Death in the Arctic

updated 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

VEGARD ULVANG WAS PUTTING UP A tent on the bank of the Munkelv River that runs near his hometown of Kirkenes, Norway, when he felt a chill of recognition. "I could see that my brother Ketil had packed the tent last fall when he went hunting with his girlfriend," says Vegard. "It was packed his own special way.

Vegard, 30, can find solace in such things now because the agonizing mystery of his brother's disappearance last October has finally been solved. Two weeks ago, Ketil Ulvang's body was found floating in a shallow lake some five miles from Kirkenes—a windswept village of 5,000 people 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle—ending what amounted to a national vigil. Eight months earlier, Ketil, 31, a physical therapist, had set out on a nine-mile run through falling snow near his home in Kirkenes and vanished without a trace. His disappearance sparked a search that involved the military and hundreds of volunteers from all over the country, urged on by banner headlines in local newspapers that read: "Help Us Find Ketil."

Why such lavish attention? Because Ketil was the brother of the man the media calls Vegard the Viking, the cross-country skier who won three gold medals at the '92 Olympics and became an embodiment of the country's Nordic pride. "I am glad that we found him finally," says Vegard, whose story was featured in CBS TV's Olympic coverage, "and know what happened to him. But it was still very hard to find him. Our family has never had any accidents. We have never had any experience with death."

On Oct. 13, Ketil was returning with two other physiotherapists from giving a lecture on fitness training to schoolchildren in a nearby town when he popped out of the car and said he was going to run home. The wind was blowing hard and the temperature dropping when he look off over the 1,000-foot mountain outside Kirkenes. When he failed to show up, his younger brother Morten, 29, began to worry; they had planned to watch Norway in a World Cup soccer qualifying game that evening. Morten went out looking for Ketil, building a bonfire on the mountain to show him the way home. At 10 p.m., he called the police.

The next day the news that Ketil was missing spread across the country. Vegard, who had been training in Italy, returned home and joined the search. Hundreds of volunteers and soldiers covered 125 miles of rugged terrain on skis and snowmobiles, even as a helicopter whirred above and specially trained dogs sniffed through deep drifts.

"I had been training for three years with Lillehammer as my goal," says Vegard, who missed a month of training for the '94 Olympics and ended taking just one silver medal. "But when I heard that my brother was missing, Lillehammer had no meaning. I spent one month looking for him, and I didn't think about the Olympics at all, not even one day."

Vegard, though, expected the worst. He feared that Ketil had been killed by a hit-and-run driver who hid the body or devoured by an animal. "Many reindeer are killed," he says, "and all we find is their skeletons. That's what I was prepared to find."

By mid-November, with daylight a mere two to three hours a day, the search was called off, and Ketil was presumed dead. For the next seven months, Vegard and Morten—and their father, Arne, 57, and mother, In-grid, 67—lived with unanswered questions. "All along," says Vegard, "I said that I didn't believe he had lost his way in the mountains, because he was born there and knows every stone."

Ketil's body was found just a day after police resumed the search. A helicopter spotted the red jacket Ketil was wearing when he disappeared. Thanks to the frozen water, his body was almost completely preserved. "I saw him, and he looked the way I knew him," says Vegard, who theorizes that Ketil, blinded by the snowstorm, had used overhead electrical wires as a guide and walked onto the thin ice of the lake. "I try to remember that this is nature. People come and go, like nature does."

Indeed, two days alter Ketil's body was found, his longtime girlfriend, Trine Saeternes, 29, gave birth to their baby: a 9-pound boy. The child was conceived just before Ketil disappeared—he never knew he was a father-to-be.

"It was a very special week," says Vegard. "We found Ketil on Sunday, the baby was born on Tuesday evening, and we had the funeral on Friday. The baby means a lot to us. It gives us something back."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
JOANNE FOWLER in Kirkenes

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