British mountaineer Nigel Vardy came of age in a time and place where he had to go straight into work from school. He still managed to find his way to adventure - and then an accident on Denali left him with all his digits amputated, and the media nation-wide interested in his story.
Now Nigel looks back at 30 years as a public figure - how he tried to build a career in adventure, and why he always returned to his engineering job and earning his own way to pay for trips. This is a story of how hard it can be to build a financially sustainable adventure career, but also of how you can do those adventures anyway, if you're prepared to put in the work.
The interview answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did you get started with outdoor activity?
My family were hill walkers; we just bought some boots, got in the car and went out at the weekends into the Peak District. Also my secondary school did outdoor pursuits. Every Thursday morning it quite literally was 'bring some old kit, you are going potholing or sailing or climbing or aerial runway or kayaking’. Everybody in the school did it. Obviously some people were scared off massively but other people embraced it.
After school, I went straight into work. I learned how to drive and went bigger and bigger hill walking - 40 mile days. That was the next five or six years.
Then I got a promotion into engineering, which included a management training weekend run by Operation Raleigh. The company said ‘we don’t want you to go on the Operation Raleigh expedition’. I said ‘I am going!’ But I needed to raise £3,000. [This was in 1993 in Derbyshire.]
PAYING FOR TRIPS THROUGH SAVINGS
How did you do find that £3,000?
I was an absolute novice. I thought, ‘right, I’ll do some presentations to local groups, and write to loads of local companies’. Out of all that, maybe I cleared 150 quid! One guy who couldn’t go very kindly gave me about £800 of his money, which was a huge bonus. For the rest of it…. at the time I was a DJ, so I banked all my DJ money and worked bloody hard and did lots of overtime. That’s how I paid for it.
We went to Chile in South America. I was down there for three months, and came back with this mad desire to do crazy things across the world.
So what came next?
This was the issue. I was still in full time work. I think I got six weeks of holiday a year. I basically did lots of travelling, often with the Raleigh crowd. Over the years we did relief work in Indonesia, in Guyana and Ethiopia. Then we put our own expedition together, raised our own money.
With me, my expedition money comes from work. I have worked, done overtime, done weekend work, and banked that. That is what has provided me with the income to do the trips.
What is your work?
I’m an electrical engineer in a control centre. I basically run the grid!
How did the Denali (McKinley) expedition come about?
That started in 1998. Three of us came together, myself, Steve and Anthony - 'What are we going to do? How are we going to organise this? How are we going to fund it?'
We did the usual, write lots of letters - send faxes it was back then. Even then the market was flooded [by people asking for support]. We got some discounts from manufacturers on equipment but we got nothing free. Again, I paid for it through working.
That expedition did not go well. What happened?
Well the long and short of it was I had the 17 days of the best climbing in my life, followed by the worst day. We ended up on the top of the mountain overnight, me and two friends in a snow hole at minus 60. We all suffered severe frostbite. Thankfully we were all rescued.
Myself and Steve spent months in hospital with severe frostbite amputations, and then faced years of rebuilding. [An experience like that] opens and closes lots of doors. You might not like how it happened but you get your face in the press.
Nigel lost all his fingers and toes, and suffered major facial scarring.
Which doors had closed for you?
Most of my rock climbing. The ability to run, cross stitch, remove bras, all those kinds of things had had it. Without toes, it is hard to run, trust me, but you can still walk. But I cannot do delicate things with my hands.
When this happened, I was a field engineer. While I was in hospital, the company was bought out, bringing lots of changes and massive redundancies. I reappeared, and nobody knew what to do with me. They couldn’t sack me, so my job changed to an indoor job because I couldn't be on my feet every day. [The injuries] still hurt, even now twenty years later.
However, the media interest, along with learning to adapt, - that has opened a lot more doors along the way.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU ARE CATAPULTED INTO MEDIA
How did the new opportunities come to you?
They found me. I got air lifted off a mountain. It is a huge disaster and it was also probably a very slow news day. It was plastered across the press in the UK and in America. At the time where was a huge debate going on in America about 'do we rescue foreign nationals for free in our national parks?' Our epic happened the week it was being debated in Congress…. you can imagine the response.
We offered to pay for the rescue, they didn't want the money, the media moved on. You know how short term they are. Then we transferred to the UK, which opened the story up again. If anybody thinks there is money in telly, you are having a laugh, because there is bugger all in news.
