Climbing a mountain is hard enough, but imagine doing it on stilts with your hands tied… Then you’d have some idea of the incredible feat achieved by quadruple amputee Jamie Andrew when he conquered the Matterhorn. Jamie, who lost his hands and feet in the same mountaineering accident that killed his friend, now climbs on prosthetic legs using his arm stumps for grip. His inspirational story made headlines around the world in August. But this record-breaking climb wasn’t just a personal battle against rock and elements – Jamie’s aim was to show anyone facing difficulties in life that there are no limits to what you can do and overcome.
“What I do is push back boundaries and, if I can, try to inspire others, whether disabled or not, that anything is possible if you set your mind to it,” Jamie says. He’s certainly living proof of that. It’s awe-inspiring to consider what he’s achieved. Especially as, after his accident, he didn’t think he’d even be able to hold a cup of tea.
Waking up in hospital to find your hands and feet are gone is “not something you can take in”, he says. Particularly for someone whose life, identity, career and passion are all tied up in outdoor activity and mountaineering it’s hard to imagine. But Jamie knew he was the lucky one.
He’d been scaling the north face of Les Droites near Chamonix in 1999 with best friend Jamie Fisher – a hard climb but one well within their capabilities – when a freak storm broke, leaving them stranded on a ledge. Experienced climbers, the pair fell back on their survival training. But nothing could have prepared them for being stranded there for 5 nights in freezing temperatures. “After spending a long time torturing myself asking what went wrong, eventually I’ve come to accept we were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Jamie says.
To pass the time the pair fantasised what they’d enjoy when they got back down. “We tried to remain light-hearted, talking mainly about hot meals and a hot bath. We were taking it minute by minute, it was just a case of surviving – trying to stay as warm and dry as possible, keeping each other going. We didn’t discuss the possibility of not making it.”
On the 4th afternoon a would-be rescuer was winched down from a helicopter. He was almost in touching distance when the storm forced the rescue attempt to be abandoned.
“It was gutting to see rescue come so close and be cruelly snatched away,” Jamie recalls. After that, his friend succumbed to the cold and Jamie closed his eyes, waiting for it to take him too. He says: “When I heard the rescuers coming for me I knew I’d live but it wasn’t a happy ending. I knew Jamie hadn’t made it.”
He also knew it was a strong possibility he’d lose his limbs, as he’d felt the hypothermia creep in. But he adds: “Nothing can prepare you for that. I had to be patient, had to let things take their course, try not to deal with it all at once. I felt anger and guilt thinking about Jamie but it made me realise I was lucky. I had a second chance, I was still alive and thinking about him spurred me on to make the most of it.”
No-one is more surprised than himself at how far he’s come. He says: “At first I couldn’t imagine dressing myself let alone going out and climbing a mountain. I had such low expectations and set goals I could achieve – like holding a cup of tea. I found out what was possible by tackling every challenge like I used to tackle mountaineering – setting smaller goals, one step at a time.
“It was a surprisingly exciting time – every day I managed something new. It might just be picking up a pen or putting on a t-shirt, but I was focused on the little things I could do now rather than all the things I still couldn’t.
Jamie [Fisher] hadn’t had the chance so I did it in his honour, and for all the people who worked so hard to rescue and treat me.”
Even with such a positive and determined outlook, adjusting to his new life was extremely difficult. “I was a very stubborn, independent person,” Jamie says. “It wasn’t easy to admit I couldn’t do anything. But I soon learned I had to swallow my pride and accept help. Using a prosthetic is hard – to get it right and find a good fit with not too much pain. Then it’s about finding your balance. It’s like walking on stilts. With a lot of practice it gets easier.”
Just over 3 months after the accident, Jamie was walking on his new legs. He says: “I had a very encouraging consultant who would point to the hills outside the window and say there’s no reason I couldn’t be out there again. I tackled it head on. I was climbing them within 4 months.”
Now Jamie can do everything he could do before, from skiing to everyday domestic tasks with his wife and 3 children, using a variety of prosthetics and attachments. He admits: “There are little things I miss – hand gestures like doing a thumbs up or waving, holding hands, sociable things. But I make the most of my new body.
“Now I prefer climbing with my stumps. They can still bend and flex and they have a good grip. Obviously I can’t feel my feet or move my ankles or toes, so I have to look to see they’re secure on a hold, but I just do everything within my new limitations.”
Becoming the first quadruple amputee to climb the Matterhorn became Jamie’s ultimate goal; more so after a failed attempt 2 years ago. His victory over the mountain and his own disabilities came with another reminder of nature’s ever–present danger, however, when news broke that 2 British climbers died on the other side of the mountain that same day.
“Sadly they were caught out,” Jamie says, “but it didn’t change how I felt about my climb or bring back too many memories. I have come to terms with what happened. I worked hard in the early days to deal with it emotionally. I’ve been back to where it happened, flown over it in a helicopter and made my peace.
“There’s a risk with anything you do, and for me the bigger risk is not having a fulfilling life by not going out and trying things.”
Since the accident Jamie’s done an infinite number of things he never thought he would – including writing a book, Life and Limb, about the experience.
He insists: “I was a driven and positive person but I wasn’t on course to complete any world firsts before the accident. It’s opened some fantastic doors and opportunities. I wouldn’t change it now – of course I’d save Jamie, but I’m happy now without my hands and feet.”
What happened to Jamie hasn’t only been life-changing for him. Through telling his story and as patron of various charities including Disability Snowsport UK, he’s changed many other lives too.
He says: “We all have challenges in life and they’re all different – some visible some not. It’s my hope that my experiences and achievements may in some way inspire others to tackle the obstacles they face in life and to achieve their full potential.”
Read more about Jamie on his website www.jamieandrew.com
Learn more about Disability Snowsport UK and how you can help disabled people experience skiing and mountain activities.
Read about another inspirational Disability Snowsport UK patron, Pippa Middleton.
Read about GB Paralympic Snowboarding medal hopeful Cassie Cava, who’s supported by Disability Snowsport UK.