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Learning to survive and thrive

Nigel Vardy By Nigel Vardy

Life throws us challenges everyday. Recently that's been the unfathomable COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns across the world. Nigel Vardy shares how he survived a life-changing trip to Alaska, and learnt to thrive during uncertainty and tragedy.

Mental Health Week 2020 has coincided with the 21st anniversary of my rescue from Mt McKinley in Alaska. It was one of the most traumatic moments of my life, where everything changed overnight, both physically and mentally. Life would never be the same again, but over the past few years, I learned to thrive no matter what it threw at me.

Listen to my McKinley 21 vlog series here

The recent COVID-19 Lockdown has brought with it many challenges, where enforced isolation, loss of control and uncertainty have played heavily upon people’s minds. My recovery from Frostbite took me down a similar path…

We're all dealing with enforced isolation, loss of control and uncertainty

Nigel in Alaska before tragedy struck

We all hope to make choice in our lives, but sometimes they are taken from us. When I was airlifted from close to the summit of McKinley, I’d enjoyed the most wonderful mountaineering of my life, was incredibly fit and then suddenly battered. The rescue broke altitude records and put others’ lives at risk but saved mine.

Within hours of being choppered to base camp, I was laid in a hospital bed, writhing in pain, had lost control and had no idea where my life was going. I quickly had to learn that my life was under the control of others, whether it was feeding me, washing me or nursing me. I felt isolated, lost and lonely. I lay in denial for weeks, in mental shock, unable to sleep and uncertain where my future was going.

I quietly cried rivers, but couldn’t wipe away the tears, as my arms were raised in slings. I stared through windows at blank walls and felt as though my world was done, but I was lucky - I was alive and these few simple words were quietly spoken to me early on in my recovery ‘You’ll climb again Mr Vardy’. Words are powerful things.

I wonder how many people have felt isolated, lost, lonely, abandoned, shocked, in denial, short tempered, sleepless or shattered as of late? Central Government control has changed many lives overnight, in the act of saving them. When control is wrenched away, many comply (and some rebel), but generally we’ve all got on with life the best we can. Laying in a bed, unable to walk was my compliance, whether I liked it or not.

Camping in Alaska
Nigel scaling the mountain
Nigel in hospital with frostbite

Like many during COVID-19, my future travel plans were scrapped for an unknown time as I had no idea when I would walk again, never mind be fit to travel. I’d hoped to be in the Himalayas and had to watch everyone one else leave without me. I didn’t really want to hear about their experiences when they came home. Even now, I sometimes feel as if I need to hide away from other people’s joy. I placed a façade over my emotions and filled my soul with a destructive denial.

It ate away at me for years and everyone could see it but myself. Facades are dangerous things, yet thousands wear them every day.

Nigel and his Mum

I underwent a number or amputations and had to learn to walk again. It sounds easy to write, but I assure you, standing on toe-less feet after surgery is no fun. I shuffled a few paces, everyday moving a little further down the hospital corridors.

When I was released home, I became four legged and used crutches to get around the house. I was cared for by my family, who did everything they could to help me. My mum would take me on little walks down the street and back, keeping a watchful eye on me as I wobbled along.

During the recent lockdown, I’ve been returning that favour. I’m now caring for my mum and help her walk here and there to get fresh air, exercise and maintain her health. Hard as I try, I have seen her physical and mental health deteriorate as of late. I’ve been quietly crying again.

Support from friends was as vital then as it is now. People I’d have never expected became the closest of friends, whilst some of the closest have faded away. Little has changed in over 20 years. It seems love hasn’t changed much either. Both frostbite and COVID have cost me relationships. I’m still quietly crying.

I may have been full of vigour for the outdoors as I recovered from frostbite, but I had a very phased return. Shuffling became walking, which became cycling, which became climbing. 9 words that took almost 18 months. There will be no green light when this lock down is over. Return will be slow and steady, unless we wish to risk another spike in cases. We need to hold back our excitement in the name of safety as I had to all those years ago.

Nigel in Alaska
Nigel climbing again after his accident
Nigel cycling on an adapted bike

Springtime was my saviour. The flowers of early 2000 were as beautiful as I can ever remember. Even then, we ran too fast to look, raced past the beauty of nature and thought we were kings of the world, but a wheelchair and crutches slowed me down. 20 years later that beautiful spring is here again, and many are enjoying the wonders of this earth. I’m walking and cycling the playgrounds and woodlands of my youth, siting in awe of the flowers, fragrances and birdsong that nature provides, and provides for free.

I wonder if next year we’ll remember these days with beauty, rather than bereavement. My travels may be curtailed, but I’m as physically fit as I’ve been in years.

Both frostbite and COVID-19 bring risks and choices. I chose to go mountaineering, I chose to face the cold and it bit me. If you’re in a high-risk group and choose to go outside, you’re risking your health and indeed your life. We all have choices to make. I came home after only two weeks in Alaska and was treated in Nottingham. This allowed my family to join me, but I would have stayed the months in Alaska if the treatment would have been better. It would have hurt immensely, but short-term pain often means long term gain.

I wonder if next year we’ll remember these days with beauty, rather than bereavement

Will things ever be the same? They weren’t after Alaska, and not just because of my amputations. My confidence has never really recovered in 21 years and the last few weeks have pushed me to and past my limit. Routine helps, work helps (I’m a key worker), but my mind will not rest.

Look outward not inward. You’re not alone, we’re all in this together. Accept love and help, don’t push them away. Be kind - Help others, expect nothing in return. I’ve shopped, fetched prescriptions, supported friends and worked, all in the spirit of humanity, neighbourly support, love and friendship. Speak in the ‘We’, not the ‘I’, have faith, search for peace and learn independence. During difficult times, it is far easier to act, than to think, but do think. Think about your life. Think about your family. Think about your soul.

I’m no expert on Mental Health. I’m just a man, like many other men. Apparently we don’t talk enough, open up enough or share enough.

Yet most of us are crying out to be asked…

Mind Over Mountains - Inspiring Resilience

I spoke to fellow GetOutside Champion, Alex Staniforth about my tips on staying resilient and mentally well during hard times.

Alex is co-founder of Mind Over Mountains, a charity delivering life-changing outdoor experiences to restore mental health and generate resilience to stay mentally well.

Published 06/05/2020

Nigel Vardy By Nigel Vardy


Nigel is a frostbitten mountaineer who doesn't wasn't to die in an unused body.

Find out more about Nigel Vardy.