By Sophie Norris
A former marine commando who lost three toes to frostbite after a 300-mile ultra-marathon is looking forward to being served them in a cocktail.
Nick Griffiths, 46, had trained for more than a year for the Yukon Arctic Ultra in February but he was forced to drop out due to severe frostbite which caused his toes to turn black and need amputating.
While receiving emergency treatment in a Canadian hospital, a nurse told the dad of two about the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City, Yukon, which is famous for serving up the ‘Sourtoe’ cocktail.
The drink is any strong liquor with a human toe submerged in it, with the one rule being ‘you can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe’.
Nick liked the idea so much he asked UK doctors who amputated his toes to let him keep them so he could mail them to the bar – so he and his family can enjoy drinking them one day.
They are currently preserved in alcohol by his bedside ready to be shipped 3,900 miles back to Canada.
Nick, from Bolton, Greater Manchester, said: “After the amputation surgery, they actually gave me my toes back in three small jars.
“When I was going into the theatre I asked the surgeon if I could save my toes and told him what it was for. He found it quite amusing.
“I wrote to the Downtown Hotel to tell them about my toes and what had happened, and they said they’d love to have them.
“The only problem is I’m not sure you can just send amputated toes through the post. The staff are looking into how I can send them.”
More than 100,000 people have joined the official Sourtoe Cocktail Club so far, by allowing the toe to touch their lips as they drink.
Nick said: “It’s quite a novelty. When I was in Whitehorse before the race there was a poster up in the hotel saying, ‘when in the Yukon, make sure you visit Downtown Hotel – home of the world famous Sourtoe Cocktail’.
“If you donate your toe, you are forever immortalised on their Wall of Fame. They’ve had 10 toes over the years and they have a bit on the wall about how the toe came to be there and who donated it.
“The first toe was donated in the 1890s and I think the cocktail started in the seventies. I know someone stole it, then returned it. Another swallowed the drink and accidentally downed the whole toe too.
“I think you can have your pick of any alcohol that is over 40 per cent then you down it like a shot and the toe is meant to touch your lips. They read you a ritual poem beforehand and you get a certificate afterwards.
“They have had to increase the fine over the years and now it’s $2,000 if you steal or swallow it.
“I’d love to save and visit, take my wife and visit the bar so I can try the cocktail for myself.
“One day it means my children or grandchildren will be able to visit and enjoy the cocktail with my toe in it.”
Nick had trained for more than a year to enter the marathon, which involves dragging a sledge and covering at least 40 miles per day over eight days.
As a former Royal Marine, the logistics manager claims nothing could have prepared him for the endurance and extreme conditions in the Yukon.
Nick said: “I spent a year training for this. You can train for the endurance and you’ve got eight days to complete that 300 miles, but you can never be prepared for such extreme temperatures.
“It got down to minus 50 degrees with high humidity. On the day I was ‘scratched out’ of the race, they had to stop it anyway because of the extreme conditions.
“I ended up with frostbite and now I’m back in England I’ve lost three toes.”
After being told to stop his race, Nick endured a two-and-a-half-hour sledge ride to the nearest road before being taken to Whitehorse General Hospital, the biggest hospital in the Yukon.
Nick said: “They have several checkpoints in the race about 30 or 40 miles apart where they check you’re okay. The attendant asked me how I felt and it was actually my hands I was worried about because they turned a candle wax colour.
“I figured my feet would be fine because I was running and I thought I’d be keeping them warm.
“I had a bit of frostbite on my left ear and the end of my nose too.
“It was as bad as it gets. I was rushed to intensive care because of the drugs they needed to put me on and was told then I was probably going to lose the top half of my left foot.
“The first thing they did was stick my feet in warm water which helped the blood start flowing again. This happened everywhere but my left toes which all went purple.
“It was actually a nurse at the hospital in Canada that told me about the cocktail. She showed me a video of herself doing the shot and asked me if I’d considered donating it.”
After five days, Nick was able to fly home and was sent to Wythenshawe Hospital Burns Unit in Manchester where his toes were bandaged up.
However after several weeks he had surgery to remove his big toe and the two next to it.
Nick said: “I was treated in the burns unit because by the time I got back to the UK, my toes had started decomposing.
“At the moment my foot is still bandaged up.
“When the bandages come off, I don’t know how long the physiotherapy and rehabilitation will take.
“I’ve got a long way to go.”
The Downtown Hotel’s Toe Master Terry Lee, 70, said: “I’m the guy that prepares the toes for serving. I make sure they are suitable for serving.
“I’ve been the Toe Master for five years now.
“When the toes arrive we put them in medical fluid. Then we drain that and chop off any fat or veins that might be hanging out.
“We then sit them in rock salt for six weeks and they become preserved. We remove the toes from the salt each time we use them and try to rotate them each week.
“It’s amazing that Nick wants to donate his toes. It’s a tricky situation trying to get them to us as when you send toes via mail, that’s sending a body part over borders.
“Saying that, we have had people from foreign countries donate their toes by just mailing them before.
“I hope he’ll be able to visit and enjoy his own toe in our Sourtoe Cocktail one day.”