Wildlife guru Steve Backshall has landed the biggest TV series of his career but at the worst possible time.
The action man is about to fulfill a lifetime’s ambition by making a TV series about unexplored wonders of the world.
But making the10 hour-long episodes of Expedition for the BBC comes at a big personal price.
The adventurer will spend the next year abroad even though his Olympic rower wife Helen Glover is due to have their first baby in July.
Bafta-winning Steve, 45, on TV tonight trying to climb the Eiger mountain, has dreamed of the Expedition project for 12 long years.
Best known for kids’ wildlife show Deadly 60, Steve says: “It’s happened in this year, of all years, when all I want to do is be at home with Helen and our new baby.
“But it’s what all my planning and preparation has been about so I have to grab it with both hands.”
Steve is looking forward to the most exciting year in his life and has the full backing of Helen, an Olympic champion in the coxless pairs in 2012 and 2016.
He says: “Of course the bit I’m most excited about, and will be most life-changing, is parenthood. We can’t wait.”
Helen was going to join Steve on some of the trips but that changed when she found out she was expecting.
Last month the couple shared the tragic news that one of the twins Helen was carrying had not survived. But they are staying positive for July.
Steve is confident Helen would have thrived in the wild because she is “phenomenally physically competent” and learns quickly.
He says: “She definitely has the potential to be better than me at every expedition skill there is.”
Steve believes there should be far more female adventurers on mainstream media.
He says: “Young girls particularly need to know that they could do it. I think Helen could be that role model. There’s a whole new realm of expedition programmes, we’ll see what the future holds. The ideal for me would be to do things together with Helen.”
For now though, he’ll be going it alone and Helen’s family, including four siblings, will help her through the last months of pregnancy, and the first of motherhood.
She and Steve have been together since meeting at Sport Relief event in 2014.
Later that year Steve left his comfort zone by going on Strictly Come Dancing.
Partnered by Ola Jordan , he made it to week nine but found the experience more frightening than risking his life climbing a mountain.
Steve’s love of wildlife and the great outdoors began when he was growing up in Bagshot, Surrey, when he was surrounded by rescue animals.
After A levels he backpacked alone around Asia, India and Africa then read English and Theatre studies at Exeter University.
Steve also spent a year in Japan returning as a black belt in judo, a brown in karate and fluent in Japanese.
In 1997 he tried unsuccessfully to trek across western New Guinea but time in the rainforest gave sparked a TV idea.
He shot a pilot show and sold it to the National Geographic Channel which hired him as their adventurer in residence. In 2003 he moved to the BBC’s Really Wild Show and in 2008 Deadly 60 was commissioned.
Steve has already left for cave-diving in Mexico, the first of his 10 new expeditions, but will be back for days and possibly weeks at a time.
He says: “We go up to the Arctic, there will be jungles and deserts and a bit of everything.”
But first tonight viewers will see the intrepid presenter feature in a documentary in which he attempts to fulfil another life-long ambition of scaling The Eiger.
“I heard about the first ever ascent of the north face of The Eiger when I was seven or eight and and it just seemed to my young mind the most terrifying and petrifying – and therefore hypnotic and fascinating – place on earth,” he says.
“I couldn’t believe that anyone would put themselves to that extent of danger merely to try and get to the top of a mountain – it seemed absurd to me.
But then, as with so many things in my life, I find the things that scare me most end up becoming obsessions. They become things that I ultimately find I have to do.”
The five-month training regime was brutal – courtesy of Helen, who is something of an expert when it comes to extreme fitness.
“I spent five months on a really strict diet, not drinking at all, watching calories and drinking green smoothies – I lost nearly a stone in weight,” the muscle-bound action man says.
“Climbers don’t look like me – they are wiry and are looking for the maximum strength to body weight ratio. They want to be light and strong – my kind of physique has been built up from a lifetime of judo and contact sports.
"I’m not built for it. For big expeditions I have to get as much of the muscle off as possible.”
Helen pushed her husband hard to turn him into a lean, mean climbing machine.
“We were training anything up to three times a day – that’s Helen’s standard regime when she’s training for the Olympics,” he explains.
“She put me on a routine with the same kind of intensity as she was having as a professional. What an amazing experience to have one of the best female athletes in the world to train me.”
So finally it came to the climb – but it soon became apparent that the weather wasn’t going to allow it.
“The Beast from the East gave the UK -12 in places – we were out in -35 on the Eiger, trying to climb. The hairs all freeze on the inside of your nose, every footstep squeaks because the snow takes on this strange consistency.
"It’s brutal when the air is totally still – the moment the wind gets up there is a serious risk of almost immediate frostbite on every single part of your body.
"Plus, when you climb hard you sweat, and as soon as you stop that sweat freezes – hypothermia is almost instantaneous.”
And that’s not all.
“I’ve never seen avalanches like it, hundreds of metres of pouring snow.”
Steve says sadly: “There were probably 15 to 20 every day that would have been fatal to anyone on the north face. There was no way we could have climbed it.”
Not to be deterred, the team switched their attentions to another mighty mountain – Italy’s Tre Cime.
“It’s one of the most iconic mountains in the Dolomites. So we got stuck into that and it was plenty enough of a challenge – reaching that summit after 15 hours certainly didn’t feel like second prize.”
So which was harder – scaling a sheer mountain or prancing around on Strictly?
According to Steve, it was the Saturday night show. “It sounds ridiculous to compare an expedition where you could actually die with something like dancing on television but the things that are most frightening are the things where you are most out of your comfort zone,” he reasons.
“I’ve been climbing and mountaineering since my teens so it’s something that I love and feel confident with.
"Put me on stage in spangly pants in front of the nation and it’s really scary – you could be utterly humiliated in front of everyone you know.”
And what’s dying on a freezing mountainside compared to that?
– Steve Backshall takes on the Monster Mountain, at 5.30pm on Monday 14th May on CBBC
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