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‘We’re really happy to get this toe’: Arctic marathoner donates amputated digits for a hotel’s infamous cocktail

The Toe Master, Terry Lee, prepares a bar patron for a Sourtoe Cocktail. (Courtesy Downtown Hotel)

Nick Griffiths didn’t want his toes to go to waste.

Not all of them were going to make it home with him after he had to be evacuated from the Yukon Arctic Ultra by snowmobile in February 2018, suffering from deep frostbite during the 300-mile race. The 47-year-old ultramarathoner from the U.K. had been slogging through the snow and ice out in the Canadian wilderness for 30 consecutive hours when his hands and feet started to turn raw. He was pulling a sled of supplies in temperatures colder than 40-below zero, bent on crossing a finish line hundreds of miles away.

It was so cold that his eyes were frozen open, his eyelashes stuck together and his lids un-blinkable. Ice crystals were falling from the sky like missiles. Dehydrated, sleepless and numb, Griffiths surrendered at mile 50. The doctors soon informed him: Three of his toes would have to go.

But still, a nurse assured him, he didn’t really have to lose them, at least not completely. Had he ever heard of the Sourtoe Cocktail? she asked.

Griffiths thought it was a whiskey drink. Sort of, the nurse said. It is a shot of whiskey with a mummified human toe dropped inside, like an orange peel in an Old-Fashioned. And if Griffiths wanted, maybe it could be his toe. The bar, at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City, Yukon, is always in need of toes, she said.

Griffiths was intrigued.

“So I got in touch with the hotel,” he said. “And they said, ‘Well, if we can get them, we’d love to have your toes.’”

Griffith couldn’t pass up the chance to become the main ingredient of one of the world’s most disgusting drinking experiences. His toes arrived by mail at the bar last week.

People have been venturing to Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel to throw back the Sourtoe Cocktail since 1973, when a local boat operator found a severed toe in a cabin and thought turning it into a drinking challenge might be a great way to draw tourists. Somehow, it was. Since then, Terry Lee, the bar’s official “Toe Master,” estimates that more than 100,000 people have become members of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club.

To join the club, you don’t have to swallow the toe, or even put it in your mouth. But there is one rule, more so a motto, according to Lee: “You can drink it fast. You can drink it slow. But your lips must touch the gnarly toe.” The toe is mummified, dry and blackish-brown. It is stored in a jar of salt in the warmth of the furnace room for preservation. There are currently two toes in stock, rotated out until they decay into useless stubs.

That is why Griffiths’s donation is so special, Lee said. It can be challenging to stock the bar with new toes, which only come every several years.

“We’re really happy to get this toe,” Lee said. “We’ve been without a big toe for a long time.”

Griffiths’s donation is uncommon for several reasons, Lee said. Typically, the donated toes don’t go through so much trouble to get there. They are usually willed to the bar by anonymous deceased people. Sometimes they are donated by living people who chop off a toe on accident with a lawn mower or chain-saw. But rarely, Lee said, does a living person donate an amputated toe after voluntarily trudging 50 miles through the arctic wilderness.

Griffiths is that guy. A former British Marine, Griffiths has always been itching for the next endurance-testing thrill. He’s completed the Ironman Triathlon, which included a 2.4-mile swim and 112-mile bike race with a marathon at the end. He’s rowed a boat across the Atlantic Ocean with a small crew of friends, a 59-day venture. The Yukon Arctic Ultra, he said, was only part of the natural progression.

“I like a challenge and I like an adventure. But there’s people out there who are way more adventurous and tougher than I am,” he said. “I’m just a normal bloke who likes to have a go at things and experience life.”

So he geared up with a closet’s worth of long johns, fleece and waterproof, windproof puffy jackets and bought his ticket for the 300-mile arctic marathon. The racers are entirely self-sufficient, pulling their own food, sleeping bags and water on a tiny sled as though they are the dogs and the supplies are their mushers. The trail is marked. But last year, Griffiths said, the conditions got so bad that the organizers had to rescue almost everybody, halting the event for one day.

The day started out just fine — “The temperature was about minus-36. Really nice day.” — but by nightfall the temperature plummeted and became unbearable. Griffiths knew he couldn’t stop walking. He couldn’t lie down and sleep. But eventually, Griffiths said, he and a partner were too exhausted to go on. They huddled in the snow for three hours in the middle of the night, from midnight to 3 a.m., shivering and massaging their numb muscles to keep the blood flowing. The left foot was a problem, Griffiths realized. He couldn’t get it warm.

By the next evening, when event staff transported Griffiths on an hours-long journey to the nearest hospital, his toes were purple. The surgeon thought he was going to lose them all, if not his entire foot. Griffiths remained in the hospital for treatment for several days before flying back home to Manchester, where a surgeon geared him up for amputation.

There, he told the doctor about the Sourtoe Cocktail.

“He thought it was quite amusing,” Griffiths said. “He said, ‘Look, they’re your toes. You can have them if you want.’ When I came back from surgery, next to me were three little jars with my toes in it.”

The hard part was figuring how to transport the toes to the Downtown Hotel bar. For months, the hotel kept trying to fly him out to deliver them in person, but plans kept being thwarted by Griffiths’s long-term medical treatment. Finally, fearing “it was a bit of a waste for these toes to just sit there,” Griffiths turned to the postal service. “I didn’t really think you could send body parts through the post,” he said. But to his delight, “The post office said it would take about five to seven days.”

It didn’t, of course.

Five weeks later, to Griffiths’s relief, the toes arrived intact, floating in the medical-grade alcohol.

Lee said the next step will be soaking the toes in salt to dry them out, as part of the six-week mummification process. Then, they will be ready to serve.

Griffiths said he still plans to make the trip to Dawson City “so I can drink my own toe.”

“My wife and kids, they think I’m a bit mad,” he said.

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