Whisky and glaciers

Society member and mountaineer Nigel Vardy had to put his adventures on hold during the course of the pandemic. But when he finally had the chance to travel to Norway and Greenland, the perfect Society bottling was an essential part of his kit

After many delays due to Covid and care, my expedition life was back on. I’d hoped to sea kayak and climb in Greenland for the past couple of years, and 2022 allowed me to realise these dreams, but before I get too far ahead, let’s head to Norway.

You don’t just jump into a sea kayak and start paddling, so I joined guide Laila Reigstad on the small island Misje in Norway to take onboard the lessons of skirts, stroke and staying afloat, before joining fellow paddlers Christian and Ketil for a few days out. I’d brought a bottle of SMWS Cask No. 26.195: Come into the perfumed garden, which wowed the guests at a wedding we joined (at the last minute) and is still talked about today. To me, whisky is for sharing, not hiding in cupboards. Its value is in the friendships we make, not the dust it gathers.

Whisky is born of the hills. Their fresh waters and peat create the spirit we know and love (not forgetting the barley!).

ABOVE: Nigel ‘Mr Frostbite’ Vardy

ABOVE: Breakfast in the sun

Greenland certainly has plenty of beautiful waters and glaciers which were inspiration enough to travel northwards armed with a bottle or two.

My first visit was around the Inuit town of Narsaq, situated in the southern tip of this enormous island. Myself and my Norwegian friends spent a week paddling out into fjords strewn with icebergs ranging from tabletops to 10-storey buildings. I carefully packed Cask No. 5.82: Breakfast in the sun, realising afterwards that drinking before paddling wasn’t going to work, but when I sat down one evening, it dawned upon me. Time is not for chasing and when we sat of an evening, watching the stunning sunsets, it was breakfast somewhere in the world. I haven’t worn a wristwatch in over 20 years (I occasionally wear a pocket watch for dress) and modern life has little patience, but like the laying down of the spirit, nature works on the rising and setting sun. Perhaps we need to return to nature’s clock.

“1t is such a privilege to be able to share these moments and we toasted the mountains every evening. Again, the ice was beyond age and we kept a large supply on deck for drinks.”

I do enjoy water with my dram, but if you’re using ice, why not enjoy ice as old as the pole itself, and crush diamond-like crystals into your glass. It was as cold as it was releasing and brought a restful peace to the end of every day’s work. Ketil noted how he felt so at peace and remarked that: “If this was my last day on earth, I’d be happy.” I will never forget that shared moment.

I returned home and packed away my dry suit and life vest, replacing them with crampons and ice axes in preparation for a return to this beautiful island. Famed mountaineer Simon Yates organised the trip with climbers Nigel and John from Yorkshire and Vincente Castro, skippering the Iorana.

The plan was to sail from north-west Iceland, across the Denmark Straits, to Jacobsen and Ryberg Fjord. What else could I pick but Cask No. 10.124: Riding the wave. I might be an international mountaineer, but I’ve always suffered travel sickness. As a child, my mother struggled to get me the eight miles from my hometown of Belper in Derbyshire to Derby without me going green. I’ve improved over the years, but little boats still have their effects. I was dosed up on drugs, but they helped little and I was very glad to see the coastal mountains two days later.

The good ship Iorana provided an excellent base to move around with ease and pick peaks at will. Maps of the region are approximately 70 years old and at a satellite scale, so every step was an adventure. You never knew what was around the corner and we summited at least three unclimbed peaks during the trip. It’s almost impossible to judge distance and what seems an hour can take four or five.

ABOVE: Nigel begins an ascent into the unknown

One particular climb saw us roped together and ascending a Scottish Grade 1 route – simple enough, but the rock was rotten and regular lumps fell away as we climbed.

We ascended the crest to enjoy unlimited views over berg-filled fjords, glaciers and mountains. It is such a privilege to be able to share these moments and we toasted the mountains every evening. Again, the ice was beyond age and we kept a large supply on deck for drinks. Time again seemed to take a back seat as the days were long and the weather stable. It was like a dreamworld, but things are changing. It’s obvious that many of the ice fields have retreated over a mile since the maps were made and show no signs of slowing their demise. What this brings to our world is yet to see, but for now, we can enjoy a dram with friends and celebrate life.

We enjoyed a final barbecue on the beach (with one eye out for polar bears), before facing the fateful journey south. I’m not saying that the seas were rough, but I was pinned into my bunk like a fairground ride for almost a day as Vincente skilfully sailed us homeward.

Looking back, I feel tremendous warmth for such a cold place. The pure ruggedness, unforgiveness and raw beauty of the fjords is life itself. It breathes a mist you could hide a longboat in, dances with the Northern Lights and cleanses your soul, but it must also be respected. Let your guard down too long and its cold will bite at your hands, its animals bite at your heels and its waters devour you.

But as Ketil said: “If this was my last day…” Just as long as there’s a dram to share…

Nigel Vardy, also known as Mr Frostbite, is a mountaineer, adventurer, motivational speaker and passionate member of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Find out more at