What I found was that people wanted to know who I was. Now if I gave a lecture, people wanted to come. If I wrote a book, people wanted to know about it. But you have only got a set period of time to grab that window. Other things happen, the world moves on.
You had already pitched for sponsorship and given talks about your previous expeditions. So presumably you were confident and capable when it came to speaking to the press?
Absolutely! When we came back to the UK, the media were camping at the hospital door. The consultants were absolutely paranoid about it. I said 'for God's sake, let’s just throw a press conference, get them all in, get it done’. We were covered in frostbite, it looked great for telly, not so good on radio.
We threw this press conference, it was plastered across the news and I basically ran it. Steve talked and he was fine, but it was not his cup of tea. The press wanted to know 'what was it like when you were there? What entered your mind? What are you feeling now?' I had black fingers and toes, very visual.
From that day, I have worked with the press and I have been very happy to do it.
At the time, were you aware that there might be something in this for you long term?
At the time, we had so much going on - surgery, families, drugs for pain relief, I wasn’t thinking more than a day in advance. Although I was thinking I really wanted to write a book about this.
MONEY FROM MEDIA (or not)
What came out of this experience in the longer term?
I found that with printed media, stories that that hit the newspapers and then about two years later the magazines find you, and they want to know 'what is it like to survive McKinley and where you are now?' FHM rang me up. [FHM were a UK monthly men's lifestyle magazine.] I thought, ‘well I am hardly the best looking bloke, but go on’. In the late '90's it didn’t get any bigger! They wanted to take all the information and pay nothing for it, bear that in mind. Men’s Health was the same, GQ too.
In the end I said ‘I don't mind doing this but I'm not a bloody charity’. I made them pay for the pictures. But I think I only got two or three hundred quid out of them.
After that Discovery then found us. In the UK, there were a number of disaster programs – personal stories from fires and floods, those sorts of things. They’ve tailed off a bit now, because they are not celebrity telly. But back then Discovery were desperate to make a ‘nightmare at 20,000 feet’ thing, which they did. Myself, Anthony and Steve were all interviewed, and then they went away and did a re-enactment. I’m not particularly happy with the program, I think it is an over-dramatic nightmare. But they paid five grand for a day, for about nine hours of interviewing each. That is a one-off payment, no royalties, nothing else.
I found that people in the media found me, rather than Anthony or Steve. I chose to put myself out there, which means that when people type your name into the internet, they find you. We had numerous bits of telly work like that but again, nobody wants to pay for it. I did some really hard negotiations with some of them, just to get three or four or five hundred quid out of them. News pays nothing. The American documentary programs do pay, that is where the money is.
Nigel has written a four-part blog-post series on Working With The Media.
You knew that you had a story that people were interested in. Your book about it came out in 2008. Why the long gap?
I wish to God I knew myself. I wanted to write something. I had all kinds of ideas, I had diaries. Do I do this? Do I do that? I had no idea what the hell I was doing. Then I met a lady called Mindy Gibbins-Klein, aka The Book Midwife, through the PSA [Professional Speaking Assocation], who did books. She offered courses and that basically gave me the kick up the arse to get doing it.
But of course it cost money so I had to find some more money.
Your two books are self-published. How did you do it?
It was called Ecademy Press in its day, it is renamed now [as Panoma Press]. Mindy had all the contacts. It was funded by me in the end. It seemed the only avenue at the time. I could not get anybody else interested.
You tried to get a traditional publisher interested?
I made lots of contacts, talked to lots of people, and could not get anybody to bite at all.
How much effort have you put into marketing the books?
Quite a bit. When they were initially launched we got companies to do publicity. Social networking was not what it is now. I did lectures, mountain festivals. I used the contacts that I had got through McKinley, and did lots of media work, to the point I was physically exhausted. It still didn't really sell all that well.
Lots of people get excited about 'I'm the number one in business book on Amazon this weekend'. You soon realise, 'Really? Does that really get me excited? No it bloody does not'.
What a lot of us end up with, is we order the books and they sit in our house for a long time. Over the years, I have sold quite a lot but I would not say that I have made any money out of it at all. I’ve probably broken even.
Is there another book in the making?
I am trying to write a third one right now and it is an absolute bloody waste of time, frankly. I cannot do it while I am working shifts. And I have got the builders in. It’s not working for me. I have applied at work for a job share, to go half time with another engineer.
What I would like to do is be in an inspiring environment. I like writing in my old grammar school library. There I can feel like an old fashioned English man, with a smoking jacket and pipe. The book is based on love letters. I have talked to a few people and they are really inspired by the idea, but I have got to put some meat on the bones. For my previous books, with Mindy, we would have the weekly phone call. It was a bit like having the teacher ask, 'have you done your homework?’ You felt compelled to do it.
