Nigel Vardy: Return to Denali

‘Adversity introduces a man to himself’ – Albert Einstein.

 

Imagine being stranded on the side of a mountain, unsure if you’ll live to see another day and scared for your life. It’s something that none of us ever hope to experience, that many of us can’t even begin to comprehend but, on May 19th 1999, this became a reality for Nigel Vardy, Steve Ball and Antony Hollinshead, three men who attempted to summit Denali.

Also known as Mt. McKinley, this 6190m Alaskan peak is the highest mountain in North America. No amount of preparation or experience could have equipped this small expedition of British climbers for what was to come. After two weeks of fantastic mountaineering, they were confronted by a summit blizzard and temperatures below -60°C. 25 years on, Nigel Vardy, a good friend of Grangers, is returning to Denali, the mountain that left him with a nasty case of frostbite but never deterred his passion for the outdoors.

Native American in origin, the name Denali means ‘the tall one’, a moniker that boasted an enticing challenge to Nigel, Steve and Antony. Before the expedition, Nigel and Antony were friends and, after his expedition to the Bolivian Andes, Antony introduced him to Steve who was organising the climb up the mammoth Alaskan mountain. Nigel, always up for a challenge and eager for adventure, joined the team in the hopes of summiting Denali.

 

In May 1999, the three climbers set off with Denali’s peak in sight. After climbing the West Rib, roughly 6000m, the three men got caught in a vicious storm whilst heading to the summit. Blocked from ascending further by the ferocious winds, they attempted to descend. Steve began to experience hypothermia, requiring them to shelter in a snow hole overnight. However, in the morning, concern rose for Nigel’s condition, whose inflamed face and swollen eye signalled that frostbite was setting in. With failing radios and rapidly plunging temperatures, the situation was becoming dire. Nigel was unable to walk, so Steve, who had now recovered, left the others to seek help from a camp further down the mountain.

 

Unfortunately, after no sign of Steve’s return, the two men were resigned to spending the night on the mountain, huddled between rocks for minimal shelter. Miraculously, a helicopter spotted Nigel and Antony, rescuing the men before Nigel’s frostbite could wreak any more havoc. He went on to lose his nose, parts of his left cheek, fingers and toes. Unbeknownst to them, on his rescue mission, Steve fell and plummeted half a mile down the mountain. He spent another night on the mountain’s slopes before he was rescued, suffering severe frostbite and losing a leg below the knee. Astonishingly, the three men survived their gruelling ordeal on the mountain and 25 years on, Grangers is proud to celebrate these inspiring individuals who refused to be beaten.

Since recovering from his injuries, Nigel has gone on to achieve many incredible things. Under the name ‘Mr Frostbite’, he gives inspirational talks on the outdoors, its wonder and volatility, to businesses, schools and the outdoor community. A lover of the English language, he is also a published author, having written two books about his exhilarating adventures, inspiring others to push themselves whilst utilising the trauma that he, Antony and Steve experienced to educate and motivate others. He is the President of the Buxton Mountain Rescue Team, recognising the importance of these selfless volunteers who keep us safe outdoors.

 

Growing up near the Peak District, to parents who loved to get outside, Nigel has the outdoors in his blood. He attended Belper High School where he was exposed to climbing in Outdoor Pursuits Sessions, igniting a prevailing passion that would extraordinarily impact his life. Unsurprisingly, despite his injuries and the trauma that accompanied such a harrowing experience, Nigel was resolute in wanting to get back outdoors. Speaking to Grangers about his time during recovery, Nigel explained that he was ‘determined’ to ‘climb, walk and cycle’ again, reluctantly restraining himself until he had recovered. ‘You can do a lot of damage to wounds by going too quick, too soon. I started with short walks in the spring of 2000, delighting in the flowers and birdsong.’ Smiling in the face of adversity, he leads walking groups and helps to educate others on the importance of getting outdoors safely and respectfully.

 

Nigel’s humour and unwavering enthusiasm for the outdoors are instantly recognisable when he walks into a room. He embraces every challenge with passion and gratitude, so it’s no surprise that his main motivation for returning to the mountain that almost claimed his life is to thank those that saved it. To mark the 25th anniversary of the climb that continues to shape Nigel’s life, he’s returning to south-central Alaska to meet with some of the medical and rescue staff that treated him all those years ago, thanking them face-to-face for saving his, Antony and Steve’s lives. After a previous trip was cancelled due to COVID, nothing is stopping him this time around. In typical Nigel fashion, a letter or email isn’t enough: he is determined to give a heartfelt thank you in person.

 

25 years to the day of the summit attempt, he will fly over the mountain, glimpsing the peak that was just out of reach. When regaling us with the trip’s itinerary, he eagerly welcomes the anniversary; ‘Returning fills me with trepidation and joy…I have no idea how I’ll feel and will face every moment as it comes.’  A long-time Grangers user, Nigel has looked after his gear for decades, carefully protecting his leather boots and maintaining his equipment so that it lasts for years to come. Grangers is delighted to sponsor Nigel as he embarks on this sentimental, compelling journey to Denali, the mountain that changed his life. We wish him good luck and we’ll be with him every step of the way. #withgrangersyoucan