Transcript: ISBA 2016: No limits - Jamie Andrew

Jamie Andrew, mountaineer, adventurer and author tells his personal story of surviving an avalanche on the Les Droites mountain in the French Alps. He speaks about dealing with the life-changing challenges that followed and reaching his goals.

Podcast Episode: ISBA 2016: No limits - Jamie Andrew

Category: Social work (general) 

What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

DM - Donald Macleod
JA - Jamie Andrew

DM We keep climbing up. So, we’re delighted to be able to welcome Jamie Andrew. He’s going to inspire us I’m sure, and challenge us to look at the barriers that get in the way of progress and to believe in the influence we can exert individually and collectively to achieve our goal. So, as I said earlier, you’re joy-givers, you’re hope-givers, you’re the people who make a huge difference. I’m not going to say too much by way of introduction, Jamie can tell you his own story. So, it’s with real delight that I would ask Jamie to come up onto the stage. Thank you.

JA Thank you very much for that very kind and warm welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here this afternoon - if it is this afternoon? Just about. And I gather from what I’ve heard it sounds like its been an incredibly successful conference so that gives me the double-edged sword of the great honour of speaking last and having quite a hard act to follow. So, what I’d like to do is just tell you my story and I gather the whole theme of this conference has been about unlocking potential. Well hopefully I can show you how I’ve learned over the last 17 years of my life how to unlock my own potential, how to unlock the potential of those around me and how I’ve learned that if you’re prepared to do that to do whatever it is you’re trying to achieve, whatever your own hopes and goals and aims and ambitions and dreams are, if you’re prepared to go out and give something a go, to make the most of what you have rather than worrying about all the things that you don’t have, to make the most of what the people around you have rather than worrying about what they don’t have, and most of all just to be able to believe in yourself, you really can achieve even the most incredible of things.

So up until 17 years ago I was a completely ordinary person, there was nothing unusual about me whatsoever. I was just an ordinary guy going about my business, living and working here in Edinburgh and the only thing that made me stand out from the crowd at all perhaps was my great passion in life which was of course mountaineering, and every spare moment that I had I’d rush off into the hills and the mountains and go climbing. But apart from that I really was just a very ordinary person. I’d absolutely no idea what was about to happen to me and this was one of my best friends. He was also called Jamie, just to keep things simple for me. Jamie Fisher. And he also was a very ordinary person, or so he considered himself. He was as it happens, one of the real rising stars of the UK mountaineering scene and was just starting to make his mark as a truly outstanding world-class mountaineer when all this happened, but he also had no idea what was in store for the two of us. And so, it was in January 1999 that the pair of us went to climb this mountain here, it’s called Les Droites. It’s in the French Alps of Chamonix in the Mont Blanc massif, I’m sure many of you will know, and it’s a big mountain at 4,000 metres, it’s a big peak but more importantly its North face pictured here is one of the great North faces of the Alps. It rises 1,000 metres of near vertical ascent from that glacier at the foot up to the spiky summit ridge at the top and it’s just a truly awesome face that all aspiring mountaineers have on their dream tick-list. Not least Jamie and I. So, when we arrived in Chamonix that Winter to find perfect conditions, blue skies, sunshine, great forecast, great looking climbing conditions, we leapt at the chance to tackle this incredible climb and off we went.

I’m not going to describe with any great detail the climb itself, but suffice to say the climb was difficult of course, it was hard, but it was nevertheless well within our capabilities. We’re a strong team, well prepared, well trained. We knew what we were doing. We made very good progress up at the mountain and the face, planning to spend three days on the mountain. Two days going up, one bivouac half way up the face. Second night, bivouac on the top and then down the other side, down the South face on the third day. That was the plan. And to begin with things went perfectly according to that plan and it wasn’t until we were approaching the summit of the mountain towards the end of the second day that our luck started to change when suddenly, out of nowhere, a storm swept in. We hadn’t seen the bad weather approaching at all. It had all been brewing out of sight from us, over from the other side of the mountain. We hadn’t seen it coming. The clouds rolled in.

