The nurse treating Nick Griffiths in a Whitehorse hospital told him that if he did lose his toes to intense frostbite, he should give them up to the Toe Master at the Dawson City hotel.
There they would live on and touch the lips of drunk Canadians for years to come.
Some context: The Sourtoe Cocktail is something—kinda like the Tragically Hip—that has notoriety in Canada but isn’t too known outside of our borders. It’s a shot served in the Hotel bar in Dawson City, Yukon. The famous drink is simply a shot of whisky, typically Yukon Gold, garnished with a mummified human toe. When you do the shot, you drink the booze, and you kiss the toe. Obviously.
The shot was invented sometime about 1971 and typically garners mixed reactions. While it’s good for a laugh from some, it’s completely revolting for others—one gastroenterologist told the New York Post, it was the "most disgusting thing" they've ever seen. Over the years scoundrels have eaten the toes, stolen the toes, and done all sorts of nefarious things to the toes. So, obviously, the hotel needs to keep a good stock of toes.
That’s where our friend Nick Griffiths, who hails from Bolton, England, comes into play. Griffiths, 47, was taking part in the Yukon’s Arctic Ultramarathon when he got minor frostbite in his hand and during his evacuation via snowmobile he ended up with severe frostbite on his foot. At this point he was pitched by the Whitehorse nurse, listened to his caretakers and, after getting the toes lopped off in the UK, sent them back to where they died. Griffiths, a former royal marine, says that all things considered, he’s lucky. He says that if he “could probably stand better on his right leg than his left” but other than a change in footwear there hasn’t been a huge difference in his life, and he can still run and swim. In fact, he says that he wants to one day go back to the Yukon and finish the damn race.
So, with a ton of questions in mind, we called up this cold running, toe donating, whisky shooting son-of-a-gun to ask him how he feels about his British toes in Canadian shot glasses.
And a quick warning, there's some gnarly photos to come.
VICE: So, let’s jump right in. How did you lose your toes?
Griffiths: So during this race, on the trail, they recorded temperatures below -50 [Celsius] and a real high humidity level. It was quite, quite extreme conditions. I was fine right up until the first checkpoint but during the night, when it got considerably colder, I realized I had a problem in my hand. Early the next afternoon, one of the marshals came past to check up on me and I told him ‘I think I might have might have frostbite,’ he checked and said I did.
So I told him I would walk to the next checkpoint, but he advised me it was another 10 miles, so I ended up getting on the snowmobile. I think the real damage was when I was on the back of the snowmobile. The windchill was obviously below -40 and I had boots on that were already cold and frozen.
They evacuated me to a hospital but everyone was quite calm about it all, so I was relaxed and not really too concerned. At the Whitehorse hospital, a doctor came in and told me, 'look, you've got severe frostbite to your left foot and this is as serious as it gets.' He told me 'you're going to lose all your toes, if not have your foot.'
Jesus, what did that feel like to hear that?
It still hadn’t really sunk in. I was quite quickly admitted into intensive care and they ended up pumping me full of drugs, taking blood, and all that because they’re trying to open up all your veins to get the blood pumping around my left foot. After a few days, I was discharged back to the UK and went to a hospital there. Again, they said I would lose three toes but I was quite keen to leave them and see what would happen and let the demarcation [decomposing] happen and see how much of the toe I would lose rather than take them off there and then. So I was then under their sort of the management to demarc and self amputate.
That was early to mid-February and then there is a sort of six-to-eight week period of a pretty uncomfortable, horrible, smell and pain coming from the toes. Gradually, they were getting worse and worse in terms of the smell and the pain. Finally, at the end of March, I was told they were taking too long to self amputate so we cut them off.
You mentioned twice that the smell got too bad, and that's kind of something you don't think of when it comes to an injury like frostbite. Can you describe the smell to me?
It's literally dead flesh. Where the good flesh was joining the dead flesh it would be bleeding and extremely, extremely painful. You know, the nerve endings in those areas are dying. But [the smell] literally, it was dead flesh. It was revolting.
I'm gonna ask you to go back a little bit in time to happy-go-lucky Nick, he's got 10 toes, he's in Dawson City. How does he hear about the Sourtoe Cocktail for the first time?
When I was in Whitehorse, the week before the race, the hotel I was staying at is a sister hotel for the Dawson Hotel. There was an advert there that said 'visit Dawson City hotel to make sure to try the world famous Sourtoe Cocktail.' But I didn't really know what it was, I just assumed it was a cup of whisky.
When I was in hospital, I was in intensive care, so you've got pretty much two nurses in there with you the whole time. One of them said to me jokingly that 'you’ll have to donate your toes to the Sourtoe Cocktail if you lose them.' Then the doctor did the same thing and was laughing about it. When I got back to the UK, the reception for the hotel in Whitehorse, a really nice lady, she sent me an email saying 'oh, I saw this poster and thought of you.' It was an advert saying 'Toes wanted, if you have frostbite get in contact with the hotel.''So I emailed the hotel and said 'yeah, you know, I got frostbitten toes' and they were absolutely delighted and said 'yeah, we'll have 'em.'
So when I was going down to get them amputated I asked the surgeon is there any chance I can keep the toes and told him why. He laughed and said, 'yup, they’re your toes.' Sure enough, when I came round from the surgery next to the bed was three jars with my toes in them.
The way that you kind of described like the nurses and the doctor all kinds one after another being like, 'Hey, have you heard of the Sourtoe Cocktail? If you lose one of them, you should bring it there.' It almost sounds like the funniest racket I've ever heard, like the doctors are getting kickbacks from this bar to be like ‘you should donate your toe.’
[laughing] It wasn't them that got me in trouble and got me frostbite, but they were certainly into it. The doctor told me that it's in his will that when he dies to donate his toes to the bar. They're a peculiar bunch up in the Yukon.
Did you have any other ideas of what to do with the toes? Or was it just like, it's gonna either be in a cocktail or it's going to be in the dumpster?
Yeah, if it wasn't for the cocktail, I wouldn't have even asked for them. They would have just been amputated, incinerated, and thrown in the bin and that would have been it.
Do you have a preferred one that people will do shots with? Like, do you want to do the big toe? Or like have you always had a particular affinity to the middle toe?
No, no, I think the big toe is the money one. I think it's a rarity to get a proper frostbitten one too. They tend to get them from people who have had an accident or you know, from diabetes or something along those lines. But to get a proper original frostbitten big toe, they haven't had a big toe for a few years, so they're pretty stoked on that.
Well, and they'll probably be saving a bit on the booze too because more toe means less booze.
[laughing] Yeah. Probably down the line, yeah.
So you contact them and tell them you have some toes, how do they react?
Once I had them I sent them a picture and said 'this what they're like' and they said 'great' and we had to figure out a way to get them there. Initially, they were going to try and bring me out there to hand deliver them. But [with work and life] it just didn't happen.
So they ended up just sitting in my bedside cabinet drawer. It was earlier this year when it had been a year since they came off, and I decided to just try and send them in the post and see what happens. So I grabbed the big toe and the smallest piece of the next toe, wrapped them up in masking tape, put them in a tissue bag, and sent them to Canada.
Did you make any sort of request to add a British flavour to it? Gin instead of the Yukon Jack?
Yeah, Scotch whisky will be good for me! They're still planning to get me out there to reunite with my toe. So I'll be going over. I'll probably be the first person to actually do that.
Oh really? Do you think taking a shot with your toe in there, is kind of like the mildest form of cannibalism one can do?
[Laughing] It's probably not too far. I think it's probably like biting your nails or something isn't it. You're only kissing my toe.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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