The Jamie Andrew Interview | Meet the First Ever Quad-Amputee to Reach the Summit of the Matterhorn
The Scotsman lost his limbs and his best friend in a tragic mountaineering accident in 1999
In January 1999 Scottish climber Jamie Andrew was caught in an unforeseen storm after scaling the North Face of Les Droites in Chamonix with his best friend and climbing partner Jamie Fisher.
Fisher tragically died on the mountain after five days trapped on the summit. Andrew was lucky enough to survive, but required amputations to both of his legs and arms in the days that followed.
18 years on and Jamie is standing on prosthetic legs at the front of a sold-out crowd at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival telling his story, and explaining how he became the first ever quadruple-amputee to successfully reach the summit of the Matterhorn in 2016.
It’s a journey as harrowing as it is inspirational, and one that started in those fatal conditions on the summit of Les Droites in the Mont Blanc Massif.
Speaking after the talk, he told Mpora: “People always ask how we survived there for five days, but the truth is we didn’t know we were going to be there for five days. We were surviving hour by hour by hour.
“Forecasts weren’t so accurate back then, and the storm wasn’t forecast. We thought it was just an afternoon shower and that it would pass. We were well equipped so we bivvied on the summit and then planned to get back down the next morning, but it just kept getting worse.
“It was only as the days wore on that we switched our hopes away from self-evacuation to rescue, and even then we were pretty confident – all we had to do was wait for it to pass then they’d come up to find us and we’d be out of there. We never knew how serious it was going to be."
What followed was what Andrew dubs a “daring, spectacular helicopter rescue".
Unfortunately, it came just hours too late for Jamie Fisher.
“We were on a ridge on the mountain summit with a 1000m drop on one side and a 500m drop on the other," says Andrew. “And the updrafts were incredibly severe.
“So when the helicopter was able to come for us they couldn’t hover anywhere near because of the wind, but what they managed to do was to drop a man just up from us who abseiled down, and realising that I was still alive dealt with me first, got me in a rescue harness and radioed the helicopter.
“My hands and feet were literally frozen solid. Like meat out of the freezer..."
“The helicopter made one pass straight over the mountain with 90ft of rope hanging down with a hook on the end. The guy reached up and caught the hook with his hand, clipped it onto my harness and I was yanked clear. It was only as I was carried off down the mountain that I blacked out then.
“[When I woke up] my hands and feet were literally frozen solid. Like meat out of the freezer."
A lot happened between that fateful day and the moment that the 47-year-old Jamie achieved the seemingly impossible and scaled the Matterhorn.
One of the most rousing points of the climber’s tale is just how quickly he got back outdoors after the accident.
“It was just about getting in the right frame of mind," he says. “I knew that it was a pretty stark choice I had. I could either give up and just fade away or I could give this a go. So I knew I had to give it everything."
Within three and a half months Jamie had learned to walk on his prosthetic limbs. Shortly after he took to swimming and running and soon found himself able to go downhill skiing, something he never thought would be possible despite previous success with prosthetics on cross-country skis.
“I had this horrible vision of a ski coming off and racing down the mountain with a prosthetic limb attached," he laughs, before explaining how having to develop a focus on his hips actually made him a better skier in the long-term.
Without the need to protect his feet, he was also able to learn how to snowboard, skipping the boots and strapping his prosthetic limbs directly to the board.
“Once I took that positive frame of mind, to run and work with every success, I just became really enthusiastic and driven to progress as far and fast as I could.
“I didn’t think I would ever be able to even go hill walking again at the start but I overtook those ambitions quite quickly! Once I had done that I was thinking about where else I could access and what else I could do."
In June 2000, just a year and a half after losing his limbs, Jamie climbed the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis, raising £15,000 for charity in the process.
He went ice climbing with artificial arms-come-axes designed specifically for the cause, sailed the North Sea, finished an iron man triathlon – a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a full marathon – and found encouragement and belief every time he turned a new corner.
“From the beginning it was quite a positive spiral," he said. “From the outset the people I was working with like the physiotherapists realised that their work was going to get results – these people spend most of the day making legs for older folk who shuffle about the flat making cups of tea at most – and I guess it was an exciting thing to be involved in so everyone was really quite enthusiastic."
Ultimately, Jamie became addicted to competing against himself and the elements, and it was a path that was always bound to lead him back to his real passion; mountaineering.
After climbing The Monch, Kilimanjaro and coming just 300m short of Mont Blanc before being forced to turn back because of dangerous weather, he set his sights on the 4,478m Matterhorn in 2011, a climb that has killed over 500 people since the first ascent in 1865.
A husband and father of three, Andrew’s new goal would be one that would give him sleepless nights and pique his ambition like never before.
The Edinburgh climber was initially set to attempt the climb in 2012, but ended the plans when his climbing partner and one of the main driving forces behind the project Roger Payne was killed in an avalanche on Mont Blanc.
Further attempts in the years that followed all failed. Each time Jamie was scuppered by bad weather and the scrambling nature of the climb – “it was really the most horrible type of climbing for me. If it was steeper I could get my arms onto the rock but I had to stumble from rock to rock."
Andrew was becoming disheartened with the challenge, fed up of booking a week in Zermatt only to have the weather ruin his plans, and it was then, when he was contemplating giving up, that his Anna suggested the whole family go to Zermatt for the whole summer. So that when the weather was finally right, he could finally achieve his goal.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2016 that the opportunity did present itself, and with specially adapted poles and robust prostheses, Jamie successfully made the journey to the summit of the Matterhorn and back in 13 hours.
Climbing with mountain guides Steve Jones and Steve Monks, the team returned to camp at 7pm, only narrowly missing out on another bout of bad weather that killed two Brits on the Italian side of the Matterhorn that same night.
For Jamie, reaching the summit was more a relief than a sensation. And while he’s now finally done with the iconic mountain, he’s certainly not done with the great outdoors.
“It was more the relief and satisfaction of getting a mission complete than any actual significance of reaching the summit itself," he says.
“The mountain is really just another mountain. Ultimately it’s a pointless thing, but having overcoming those personal barriers that made it so significant and to know that it didn’t go smoothly and I did have setbacks and that there were tragedies involved on the route and yet I didn’t give in, I persevered, I planned and I made it all happen. That was a brilliant satisfaction.
“I’m having a bit of a break now. I’ve got various big dreams though and things I still want to do. But nothing ready for release at this moment!"
We imagine Jamie’s next challenge will leave quite a few people in disbelief whatever it may be, and inspire a good deal more.