TEDxDerby Interview: Nigel Vardy

If you know one thing about Derbyshire’s own Nigel Vardy it will be the story of his near-fatal ascent of Mount McKinlay in 1999 which resulted in a helicopter rescue and life changing injuries.

The local and national media still turn to “Mr Frostbite” for comment and opinion when there’s trouble in the hills, yet there is so much more to Nigel than the day he lost his fingers and toes to the cold.

As a professional speaker Nigel opened our first TEDxDerby with a suitably authoritative talk about the perils of modern communication for the adventurer. Then in 2015 he returned to provide invaluable coaching for our speakers.

I was enthused to catch up with Nigel over a skype connection that was fittingly poor for an ice-addicted adventurer, despite the mere 6 miles separating my Derby to his near-polar Belper. We discussed themes from his TEDxDerby talk, the value of diaries and a forthcoming itinerary of exploration that only goes to show that Nigel remains an adventurer in the truest sense…

Is Modern Communication Destroying Adventure?

There was a quote to open your talk: “An adventure is a journey or undertaking that involves risk.” Attitudes to risk are changing. What does adventure mean in today’s society?

The word Adventure has been very badly misused. I don’t think people realise what it means when it comes to risk. To me having an adventure means doing something that makes your heart pound a little bit and challenges you on a number of occasions while you are doing it. You don’t have to climb a mountain. It could be mountain biking, canoeing or just trying something new.

An adventure is a journey or undertaking that involves risk.

In 1994 when you took part in Operation Raleigh the only communications were letters and a newspaper received after five and a half weeks. Were the golden days of adventure pre-internet?

I don’t think it’s pre-internet – it’s the way it is reported. For example newspapers would send a correspondent out to the big Eiger and Everest climbs. Theirs was the only report you would get until the people came home.

Even in my day someone would come and film me and then use a motorcycle courier to transport the footage. Back then the reporting was eloquent and composed. Now there are so many accounts, so much sensationalism. There’s just too much sometimes. The writing used to win awards – it was that good.

I recently blogged my diaries and photos from an Explorer Belt hike around South France in 1984. The simplicity of those words and the mere handful of photos made a refreshing change. I’m so grateful there were no mobile phones or video cameras back then. How can the modern traveller best experience adventure in this joined-up world?

I’ve got some expedition photos in front of me now from the 90’s. If you wanted to hear about something you had to go and listen to a lecture in a theatre. You can’t do that now because everything is already on-line. Since I spoke at TEDxDerby I have become an ambassador at the Mountain Heritage Trust. The biggest library we have is usually the people’s letters and diaries. The only reason we know about Scott’s point of view is that we found his diaries on his chest. You’ll never get the power of that now with an iPad.

Photo: Richard Gardner

Nowadays there would be masses of footage with little left to the imagination. Less is more now don’t you think?

You’ve only got to think of the Mallory & Irving Everest trip – did they get to the summit or not? There’s an obsession to this day in finding their camera. The story is so legendary and for me I would rather not know. If Mallory had rang us from the summit from his satellite phone there is no sense of mystery. Back then letters were written and left in tents to be picked and they trickled their way back home over weeks.

Exploration is intrinsically less dangerous than it used to be because we have better knowledge and equipment. Are adventurers now manufacturing risk?

I don’t think they are manufacturing risk, they are manufacturing adventure. There is lots of stunt making now. Somebody announces they will be the first to make a 3G call from a summit. Well so what. Most of the real exploration work is not seen. There’s huge sensationalism in the outside world (my world) with people pulling off stunts in order to gain sponsorship and attention. If it gets young people enthused in the outdoors I can see a purpose in it but I can’t watch these programme on TV – most of it is tripe!

A lot of people I know do incredible things but no-one is interested because it doesn’t have that sensationalist edge. I go to talk in schools and when I introduce myself the first question they always ask is if I have climbed Everest.

Five years after Operation Raleigh a two way radio saved your life on Mount McKinley although you lost your fingers and toes to frostbite. You have stared death in the face. How has that changed you?

The experience itself is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. Don’t get me wrong it was life threatening and horrendous, both mentally and physically painful, but it gives you an edge in that you understand life a little more. People say to me “this is really important” – is it, really? What’s important is did you wake up this morning, are you warm, are you safe. That’s all down to perspective.

Your TEDxDerby talk ended with a question: “Do you want your adventure to drive your communication or do you want your communication to drive you?” Surely we can still choose whether to engage with the environment and the people in front of us regardless of our media output?

