Meet the incredible Scottish mountaineer who just so happens to be a quadruple amputee.
On 4 August 2016 I summited the Matterhorn, in perfect conditions. It was the first time I’d ever done it, with or without all my limbs, and only my second attempt. It was an emotional experience. My friend and climbing partner Roger Payne had been killed shortly before we were due to make the first attempt together in 2013 and the mountain had been weighing on my mind for nearly five years. Just to get the thing done was such a relief.
I knew I could do it – the first attempt proved that. But success was all down to practice, patience and effort. I made a few small changes to my technique, such as using a shortened trekking pole on the ascent, which provided a really useful crutch for keeping balance and standing up again after each step. And my team were more experienced at climbing with me too. On the first attempt we’d had a camera crew with us, as we were filming a documentary called The Limbless Mountaineer at the time. Being free from that responsibility helped a little, as filming always means a few faffs and stops! We’d intended to bivvy en route and therefore spend longer on the mountain, but in the end we went much quicker than expected. We summited in six hours, and were down again another six and a half hours later.
Strange as it is to say, even the Matterhorn couldn’t compare to the feeling of walking up Ben Nevis in 2000. That was a year after my climbing accident on Les Driotes in the Mont Blanc massif, in which I lost my arms and legs to frostbite. So I was coming from a very low point to regain my independence, my self-esteem, and my love of the outdoors and the hills. But even more important than that was being able to take care of myself and move around and just enjoy all those very simple moments that I thought I’d lost forever.
There were plenty of moments when I felt hopeless. But I worked hard for those moments not to become days. I focused on individual successes. These only had to be little things: being able to pick up a pencil and write my name, or put on a t-shirt myself, or operate the TV remote. And everything was new, something I hadn’t been able to do the day before, and possibly something a quadruple amputee hadn’t achieved before. That helped to keep me motivated and to overcome those moments of hopelessness, and it meant I was always on an upwards trajectory. The fact that I’d reached perhaps the ultimate low point in my life meant that things could only get better. That’s how I tried to avoid the doldrums, however natural it might have been to feel that way. I was lucky I had the support of Anna, who is now my wife.
I never thought I’d hillwalk again, but within a year there I was on Ben Nevis, and it was wonderful. Going back to the Alps and climbing the Matterhorn was something I could never have even dreamt of. Since my rehabilitation I dedicate myself mostly to family life – we have three wonderful children and they’re all-consuming! But professionally, motivational speaking has grown into my full-time job. I find it very fulfilling. You speak to so many different audiences in so many different places. It might be school kids one day and top executives in a different part of the world another. And I’ve learned that whether you’re in the UK or Singapore or the United States, people’s reactions are always very similar. They really appreciate a story of overcoming adversity and finding strength through it. It’s a basic human need to know that you can overcome great odds, and that you can triumph even when things are tough. People do occasionally approach me unexpectedly, especially if I’m waiting somewhere such as an airport, and it’s great. It’s really wonderful.
One thing I often say to them is that I’m very grateful for what happened. And that’s not speaking with bravado – it’s genuinely true. If you offered me my hands and feet back now I wouldn’t take them. It’s not who I am now. I’ve fully come to terms with my body as it is. It’s offered me so many opportunities and experiences, and I wouldn’t turn the clock back even if I could.
For more on Jamie’s world, visit www.jamieandrew.com