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Survival / July 16, 2017

The man who survived at -76 degrees [graphic images]

Written by: Stacey McKenna

Two days before Nigel Vardy lost his fingers and toes, the weather forecast predicted light wind and a gentle snow.

Vardy and his climbing partners Steve Ball and Antony Hollinshead had climbed nearly 4,000 feet that day up Denali’s West Rib. They were just 300 yards shy of the summit when a sudden storm made it too dangerous for them to press on.

Denali’s West Rib is a challenging, avalanche-prone route that rises 12,000 feet in less than three miles. The climbers were flown into the ice at the beginning of May and dropped at basecamp, which sits just off the main flow of the Kahiltna Glacier at 7,000 feet. On the morning they set out to make their last skyward push, they had been on the mountain for more than two weeks.

“[It was] the three of us and four American climbers, and that was about it. [It was] pretty quiet around there,” says Vardy. “We got to the highest camp that we could—about 17 days to that point, but about four or five days pulling the kit in. Then we climbed alpine style. No fixed ropes, [just a] 50 meter rope, and you just go. Which is what we did. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans.”

Denali, viewed from Ski Hill Camp. The West Rib route climbs the ridge on the left.

From left, Steve Ball, Nigel Vardy, and Anthony Hollinshead.

When they left their high camp—at 16,300 feet—to make the summit push, Vardy and his partners carried just their day packs. “[We had] no tents or sleeping bags because [you’re] trying to summit as fast as you can, got to go and get back,” says Vardy.

The days leading up to summit day were filled with some of the best climbing Vardy and his team had ever experienced. But as the wind picked up and the temperatures plummeted, there was no time to celebrate that.

The winds on the mountain that day approached 60 miles per hour, and air temperatures plunged to 76 degrees below zero. The team soon shifted their focus summiting Denali to getting off it alive.

“The thing is, you can’t abseil out of it because the wind’s too strong,” says Vardy. Without their camping gear, the climbers had nothing to protect them from nature’s wrath and the consequences of their exposure were already beginning to set in. The left side of Vardy’s face grew colder than anything he had experienced and Ball started to succumb to hypothermia. “We had to get out of the wind somehow, because the wind was killing us,” Vardy says.

So they looked to the mountain. The team found a small hole in the ice and opened it up with their ice axes. That’s where they spent the next 12 to 15 hours.

“Steve was shivering badly, in and out of consciousness, talking complete rubbish. Antony and I wanted to get into a position… You can’t even talk to each other in the wind… At least in the hole, we could talk and try to assess what was going on and what we were gonna do about it. We stayed all night in there.”

 

Vardy crosses a ridge high on the West Rib.

Vardy coils a rope during the team's ascent.

When Vardy, Ball and Hollinshead awoke on May 20, they radioed for help only to be told that rescue would take two to three m’ore days. “The ranger base had said, ‘Get back out [of the snow hole]. If you’re in a hole in the floor, nobody’s ever going to find you,’” Vardy recalls.

The trio left their alcove and decided to try to descend on their own. At that point, Ball’s condition had begun to improve. But Vardy had taken a downturn.

“I got frostbite on my hands, feet, and the left side of my face. I fell over a lot. I dropped the radio, which we got back, but it never worked again… We took the decision that we got ourselves into this mess, we have to get ourselves out of it,” Vardy says.

After just a few minutes of walking, though, it was clear that Vardy could not continue. He had lost vision in his left eye, and his co-ordination had deteriorated so badly he could barely walk.

“We had a conversation,” says Vardy. “I heard it, but I didn’t understand. I was hypothermic, so I didn’t understand. Steve—he was the best climber—he was feeling better. He decided to go get some help. He walked off into the mist, and I’m thinking, ‘Steve, where are you going and what are you doing? I didn’t comprehend. Antony and I just sat on these rocks wondering how we were gonna get through the next night if we had to.”

As light began to fade and another night on the mountain became increasingly likely, the group experienced a rare break in their luck.

“A Lama helicopter popped out of nowhere straight at us, dropped a rucksack, turned around and disappeared,” Vardy recalls. Exhaustion gave way to hope and the two men ran for the bag.

Assuming rescue was still another day or two away, they expected to find gear that would help them through the night. Instead, the bag held a thermos, a radio, and two “screamer suits”: harness type devices that can be put on quickly for rapid extrication.

The "screamer suit" is only used during rapid helicopter extractions. It gets its name from the high adrenaline levels induced by that process. Image courtesy of Careleton Rescue Equipment.

In a "screamer suit" rescue, the patient hangs beneath the helicopter during its flight. Photo by William Murphy.

Vardy and Hollinshead donned their suits, abandoned what gear they had, and readied for the helicopter’s return. They were at 19,520 feet. “The helicopter couldn’t land, so it hovered above. Antony clipped me into the static line. Being English, of course we shook hands and said, ‘I’ll see you at the bottom,’” Vardy says.

The chopper flew to basecamp with Vardy hanging about 50 feet below. “It felt a little bit like a roadrunner cartoon. I’m underneath the heli thinking… I was spinning round and round on this rope, thinking, ‘This is a nice view,’ because my brain was so cold that I wasn’t thinking.”

After safely dropping Vardy at basecamp, the helicopter returned for Hollinshead. The two men, who had assumed it was Ball who had set the rescue mission in motion, were surprised to learn their friend was still on the mountain. Ball, who had broken both of his legs in a fall, was rescued the next day. The three were taken to Anchorage’s Providence Alaska Medical Center for treatment.

It was two weeks of epidurals and tepid baths for his hands and feet before Vardy, who had suffered severe frostbite, was deemed well enough to return to Britain. Once home, he spent three more months in the hospital, and underwent skin grafting procedures months later.

He still has to get regular work related to his frostbite, which resulted in facial scarring as well as loss of all ten toes, one heel, and length off each finger.

 

As he recovered physically, mental survival became the challenge. Vardy had to re-learn how to be in his altered body, how to walk and how to tie knots. And sometimes, it got to him. “I used to lie awake at night wondering, ‘Nigel, what’s happened to you?’ I just wanted it done with,” he recalls.

“[But] a few days after my second bout of surgery, I suddenly realized something I had been telling people for a long time, and needed to listen to for myself… Got to get up and get on with life. ‘I can’t do this’ flipped to ‘If anybody tells me I can’t go to the mountains again, I’ll argue.’ I will walk. I will climb. And don’t you dare tell me I can’t.”

Though Denali’s reputation for particularly harsh, cold weather has kept Vardy from returning to that particular peak, mountains continue to pull him all over the world. From the Himalayas to the Baffin Islands to the sometimes startlingly tall peaks of Africa, he continues to climb, often mixing his ascents with conservation and outreach.

Now, he shares the lessons he learned with other adventurers: “Listen to your body… Listen to your soul… Be absolutely bluntly honest with yourself… [And] certainly, never give up.”

Nigel Vardy now gives motivational speeches about his experience under the moniker Mr. Frostbite

Have questions or comments about this feature? Email them to [email protected].

Featured photo by Kakiki Ramos-Leon, NPS.
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about the author

Stacey McKenna

Journalist Stacey McKenna covers travel, adventure, health, environment, and social justice. She has written for numerous print and online publications, including Narratively, Mind+Body, The Wayward Post and The Development Set. A medical anthropologist by training, she applies her expertise as a researcher and fascination with the human experience to tell deeply-reported stories in context. 

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