Reaching heights with a peek at disaster

ANTON RIPPON reviews Nigel Vardy’s mountaineering epic, Once Bitten

In April 1999, Nigel Vardy was one of three British climbers caught in appalling weather on the notorious Mount McKinley. Standing 20,320ft above sea level in the Alaska Range, its difficult approach and unpredictable weather make it one of the biggest challenges in mountaineering.

The trio were only 300 yards from the summit when they were were defeated by a ferocious wind battering ice and snow into their faces. Temperatures had plummeted far below freezing and it was impossible to continue. They were forced to dig a hole into the ice. By morning, the wind had dropped, but they were trapped and isolated. It seemed that they had to rescue themselves.

Vardy was severely frostbitten in both feet and hands. Eventually one of his colleagues, Steve Ball, went for help, leaving the Derbyshire man and Anthony Hollinshead sheltering on a plateau.

After another horrific night, Vardy and Hollinshead had just about given up hope when, seemingly out of nowhere, a helicopter appeared and the pair were flown to safety.

“It was the most wonderful journey of my life,” says Vardy. “The feeling of relief was indescribable.”

Steve Ball was brought into the hospital a day later, also severely hypothermic and frostbitten. In his attempt to get help, he had fallen and spent a night out alone in the snow, with both legs broken.

Vardy, meanwhile, lost all his toes, the backs of his heels, all his fingertips and his nose. After two weeks in Alaska, he and Ball spent another nine weeks in Nottingham City Hospital Burns Unit. Hollinshead was allowed home as an outpatient.

Says Vardy: “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, writing and feeding myself. Eventually I learned to adapt to my new life, although the first months were very difficult.

“When we came first off the mountain I was physically very strong and that got me through the first few weeks. Then the mental strength took over, particularly when I realised that I was going to lose body parts.”

Now Vardy, who is currently taking a career break from his job with the electricity company Central Network, based at East Midlands Airport, has committed his experiences on Mount McKinley to print with Once Bitten, a breathtaking account of the summit attempt, the realisation that something was going horribly wrong, and the rescue.

His book takes the reader on a journey through some life-changing decisions on the mountain. But it also carries one along a difficult road to both mental and physical recovery: since his Alaskan ordeal, Nigel Vardy has achieved feats that would be astonishing even if he hadn’t previously faced death and suffered horribly at the hands of elements he still squares up to time and again.

Last autumn, Vardy became the first Briton to climb the highest peaks on the world’s seven largest islands: Greenland, Baffin Island, Honshu Island in Japan, Borneo, Sumatra, Papua New Guinea, and Madagascar.

Once Bitten is an inspirational read about a man who battled through the aftermath of an appalling experience, put his life back together, and continued to enjoy some remarkable adventures.

As Vardy says, dramatic events may mean that expectations have to be moved – but they don’t necessarily have to be lowered.

Once Bitten by Nigel Vardy (Ecademy Press, £9.99, hardback. Available from Amazon).

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