Visibility was down near zero and the snow began to fall quite gently at first but before long it was just phenomenal. I’d rarely experienced any snow anything like it. It was just piling down onto us. Piling down onto our backs, onto our shoulders, onto our rucksacks faster than we could shake it off and to make matters worse, pretty soon the avalanches started. All this snow that was falling onto the mountain started to, it was just being funnelled down straight on top of our heads and swept over us in a series of spin drift avalanches, each one more powerful than the last until it was all we could do just to cling on to dear life while these avalanches swept over us. There was no chance of making a descent in those conditions. We judged our only hope was to get to the summit, spend the night there in relative safety, then make a much easier descent down the other side first thing next morning once the storm had all blown over. But the climbing now was very, very much a different kettle of fish. Very much more slow and difficult and dangerous and arduous and fatiguing and frightening. And so, it wasn’t until well after dark, climbing by the light of our head torches, that we pulled over onto the crest of the mountain which was a huge relief to be at the summit safe from the avalanches. We’d no more climbing to do, that was great. But the summit ridge itself proved the real challenge. A really, really knife-edge crest of snow and ice with one thousand metre drop down one side that we’d just climbed and a five hundred metre drop down the other side, down the South face, and in between, nowhere to get any shelter, nowhere to get any protection from the wind and the snow, nowhere to get lying down, nowhere to even sit. So all we could do was to make the most of a bad job and with our ice axes we just chipped away, cut down into the snow and ice and cut ourselves a small, flat, icy ledge on the crest of the ridge, maybe about a metre wide, about a metre and a half long, just big enough for the two of us to get lying down side by side in a very cramped and uncomfortable position to get into the sleeping bags, get into the bivvy bags and try and stay warm during a very cold and uncomfortable and frightening alpine Winter night. And it was just that. A very cold, very frightening night. But it did pass without any further incident and when we stuck our heads out of the bags the first thing the next morning it was to discover that this storm that had raged so fiercely during the previous day and night still raged on. If anything, the weather had only deteriorated. The snow was falling just as heavily as it was the night before. It was now accompanied by a terrific wind that swept straight in out the North, straight down from the Arctic essentially. This very, very cold wind came. And so, Jamie and I knew that in those conditions it would be absolutely pointless attempting to descent and that really our best and only course of action was to simply stay put. To sit it out. To wait for the conditions to improve, for this storm to blow over, for our chance to escape back down to the safety of the valley. But in the meantime we were essentially trapped, pinned to the spot. And so, we settled in to wait. And we waited and waited and the storm raged on and the day wore on. Morning passed on to afternoon, afternoon passed on to evening, until eventually we had to accept that we were going to be stuck there for a second night. Once again, a grim prospect. Once again, there was nothing else we could do but to wait.

And at this point I’m just going to cut a long story very short, simply to say that we waited and waited and waited for the weather to improve, for the storm to blow over, for our chance to escape back down to the safety of the valley. But in the end we ended up trapped on that tiny little icy ledge at the very summit of that four thousand metre mountain at the full mercy of the elements for a total of five days and five nights just pinned to the spot. While we were doing a great job at surviving, as I said we were strong and we were fit and we were there for each other most importantly, keeping each other going, but ultimately there’s only so much the human body can take and we were enduring temperatures that plummeted as low as minus thirty degrees ‘c’. And wind speeds of one hundred and thirty kilometres an hour, which quite apart from anything else was more that the wing speed of the helicopters that the rescue services were using in their frantic attempts to try and reach us. They knew exactly where we were but until there was a break in the weather there was nothing they could do. They were grounded. In fact, it wasn’t until the afternoon of the fourth day when there was a brief break in the clouds, they even had a chance to attempt to rescue. But on that occasion, battling in the winds as this helicopter was, it couldn’t hover anywhere near us because of the turbulence and despite dangling a man precariously from the end of the winch line to within about five metres of where we were, ultimately all their attempts to get to us were thwarted. And for Jamie and I on the ground it was absolutely gutting to see our rescue come so close and yet to have it so cruelly torn away from us because we knew now that time was running out. Well, we did make it through that next bitterly cold day but it was during the fifth and final terrible night that we ultimately lost our battle for survival as we both started to succumb to the inevitable grips of hyperthermia. Hyperthermia, which in the mountains of course is a lethal killer and Jamie Fisher, for whatever reason I don’t know, just began to fade faster than me. He at first just became confused and then more and more he became delirious. Eventually he became unconscious and ultimately he just stopped moving altogether. I, at that point, was still conscious. Just. But I knew now that this was the end.