I talked to some publishers in the outdoor world who said 'great idea! Write it all out and come back to us'. I’ve got to get my arse into gear and write. It’s as simple as that.
Have you sold any outdoor writing or photographs or films?
I tried it. I did some articles for Summit magazine, and one or two others; it didn’t really work for me. Everybody was interested in the initial story, after that it was about balancing time. Also I am having trouble using my fingers these days, so typing is not something I choose to do if I can.
I did some photography sales early on. I even did some gallery displays, only locally. I got a good response, sold a few pictures, but lost money on it frankly and ended up with boxes of pictures in my house with no idea what to do with them.
THE SCHOOL SPEAKING CIRCUIT
You had already done some talks for outdoor clubs, when did you move into paid speaking?
I tried straight after McKinley and had a few minor bites. I joined the PSA at that point, to improve what I did and make some contacts. [The PSA Professional Speaking Association is the UK and Ireland's association for professional speakers. Nigel and I first met through it in the early 2000s.]
The corporate thing has never worked very well for me. I have done what people tell you, which is to get yourself on a load of speaker agency books.That did not bring much, a few gigs and I mean just a few. I have approached businesses directly, and indirectly. I have been to conferences and fairs.
People tell me I am a very good speaker. That is lovely, yes, but it does not get you gigs. I learned very quickly that you either have to be a name or in the right genre at the right time. I have worked tirelessly to a point of breaking almost at times. Asking myself: What do I do? How do I do it? What am I doing wrong? For me, it has been an absolute bloody nightmare?
I will get three or four talks in a month and then I will not get one for two years. I have got some interested people at the minute but I have learned from bitter experience not to get too excited. I suppose that was one reason why I went into speaking at schools.
There is a market - it does not pay anything like corporate of course. I am pretty good at speaking to youngsters and very good at relating to them, about going through tough times and how to re-build your life. There seems to be an appetite for that in the UK.
Again, that is very up and down work. I have worked with other speakers and with agencies and direct with schools. You think something is going reasonably well and then somebody changes something in government and the money is gone overnight.
How do you balance this speaking work with the fact that you do have a job and are expected to be in the office?
When I came back from the initial accident, I was on reduced hours because of my injuries. I eventually returned to full time work, but then took a year’s career break. There was a mountaineering challenge I wanted to do [see below], but I also wanted to give the speaking business time to grow. I felt I was juggling too many things here. I need to give this a really good go.
I took that year out and I found that my finances were just not keeping up. It was, ‘right Nigel, after a year, you have to change things.’
I went back to work three days a week. The company were incredibly flexible, they were very kind. I could pick any three days in the week I felt like. That seemed to work well - I had some money coming in and I could also spend time getting outdoors occasionally. I was doing speaking gigs, meeting people, looking at how move my business forward. The ultimate aim for many years was to reach a point where I could to tell the boss where to go and walk out.
That changed three or four years ago. We got bought out and the new company said ’There is no part time in this industry. You are on full time on a shift or you are out of a job’. Frankly, I have got a mortgage to pay, so I still work for them. It is something I still don’t like.
I don’t like working shifts, but many school talks are mornings only or just an hour here or there. I can balance that with shift work. I have learned to be very straight with schools about when I can be available. These are the hours I’ve got. I’m straight about money too. This is what I cost, I’m not shy about it. If they’ve not got the funds, I’ve not got the time.
How much do you charge for school talks?
£600 a time for secondary schools, plus travel. I also work with some school speaking agencies. I am clear with them - this is my fee and I will work in Derbyshire and one surrounding county. I’ve not got the time or the energy to be driving to Scotland or London.
How do you go about finding these school gigs?
It is pointless cold-calling a school. So initially it was through word of mouth, and people I knew, because I only wanted to work locally. Teaching networks are pretty tight knit, the word gets round. For a time I worked directly for an agency who worked in schools, as they wanted to promote me. But it just did not work for me, it was all about them. In the end word of mouth plus a couple of agencies, that is enough. You have got to sleep.
How do those school agencies make money? There is not a great deal of money to share around if you are charging £600.
£600 was my line, if that means they only get me four gigs a year, then that’s it. They do put a percentage on top, it is up to them to do the negotiating. I tend to get booked predominantly by private schools or academies, because they are the ones with the money. One recently booked me, a very well-known public school in Britain; I accepted the fee and then a week before they were trying to hammer me down on it. I told them ‘you have agreed the fee and that is the end to it’.
