Towering 4,478m above the pretty town of Zermatt below, the Matterhorn is a formidable challenge for any mountaineer. So spare a thought for Jamie Andrew, 44, from Edinburgh, who not only scaled the mighty peak but, incredibly, did so 15 years after losing his hands and feet to frostbite during a mountaineering accident.
Now Mr Andrew says he hopes his feat will prove an inspiration to others struggling with disabilities – as well as those who fight shy of challenges.
‘I’ve wired my brain so when I come across an obstacle, my first instinct is to think how to get round it,’ explains the father-of-three.
‘When I see a failure, all I can think about is how to overcome it.’
Mr Andrew’s story began 15 years ago, when he and his friend Jamie Fisher were trapped half way up a mountain by a storm.
Mr Fisher and Mr Andrew had climbed the north face of Les Droites in the Mont Blanc massif but found themselves beset by deep snow and winds of up to 90mph.
So bad were conditions, the pair were marooned on Les Droites for four days and nights; a length of time that proved too much for Mr Fisher who died of hypothermia on the last night.
Although rescuers eventually managed to come to Mr Andrew’s aid, his hands and feet had been so badly affected by frostbite, he was forced to have them amputated.
But incredibly, just a few years later, Mr Andrew was back on the mountainside. ‘It took a while before I started getting back into the idea of wanting to climb again but it was always such a passion,’ he explains.
‘I knew that flame hadn’t been extinguished. I also knew that if Jamie had survived he’d be doing the same thing. To me, it’s always been such an enriching experience.’
A visit to the French Alps and to the spot where Mr Fisher lost his life proved cathartic and it wasn’t long before Mr Andrew began climbing again – starting with a small Edinburgh hill.
‘It was quite poignant going back and seeing our old haunts and the mountains again,’ he says of his trip back to the French Alps.
‘It was just the same, even though I’d had this huge experience; it was all the same. I knew then, that it wasn’t the mountains that were to blame and it helped me to come to terms with what happened.
‘I just started to take it one step at a time, I didn’t think about mountains to begin with; it was just about climbing up a hill in Edinburgh.
‘Even that was hard to begin with but it was about getting stronger, fitter, improving my balance through practice, finding new ways around the difficulty.
He adds: ‘It was a big learning curve but every step was really rewarding. Every new thing I learned, every peak, however small, was a victory and a rewarding experience.’
But while climbing the peaks of Scotland is no easy task, even the lofty heights of the 1,344m Ben Nevis pale beside the Matterhorn – a peak so dangerous that an estimated 500 climbers have died on it since the first attempt in 1865.
‘It’s a famous peak, it’s iconic,’ says Mr Andrew of his decision to attempt the formidable mountain.
‘It’s that classic chocolate box pyramid and even from a mountaineering perspective its difficult, even today.
‘Compared to most mountains in Alps, it’s difficult and I’d never climbed it even before my accident, so it was an obvious challenge. But it took a long time for that to be possible.’
Making it possible included hours of training and having his prosthetic limbs adapted to cope with the rigours of the climb as well as the Matterhorn’s quirks, which include sheer cliff-faces and paths strewn with slippery stones.
‘Physically, it’s such a big mountain,’ adds Mr Andrews. ‘The climb is 1400m – that’s just exhausting and it’s tricky the whole way.
‘You have to concentrate the whole way because one stip could be disastrous. Finding new ways of using my prosthetics was key.’
Despite the challenge facing him and the agonising muscle pain that he endured on the way up, Mr Andrew says that the experience was a wonderful one.
‘When you’re up there and heading for summit or on the way down, it’s hard to appreciate your surroundings because you’re focused and your thoughts are about getting job done,’ he explains.
‘It was only afterwards that I began to look back and appreciate the experience. When you’re up there, there’s this incredible panoramic view and you’ve earned it. You’ve earned every inch that you’ve gained and that is a terrific feeling.’
Although his wife Anna had been worried about his safety, Mr Andrew says she and his friends supported him every step of the way and he hopes that they’ll do the same for his next challenge – scaling El Capitan, a 2,308m sheer rocky outcrop in California’s Yosemite National Park.
‘For that kind of climbing you use a lot more equipment,’ he explains. ‘It’s just a case of planning it and getting round the obstacles, although it’s not to be taken lightly.’
When Mr Andrew isn’t conquering peaks that would strike fear into the hearts of the able-bodied – let alone those missing limbs – he spends his time mentoring people who’ve lost their hands or feet and are trying to come to terms with their new lives.
‘There’s not many people who lose their hands and feet but when they are, I go and visit, and while I would never tell anyone how to live their lives, I do tell them that whatever you’re trying to achieve in life, if you give it a go, then you really can do it.
‘People can do great things if they get their mindset right.’