During the winter of 1880–1881, snow falls day and night for eighty days. The fierce winter begins in October and does not end until April. The settlers have to build tunnels in the snow to travel outdoors, and many people die from famine as their food and fuel supplies run out.
One night, Hans Olsa goes outside to care for his cattle during a snowstorm. He is unable to find his way back to the house in the blizzard, so he stays in the shed with the animals to keep warm and falls asleep. When he wakes up, he notices that he is frostbitten and realizes that he must find his way home. With much difficulty, Hans staggers back to his house.
Sorine tries frantically to do everything she can to help Hans, but he fails to recover and develops a severe cough. When the blizzard abates, their daughter Sofie tells Per Hansa that her father is very sick. Per fetches an Irish woman who knows home remedies to help Hans. The woman prepares poultices for Hans, and everyone hopes that he will improve. Per tells Tonseten about Hans's illness. Tonseten visits Hans and tries to cheer him up, but Tonseten fears the worst when he sees how sick Hans looks.
Beret comes over to help Sorine take care of the house and Hans. Beret feels disgusted by Tonseten's unseemliness in the face of death. That night, she sits by Hans's bedside. When he awakes, she tells him that he must prepare himself for death. Her words make him uncomfortable, but she considers it her duty as his childhood friend to make sure that he enters heaven. At last, Hans suggests that someone could fetch a doctor for him, but Beret suggests that someone get a minister instead. Later, Per comes to see Hans, whose condition remains serious. Hans asks Per to help Sorine and the kids after he passes away, and dread seizes Per as he looks at Hans. Hans continues to ask about the weather, and he finally admits to Per that he would like someone to fetch a minister.
When Per tells Beret that Hans wants a minister, she tells him that he must do so right away, because without a minister Hans will die in sin. Per laughs at Beret, saying that a man as good as Hans will surely get into heaven. Per tells his wife that a trip in this fierce weather is impossible, but she continues to insist that he fetch the minister. Per storms out of the house, furious with Beret's unreasonable demands.
Sorine comes and tells Per that Hans has no hope for recovery. She begins to plead that Per find some way to get the minister, as he has the strength to do anything, even make a journey in a storm. That evening, Per and Beret scarcely speak to one another. When Beret tauntingly tells Per that she will fetch the minister herself, he flies into a rage and then leaves.