There's a lottery about airline seating: you hope for a beautiful young woman and fear a screaming baby but usually end up with an instantly forgettable stranger with whom you exchange little more than a nod.
On the way back from Geneva there was no way I was to forget who was sitting one seat from me: a man with no hands.
The seat in between was empty and I wondered about etiquette, trying to guess what Debrett's would say. I thought it would be something like "in such encounters no mention should be made of the other's circumstances and conversation should remain on neutral topics such as the weather and books."
Fortunately we both had brought a book to read and the weather was indeed a topical subject and so a polite exchange was possible with just the one "can I help?" But almost always my companion was able to - for example - open and eat bags of cheese puffs unaided.
There was just the one slight hesitation that I noted and afterwards speculated about when I mentioned Geneva and my inability to get up into the mountains to ski, and later after using the crumbs of information I'd gathered into Google searches I learnt why.
For I'd been talking to Jamie Andrew who'd lost not just his hands but all four limbs in those very peaks. As Wikipedia put it:
"In January 1999 Andrew and his friend Jamie Fisher were caught in a storm after having climbed the north face of Les Droites in the Mont Blanc massif. Having made it up the north face, the two men were trapped on the ridge above the face by snow, winds of 90 mph and temperatures of -30°C for four nights. On the last night Fisher died of hypothermia; despite having developed frostbite, Andrew survived the experience, being helicoptered off the mountain by the French rescue service."
Despite those horrific events Jamie has gone on to start a family and go climbing again, and now is a writer and motivational speaker. And I can say from personal experience able to cope amazingly well on his own, reading a book, packing it away in his bag and then carrying it off the plane, heading for his connecting flight.
These are hard times for many, and I've had several conversations in which friends and family have talked about loss of jobs and I've tried to reassure them that life will go on, that even in the worst case scenario it is not the end.
Jamie has shown what is possible even with much greater shocks to the plans we lay out for ourselves. As his web site says: "our greatest limitations are the ones we impose on ourselves. Remember: nothing is impossible!"
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