Monday, December 7, 2009

Frozen At 20,000 Feet

FROM 2005 to 2007, the Discovery Channel aired a documentary series about the life-threatening experiences of ordinary people that were faced with incredible circumstances as actors re-enact their stories.

One of the series’ more memorable episodes featured three British climbers that got caught in a snow storm in Alaska's Mt. Mckinley, dubbed as “The Great One” and arguably one of the toughest peaks in the world. I was fortunate enough to be offered a telephone interview with Nigel Vardy, one of those climbers and now I’m reposting a slightly revised version of the article that was first published in the i Section of the Manila Bulletin back in 2007.

Although I Shouldn’t Be Alive has since been discontinued, re-runs are still being shown at both Discovery Channel and sister channel, Animal Planet as part of its Discovery Classics series. The entire series is also available on original DVD.

You can also visit the official site here.

And here's my story:

Having survived the toughest of odds, Nigel Vardy is back in “peak” form and all set to reach new heights anew.

EVEN the man himself thinks he shouldn’t be alive today.

Celebrated British mountaineer Nigel Vardy has successfully “lived through” the jungles, waterfalls and mountains of Chile, Guyana and Bolivia but he will be the first to admit that no amount of training and mountaineering experience has prepared him for his toughest challenge yet: Mt. Mckinley.

“Though not the highest mountain in the world, Mt. McKinley ranks as one of the hardest to climb,” Nigel wrote in an article posted at his website. “Its difficult approach and unpredictable weather makes it one of the biggest challenges in mountaineering. It stands 20,320 feet above sea level and dominates the Alaska Range of mountains. First climbed in 1913, McKinley still proves to be a difficult challenge. In 1999, 1183 climbers attempted the climb with 508 reaching the summit—a success rate of only 43 percent.”

Given its degree of difficulty for most mountaineers, I couldn’t help but ask Nigel himself during a recent long distance phone interview what attracted him to Mt. Mckinley to begin with.

“Mt. McKinley is a very magical mountain in the mountaineering world, because of its northernly location and some of the legendary climbs and stories that you hear,” he notes. “It’s one of those special mountains that many, many people want to climb. I had looked at the mountain, but never got an opportunity until, particularly Steven Ball, who always wanted to climb the mountain, was talking to Anthony Hollinshead. I know Anthony from many years ago, and the idea was put to me and I accepted the climb.”

That was during the autumn of 1998. Six months of planning, commitment and training on the part of Nigel, Anthony and Steven followed. By April of 1999, they were ready for McKinley. Or so they thought.

By Nigel’s own account, it took them six days to reach the base of the mountain alone after negotiating a good eleven miles of glaciers that are not without their share of crevasse. “Crevasses are deep cracks in the glaciers surface and can be hundreds of feet deep,” he points out. “To fall down one can mean severe injury or even death.”

Reaching the base of Mckinley is not nearly half the battle won. Further obstacles include “a 1,200 ft gulley of snow and ice followed by undulating snow and rock ridges.” And then there was the weather. Due to its high latitude and its proximity to the jet stream, the mountain is also characterized by an unusually severe risk of altitude sickness and extremely cold weather.

Even with all these odds, Nigel and company made steady progress during their 17-day climb and were actually a few hundred yards from the summit. That’s when the “ferocious winds and below freezing temperature” took over and it was simply impossible to continue. It was certainly not encouraging to be told over the radio that rescue is still a good two to three days ahead.

“I suffered quite severe frostbite, losing all of my toes, the backs of my heels, all of my fingertips and my nose, which ended up being amputated or fell off,” he recalls.

Anthony and Steven also suffered from frostbites and hypothermia but all three of them were rescued just in time to cheat death. How they managed to survive is now the subject of Frozen At 20,000 Feet, the premiere episode of the acclaimed Discovery Channel series, I Shouldn’t Be Alive.

The series showcases the world’s most incredible stories of survival, displaying people’s innate drive to live—even in the most unimaginable situations. Told in the present tense with a mix of high-caliber dramatizations and first-person interviews, each episode is told from the perspective of the survivor. Advanced graphics provide practical information about survival and reveal what happens to organ functions and the human body as it faces extreme challenges in harsh environments.

Asked why he agreed to share his near death experience with the world when it was an ordeal that very few would like to relive all over again, much less talk about, Nigel says it wasn’t an easy decision.

“I think initially I agreed with it, because it’s a good story to tell, and I think it’s a story that people can learn from and gain knowledge from the experience,” he says. “Also, I’m a storyteller. It’s one of my things in life, so I do rather enjoy that. It was very, very difficult for me, though. I don’t know if you’ve actually seen the documentary yet. But the interviews that were done with ourselves in front of a camera, we’re going through the actual experience for something like eight or nine hours of questions. And mentally, that was quite hard. You don’t revisit it as hard as that or as long as that, in fact, I don’t think I had since the accident itself.”

“I remember going through the interview being physically and mentally exhausted and driving home that night and just going to bed. I couldn’t even face staying up. I was so tired and for a couple of days, I was very quiet. I go quiet when I start to think. And I found it quite hard to deal with although I thought it was worthwhile. I think occasionally, it is good for you to revisit these things, to put reality back into perspective.”

Since surviving Mt. Mckinley, Nigel Vardy went on to scale greater heights. “Obviously my injuries have recovered over the last seven years,” he quips. “And as you’ve just gathered, I’m on a skiing holiday and have climbed, skied and traveled the world extensively since McKinley. I’ve climbed extensively in the European Alps, the Arctic and the Himalayas. I’ve got a couple of peaks to climb in Africa, which are not icy or cold. But certainly I will continue winter climbing and Arctic climbing for as long as I’m able to, anyway.”

What about Mt. Mckinley? I asked Nigel if he has plans to come back there anytime soon? “It’s always disappointing for every mountaineer not to make it to the very top,” he laments. “Coming back to Mckinley is something I think your heart would like you to say you can do, and we’d like to go back and we’d like to have another go and stand on the summit. One thing I have learned, however, from experience is that when you’ve suffered frostbite, your injuries tend to suffer the cold a little bit more. And I know that if we had another very, very bad time on McKinley, then it could be extremely bad for me.”

“There is an old English saying, which is “Discretion is the better part of valour.” And I think at the moment and perhaps forever, I may have to leave McKinley alone and concentrate on other things.”

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