The toes and handwritten letter received by Adam Gerle, Northern Vision Development vice-president of marketing, from the former British marine who lost some toes to frostbite during the 2018 Yukon Arctic Ultra. (Adam Gerle/Northern Vision Development)

Frostbitten big toe finds new home in Dawson City’s infamous cocktail

Nick Griffiths, who ran the Yukon Arctic Ultra in 2018, donated two toes to the Downtown Hotel.

When Nick Griffiths signed up for the Yukon Arctic Ultra in 2018, he was trying to raise money for the Rob George Foundation, a charity in his native U.K. that provides financial assistance to young people with life-threatening illness or exceptional talents they can’t pursue due to financial constraints.

He raised £9,555 on crowdfunding website MyDonate for the charity, but later on he also gave away something unexpected: his toes.

After a bout with extreme frostbite during the race led to three of his toes getting amputated, he decided to give two of them to the Dawson City Downtown Hotel’s sourtoe cocktail drink, in which people take a shot of whiskey with a mummified toe in it and let the toe touch their lips.

Although the smaller toe was deemed too small to use, they plan to use his big toe for the drink after it undergoes a six-week preservation period in rock salt.

“I’m quite happy for them to be recycled and reused,” he told the News in a phone interview from the U.K. “It’s a little bit of history up there.”

Griffiths was one of several participants in the 300-mile race that year who had to drop out after succumbing to frostbite. After frostbite was found in his fingers, he was taken to a hospital where it was discovered he had severe frostbite in his toes too.

“I didn’t really think it was a big deal,” he said. “I thought I had a bit of frostbite… but I wasn’t naive about it. I didn’t think they were going to come off, but the surgeon came in and said, ‘Look Nick, the frostbite on your foot is as severe as it gets; you’re going to lose all of your toes, if not the front half of your left foot.’ It was only then that I realized this is quite serious.”

The hospital was able to recover most of his foot and he returned home with all of his digits intact. However, doctors in the U.K. told him that three of his toes had died and would have to be amputated.

Taking humour in the situation, he decided to send two of the toes to Dawson City.

“I knew all about the sourtoe cocktail because one of the nurses in the hospital in Canada told me about it,” he said. “I asked the surgeon if I could have the toes and he said, ‘Yeah, fine, they’re your toes.’”

The Downtown Hotel has been serving the sourtoe cocktail since 1973. It was invented by riverboat captain Dick Stevenson, who found a severed toe preserved in a jar of alcohol and decided to make a drink with it. To date, over 100,000 people are part of the “Sourtoe Cocktail club.”

Dawson City Downtown Hotel general manager Adam Gerle was ecstatic when he heard about the newest addition to the sourtoe cocktail challenge.

“It’s very exciting news around here,” he said. “We’ve been desperate for a big toe.”

Although they have three smaller digits currently in circulation, they haven’t had a big toe in years. Their last one had to be retired three years ago because it was about to fall apart, while the one before that was infamously swallowed.

Gerle said toes don’t come to the hotel very often.

“Hospitals are reluctant to give them away, even if it belongs to the individual who lost their toe,” he said. “Hopefully this encourages people to immortalize their toes in history and send them our way.”

The toe arrived this week preserved in a bottle of alcohol — Griffiths listed it as a “novelty gift” when trying to decide how to label it during shipping. Their arrival kicked of a flurry of media attention for Griffiths, who’s since been interviewed by media outlets such as the Washington Post, BBC and the Guardian.

“I’m just a normal bloke and people are ringin’ up from all over the world asking to talk,” he said.

“I came in from work and my daughter said, ‘The phone’s been ringing all day with people trying to get ahold of you.’ She said, ‘I’m sick of it, I’m not answering the phone.’ She stopped answering it because international calls kept coming in.”

Once his toe is in use, Griffiths plans to come up to Dawson City and become a member of the sourtoe cocktail club himself, using his own toe in the drink.

“We’re planning to contribute financially to bring him up here and pay for as much of his trip as possible,” said Gerle. “We’ll make a fun event of it.”

Contact Joshua Azizi at joshua.azizi@yukon-news.com

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The package Adam Gerle, Northern Vision Development vice-president of marketing, received from the British man who lost some toes to frostbite during the 2018 Yukon Arctic Ultra. (Adam Gerle/Northern Vision Development)

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