What kind of speech do you give for schools?
It is based on triumph over adversity really. I will show them very blunt pictures of mountaineering frostbite and amputations which works on shock value more than anything else. A number of teachers absolutely adore it but I have had teachers faint.
I do not mince my words. I talk about how about things happen, get over it, and consider how you are going to live your life. Anybody can get frostbite if they are daft enough. Go and sit in the freezer, it will happen. It is all about how you choose to live your life afterwards. How you choose to define yourself. It seems to work very well with the sixth forms and the older pupils.
Two blog posts by Nigel about the business of being an adventure speaker
CHASING AN ADVENTURe RECORD
When you took your year off, that was to finish your project to do a British first – to climb the highest peaks on the worlds seven largest islands?
I had been doing it for five years in total, trying to fit it into five or six weeks a year off. I finished it in 2007 when I took my career break. Then I was thinking ‘Where can I take this? What messages can I use in my lectures?’
Quite bluntly, it knackered my bank account, it broke my relationship. I didn’t want to go back to work but I couldn’t see any other way of putting food on the table. Quite simply, that is why I went back part time.
You paid for it yourself?
The initial idea came when I was on Baffin Island and I met a Guatemalan guy in a tent, as you do - Jaime Vinals. He was doing this challenge. This was just a couple of years after the frostbite. I needed something that seemed viable with my injuries. I came back to the UK full of excitement. I talked to all kinds of people in the mountaineering and adventure world. 'Has it been done blah, blah?' What I earned very quickly was, no, it had not been done and nobody cared really.
People who think doing a first something is going to make them famous - it is going to have to be a hell of a first! The first person to jump out of a space craft and parachute to earth, that is pretty dramatic. The first person to pedal a bike up Kilimanjaro…. not exciting. I learnt that lesson very bluntly.
Still, I didn’t do it for money, I did it for me because I needed a purpose and I needed a kick. It was something I could get my teeth into. Yes, it cost me a lot of money. There is no two ways about it. I made very little out of it. I wrote a second book, made very little out of that. But it was more for my physical and mental state.
You have also done a couple of polar arctic races?
I did the races because it is something that I always wanted to do and I paid for them again out of my wages. I got to to a point where I had approached so many companies, and talked to so many people…, it is easier just to work, because then you know the money is coming.
I am not Leo Holding, I am not Chris Bonington and I am never going to be. I am just me, some bloke from Belper.
I have had my epics and I do some crazy things, but I am not saleable for people like Speakers From The Edge. I am not a name that is going to sell stuff and put bums on seats. That is something that is just how it is. I do now have a very well-paying job, and I get 13 weeks holiday a year. That is the only upside of working shifts, let me assure you.
BEING A BRAND AMBASSADOR
Are you a brand ambassador for any companies?
I am a brand ambassador for Terra Nova Extremities. They are based in the UK, just up the road from me. As you can probably appreciate, fingers and gloves and socks are tricky for me. They make all those for free for me and for that I am very grateful. There is no financial support. They will tell you they get 50 requests a week. I have worked with them for a very long time, I’m local, I’m happy to work with them and we have got a long term relationship. They’ve had people trash their kit, or make promises they never kept. They got to a point where they only want to work with people they know.
I am also working with Ordnance Survey as a ‘Get Outside Champion’. It is like a brand ambassador I suppose. They have got a moral idea of people in Britain are not getting outside enough. They have picked a number of people in Britain, some with families, some old gits like me, some youngsters, to try and instil into people that getting outside is a great thing to do. We all live indoors, we are all getting depression or not enough exercise, and we are the people that promote that.
Through that, I got a little bit of money - 200 quid. I get some free maps, shoes, T-shirts. I write some blog posts. Ordnance Survey is a huge brand in Britain. I get recognised by wearing their kit, I get to go to events, get put on stages, plastered all over their websites. Your name gets out.
Again, you are not going to get rich on this kind of thing. It hasn’t brought me any other work. The Duke of Edinburgh scheme has though. I presented their Gold Award and some of those people have come back to me later and asked me to speak in their businesses, now that they have gone out into the world.
I’ve been involved with the Duke of Edinburgh scheme for about ten years. It started with presenting local awards. It puts me in front of lots of schools who might bring me some speaking and it gets me back in the papers locally. Before I knew it, it was ‘can you come down to St James and present for the Duke of Edinburgh’. Again, it is all done free gratis, but it puts you on front of people.
