In a quiet Edinburgh coffee shop on a Thursday afternoon Jamie Andrew looks out into the damp sky and is briefly thousands of miles away among French Alpine peaks. He collects his thoughts about the five days on the north face of Les Droites that deprived him of his hands and feet and took the life of his friend and climbing partner Jamie Fisher as he considers the toast that sits cooling in front of him. “We all have dramatic changes in our lives, and we’re all capable of being resilient” he says firmly as he looks out of the window at the cars hissing by in the rain. “You just have to view these changes as an opportunity to grow and develop and to do something different, and that’s what I’ve done. Because of that I don’t regret what happened in any way”. His determination to move beyond the suffering experienced on a narrow ridge in the Mont Blanc massif over five days in 1999 recurs throughout a wide-ranging conversation that encompasses endurance and human tragedy, but also survival, renewal, and the victory of one man’s spirit in the face of life-changing adversity. “Having seen my friend die on the mountain I knew that I was the lucky one, and that I had to make the most of it for Jamie’s sake as well. So that’s what I did - I resolved that I was going to make something positive of this”.
At the time of his fateful ascent of Les Droites Andrew had built up 13 years of mountaineering experience. An enthusiastic amateur who climbed every weekend while studying electrical engineering, he carried his passion into a career in industrial rope access, applying his skills to reaching difficult work sites. Together with his friend Jamie Fisher, Andrew made ascents both in the UK and the Alps. However, while Fisher began to pursue Himalayan mountaineering, Andrew was looking for shorter and harder climbs. The expense and time involved in Himalayan climbing was a deterrent. “Everest would have been a hill-walk, albeit a very expensive and committing hill-walk” he says wryly. The climb on Les Droites was a standard ascent, and the challenges both men faced weren’t anticipated. “Both Jamie and I knew very well what we were doing, and the decision to make the climb that we did was not one that was taken lightly” he tells me. “It was a climb that was well within our capabilities, and it was not something that we expected to find all that difficult and we didn’t - what we didn’t expect was the weather that we encountered”. The horrendous conditions that Andrew and Fisher endured took a devastating toll.
Although the forecast had been good when the two men set out, conditions drastically changed. “On the summit of the mountain we were pinned to a tiny ledge, enduring temperatures of minus 30 and very heavy snowfall, and when it wasn’t snowing winds of 130 kilometres per hour - these are things that the human body isn’t really equipped to survive”. They were able to sustain themselves for the time that they did largely due to the quality of their equipment. “We didn’t have a tent, but we did have very good bivvy bags and sleeping bags, and we were able to make a stove to melt ice. Nevertheless it was a battle for survival”. The length of time that the men spent on the mountain made their survival increasingly unlikely. “If we’d been rescued or given the chance to escape even after four days we probably would have been OK, but eventually the cold takes its toll and you both succumb to hypothermia and frostbite”. Andrew and Fisher found themselves in a perilous situation with life slowly ebbing away. “It was only towards the end when we were both hypothermic that the body starts to shut down and you start to lose consciousness, and that’s what happened to Jamie Fisher and looked certain to happen to me. I did lose consciousness for a while, but somehow managed to regain that”. Jamie Fisher died on the fourth night on the mountain. The following morning the weather broke. Andrew watches the slick pavement for a long time. “I opened my eyes and looked out and dawn was breaking, and all the mountain peaks around me were starting to light up and I realised that there was still a chance, this was not the end and there was still a slim chance that I might be rescued. Sure enough, that’s when the helicopter arrived”.
What followed was one of the most dangerous rescue attempts in the history of Alpine mountaineering. “The helicopter attempted to reach us before but they couldn’t get in because of the winds and the turbulence around the ridge” Andrew says. “So what they managed to do was drop a guy off a bit further up the ridge from us, and the helicopter pulled back leaving him behind. He then came down the ridge to us and got me ready with a rescue harness, cut me from my ropes, and then radioed the helicopter. The helicopter then made just one pass over the mountain; they’d extended their full winch line to 40 metres which was not nearly enough, so they added another 50 metres of rope to that to make a 90 metre line with a hook on the end and just flew straight over. The rescuer caught the line, hooked the hook onto my harness, and I was yanked off the mountain”. Within minutes Andrew received treatment in Chamonix from a doctor trained in mountain rescue, and subsequently spent over 3 weeks in a French hospital. His frozen hands and feet were amputated after 10 days. Spending an additional 3 months in hospital on his return to the UK, Andrew was forced to contend with not only the physical trauma of amputation but the psychological impact of his suffering and the death of Jamie Fisher. “It wasn’t just me, it was everybody around me, my friends and my relatives and my girlfriend Anna” he says. Andrew found strength in his survival however. “I realised that there was responsibility on me not to lie around and feel sorry for myself, but to actually get myself back on my feet - and that’s what I decided I was going to do”.