It was the end for Jamie and it was the end surely for me too. There was now no way I was getting off this mountain alive. I was completely exposed to the elements by now and the last hour of so my hands and feet had become literally frozen solid. So, I couldn’t even do anything to help myself and I knew the end was coming pretty soon. So, I remember just closing my eyes as I faced out into that pitch black icy cold wind, closing my eyes and just starting to drift off to sleep in the certain knowledge that I was never going to wake up from that sleep ever again. And that’s what I thought. But, sometime later, I opened my eyes again and I was still there. And when I opened my eyes and looked out, the first thing that I saw was the first rays of sunshine as they began to light up all the mountain peaks all around me under a clear blue sky. And as I sat and watched these mountain peaks just catching fire like candles I realised that I’d made it through the night. I had made it through to the dawn. And there was still a spark of hope that I might get out of there alive and sure enough it seemed like only moments later I heard that unmistakeable thud-thud-thud-thud-thud of the helicopter as it approached. And so, this time I knew that somehow, they were going to rescue me. Somehow, they were going to get me out of there. Still though, they had a hell of a job of it. The winds barely dropped at all. The helicopter could only just fly. But once again, couldn’t hover anywhere near us. What they managed to do though was to make a passing drop of one of their men onto the ridge of the mountain just above us where the updrafts were at their least severe. They managed to drop the guy off. The helicopter then immediately had to pull back to safety leaving this guy behind, who straight away sprang into action, got some ropes out, abseiled down to where we were trapped, reached us very quickly indeed, and then, realising that I was still alive he dealt with me first. He got me ready, prepared in a rescue harness and then he radioed the helicopter. Well the helicopter meanwhile had prepared its full forty metres of winch line, but that wasn’t going to be nearly enough to clear the updrafts, so to that they had added another fifty metres of rope to the end of which was attached a single hook. The helicopter then just made one pass straight over the mountain summit, trailing beneath it this ninety metres of line with a hook on the end. And as it flew past the pilot managed to guide it with such precision that my rescuer on the ground was able to reach up with his hand, catch this hook as it swung past, then he just clipped it straight onto my harness and instantly I was yanked off the mountain.

Instantly I was just spinning one thousand metres above the glacier in space in what was literally one of the most dramatic and spectacular rescues in the history of the Alps. Not that I actually appreciated that at the time, but I was remarkably still conscious and the last thing that I saw before I finally did pass out was this scene here, taken from the helicopter looking back. It’s not a great picture I know, but you can make out this little tiny ledge we had in this slight dip of the ridge here with the massive drops to front and back. And the last thing that I saw was the blue-suited figure of my rescuer as he crouched over the now lifeless body of my best friend and climbing partner, Jamie Fisher. So, at that point I knew that I’d made it, I’d been rescued, I was going to live. But I knew also that in no way was this a happy ending and that I was returning to a very, very different world to the one that I’d left behind just a week previously. Well I was flown straight to Chamonix Hospital where, I have to say, I was extremely well taken care of as you can probably see. Not only was I surrounded by beautiful young French nurses, but all of the staff there, the doctors, the surgeons, the nurses and everybody else, not only are they world experts in the treatment of mountain traumatology, but living and working amongst the mountains as they do, they’re all mountain people as well. They’re all skiers, snowboarders and mountaineers and that meant that they had a great deal of understanding for me as a person. You know, they knew who I was, where I was coming from, what I’d been doing up there on the mountain summit in the first place and that level of understanding that they had for me, that connection that we had meant a great deal to me. It meant as much to me as their medical expertise. I was also surrounded by my friends and family who flew out to be with me. So here on the left, my dad, my mother - not in that picture, and on the right most importantly of all, my girlfriend Anna. So, I was very well taken care of.

