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Nigel Vardy heads back to Alaska on his 25th Anniversary

Nigel Vardy has relied on Terra Nova, Wild Country and Extremities kit for decades, so on the anniversary of his life-changing expedition, he heads back to where it all happened. We caught up with him about his incredible story.

Nigel (Middle) and his fellow adventurers on Denali 

25 years ago, 3 adventurers set out on an expedition that would ultimately change the entire course of their lives. In May 1999, Steven Ball, Antony Hollinshead and Nigel Vardy travelled to Alaska to climb one of the most difficult Mountain ranges in the world – Mt. McKinley or as it is now commonly known, Denali.

Standing 20,320ft above sea level, this mountain is an undeniable challenge for even the most skilled mountaineers; paired with unpredictable, changing weather conditions, the events that followed would go down in the history books as an extraordinary attempt to scale the toughest Peak in North America.

The team were to spend 6 months of intense training and preparation work for their expedition to Mt McKinley, and in late April 1999, found themselves in Alaska.

Carrying 120lbs each on their backs (the weight of 2 bags of cement) they set off on their 25-day journey to the summit. The team navigated steep accents, snowy obstacles, and rocky ridges, which were rewarded with fiery sunsets and spectacular scenic views over the expanse of Alaska’s rigid landscape. The climb at this point had been challenging, requiring both physical and mental stamina but the prospect of reaching the summit, followed by favorable weather conditions, meant that on the 20th of May, they would complete their accent.

However, despite the sheer closeness to the summit, the events which followed would prove life-threatening.

300 yards from the summit, the team were forced to dig a snowhole into the ice as temperatures plummeted making any advancement to the summit impossible. With hypothermia setting in, the men made the decision to call for help, and were told this help would take 2-3 days. Nigel attempted to walk back to camp but was severely frostbitten in both his hands and feet and had to take shelter whilst Steve went on looking for help.

Just as all hope was to be lost, a helicopter appeared though the mountain and carried the men straight to their next challenge – learning to live with their injuries. Nigel Vardy suffered severe frostbite, losing all his toes, length off every finger and facial scarring.


25 years on from that fateful summit attempt, Nigel Vardy returned to Talkeetna, Alaska to complete a glacial landing on the Mountain which almost cost him his life 25-years previous.

25-years later: Nigel Vardy returns to the mountain where he sustained severe injuries and suffered from frostbite

Accompanied by a film crew, he was able to revisit the location where his life changed forever as well as meet some of the people who were involved in his rescue mission and treated him in hospital after the expedition. Landing at base camp, Nigel was able to witness the breathtaking views he witnessed 25-years ago.

We spoke to Nigel on his return to find out more about his journey and how returning to Denali felt 25-years on.

‘Booking a flight is simple. Executing it in a mountain range with unpredictable weather is something else. We arrived in the town of Talkeetna, full of hope, but thick clouds rolled in and closed the mountains down, bringing real tension to me and the crew. With all the will in the world, the 25th anniversary flight might not have happened, but if 30+ years in the mountains have taught me anything, it’s to hold my nerve. We’d planned the filming days with great detail, but as with climbing mountains, you sometimes need to throw the plan out of the tent door and work on your feet. With the next day’s forecast looking good, the air filled with calls and meetings were hastily rearranged. What came to pass was a better than hoped for trip, with unbelievable views and a chance landing at Base Camp. The days wait was well worth the stress, and we circumnavigated Denali in all her splendor. Occasional puffs of high cloud revealed brilliant white slopes and the West Rib stood out for me. It was 25 years to the day that I nearly died and then the weather had been horrific. Now it was burning hot, and as we landed at Base Camp, I felt the ultraviolet burning my skin. Little had changed for me. Mountaineers were still digging their tent in and building ice block wall in case the weather came in.  The air of excitement was still tingling, and I wished all of them well.

It was back in the air that the experience finally hit me.  Somewhere inside I still feel guilty for putting my family through so much, even though they were so proud of me.  I will never forget the day I woke from my first operation and through my bleary eyes, I saw my mum crying.  I tried desperately to stay awake for her, but the drugs were too strong.  She gave me a teddy bear, complete with crutch and leg plaster, which I still have to this day.  My family cared for me, and in later life I cared for them.

Back at home there is still so much the digest, but I’m very happy to have gone back, said thank you to the people who saved my life and see Denali again.’

To find out more about Nigel and his work, head over to his website.