Once Bitten

Posted by Nigel Vardy on 02/06/2008
Nigel in hospital after the rescue. Photo: Vardy collection.

Nigel Vardy may have lost his fingers and toes, but he found the will to climb again.

My fingers, toes, heels, nose and left cheek turned black and cold. I watched my own body die as I lay helpless in a hospital bed and I cried. How would I ever climb again? How could anyone ever love me again?

The list of questions was numbing and endless. Darkness fell over my soul and depression sucked me down. Amputations followed and I stared at my useless limbs, covered in stitches and pumped full of anaesthetic.

My story had started in Skipton at a dinner party. I was out cycling and stayed overnight with friends. The casual question was popped: “Fancy a trip to Alaska next year to climb McKinley?”, and before I knew it I was standing in the town of Talkeetna preparing to fly into base camp. My climbing companions Steve Ball and Antony Hollinshead joined me on the trip of our lives. We took on the West Rib and found it an immense undertaking, but a great route. It’s exposed and barren with few camping spots, but wonderful. The sunsets lit up the mountains every evening and brought warmth to my heart. The summit day was quite the opposite, almost costing us our lives through exposure, hypothermia and frostbite - it took the highest altitude helicopter rescue in North American history to get us down.

Eight years have passed since I left my fingers and toes in an Alaskan hospital, yet in the media the story lives on. Early last year I was approached by Darlow Smithson Productions – of Touching the Void fame – to see if I was interested in making a documentary about our epic on McKinley. What followed was a gruelling nine-hour interview in front of a camera followed by a long, dark night of vivid dreams and cold sweats. I had buried so much emotion for so long and now finally released it into the open. The piece was screened in the UK in August 2007 as part of the ‘Alive’ series on Channel 4 and it’s also toured the world on the Discovery channel.

Living with severe injuries does make life hard, but brings with it rewards I thought impossible to find. Eight years is a long time in anyone’s life and mine has changed out of all proportion. I awoke one day with something I thought had disappeared – the will to climb. I was going to get back on the face again – somehow.

Once I could walk I began to try and balance on the remnants of my feet. Without toes it seemed a helpless undertaking. My wounded stumps ached and I struggled to wear shoes, never mind climbing boots. There was only one solution – get some B3 mountaineering boots. They supported my ankles and I felt no pain, it was blissful. The problem was then knowing where to put my feet. I clomped around on the wall at Nottingham all winter and worked it out. Well, that was one problem solved, but there was another.

My stubbed fingers were weak and bled easily on the rock. I was forced to tape them up and hang on as best as I could. Placing lead gear was difficult, but slowly I improved and climb regularly to this day. I’m a bit slower and can’t push hard routes, but at least I’m still out there doing it. I have found scrambling in Wales and the Lakes more rewarding than I could have ever imagined; my injuries suit the pinnacles and slabs and little gear gets in my way. Many people said that was enough, but over the next few years I climbed in the Alps, the Dolomites, Nepal and Greenland. In 2006 I ended the year with an ascent of Carstenz Pyramid in Irian Jaya.

I had learned to love climbing again and find my limits, but McKinley memories still haunted me. Stuck in an arctic storm on Baffin Island, I was scared witless. Outside the wind was blowing a gale and the temperature had dropped below minus 20. I sat talking with Jaime Vinals, an Everest summiteer from Guatemala about life, frostbite and climbing. He was on Baffin to climb the highest peak and begin his seven peaks challenge. Not the seven peaks on seven continents, but the seven peaks on the world’s seven largest islands. I’d never heard of it and listened intently.

It seemed exciting, adventurous and something even I could do with my injuries. We climbed together and since then I’ve toured the world to complete the challenge. I’ve climbed in Canada, Greenland, Japan, Borneo, Sumatra, Irian Jaya and Madagascar. This isn’t an epic challenge of high altitude peaks, but it has tested me in every climate and at all levels of climbing. So far I’m the first Briton to try it and I hope to finish this year. After that who knows?

Nigel has just returned from Madagascar where he succeeded in his quest to set a new British mountaineering record by climbing the tallest peaks on the world’s seven largest islands.  His book, Once Bitten, is published by Ecademy Press at £9.99 and available to order at all good bookshops and Amazon.



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