But still those were such tough days. Those first few days after the accident were really hard and I had just struggled to come to terms with the sudden and tragic and unexpected loss of my friend Jamie. And on top of that of course, I was really quite ill myself. The hyperthermia was fine. That was quickly treated. But the frostbite wasn’t fine. As I said my hands and feet had been literally frozen solid and you don’t get away with that kind of frostbite without some kind of permanent damage. At this point though, the doctors and surgeons couldn’t really say how bad that permanent damage might be. All they could do was to defrost me, pump me full of drugs, sit back and wait. Wait and see which parts of my hands and feet might recover, might regenerate and could eventually be saved, and which parts would not, would bite back, would atrophy and would eventually have to be amputated. And this period of waiting, I was told, could take many weeks, months and even years, following which there could be many more months and years of reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation, at the end of which one day perhaps I might be able to lead some kind of normal life again. But until that point I just didn’t know, and to me that uncertainty was worse than any fate that I could imagine. Simply not knowing what the future held in store for me was what really got me down the most. What I really struggled with most of all was that terrible uncertainty. And so, in retrospect I think I was actually quite lucky that that period of waiting was cut very short when after only a week and a half I became extremely ill with septicaemia - blood poisoning - from all this dead tissue in my hands and feet. And on the tenth day my body could cope no longer and I fell into septic shock. The major organs in my body were just starting to shut down and so, septic shock is of course lethal. It can kill you in minutes. So, at that point the doctors and surgeons really had to act swiftly. They intubated me. They put me on a ventilator. They sedated me and effectively they helped me in an artificial coma, and so it was while I was unconscious, these guys who had been fighting so hard on my behalf were forced to take the excruciating decision, whether to carry on that fight to give me my chance but in all probability to see me die, or whether to take action, to go ahead and amputate and in the end I think they realised that if they were going to save my life at all then amputate was what they had to do. And so, amputate is what they did. So, that’s not actually me. I don’t normally compare myself with Greek gods, but Dionysis here and I share the same amputations - 2 below elbow amputations and 2 below knee amputations. So effectively I lost my hands and my feet. And that was it … really. That was that. I was to wake up from those operations to look down my hospital bed and see that where my hands and feet had previously been were now only neatly bandaged stumps, and to say that I wasn’t prepared for this shock would be a ridiculous understatement. I mean, nothing could have prepared me for this, for the dawning realisation I was facing the rest of my life without hands and feet. This was real. This was happening to me. It wasn’t all some terrible crazy dream. They were never going to grow back again. It really was the rest of my life. And to begin with, the prospect just seemed too appalling to even contemplate. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how I could ever lead any kind of meaningful existence in this condition ever again. And I must admit that there were times during those first few days and weeks when I truly felt that I would have been better off dying up there on the mountain alongside my friend rather than coming down to face a life like this.

So, those were dark, dark days indeed. And of course, on top of all of that I was still really struggling to come to terms with what had happened to Jamie and struggling with all the strange and difficult emotions that went along with that. Emotions such as anger. Anger at myself. Anger at Jamie for not having made it down alive. Guilt. Guilt at having survived when he hadn’t. Guilt at having got down alive from our ordeal together, when he hadn’t. But in the end, it was those emotions relating to Jamie which actually helped me to come to terms with what had happened because it was through thinking about him that I came to realise that really the most important thing here was that I was still alive. I’d been given a second chance. Jamie, who had so sadly died up there on the mountain hadn’t been so lucky, hadn’t been as fortunate as me, hadn’t been given that second chance. And so, I made up my mind that I very much owed it to him as much as I owed it to everyone who fought so hard to save me, as much as I owed it to myself, to make the most of this second chance, just to give it a go, find out what was possible without hands and feet. Just to treat it like my next big challenge, to treat it like the next big mountain that I had to climb. And that’s what I resolved I was going to do. I made up my mind that this day here was going to be the low point in my life and that every day from this day on I was somehow going to get better, I was somehow going to improve, although I had absolutely no idea what that might entail. And maybe I make it sound like it was an easy resolution to come to, but of course it wasn’t. And it wasn’t one that happened overnight either. Indeed, it did take many weeks and months and years really, before I fully truly came to terms with what had happened. But the most important step was taking that positive outlook, resolving from the beginning to find the positive in this situation and bring it out. So, with that in mind I was soon well enough to be flown back to hospital in Edinburgh and there I began this amazing journey of rehabilitation, this incredible voyage of rebuilding my entire life all over again from scratch. Because that’s what it felt like at this stage. It really did feel like my entire life had been swept away from me and I was, you know, incapable of doing anything myself whatsoever at this stage. Never mind the big things in life. Never mind like going out, travelling, climbing mountains or even going to work. I was faced with the prospect of relearning all those everyday little things that most of us in our everyday lives just take for granted. Just getting up out of bed in the morning, washing myself, dressing myself, feeding myself, going to the toilet myself. All these things.

