OUTDOORSMAN who lost limbs and the life of a friend to the French Alps sees himself as an example to others
UP a hill somewhere in Perthshire, a man with no feet and no hands has been answering the probing questions of a group of children.
They want to know what happened. What does it feel like? Does it hurt?
He tells them, straight and matter of fact, because that’s how Jamie Andrew reckons they want to be told. When he takes off one of his prosthetic legs to show them, the children – many with their own personal and troubled mountains to climb – are amazed and fascinated and might just go away thinking that if he can overcome his troubles, maybe they can, too.
“Kids are very direct,” says father-of-three Jamie. “They come out and just ask straight what happened to you. They don’t avoid it.”
Some listening in might cringe at the forthright questions. However, Jamie, calm, composed and fairly unflappable – welcome traits for a man who for years has lived life on a mountain edge – prefers it that way. “I’m totally straight with them,” he says, shrugging. “They are fascinated. I take off my leg and they have a look at it and then we carry on.”
In the past, teaching troubled children about the great outdoors, how to climb, ski or snowboard, was not really how Jamie saw himself spending a working day. He was an industrial rope technician, abseiling off bridges, oil rigs and buildings for a living, a job that allowed him to indulge in his love of outdoors, climbing and head-spinning heights.
It changed in January 1999, when he set off for a the French Alps with friend Jamie Fisher, the right face of Les Droites in their sights and a challenging winter climb ahead.
It took two days to reach the top. Once there and with thoughts of heading back down, the perfect weather suddenly turned.
Indeed, what confronted the pair wasn’t so much “weather” as nature snarling in her most vicious manner possible. Bitter winds howled at 130 kilometres an hour and the temperature plummeted to minus 30 degrees Celsius. There was no option for the pair but to dig in and sit out the storm.
Jamie ended up perched 12,000ft up on an icy ledge – he later called it his “prison perch”. Hours passed, day became night with little sign of the storm relenting. After five horrific days during which he thought of home and his family and whether he’d ever see them again, without food or shelter, Jamie was suffering from frostbite and hypothermia.
Eventually, a helicopter crew carried out one of the riskiest rescues yet attempted in the French Alps. Jamie recalls dangling from the winch pulling him up to safety, while below lay the frozen body of his best friend and companion in adventure, face down in the snow, all hope gone.
In hospital in Chamonix – and for a long time later – he was torn between grief for his friend and relief that he had survived. He looked at his hands and his feet and saw frozen lumps of flesh and bone and realised life had just changed forever.
Some might have gone to pieces, but in an astonishing display of resilience, Jamie was determined to return to the mountains. Soon he was climbing again, skiing and snowboarding and running marathons on prosthetic limbs. He co-founded a charity to help provide similar limbs for people in Africa, took part in gruelling Iron Man challenges, wrote a highly acclaimed book about his experiences, married partner Anna and became a father. A week ago, the 43-year-old pummelled himself a bit more by taking part in the Barnardo’s Cairngorm Challenge – his climbing partner that fateful day worked for Barnardo’s – tackling a route that involved walking up Scotland’s sixth-highest mountain, Cairn Gorm, a 20km hike and a 55km off-road cycle on a specially adapted bike through Cairngorms National Park.
It came a few weeks after he had donned the now iconic white-and-gold London 2012 tracksuit and a specially constructed “hand” and carried the flaming torch along Chesser Avenue and Slateford Road, before one of the highest profile stunts yet – a rope ascent of the Olympic Stadium to highlight the beginning of the Paralympics.
That, he grins, was by far the easiest. “I hadn’t trained much for the Cairngorm event,” he admits. “And the bike ride was off-road, and I’m not very familiar with that.
“It was fun and exciting but I admit I was pretty glad to see the finishing line!”
Getting a handle on the torch meant having a special grip designed and fitted – not his idea of fun. Much better was the impressive feat of scaling the Olympic Stadium. “I’m not a Paralympian or athlete, I don’t do any sports that are linked to the Games, so it was really nice for me to have a way of being a part of it,” he says.
“Channel 4 wanted someone to climb up the Olympic stadium and wave a banner as part of the lead up to their coverage of the event. Ropes were fixed and as a climber I’m able to climb up them, then there was quite a big free hanging climb. I got to the top and unfurled this banner saying ‘Thanks for the warm up’. It was pretty spectacular.” The entire event, agrees Jamie, who lives with Anna and children in Morningside, has helped spotlight the possibilities and potential for all, regardless of abilities or background.
“It was great, too, to be able to draw attention to other aspects of mountaineering,” he says. “It’s not an Olympic sport, although rock climbing has been considered, but this was a way of showing what’s possible. I hope the Paralympics are a big, positive step towards improving what’s available. Changes don’t come overnight, it needs to be at grassroots, from school to local sports club. We need to do the most we can to open doors to everyone and encourage people, no matter what their abilities are or their background.”
He’s played his part by helping teach disabled children to ski and now by putting his mountain skills on offer to children who might never otherwise venture into the great Scottish outdoors.
He had already done some outdoor education work with children at Perth High School when he decided to embark on his mountain leader award. He achieved that in November – “I’m probably the most disabled person to have it,” he points out – and by February he was up a Perthshire hill with a group of lively, questioning youngsters, teaching them not only the rudiments of outdoor skills but also indirectly showing them how even the harshest of life’s blows can be tackled and overcome.
It’s a new challenge partly inspired by his daughter, Iris, eight and twins Liam and Alix, six. “I started to see a whole new world of possibility through their eyes,” he says. “It inspired me to want to do more to get young people involved in mountaineering.”
While his future may have seemed shattered that fateful day as he lay in a French hospital, Jamie says he’s not just come to terms with what happened but turned it around.
“I don’t look back now and think ‘what would life be like if it all hadn’t happened?’ I realised pretty early that by always wondering ‘what if?’ I was torturing myself. I had to just accept what happened and draw a line and move forward.
“I think about what happened as being, for me, an ultimately positive experience.
“So many doors have opened and I didn’t even know they were there.”
JAMIE Andrew made a remarkable recovery after his hands and feet had to be amputated.
Within three-and-a-half months, the former president of Edinburgh University Mountaineering Club had learned to walk on prosthetic limbs.
He quickly tested his hill-climbing skills walking the hills around Edinburgh and in June 2000, just over a year after his accident, he climbed Ben Nevis.
He went on to return to rock climbing and ice climbing, skiing, snowboarding, swimming, orienteering, caving and sailing.
In 2002, he ran the London Marathon, and he has returned to the Alps several times, trips which included an attempt on Mont Blanc.
He travelled to Angola with the Red Cross in 2003 to witness the plight of landmine victims and with fellow quadruple amputee Olivia Giles co-founded 500 Miles, a charity that provides prosthetic limbs to people in Africa. He has since bowed out to concentrate on other activities.
He climbed Kilimanjaro in 2004, sailed the North Sea in 2007 and completed various challenges, including a “titanium man” challenge that involved swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles and running 26.2 miles.
He has written a book about his accident, Life and Limb, and become a motivational speaker.