With brand ambassador work, the biggest enemy we have is ourselves. People who make big promises to companies but don’t deliver. Or who say 'I am going to walk to the South Pole’ when they just mean the last degree. That knackers it for everybody else. Businesses close their doors to sponsorship requests and say 'I cannot be bothered with it'.
Now of course there are big name brand ambassadors for certain brands, like Berghaus with Chris Bonington, and Leo Holding. They are good for column inches. But I see people tarting themselves as brand ambassadors, saying they’ll be up blogging till midnight about a new pair of shoes that were given to them, or coats, or rucksacks.
I am thinking, ‘firstly, where the hell do you put all this stuff? And how are you getting it? You cannot say that everything is wonderful because we know damn well in the outdoors, it is not. But that is what everybody wants from you. Why are you doing it?’
As a brand ambassador, I have done some influencing with Terra Nova Extremities, given feedback on what I think about things. Whether they take it on is their business, but I want to be honest. I have not got the time to juggle eight companies. All you are doing is you are thinning yourself down all the time. I am certainly not somebody who wants to blog every five minutes and go on about... 20,000 people read my website. I would rather have 20 people that take notice.
I think that is one of the hardest things with brand ambassadors - everybody is getting lost in this huge lake of blogs. I cannot read it all. I haven’t got time to spend 12 hours a day reading the internet.
You get involved in some of the Outdoor Blogger twitter chats, is that right?
I have been involved just lately, through Ordnance Survey. My own personal view is there are a hell of a lot of very inept, inexperienced voices. They are fantastic people, they’ve built a wonderful media presence, they put all the right buzz words in. But basically, an awful lot of them haven't got a clue.
If you took them off into the middle of an ice field they wouldn't have a hope of knowing what they are talking about. But they are really good at reviewing trainers or some outdoor kit.
PERSONAL BRANDING AND SOCIAL MEDIA
How active are you on social media and where do you find the best return?
I am reasonably active, predominately on Facebook and Twitter and LinkedIn. The thing is working in education - it is very hard to put anything on social media about what you do, because of child protection issues. So very early on I made a Nigel John Vardy for my mates and Nigel Vardy for people who just want to like me. I cannot accept friend requests from youngsters. Plain and simple, that is just the world I live in.
Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are good for putting up blog posts, for news of my next adventure and pictures of where I’ve been. I get good returns on those, lots of people show interest. I am not a person that blogs on expeditions particularly though. You may as well just write, 'please burgle my house' all over the internet. I do not put 800 pictures up of an expedition, when ten will do. I am not on the web every night.
When requests come through about things like speaking, I will deal with them, but privately. I do not get a massive amount of business, financially, from social media. It is all about the bigger picture.
You put up the Mr Frostbite brand in the early 2000s. Has that worked for you? Would you do it again if you could go back, or would you go with Nigel Vardy?
I build my first website back in the days of HTML. A guy in the PSA was helping me and he suggested Mr Frostbite idea as a strap-line. I thought, ‘okay, fair enough, trust the experts and all the rest of it’.
I find that it is okay in education, but it is no good in the corporate world. Now I have created a NigelVardy.com as well and split the business in two. Mr Frostbite is great for youngsters but when I want to talk business, I go to NigelVardy.com.
I want people to see more of me than just Mr Frostbite. Every time I do a press interview it’s ‘Nigel Vardy blah, blah, blah, who lost his fingers and toes on Mount McKinley’. That is going to be with me until the day I die. I know that.
Do you think that adventure has been a bit dumbed down in our new #adventure world?
I think it is absolutely bloody true. I don't think half of them know what the word adventure actually means. Because risk - ‘Oh My God, we can't have that, can we?’ Don't get me wrong. I have had my disasters, but I do not believe in doing things unsafely. I think there is also a line - take abseiling, people now have so many safety lines and so much protective kit, how the hell are they ever going to get down?
Nowadays everybody thinks they are an adventurer, or an explorer, or this that and the other. Years ago we would have just said, 'today I went for a nice bike ride or I went for a walk in the hills.’
I see people saying ‘I have given up work; I don't need to work because I choose to choose adventure’. I know damn well they are IT consultants in their private lives. I cannot do that. I will tell folk I work.
I am doing this for me. If people like it, that is lovely, if they don't that is not a problem. Stop telling people what they should think you are, go out there and prove it.
Thank you. You have been incredibly generous as always, and wonderfully forthright!