THE word tragic has slowly faded from Jamie Andrew’s life. Fifteen years ago it accompanied him everywhere he went, every time his name was mentioned.
He was the “tragic Alps hero”, a “tragic survivor”, a “tragic mountaineer”. Certainly he was involved in a tragedy, but as he sits drinking coffee in his Polwarth home, he is nobody’s definition of the word tragic – least of all his.
He may have two prosthetic legs, his arms stop just at the place where his wrists, then hands, should be, but the 45-year-old has just returned from climbing a 13,000ft mountain in the Swiss Alps, is the picture of health, and grips his mug with his “stumps”, as easily as if he had all ten digits.
“It’s been the most amazing journey. It’s not something I regret. I would never have my hands and feet back.
“It’s been 15 years – it’s amazing how time flies without you having a concept of the milestones. Soon it will be 20 years and I’ll have lived half my life without hands and feet.
It’s amazing how such a big event in my life is now just part of my past.” But let’s go back there for a moment.
Jamie, then 29, and his friend Jamie Fisher, 28, were experienced climbers attempting to climb the 13,000ft Les Droites peak in the Mont Blanc range in France.
As more than five feet of snow fell on the area in 24 hours they got stuck near the summit and had to dig themselves in.
Conditions got worse, and rescue helicopters tried to reach them but were forced back by 80mph winds and blizzards. Eventually, after five days in freezing conditions, a paramedic was winched down and battled along an icy ridge to reach them.
Sadly he found Jamie Fisher dead and Jamie sitting in just thin trousers and socks after pulling off his clothes, an effect of hypothermia as victims become convinced they are too hot. His arms and feet were frozen – and 19 days later doctors took the medical decision to amputate.
He admits there were dark days at the time, but that it was through talking about what happened, to family and friends – even to the media whose interest he initially found difficult to deal with – that he managed to come to terms with losing his friend and his lower limbs.
“I don’t think about the accident every day because I did a good job coming to terms with it in the first place,” he says. “With the support and help of people around me I was able to talk about it and I stopped torturing myself with how things might have been different and I was able to focus on the future. That means I don’t have to constantly wake up each morning wondering how life might have been. I’m happy with my life as it is.”
He adds: “Talking about it made the pain less – that’s ultimately how I ended up becoming a motivational speaker. I’m still telling the story every week. Talking about it is good therapy and sharing it is valuable for other people as well. It’s very personal. The emotions I talk about are very real and genuine. But I’m not reliving it every time.”
As well as carving out a new career as a motivational speaker, he has raised tens of thousands of pounds for charity by running marathons and climbing mountains, including Kilimanjaro, with his artificial limbs. He scaled Weissmies in Switzerland for the STV Appeal, and filmed it at the same time.
“I attempted to climb the Matterhorn last year but didn’t make it to the top. I wanted to try again this year but the conditions weren’t right – they have to be pretty perfect for me to manage a mountain of that difficulty. The Weissmies was going to be much more doable.
“I had been talking to Ewan Hunter of the Hunter Foundation about doing it and he suggested that I should climb it for the STV Appeal as they were involved with that. So STV gave me a bunch of cameras, and in return I’ve given them the footage. What they’ll make of it I don’t know,” he grins.
“I’ve had a film crew along before at another climb so it was refreshing going with just two others and not having all the hullabaloo. Planning an expedition is much the same as it ever was. I have to be aware of my needs and requirements and my limitations, so I have to think about how my legs are holding up – prosthetic legs can wear out and break – so they have to be in good order, as do my stumps, no abrasions on the skin, that sort of thing. I do have to insulate my legs if it’s very cold. But it was summer when we went so it was never much below freezing. I suppose at really low temperatures I might get brittle feet, which would be interesting.
“I can get blisters and sores on my skin – just like anyone can from wearing hiking boots. But it can literally stop me from walking.
“But I have 15 years of experience – I know what I’m doing, I’m confident of what I can do and I know that I have to work with other people. To be honest it’s not always climbing the mountain that’s the hard part. It’s getting to the foot of the mountain – that takes dedication, perseverance and support from lots of people. Climbing the mountain is the icing on the cake.”
Of course climbing involves specialised equipment too. Jamie has special sockets for his arms in which he can insert walking poles to keep him steady, and prosthetic ice axes when it’s freezing. “But I prefer just to use my bare arms, I have complete feeling in my stumps so it feels right.
“I’ve done this climb before raising the sponsor money, but I’m hoping people will still donate once they see the film and what can be achieved when you set your mind to it.”
In the meantime he’s still got that Matterhorn to climb and three kids – ten-year-old Iris and eight-year-old twins Liam and Alix – to raise with his wife Anna, who has been his partner since before the accident. “She does still worry but she knows I know what I’m doing,” he says. “And when the children were small Anna said ‘if you can climb mountains with no hands you can change nappies’, so I’ve been totally involved.
“They don’t know me any other way. In fact, they’ve said they think it would be weird if I had hands and feet.”
Mostly, though, Jamie is hoping that his latest climb will be inspirational: “Sometimes it takes adversity but it doesn’t have to – we are all capable of achieving great things.”
• Jamie is fundraising for the STV Appeal and you can donate at www.justgiving.com/Jamie-Andrew1 and his film will feature on STV Appeal 2014 – The Big Live on Thursday, October 9 at 7.30pm