Jamie Andrew, limbless climber
Jamie Andrew, mountaineer, motivational speaker and quadruple amputee, talks to Edit about how he overcame the loss of his climbing partner and his limbs.
Jamie Andrew, like many climbers, was prevented from climbing the Matterhorn in the summer of 2014 by the weather. The pyramid-like mountain on the Swiss-Italian border remained white throughout August, covered in snow and ice, when normally it would be mostly bare rock.
Mr Andrew, no doubt like many climbers, made the best of the situation. He climbed the nearby Weissmies, which at 4023m is itself an impressive mountain.
The story so far is nothing unique. But Jamie Andrew is not like other climbers. He has no feet, and no hands. All four were amputated after a climbing accident 15 years ago that left his close friend and climbing partner dead and Mr Andrew severely frostbitten.
In January 1999 Mr Andrew and Jamie Fisher (BSc Geography 1994), both experienced mountaineers, took time out from a skiing holiday with a group of friends to climb the North Face of Les Droites in the Mont Blanc mountain range. As they completed their ascent, an unexpected storm blew in that was to pin them to a knife-like ridge of rock for five days.
The helicopter rescue that eventually plucked the pair from the mountain was one of the most daring and dramatic in Alpine history and made headlines around the world. But it came too late for Mr Fisher, and only just in time for Mr Andrew.
The disaster of early 1999, however, became for Mr Andrew the beginning of a remarkable journey, in which he came to terms with the loss of a close friend and the loss of his limbs. Today he is again a mountaineer, who has raised many thousands of pounds for charity. He is also a motivational speaker who travels the world with a story that has a universal message about overcoming challenges.
He traces the turning point in the aftermath of the accident to a moment in hospital, soon after his amputations.
“I was struggling with grief for Jamie,” he recalls. “I was very angry and I was suffering from guilt – all sorts of emotions. Through thinking about things and talking with the people close to me, I realised I had to get through that. I was the lucky one here, I had survived and Jamie hadn’t, and I owed it to us both to give this a second chance.
“I promised myself that this was the low point of my life, and every day I was going to improve somehow.”
In his award-winning book, Life and Limb, published in 2004, Mr Andrew recounts the process of tackling the everyday challenges of being a quadruple amputee, from practicalities such as feeding himself – the solution was a spoon strapped to his stump with a simple Velcro strap – to taking his first steps on prosthetic limbs, within weeks of his accident.
In the summer of 2000, only 18 months after the disaster, he was again making headlines by reaching the top of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, raising £15,000 along the way for the RAF Mountain Rescue Association.
Charity fundraising has been a feature of Mr Andrew’s story. He has worked with the British Red Cross and the John Muir Trust, among others, and is a patron of Disability Snowsports UK and Ordinary to Extraordinary. He is a trustee of the Edinburgh College Development Trust.
He has notched up phenomenal feats of athleticism and climbing, including running the London Marathon and reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro. But when asked about the high points of the past 15 years, he names events that have nothing to do with mountains or endurance sports.
“It sounds a cliché but the biggest achievement has been having my kids,” he says. Mr Andrew married Anna Wyatt in 2000, and the couple have three children.
“I had survived, and I owed it to us both to give this a second chance.”
Jamie AndrewBEng Electronics & Electrical Engineering 1991
Having known Mr Andrew since before his accident, Ms Wyatt has always understood the draw of the mountains, but Mr Andrew is clear that he is not putting himself in the path of danger with his ongoing adventures. “Mountaineers are good risk managers,” he says. “My ultimate aim is not to get to the top of the mountain: my ultimate aim is to get back down safely again. Now that I’m married with kids, I draw that line of acceptable risk lower than I used to.”
Having grown up in Glasgow, Mr Andrew chose the University of Edinburgh partly because of its well-known mountaineering club, of which he and Jamie Fisher both held the office of President. “That’s when my climbing really took off,” he says.
After an engineering degree, he enjoyed a successful career in industrial rope access, helping the likes of electricians and painters do their work in dramatic settings. “It’s very exciting,” he says. “There are no words to describe what it’s like to be hanging off the Forth Bridge, or off an oil rig in the North Sea, or off Edinburgh Castle.”
The thrill is fresh in his voice. So does he yearn for both professional and climbing ambitions that were taken from him in 1999? His answer is arresting.
“You could offer me my hands and feet back right now and I would say no without hesitation. My life is complete the way it is. I’m not searching for something that I’ve lost. I’ve come to terms with it.”
LIFE AND LIMB
The story of Jamie Andrew’s and Jamie Fisher’s ordeal in the Alps in January 1999 is told in Mr Andrew’s book Life and Limb (Piatkus 2004), which has recently become available as an e-book on Amazon. The book has been shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature and has won the Banff Mountain Book Festival Prize for Mountain Literature. The story featured in the TV documentary series I Shouldn’t Be Alive in 2011.
RETURN TO THE MOUNTAINS
In June 2000 Mr Andrew scaled Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, raising more than £15,000 for charity. A year later he returned to Chamonix in the Alps to climb the Cosmiques Arete on L’Aiguille du Midi. In 2002 he made an attempt on Mont Blanc but turned back just 300m below the summit as the weather worsened. In January 2004, he made an all-disabled ascent of Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa at 5,895m, raising money for a leprosy centre on the foothills of the mountain. In April 2014 Channel 5 screened a documentary about Mr Andrew’s attempt on the Matterhorn in the summer of 2013. In a single day of climbing, he came within 250m of the summit, and he intends to return with bivouac equipment in order to complete the climb over two days.
In 2002 Mr Andrew ran the London Marathon, raising more than £22,000 for charity. Since his accident he also taken part in skiing, snowboarding, paragliding, sailing and caving. In 2007 he completed the gruelling North Sea Yacht race in a team of three men who between them had three hands and three feet, raising more than £10,000 for the charity 500 Miles.
Mr Andrew’s main occupation is motivational speaking, which sees him travel the globe visiting schools, businesses and conferences. He is a regular presenter on leadership programmes at the Institute for Management Development
at Lausanne, Switzerland.