time to resume the proud Norwegian tradition of traveling to Antarctica and walking to the South Pole,” says Norwegian polar explorer and author Erling Kagge. “Since then, dozens of Norwegians have set themselves the target of getting there. She was a pioneer.”
She has also enjoyed great international success in her crime-writing career. Her stories have been translated into eleven languages. “It’s absolutely amazing to be doing so well,” she says. “It was especially fantastic to have been nominated for the best crime novel translated into Swedish last year. I was in the company of heavyweights such as Paula Hawkins, Nic Pizzolatto, and Karin Slaughter. I also have to say that it’s an honor to be published in Sweden by Leopard, Henning Mankell’s publisher.”
Kristensen calls herself a discoverer of nature, always wanting to delve into the unknown. “When I was young, I didn’t realize that I could have chosen an easier path. But I have no regrets. Becoming a writer is the best thing I’ve done. It’s changed the direction of my life.”
By Kristin M. Hauge
Published: May 16, 2016