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Risking life and limb…


Last friday I sat and watched the Channel 5 programme ‘The Limbless Mountaineer’. It was the story of Climber Jamie Andrew’s attempt to climb the Hornli Ridge on the Matterhorn, but it also covered much about his fateful accident in the Alps in January 1999.  It seems that year was life changing for us both…

We were in two completely different mountain ranges, but were both involved in daring helicopter rescues and suffered severe frostbite.  At the time we knew little of each other and I thought my injuries were bad, but they pale into insignificance against Jamie’s.  In fact I was doing quite well once in a “who’s got the worst frostbite’ competition, until Jamie walked in the room.  We were all at a Royal Reception in Buckingham Palace, to mark a century since the fated Terra Nova Expedition led by Captain Scott.  There I was, in a room of the great and the good of adventure and exploration, and I felt a little bit daunted. Dr Mike Stroud invited me into a group clustered around himself and Sir Ranulph Feinnes. The competition duly began, and I thought I was leading the field (if that doesn’t sound too macabre).  Suddenly Jamie walked in and, well, he won (can I say hands down..?)  This strange trio of icemen spent the evening telling tales of adventure and injury that would make most people feel faint.

Watching the programme brought back old memories of my accident, particularly the scenes of Jamie’s clothing being removed and his injured limbs being thawed.  The pain in his eyes said everything.  When I hit ER in Anchorage, the pain of rewarming was excruciating. Only two epidural lines had any effect, and I spent the next few days pumped with drugs.  Recovery came and like Jamie, I returned to climbing.

I was lucky enough to climb the Matterhorn in 2010, with the great help of Mountain Guide Andy Perkins.  We hadn’t met before and had only a few days to understand each other, before we began our assault on the peak.  I sat one evening at the Hornli Hut, with my toeless feet cooling in the mountain air and was called mad for even trying the climb with my injuries. I wonder what they would have said to Jamie..?

The programme brought back vivid memories of the route, its climbing and dangers.  We had our fair share of falling rocks, and at one point even a rucksack flying down the mountain..!  I had tremendous difficulty climbing the fixed ropes, but watching Jamie fight up them with no hands at all, made me feel an inch tall.  I thought negating the ridge without toes was hard enough, but with prosthetic limbs it looks impossible.  Jamie proved to us all that it wasn’t.  I was lucky enough to summit and most importantly, return safely.  I was exhausted, but happy to be in one piece.  Andy’s patience was wonderful as he led this battered climber home and we celebrated with a bottle of wine, before I fell into a deep sleep.  Since that day we have remained good friends and because of Andy, I now present at the Kendal Mountain Festival.

Jamie took a very personal decision on the Matterhorn, and that was to turn for home.  It is a decision I greatly respect.  Both of us have almost died of frostbite and we know its pain.  Jamie is also a family man and has more responsibilities to consider these days.  I’m not, but I do think of my greater family and friends when I’m on the hill.  I’ve turned around close to the summit on two major climbs and come home to fight another day.  The mountains are inviolate, we are not…

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