‘Mr Frostbite’ – the famous Derby mountaineer who lost his nose to extreme cold

Derby folk have good reason to thank Nigel Vardy. He is one of the people responsible for keeping the lights on in the city.

But when he’s not doing that, the 52-year-old electrical engineer is also one of the most accomplished mountaineers on the planet, an author, motivational speaker, mountain rescue team president, and holder of ambassadorial roles.

Most important of all, though, he is a carer for his 83-year-old mother Maureen.

The man who likes to be known as “Mr Frostbite” said: “Life changed suddenly when, in March 2019, my father died. It’s often said that ‘you don’t become a man until you lose your father’, and I can certainly relate to that.”

Nigel, who was born in Derby and lives in Belper, was 30 when, attempting to conquer one of the world’s most difficult peaks, he lost his nose and several other body parts to frostbite.

Mount McKinley, or Denali, standing 20,320ft above sea level in Alaska, is the highest peak in North America, and the third most isolated peak on Earth after Mount Everest and Aconcagua. It was a mouth-watering prospect so far as he was concerned.

“Mount McKinley is one of those magical mountains that people want to climb. Unfortunately, in 1999, I was one of three Britons caught up there. I suffered severe frostbite. I lost all my toes, the backs of my heels, all my fingertips and my nose.”

With his climbing partners, Steven Ball and Anthony Hollinshead, Nigel was only 300 yards from the summit when they were defeated by a ferocious wind battering ice and snow into their faces.

The temperature had plummeted far below freezing and it was impossible to continue.

They dug a snow hole into the ice. By morning the wind had dropped, but rescue was still two or three days away. It seemed that they had to rescue themselves.

Nigel recalls: “We tried to walk back to camp, but I was severely frostbitten in both my feet and hands. Steve and Anthony steered me along the way, but it was useless. I couldn’t walk.

Nigel Vardy in 1999, with severe frostbite that cost him his nose and several other body parts
(Image: Nigel Vardy)

“Steve went on for help, leaving Anthony and myself sheltering on the plateau. Hours passed with no sign of rescue; it looked as if we would spend another night on the mountain. All we could do was sit and wait.

“Just as we were giving up hope, a helicopter appeared out of the blue and flew the two of us down to base camp.

“It was the most wonderful journey of my life; the feeling of relief is indescribable, although Steve was now left alone on the mountain.

“I spent a night in intensive care in Anchorage before the reality of my situation struck me. All my fingers and toes had been frozen solid.

“Steve came to hospital a day later and was severely hypothermic and frostbitten. He had fallen in his attempt to get help and spent a night out alone in the snow, with both legs broken and hands and feet frostbitten.

“The next few days were heartbreaking and painful. My fingers began to recover a little, but it became apparent that my toes were dead. I just looked on as they slowly turned from pink to black.

“The expedition left all of us injured for life. After two weeks in Alaska we were allowed home. Steve and myself spent another nine weeks in Nottingham City Hospital Burns Unit. Anthony was allowed home as an outpatient.

“I lay in bed for over two months before I could stand again. I had to relearn many of the things we all take for granted, such as walking and writing. When we came off the mountain, I was physically very strong and that got me through the first few weeks.

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“The mental strength took over after that, particularly when I realised that I was going to lose body parts.”

In 2006, a 45-minute documentary about the party’s time on Mount McKinley was broadcast for the TV series I Shouldn’t Be Alive.

Remarkably, the experience didn’t deter Nigel: “I’ve never been one to lie on a beach. I enjoy cold weather a lot more than hot. I regularly enjoy my winter sports and I’ve climbed extensively in the Arctic and the Himalayas ever since (in 2004, Nigel suffered from appendicitis while climbing in the Arctic, and eventually had his appendix removed at Derby City Hospital).

“Growing up in the Peak District helped enormously.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of rock climbing near to where I live. In 1994, I got a taste for a real expedition.

“I went to Chile with Raleigh International, the UK’s leading youth development charity which is designed to inspire people from all backgrounds and nationalities to discover their full potential by working together on challenging environmental and community projects around the world.

“I’ll always remember my selection weekend near Castleton in the Peak District. It was a very wet and difficult experience. Working in a small team, I got very little sleep for 36 hours, navigated with a map and compass through the night, helped carry a casualty on a stretcher almost a mile off a hillside, cooked a meal using improvised implements over an open fire, and built a rope runway.”

Nigel Vardy and his mother, Maureen
(Image: Nigel Vardy)

In the autumn of 2007 Nigel become the first Briton to climb the highest peaks on the world’s seven largest islands ­– Greenland, Baffin Island, Japan’s Honshu Island, Borneo, Sumatra, Papua New Guinea and Maromokotro, the tallest mountain in Madagascar.

He wrote a book about it, Seven Peaks Seven Islands. Then he was off to Ethiopia to help with relief work: “The trip to Ethiopia was challenging to say the least, with road traffic accidents and threats of imprisonment, but the people themselves were wonderful and the country itself stunning.

“I was back in the Indian and Nepali Himalayas during 2008 and 2009 and I’ve continued my mountaineering career since with expeditions to Tien Shan, the Caucasus, the Drakensburgs, Greenland, Scandinavia, North America, the Dolomites and the Middle East.

“I’ve taken a spin at speaking on cruise ships, worked in many schools and maintained my career working in the electricity industry.

“I have ambassadorial roles with the Mountain Heritage Trust and Derbyshire companies Grangers and Terra Nova Equipment, and I’m president of the Buxton Mountain Rescue Team.

“I work with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Awards schemes and regularly present at both Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace. Most of all, though, I support my mother with everything I have.

“I will sit down – one day…”

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Courtesy of Derbyshire Live – Derby News