Nigel Vardy: Mr Frostbite lives life to the full
There are some people who think Nigel Vardy is mad. How else would you describe someone who lost his fingers, toes and the end of his nose to frostbite and who has a fear of heights, yet still continues with his love of climbing.
But others regard Nigel as a role model, someone to look up to. And after spending an hour in his company I can honestly say he’s one of the most inspirational characters I’ve met.
Nigel’s fateful 1999 trip to Mt McKinley in Alaska has been told many times. It reveals his strength of purpose and determination to fight back after suffering horrendous injuries. It also shows that he refuses to believe experts who tell him “you can’t do that”.
He’d been climbing for about ten years and high-altitude climbing for around three when he caught up with an old friend, Antony Hollinshead. He asked Nigel whether he would be interested in going to Alaska and Nigel said yes.
Mt McKinley is not the highest mountain in the world but it’s one of the biggest challenges in mountaineering because of a difficult approach and unpredictable weather.
Nigel describes the day the team set out for the summit of Mt McKinley as “the great changing day of my life”.
“You suddenly realise how insignificant you are in the world and what a small little dot you are”
“The weather changed halfway through the day. We were very close to the top of the mountain; it’s a very flat summit and you’re in a very exposed position. It’s two-thirds of a mile wide, reasonably flat with two peaks at one end of it.
“And the wind got up. From what we’re told it hit over 60 mph which is enough to throw you around and it dropped the air temperature to minus 60 Centigrade. You suddenly realise how insignificant you are in the world and what a small little dot you are.”
Everyone was of course cold but expedition leader Steve Ball was suffering more than the rest of the team. They spent a night getting into a crevice in the ice to get out of the wind and Nigel managed to make a mayday call.
“Overnight, somehow, Steve made some kind of recovery and I went the other way,” says Nigel. “If you’re under the ice no one can see you, so the next morning we got out onto the surface in improving weather.
“It was obvious I was very badly frostbitten and was going nowhere. Steve took an incredibly brave decision to try to find some other climbers and get us all safely off the hill. That nearly cost him his own life.”
A fixed-wing aircraft spotted Nigel and Antony. A helicopter lifted them off the mountain in the highest-altitude helicopter rescue in North American history.
What they didn’t know was that Steve had fallen and broke both his legs. He spent the next night on his own and was very close to death before he was miraculously found alive.
Nigel almost inexplicably says his experience on Mt McKinley was “probably the best thing that ever happened to me”.
He explains: “I learned more about me, about people, about life, by going through that, than any book, any author, any teacher, any professor could ever teach me. I wouldn’t want to have to go through it, I wouldn’t want other people to have to through it – but it’s a hell of a learning experience.”
Nigel says suffering from frostbite means you can’t feel anything: “You’re so cold your nerve endings aren’t talking to you. You don’t think as quickly. We did take a brief look at one of my hands after we got out of the ice and I can only describe it as a contorted ivory hand.
“For a few days I really sat in the mire. I was saved by good friends and good family”
“It’s not until they take you to hospital and start to thaw you out that it really hurts. Unbelievable throbbing pains. You suddenly realise you’re in a really bad place, and that’s when the next journey starts.”
Nigel says he was “very British” and put on a brave face because he didn’t know what else to do. But he was knocked back when the amputations started: first fingers on his right hand, then fingers on his left, toes and both heels.
“When I woke up from that surgery I’d had enough. If I’d been in a position to end it I think I’d have done it. I didn’t. There were a number of reasons for that.
“Firstly I couldn’t move. I’d got so much anaesthetic pumped into me and there was nowhere to go. For a few days I really sat in the mire. I was saved by good friends and good family.
“I actually woke myself up and said ‘will you stop sitting here and feeling sorry for yourself because nobody’s bothered. You can sit feeling sorry for yourself for the rest of your life and nobody will care. So get up, get on with your life and stop moaning.’ And that’s exactly what I did.”
In less than a week Nigel took his first steps: “I was incredibly determined and that probably got me through most of it.
“We pushed on and on and then all I could think of doing was going back climbing. It drove some of the staff and my family wild but I wanted to learn how to use my hands again, tie knots, use ropes, learn to write.
“I didn’t want to sit and work to the expectations of other people who said you’ve got no fingers, so don’t bother having shoes with shoelaces and use shirts with Velcro. And my view is no. I’m going to tie shoelaces, put normal shirts on, have a normal life and do normal things. That’s exactly what I did.”
The mental scars took longer to heal. Nigel had to adjust to a new body and says he was really scared about people seeing his hands. He pays tribute to friends and family, particularly his sister Amanda, who helped him to recover.
“Mentally it’s the greatest release that I have, to get back on the mountains”
“Some people gave up a hell of a lot for me, immense amounts of time, immense amounts of personal anguish, and to this day I’m very thankful for that, I really am.”
Nigel says there were a number of reasons why he wanted to go back climbing: he wasn’t going to let the accident keep him down and he remembered the old saying that if you get thrown off a horse you get straight back in the saddle.
“My view was: I’m going back. It might not be the same and I can assure you it’s not after the injuries. But I can still do things, I can still go out, I can still test myself. Mentally it’s the greatest release that I have, to get back on the mountains. And for some time I just didn’t know what else to do.
“Some friends took me climbing on Harboro Rocks in the Peak District. It was all a bit weird and it hurt physically but I was alive. Absolutely alive.”
Nigel Vardy was born on 22 April 1969 in Queen Mary Maternity Home, Derby. Two days later his parents took him to their home in Belper and he has never left the town.
He went to Belper High School where outdoor pursuits were part of the national curriculum. He tried sailing, climbing and abseiling. In his late teens he met a group of people and they started climbing in Scotland. Nigel loved the great outdoors.
But he refuses to leave Belper: “It has people that I’ve grown up with and it’s where my roots are. There are still many places I can find that I remember going to as a child that are still very emotionally attached to me.”
His first life-changing experience was in 1994 in Chile when he volunteered for Operation Raleigh, the charitable organisation that works with young people in communities suffering from poverty.
“All of a sudden you were away for three months with 109 other people I’d never met, eating dehydrated food and living under a plastic sheet. And I loved it. For some people it’s probably a nightmare. But I found great freedom and fantastic comradeship. It’s an amazing way to learn about yourself and other people.”
In the past few years Nigel has written two books: Once Bitten, the story of his fateful climb on Mt McKinley and his recovery; and Seven Peaks – Seven Islands, which catalogues how he became the first Briton to climb the highest peaks on the world’s seven largest islands.
He relates his experiences when he gives motivational talks to businesses, schools and on cruise ships.
“Pushing ourselves to the limit allows us to truly learn who we are”
Many people may not realise that Nigel has a full-time job. He’s had 30 years in the electricity industry and has never had major sponsorship, although he gets support from Alfreton company Terra Nova Equipment. He points out that trips are expensive.
And those trips don’t appear to be coming to an end soon. A ski race on the Greenland ice cap will definitely go ahead this year. It’s possible he may take a school group to Morocco in the summer and there’s a chance to do more talks on cruise ships.
Whatever he does, Nigel Vardy will put his heart and soul into it. He’s the prime example of someone who lives life to the full.
As he says, “If we don’t do things that make us fearful and scared, we’re not learning. It might sound irresponsible to some, but pushing ourselves to the limit allows us to truly learn who we are.”
* This article appeared in the February 2016 edition of Country Images magazine