Since his accident on the North Face of the Droites in 1999, Scottish climber and quadruple amputee Jamie Andrew has been inspiring others and pushing his boundaries with ambitious goals, charity work and motivational speaking.
Caught in a storm with winds of 90mph and temperatures of -30°C, Jamie developed frostbite in his limbs after four nights of exposure. His climbing partner Jamie Fisher did not survive, but Jamie was airlifted to safety, only to have his hands and feet amputated to prevent septic shock.
The 47 year-old recently set himself the task of traversing Skye's iconic Cuillin Ridge - with no hands or feet. Jamie has sent in an account of his attempt, which although unsuccessful in terms of completion, became an outstanding rescue operation as he and his team saved the life of an injured climber.
Ever since my accident (which is 17 years ago now!), I’ve dreamed of returning to Skye and making a traverse of the Cuillin Ridge without hands of feet. In 2003 I made an attempt with Chris Pasteur and two other friends, but we were thwarted by my slow progress and bad weather.
Chris and I vowed to return, but then life, work, other projects and children intervened and somehow another 13 years slipped by before I got that call from Chris to say the long range forecast in the North West was looking good.
We quickly recruited Duncan Tunstall and Al Matthewson and headed for Glen Brittle. The forecast proved accurate and so that evening we headed out the coast and up the hellish slopes of Gars Bheinn to a stunning bivi at the start of the ridge. The next morning Simon Yearsley joined the team and we set out on the 14km of complex and sustained ridge climbing that is the jewel in the crown of Scottish mountaineering.
This kind of terrain is absolutely back breaking work for me and involves wobbling on unsteady prosthetic legs, crawling on knees and elbows and embarrassing bum-shuffling, as well as more familiar rock climbing techniques. Gabbro is uncompromisingly rough on my sensitive stump ends and can quickly cut them to ribbons, so I have to protect my arms with socks, which doesn’t exactly help with the climbing. Even on easier scrambling terrain I have to be short-roped for security and so our progress along the ridge was slow.
Two hours saw us to Sgurr nan Eag and it was a further three hours before I had overcome the first serious obstacle which is the infamous TD gap (with the help of a very tight rope!). Alasdair came next, then Thearlaich and the very pleasant King’s chimney on Mhichoinnich.
Through experience I’ve found that the best footwear for this kind of ground is a pair of well broken in Walshes – nice and close fitting, like rock shoes, but with good grips for the varied terrain. And, fortunately, I don’t get sore feet!
Also, for balance I use a pair of arm sockets fitted with Black Diamond poles which can quickly be varied in length depending on whether I’m ascending or descending. It’s all these little tricks and gear adaptations that can really make a difference to my rate of progress and often determine the difference between failure and success.
Scrambling on the ridge is never very difficult, but never is it easy, and the exposure is usually high. I have to pick each foothold with care and be certain that my carbon fibre feet drop exactly onto the holds as I intend. Each hand (or stump) hold, likewise must be painstakingly sought out and tested. It is a time consuming and torturous process.
By the time we reached the Inn Pinn it was early evening. This gave me an exciting climb in a surprisingly strong wind and I felt very unstable as I teetered up its narrow crest. We then decided to bivi at the next col, just short of half way along the ridge.
The next day, again fine, we continued over Banachdich to where we had arranged to meet a late arrival to our team, Andy Hume. From Banachdich we spotted Andy on the summit of the next peak, Thormaid, and exchanged shouts and waves with him. But by the time we had picked our way down to the intervening col to meet him, Andy had vanished. A mystery.
Then Al and Simon spotted something odd a hundred metres below us to the east, on the steep screes bellow the narrow gap where we stood. A solitary figure, standing, and some other objects – what appeared to be gear strewn about. My first thought was – That’s a strange place to bivi. Then it clicked and I realised it wasn’t a bivi but the scene of an accident. Andy?
Simon and Duncan quickly headed down the dangerous scree slope while the rest of us waited. A strong wind blew up the gully and drowned out our shouts so it was an anxious wait before Duncan returned to report.
Andy was indeed the figure we had seen, and he was attending to a climber who had fallen from the cliffs of Sgurr Thormaid above. Scrambling solo, with a heavy pack, this poor guy had veered off the main route, slipped, tumbled, bounced off a glacis and plunged 90 feet off the vertical cliffs to crash onto the talus slopes below.
Unbelievably he was still alive, but he was badly smashed up. Fortunately he was still conscious and he had managed to shout, alerting Andy as he passed on the col. Andy and Simon gave first aid and casualty management (undoubtedly saving the guy’s life), whilst the helicopter arrived and the Skye MRT was airlifted in.
By the time the rescue was complete and the climber on his way to Raigmore Hospital, we had lost several hours of the day and were, to be quite honest, rather shaken. So we made our way as far as Sgurr a’Mhadaidh before turning back and descending by An Dorus and Coire a’Ghreadaidh to Glen Brittle.
So the complete Cuillin Ridge traverse still eludes me. But still I feel the attempt was a significant achievement. In the company of good mates, with excellent crack, I pushed myself to the limit of what I can do without hands and feet. Two of my teammates saved a life and all of us were humbled to remember the terrible cost our sport can extract, and to value all the more each precious gift that the mountains give us.
PS The injured climber is reportedly doing well and has been moved from Raigmore to a hospital in his home town. We wish him a speedy recovery.
Visit Jamie's website.