And at first the prospect of rebuilding my entire life all over again from scratch just seemed like way too daunting and undertaking. I just didn’t know where to begin. I felt so completely incapable, so totally daunted and so utterly alone. And so, there were many, many times during those first few days and weeks when I just wanted to throw the towel in there and then before I’d even begun. So, I do count myself as very lucky that quite early on during that time I did come to realise a couple of really important, fundamental things about this great challenge that I faced. Things that in retrospect might seem pretty obvious, but which weren’t at all obvious to me at the time and which did really help me to set myself on the road to recovery. The first thing that I realised about this great challenge was that of course I wasn’t facing it alone. In fact, I was completely surrounded by people who could and would, and wanted to help me. There was the professional staff. The doctors and surgeons and nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, prosthetists, all these people who were round my bedside twenty four hours a day should I need them. All with their own special skills and talents. Each of them was up for the challenge. And there was my friends and family, my girlfriend Anna, who were also round my bedside daily. Who were also up for the challenge. And when I began to realise quite how many people there were whose help and support and advice and care and love and general support I can rely upon at any time, suddenly the challenge that I faced didn’t seem quite so daunting after all, I just had to learn to swallow my pride and accept that help. You know, it wasn’t easy for me. As a fiercely independent person it wasn’t easy for me to admit that I couldn’t do this alone, that I did need the help of other people, but once I got my head around that barrier and did begin to work with the people around me, together as a team we did start to make some really significant progress. And meanwhile the second thing that I was coming to realise about this enormous challenge that I faced was that of course it didn’t have to be one big challenge, but like any challenge it could just be broken down into many, many much more achievable bite-sized pieces.

You know, so rather than lying in bed all day and feeling sorry for myself, moping about the fact that I was never going to climb a mountain again, I would just wake up in the morning, each morning, and set myself a goal, set myself a small achievable target that I felt I might meet that day. So, I’d say to myself, “Well yesterday the nurses had to brush my teeth for me. Well today I’m going to do that myself. And I don’t care if it takes me an hour, or 2 hours, or all day, because I’m not going anywhere else today.” So, I would throw myself with as much enthusiasm as I could into this challenge that I’d set myself and to my surprise, more often than not I would achieve that challenge. I would reach that goal that I’d set myself. And it might be difficult. It might take all day and it would certainly require the support of those around me, but somehow or other I would get there and that of course would be a small victory. That would be one small step further down my road of rehabilitation and independence. That would be one small piece of my self-esteem won back. So much so that I really didn’t find it all that difficult to stay motivated during this time because every day I was winning these small victories, every day I was going to bed having managed to do something that I couldn’t do the day before. So of course, it was hard, of course there were times when everything seemed black, but by constantly keeping myself motivated from goal to goal to goal and with, I can’t overstate a huge amount of help from those around me, I did learn once more over the course of that first 2 and a half, 3 months, using my new body to once again wash myself, dress myself, feed myself, go to the toilet myself, all these things. And at the same time as that of course I was learning to walk again, although I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed with the first pair of legs they gave me. But these giant one size fits all inflatable legs are what you start on. I’m sure some of you will have come across them in your careers at some point. Fortunately, within a couple of weeks I was able to graduate into a pair of top of the range carbon fibre titanium fantastic prosthetic legs and that experience was just incredible. Just amazing. Having so recently looked down my hospital bed and seen that my feet were gone forever, I thought that I’d never walk again. Here I was just three months later, standing on my new legs, walking on my new feet. And that’s, thank you very much. Thank you.