His recovery would begin with gradually learning how to carry out the most basic tasks without hands or feet. “You start with the little things. It’s not about climbing mountains, at least not literal ones, but the everyday things we all do that we take so much for granted, like learning to feed myself and pick up a cup. I do that without even thinking about it now, but it took me weeks to learn”. Holding his coffee cup between his stumps, Andrew drinks carefully but confidently. “I was overwhelmed to begin with” he says, “how could I possibly do all this over again from scratch. But actually, when you break it down its just learning little things one at a time, and that’s what I did, I just took it one step at a time. I didn’t worry so much about the bigger picture, just every day I would say ‘right, today I’m going to pick up a spoon or pick up a cup or butter my toast’. It might take all day to do that, but that would be an achievement, and each of those small achievements would be a small victory, one small step further down my road to independence again”. Within a week of leaving hospital Andrew was climbing hills. “Just the hills in Edinburgh, and that opened my eyes to what was eventually possible. The main thing was walking off-road on these legs, which were wobbly to begin with, using poles for balance. I thought that if I can climb up Blackford Hill and back down again, I can then do something bigger than that. Once again, it would be one step at a time”.
Andrew made use of basic adaptations during his recovery and return to climbing. “I had my walking poles which are secured to my arms. I still use the same kind of poles today, although I don’t need them for climbing Blackford Hill, but on steeper, rougher ground that’s what I use, or for skiing”. Snowboarding posed some logistical challenges though. “The first time I did it I just strapped the board onto my feet, thinking that I’m not going to get cold feet, although the amount of leverage on my feet was too great and it did actually break a bolt. When I go snowboarding now I wear boots”. Similarly, Andrew makes use of assistive skiing feet. “Those aren’t massively advantageous, but they strap straight onto my skis and off I go, and there’s no need for boots or anything”. He’s sceptical of expensive, technologically-advanced adaptations. “There are a lot of adaptations that I use, but mostly it’s just quite simple stuff, and I don’t tend to go too high-tech. It’s amazing how often the simplest solutions are the best. The idea of having expensive equipment is encouraged by the press, but if you want to try skiing just go along and try skiing and find out what the difficulties are first before saying ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘I couldn’t do that unless I had a pair of £10,000 legs’. I started out by sticking a ski boot on my legs and going skiing”. For Jamie Andrew, the return to an active lifestyle was a matter of will and determination.
A major step in his recovery came with his return to the Alps. “I went back one year after the accident, not to climb but to see all the people out there that played such an important role in saving me, many of whom have become friends - the rescuers and the doctors and the nurses. I didn’t climb but I went snowboarding. It was a year after that that I started Alpine climbing again”. Andrew goes on to tell me that “going back was important to me. I was flown over the mountain by helicopter, and I saw the ridge where we were trapped, and there was no sign of us having ever been there. I realised then that it wasn’t the mountains that were to blame, it was human tragedy and it was my responsibility to come to terms with that. I got over the emotional side of things at that stage, and I don’t have any problems now going back or seeing the mountain”. The other patrons have left the shop, and while a radio plays in the distance Andrew reflects on his journey. “I don’t miss having hands or feet. I often get asked ‘have you thought about using robotic hands or any of these things’, but I don’t need hands, I’ve already proved that. I’m not trying to replace what I’ve lost. I think the press’ obsession with robotic limbs is to do with somehow making someone whole again, whereas I’m not interested in what I could do in the past but what I can do in the future”.
For Andrew assistive technology is about utility over cost. He tells me about some of the simple adaptations that he uses on a daily basis. “I have things I use for sporting purposes, so ice axes and skiing poles, but for household jobs I’ve got a driving arm for driving the car, a kitchen knife, and so on, but they’re just simple tools. That’s all I see it as, a tool to do a job. I don’t wear an arm, and a lot of the devices I have are just clamps, simple tools for holding a hammer or a spade. I’ve got a bike that I’ve adapted and a tennis racket, and for some things I just come up with a solution on the spot. I could traipse back to the hospital every time and get them to make me something, or if I want to play table tennis for example I’ll just tape a bat onto my arm and that works fine. It’s about finding an elegant solution, and the elegant solutions are always terribly simple”. Simplicity, affordability, and elegance; these are the essence of an effective adaptation for Jamie Andrew. Familiarity and comfort are also essential. “To me it’s more important to climb in my everyday legs that I know inside out than to have some kind of different specialised legs that I didn’t altogether trust. Then there are tricks. So instead of wearing mountaineering boots I can get away with wearing fell-running shoes, which are lightweight and slim-line and have really good grips, whereas most climbers have to wear heavy boots for insulation and protection”.
With traffic rushing past in the street outside and the shop closing for the afternoon, we finish our coffee while Andrew reflects on the progress that has been made in enabling people with disabilities to take part in sport. “Amputees now get a lot of attention, and there has been attention on developing sporting equipment and so on for amputees. Skiing feet is a very obvious thing, but it wasn’t out there because there wasn’t seen to be a demand. Now it’s commonplace to see amputees skiing”. The achievements of people like Jamie Andrew have also played a large part in raising awareness of the ways that people can overcome immense adversity and achieve at the highest physical levels. From completing the London Marathon, to climbing the Olympic Stadium as part of the 2012 Paralympic Games and onto climbing Kilimanjaro, Andrew has shown resilience and an unbending determination to make something positive out of the worst of situations. He tells me that “I started speaking about my experiences because I needed to … I was very aware that I couldn’t bottle this all up and that part of my therapy was talking about what happened. I’ve made my peace with it”. Andrew now makes a living travelling the world as a motivational speaker. He has no regrets about the suffering he has endured, and it is difficult not to feel that the greatest achievements for Jamie Andrew are yet to come.
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