It’s what you want out of it. For instance if you were walking one of the Pilgrimage Routes: You could walk the route, meet people, talk to them and either make a film, write blog posts or provide a running social media commentary but either way you have still done the walk. I would probably wait until the end to write a blog post and have the time to self-censor and use my diaries to make sure facts are correct.

Do you want your adventure to drive your communication or do you want your communication to drive you?

If you can capture the moment you can share it…

I didn’t mention this at the TEDxDerby talk but I’ve kept a diary for over 30 years, except for two weeks when I couldn’t hold a pen. We recorded them on audio cassette because I was determined to record them somehow and they don’t make pretty listening to. When I wrote my first book I listened to them again to get into the frame of mind. Risk brings back emotion and allows me to relive experiences. If I want to I can take myself off to Nepal now and smell the incense, hear the birds and see the mountains and the pack animals passing by. It’s ingrained into my psyche for ever more. You need to absorb the place. Allow yourself to be engulfed in the experience. The digital thing in your hand is just a tool – treat it as such.

You paint a vivid picture with those mental images. I recognise from my own travels the importance of putting yourself in the moment. It can be so hard to get away from all the distractions

A few local places are special to me, one near Belper and a couple in the Peak District. I go there when I need some time out and some space to think. They allow me some space to breathe and you can only do this by emotionally attaching yourself to them and not getting sucked into social media.

When I was reported missing in Nepal last year when all the avalanches broke out I didn’t know it was a big media furore and was wandering around quite happily. After about three weeks I phone my parents and they asked if I knew I had been in the Telegraph. “You mean the Derby Telegraph?,” “No, The Telegraph – and The Mirror and The Times and your sister has been on Jeremy Vine.” I didn’t understand what had happened because I knew there was snow and there had been stories but I had no comprehension that it had been so big. I went onto Facebook when I got home and there were so many messages from people asking about me not to mention 650 emails.

When Cooke left to travel around the world he said “see you in three years.” We have lost the ability to let go.

I recall that you were our first ever speaker at TEDxDerby. As a very experienced presenter how did the experience compare with other events?

It was different for me because I had never spoken about the subject matter. I often speak about my experiences on Mount McKinlay and I didn’t want to cover that ground again but after a while the subject matter came to me. As opening speaker I was keen to open powerfully and get straight into the talk in order to get the event off to a solid start.

Can anybody deliver a TED talk?
Why not? Everybody has a story. You just need something that means something to you. If it’s a personal story you can get an emotional attachment from the audience.

After speaking in 2014 you returned to coach the 2015 TEDxDerby speakers . Having spoken to a number of them I can tell you they were effusive about your support and mentorship. What was your motivation for returning in that role?

I love speaking but I’m also a member of a professional speaking body and we are trying to promote quality. Some speakers are really scared. Others have a message to share but don’t realise the most powerful elements of their story. I love to help people improve what they do on stage. I’m there so that they can do their job confidently and better. That way everybody gets the most out of the event.

The theme for TEDxDerby 2016 is “Journey.” You would be a perfect fit for this topic although we should probably give some others a chance! Let me put you on the spot and ask you to nominate your most memorable journey…

I’m going to pick two and these are different types of journey. Firstly I visited Chile back in 1994. It opened my eyes and I’m still close friends with people 20 years later. I get invited to weddings, I’m god parents to children and that journey taught me so much.

On a personal journey it has to be having half my digits cut off. It could have happened in a freezer in Derby but you are in a position where decisions are taken away from you. You might not like it but you had better get used to it. You have to understand the decisions if you can, live with them and move on. It’s not what you go through that defines who you are but how you choose to deal with the situation. Only you can take that choice.

On one hand that was pivotal for you but on the other hand you presumably don’t want to be defined by that event.

You’re right, every time the press ring they come back to my frostbite and I understand that but the fact is that I have chosen to live my life after the event in a certain way.

On a lighter note, what luxury item do you take with you on your travels?

If it counts as a luxury I always take a diary and plenty of pencils. Pencils work upside down and at minus 15 degrees where pens freeze up.

…I had written down hipflask of whisky!

I usually take that too! I’ve carted whisky across the Greenland ice caps and to the top of Mount Kenya. I’m a member of the Malt Whisky Society and a bottle of Arran is one of my favourites.

I sense there could be a whisky talk in your back pocket…

There would have to be tastings!

Finally what do you have lined up for the coming months?

I shall be off on a cruise where I‘ll be delivering an extended version of my TEDx talk. Then I’ll be in Scotland for winter climbing and skiing in the Italian Dolomites. Also I’m going to be walking the Otter Trail in South Africa with a friend and travelling via Iceland to Greenland for an ice cap race. All of this before the end of April…