That was just amazing and gave me the boost I needed in fact to take the very big step of leaving the hospital and moving back home, because as well as having these short term goals of course it’s important to have long term goals too, and my long term goal was precisely that. It was to leave behind the institutional twenty four hour care and support of the hospital and to live my life independently in my own home again. At this stage though I still had great doubts whether I could cope in my own home, whether I would manage without that institutional help that I’d so quickly and so frighteningly become dependent on, even with the help of Anna who would be there for me, I just didn’t know if I could cope. But if there was one thing I did know it was that I was never going to be 100 percent certain about it. If I was ever going to do it at some point, I’d just have to take the plunge and give it a go. And so, learning to walk is what just tipped the scales and gave me the boost I needed to do that. To go out, to give it a go, and to move back home. And actually, once I settled in back home I did start to cope remarkably well. Of course, I still depended very heavily on Anna for many things. For all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, washing-up, ironing - so no change there then! While Anna was getting me licked into shape with those things too I did begin to lead a relatively normal life again and I suppose that could be the end of my story there, were it not the fact that by now I’d become pretty much addicted to this idea of setting myself challenges and achieving new things, and I just found that I was enjoying it far too much to stop there. I couldn’t help myself from setting my sights further afield and I couldn’t help myself also from turning my eyes once more to the hills and the mountains I loved so much.

So, it was on a complete whim really, about a week after I moved back home, still less than four months since the accident, I woke up one morning and went out and climbed my first mountain. Although I guess to be honest, you probably wouldn’t describe Blackford Hill in the middle of Edinburgh as the world’s most significant mountain. For those who don’t know, it’s all of about two hundred metres from the car park to the summit. But nevertheless, standing on that summit with this fantastic 360-degree view round all over Edinburgh, I just felt on top of the world. You know, I just felt incredible and I guess I began to realise then that this flame of passion that I have for mountaineering hadn’t been extinguished up there on Les Droites, but that the embers still burned within me. And I made up my mind that I was going to pursue this dream, crazy though it might seem, of returning to climbing those hills and mountains once more. And still I’d no idea how I was going to go about this or what I’m actually beyond struggling up Blackford Hill, but I figured well why not just give it a go. Take it one step at a time. Maybe I’ll get nowhere, but I’ll just take it one step at a time and see where I get to and that’s essentially exactly what I did. So, starting out with the smallest hill in Scotland I just worked my way up one step at a time until about a year later, to my surprise, I found myself standing here on the summit of Ben Nevis, the biggest hill in Scotland. Still not a massive mountain on a world stage but for me a very significant achievement, more than twice what I’d managed in any of my training climbs to date, so a huge undertaking, but being chased up the hill by a dozen journalists, a dozen photographers and 3 film crews, sure enough gave me the added motivation I needed.

