Each time a mountain rescue is reported in the media, it is difficult not to think ‘Why would they climb that alone/in that weather/at that time of year?’ But the truth for some people is that they simply must do physical things to challenge themselves, and when one challenge is completed they are compelled to seek out the next. Jamie Andrew is one such person and it was on a clear day in January 1999 that he and his trusted friend Jamie Fisher set out on a three-day trip to climb the north face of Les Droites in the French Alps. Five days later, stuck on a ridge by a severe storm with 130 km/h winds and a temperature of -30 degrees celsius, Fisher was dead and Andrew’s hands and feet were paralysed with frostbite.
Andrew stood before us on the stage and related his incredible story. It was hard to comprehend the depth of emotional shock he must have suffered witnessing the death of his friend and undergoing the amputation of what were the tools of his trade - his hands and feet. It was a well-measured presentation - the lack of emotional superlatives driving home the depth and solemnity of the subject matter long after I had left the venue. There were moments of surprising humour however, and as Andrew explained, the darkest shade of black humour was an intrinsic part of the rehabilitation process. He paid tribute to the rescue team, the Chamonix hospital specialists, the NHS, his late friend and his wife for their unfailing support with touching humility and gratitude.
At first overwhelmed by what had happened to him (‘they were never going to grow back again’), his naturally positive disposition later took hold and he decided to treat his recovery as the next big challenge. Being such a proactive person, he faced each new challenge as it arose - cleaning his teeth, washing himself, walking up Edinburgh’s Blackford Hill. As I write, he is on his way to climb the Matterhorn having ‘done’ skiing, snowboarding, cycling, sailing, the London Marathon and Kilimanjaro. But I sensed some relief from the audience that he spared us the details of the challenge of changing his babies’ nappies with his teeth.
There is no limit to this man’s capacity for progression and his message is that ‘impossible’ only exists inside our own heads - small steps towards what we truly want are what will get us there in the end. Nothing seems outside his capabilities and he convinces us that with self-belief we can do the same. But there is no evangelical fervour to his message; Andrew relates his experience with the sort of matter-of-fact alacrity your best mate would use and this is no sporting boast. Inspiring doesn’t even come close to describing the uplifting nature of this amazing man.