Rock and ice climbing are hard enough, but Scottish mountaineer Jamie Andrew is doing these hard-core activities without hands or feet.
Recently the quadruple amputee set out with several friends to cross the iconic Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye. While meeting a friend along the traverse, the group ended up assisting with a rescue.
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Seventeen years ago, Andrew and his climbing partner Jamie Fisher were attempting the north face of Les Droites in the French Alps when a storm hit, trapping them for days. The temperature dipped to -22 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind hit 90 mph. Fisher didn't make it. Andrew was airlifted to a hospital, where his hands and feet had to be amputated.
His whole life had been swept away, but he felt he owed it to his friend to make the most of his second chance, Andrew told me over Skype. Over time, he regained his self-confidence, learning how to be strong and stable on prosthetic feet. He trained his arm stumps, toughening the skin to pull or push down on tiny handholds. For technical ice climbing, he uses prosthetic ice axes and prosthetic crampon feet.
Before the accident, he and Fisher had spent time on Cuillin Ridge in Scotland. Stretching across 14 peaks, the ridge is a classic multi-day traverse involving scrambling and graded rock climbing. The weather there is notoriously fickle, Andrew said. When it turned nice recently, he and several longtime friends dropped everything to go.
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On their second day, they spotted their friend Andy Hume coming to meet them. But as they got closer, he disappeared. Arriving between two peaks, they looked down to see Hume assisting a fallen climber in a scree-covered slope. The solo climber had slipped, bounced off a rock slab, and fallen off a 90-foot cliff. Miraculously, he was still conscious and had shouted to Hume, Andrew recounted on UKClimbing.com.
Andrew told me he wants to be clear that, other than helping to wave down the rescue helicopter, he stayed on the ridge above the accident site. Hume and Simon Yearsley gave the climber first aid and also kept him warm and safe, he said. "It was Andy and Simon who did an amazing job of basically saving this guy's life."
Later they learned that the climber was doing well, and had been transferred to a hospital in his hometown. Although Andrew didn't complete the ridge this time, he said he'll return in the future.
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Next, he has his sights set on summiting the 14,692-foot Matterhorn in Switzerland this summer. Three years ago he was about 650 feet from the top when the weather prompted him to make the call to turn around. For him, it's not about reaching the summit but getting down safely, Andrew said.
"I don't have hands any more, which are an incredibly versatile set of tools, but I do have my stumps, and they're versatile too in their own way," said. "It's just a case of making the most of what you have."
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