And pictures there alongside Anna, who I’m very happy to say about weeks later I was to get married to. And, you know, I really don’t think I can do Anna justice in this presentation. I simply wouldn’t be standing here speaking to you now if it hadn’t been for all of the care and love and support that I’ve had from her throughout all of this and still do. And yet it’s me that gets all the attention. It’s me that stands up and tells my story in front of audiences but it’s very much been a journey that we’ve made together. Well then at the same time as all this training for my hillwalking that I was doing, I was becoming almost zealous in my drive to achieve new things and to get back into all the outdoor pursuits and activities that I’d so much loved doing before my accident and I just started to take the attitude that whatever it was my friends were doing, I would go along with them and I would just give it a go and I would find out what was possible without hands and feet. So, a few examples of some of those things here, starting out with cross-country skiing. I’ve always been a passionate skier and as with all these things I would have doubts, I would have worries and concerns, but I just found I simply went ahead and gave it a go, always, always, always those difficulties I’d been imagining in my head would just evaporate in front of me, had often never been there in the first place. Of course, there would be plenty of difficulties along the road but they would seldom be the difficulties I’d anticipated. So, it always paid off just to give something a go before ruling it out as too difficult or impossible. So, for cross-country skiing, having spent so long worrying about it, in the end it proved to be simply a case of pulling on a pair of ski boots, clipping on a pair of skis, and going skiing. Simple. It was just as easy as that. Likewise, snowboarding. I just went out, I clipped the snowboard onto my feet and went snowboarding. Quite literally in fact, on this occasion I didn’t even bother wearing any boots, I just went in my trainers because I figured well, I’m not going to get cold feet! So, I was gradually seeing the advantages. And from there I did pluck up the courage to try something I thought would be impossible without hands and feet which was downhill skiing. You know, I just had these awful visions of these two artificial legs on skis disappearing off down the mountain without me, but of course, when I gave it a go it proved to be fine. Better than fine actually, because I was forced by my physical limitations, I was forced by my disability to really focus on my technique, to really focus on what the skis were capable of doing, so much so in fact that within a couple of years of the accident I found I was actually skiing better than I had been before. So really, finding ways of turning my weaknesses into strengths.

Running … another big passion of mine. So, I started out on the track. I’ve already mentioned these fantastic carbon fibre titanium legs that I’ve got, so within a few months I was running, you know, a few hundred metres round the track and before I knew it I’d made that classic schoolboy error and signed myself up for the London marathon so, amazing how a big event like that can just inspire you to achieve more than you dreamt was possible, and so I did keep going, the crowds, the runners, the spectators kept me going through a very gruelling and painful few hours but I did eventually make it round the full 26.2 miles. Not the fastest marathon ever perhaps, but at least I finished on the same day as everybody else and that was important to me. But the one activity that was closest to heart, that I dreamed about, that I knew in my heart was impossible without hands and feet, was of course climbing. Rock climbing. Hands and feet after all, pretty fundamental to the whole idea of clinging to a vertical rock face, so I was certain that I could never climb again. Certain that is until once again I just went along with my friends and gave it a go and to my astonishment as much as anyone else’s, I found I could invent new ways of clinging to that vertical rock face and making upward progress and actually, it was just the same thing that I was going through throughout my rehabilitation. It was simply a case of learning to make the most of what I have. Making the most of the tools that I have available and most people have a pair of hands at the end of their arms, which are a fantastically versatile set of tools. Well, I don’t have the hands any more but I’ve still got these … my arms, or my stumps, and my elbows and my shoulders, and they are very versatile too you know. They bend and flex and rotate, they’re strong, they’ve got good grip and good sensitivity and I can do a lot with that. I in fact do everything with that. And climbing proved no exception. I just had to use every ounce of ingenuity and cunning that I had to find new ways of pushing down on the little hand holes, wedging my arms behind pieces of rock, jamming them into cracks or sticking them into holes or whatever it took to cling on and climb upwards and it worked remarkably well. And that for me was just fantastic, being back in the outdoors with my friends doing the activity that I loved the most. So, as I thought, that’s rock climbing, what about ice climbing? So, to go ice climbing, you might know, you have to be able to hole two ice axes, which meant paying another visit to go and see my poor long suffering prosthetists, once again convince them this was a great way of spending their budget. But we did get the go-ahead to design and build Britain’s first pair of National Health ice axes. So, there they are in operation. And now that I was rock climbing again, ice climbing, climbing the biggest mountains in the UK, I started to think that all the skills were in place now, all the pieces were there for me to be able to write what I considered to be the final chapter in this story of my rehabilitation.

For me to be able to complete the circle and to return to climb once more in the mountains where it all happened in the first place. To climb once again in the mountains of the French and Swiss Alps. So, that was an amazing experience, it’s hard, hard physically, hard mentally and emotionally too but it was important to me. It was part of my process of healing, of coming to terms with what had happened and it was also great to be able to go back and climb with so many of the people involved in my story out there, the rescuers, the doctors and surgeons and nurses, as I said, many of them were mountaineers themselves. Many of them had felt at the time as I had. That this whole sorry affair had been an abject failure, that I would have been better off dying up there on the mountain. So, it was important for me to go back to climb with those people, in my own way thank them, show them that their efforts hadn’t been to no avail, that an active person can still lead a rich and rewarding life almost no matter what. And many of those people had become lifelong friends and since those days I’ve been back out climbing and skiing in the mountains of the Alps and elsewhere more times than I could remember. I’ve also taken on a few other challenges too.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I like a challenge from time to time. I’m running out of time but very quickly, I did a bit of sailing and a few years ago sailed across the North Sea as part of an all-amputee crew. So, there was three of us on the boat with three hands and three feet between us and that fortunately proved sufficient. Quite cool for me because it meant every time somebody shouted “all hands on deck”, so despite some really bad humour we made a very respectable forty eight hours from Stavanger in Norway to Banff in Northern Scotland. Shortly after that I did an iron man triathlon which if you don’t know involves a 2.4 mile swim followed by 112 mile cycle and then rounded off with a full 26.2 mile marathon. So, that was an epic 24-hour day on the go non-stop, and that was just … awful! It’s probably the only way I can describe that but again, when it was over it was over and for me was a wonderful challenge and raised an awful lot of money for charity too. Bit of a break from mountaineering but still there was a rather a large hole in my mountaineering portfolio in my mind. A very triangular hole in fact. And that was this mountain here, the Matterhorn. I don’t have time to go into the full story but I started to dream big on this. I’d started to dream it would be possible for me to climb this mountain despite it being very difficult and three years ago, I made a very good attempt and got to just within the top, two hundred and fity metres from the top, before being forced to turn around and go back down just due to lack of time. The following two years I was thwarted by bad weather and I was thinking about giving it up but this year, just a few weeks ago, as Donald was saying there, he heard on the radio or the news, I got another chance at it and after a monumental effort I found myself standing 4,460 metres on the summit of the Matterhorn which was just incredible. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much.

However, the greatest challenge that I’ve had to face in my life and I’m yet to even mention. The biggest challenge by far in fact, and that was and still is, these three people here. These are my three kids. So, on the left is Iris who’s now twelve years old, on the right, twins - that was a shock! Liam and Alex, they’re a boy and a girl and they’re now ten and believe me they’re a hell of a big challenge. I mean, climbing mountains without hands and feet turns out to be easy compared to just bringing up three normal healthy kids as I’m sure many of you will understand. Just don’t even ask me about changing nappies with my teeth! The important point is though that life goes on. If I had died up there on the mountain summit alongside my friend Jamie as I’d wished in those early days following the accident, well these 3 guys would never have even got the chance to go on and experience this incredible gift that we all have called life. So, to me now it doesn’t really matter so much what I can and can’t do, it doesn’t matter what my disability is. I just feel privileged to have had the opportunity to pass the mantle on to the next generation. And sometimes I think it’s worth just keeping things in perspective you know, remembering what you’re doing it all for in the first place and I’m sure that applies particularly to the profession that you guys have chosen. Sometimes it must be very hard to remember why you’ve chosen this in the first place, what it all means for you to do this very hard job but that inspiration for me will always be my family. So, that’s my story.

We do have time for questions afterwards so come and find me after we finish up. If you want to speak to me please do, but all that remains for me to say is you know, what I said at the beginning was true. You know, I realise that mountaineering is not everybody’s cup of tea, that my situation is pretty unique, but I was just an ordinary person. I had no idea any of this was going to happen and I believe that everybody has great strength, everybody has enormous potential. Sometimes it takes great adversity to bring that potential out but it doesn’t have to be that way if you can find the right inspiration in life, if you can learn how to make the most of what you have, learn how to make the most of what the people around you have and most of all, to pull off that extraordinary trick of being able to believe in yourself, you really can achieve even the most incredible of things. I wish you all the very best. Thank you very much. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.

Transcript Copyright:
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License