How to explore on land and sea, both locally and around the world . . . with Andy Torbet
Welcome to the big 10th episode of the Hardest Kit on the Planet Podcast brought to you by Heinnie Haynes. In this podcast we try and extract as much knowledge and ideas as possible from some of the hardest people and companies on the planet. Our aim for the podcast is to continually provide you with some great knowledge and information from a wide range of people and companies who are actually out there doing the business.
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The Show Notes
In this episode I (Ben Roberts) talk to Andy Torbet who is a diver and an underwater explorer. He is also a mountaineer, skydiver, kayaker; you name it he does it. You will probably have seen him presenting some shows on the BBC. He has been involved in Coast, the One Show and a programme called Cloud Lab.
In this conversation we talk about, his adventures, how he got into it. How he prepares for each event. He gives some advice and guidance on what kit you need and how much you should carry. He also talks about searching for shipwrecks and the difference between an adventurer and an explorer.
Click the link at the top of the page to listen or download. The full transcript as always is below . . .
Who are you and what do you do?
Hi, i’m Andy Torbet. The main thing I do is diving and underwater explorations, so cave diving, deep diving. I also do a different type of diving such as skydiving and wing suit diving, a little bit of mountaineering and the occasional bit of kayaking amongst other things. I actually pay the mortgage though by writing articles, doing talks, some TV presenting and bit of filming.
How did you get into doing all of this?
People often ask how I got into the outdoors. Well I never got into it. I just grew up in the Scottish Highlands, so by lochs, rivers, mountains and forests. So, it was more a case of living in it more than getting into it. I then joined the army quite young, that helped fuel my love for the outdoors. While in the army I did some unusable stuff, I was a paratrooper and a diver. So, when I left I didn’t really know what a normal job was, so I thought the sensible thing would be to make a career out of adventure. It took a few years, but I finally managed to do it.
the one thing I really learnt quite quickly is that people won’t pay you to have fun. They won’t pay you to just do out an dive or kayak; but they will pay you to communicate about it afterwards. This comes in the form of articles, talks, little forms, even sponsorships.
I then started off writing for diving magazines, and did some speaking at dive shows. I also started doing some little films which grew into 5 minute films and so on; this aligned with some dive safety work I was doing for the BBC, which led to me doing some work actually on camera.
I’m no where near the next David Attenborough. With the stuff I do I’m pretty much the only guy they can call. When I did a show a little while back called Cloud Labs. At thinned of that the guy running that said, thanks Andy, you were great, thanks for doing it. I ended turning around and saying well you needed a presenter who could jump out a plane at 28,000 ft. There is a list of one for that job haha. But, i don’t really care, others may have great jobs interviewing celebs or watching exotic animals; i’m the guy though that gets to go cave diving and jump out of planes.
What sort of places have you been to then, and what have been some of your best and worst experiences in these places?
Some of the best places i’d have to say are also some of the worst. Often the hardest tasks and races are the ones you get the most satisfaction from.
I think one of the best places for me was filming in Greenland. We spent 6 weeks camping on a glacier near an iceberg. I did a lot of diving into glacial lakes abseiling down these glaciers and doing around polar bear infested icebergs. To do that as a normal citizen would have cost hundreds of thousands of pounds so it was a real privilege to be able to do that.
Some of the places I dived with the army were some of the toughest. We had to dive into places that were really bad. An example was swimming in the rivers around basra in Iraq, the problem being that the water quality was really poor. Even places in the UK can be quite tough, and there are still places people have never been underground. In one of these caves i got badly stuck. Managed to get out eventually, but when you get stuck there are loads of different thoughts that start going through your head.
How do you go about dealing with tricky situations like that?
Well firstly, don’t get into them in the first place really. In some of my talks before i’ve been called and accused of all sorts, such as being an adrenaline junkie, mad man, and generally having a death wish. This isn’t true, I am not fearless. I’d say I have as much respect for my fear levels as anyone. If I was any of those things people have accused me of, i’d probably be dead. Paranoia and fear can be good things.
I meticulously prepare and plan. This helps to eliminate that problem. If that isn;t possible I take every step I can to reduce it to as little as possible and have a plan B for if it were to happen. An example would be if I was caving alone and my gas supply broke, i’d have a spare.
The level you take this to depends on what you are doing. For me I have a main torch, a backup torch and a backup, backup torch. Because not being able to see in a cave underwater means you won’t be able to get out. But, experience plays a part in you knowing how much redundancy kit you need. If you are carrying too much then that can become a problem.
I was doing to Cuillin Ridge in Skye, which is incredible and something if you are into mountaineering you really need to do. It takes about two days so most people take sleeping bag, rope, cooking stuff etc etc, but I went super lightweight carrying a few litres of a water, a couple of flapjacks and that was it. People then said to me you need all this kit though. My option on this was that by carrying tis kit it would slow me down and I would end up needing it, and thus it would become a self fulfilling prophecy. Where do you draw the line between having redundancy then how much redundancy do you actually need?
Kit is getting lighter and lighter all of the time, and it often multi-functional. I’ve got a Suunto Ambit Watch which, is a watch, compass, GPS, altimeter all in one. Gone are the day in which you needed one of each thing. This makes you lighter, and faster therefore needing less kit. So, kit can be a huge consideration in terms of safety.
How do you actually plan for spending long periods in cold climates like those in Greenland?
Well actually it wasn’t that cold. It was Greenland summer so had 24 hour sunlight. I found that it wasn’t too hard and environment to live in. I find the jungle much harder to live in. Greenland was also pretty dry so that helped. So you definitely needed all your standard kit of layers and warm clothing. Just needed two pair or pants, socks and t-shirt. Wear one pain, wash the other, hang it o dry. They are then dry for the next day and you stick to that routine. Anything that stops you from degrading is good. You aren’t going to be a picture of health, I mean you are eating dried ration packs. A bottle for water is so important. In places like the jungle or cold environments it’s easy to forget to drink, but it can be really dangerous if you don’t. The water around the iceberg we were near was -2 degrees, which didn’t freeze because it’s salt water, so you have plan for those extremes of cold. Things like getting warm before you go in, and only spending 40 mins max in the water at a time even though we’d have enough gas for much longer. Then when you’re out you have to de-kit and get into warm clothes with a warm brew asap. It’s all about planning ahead really. Think less about the Gucci kit like ice axes, and think about the important stuff like drinking bottles and a wooly hat and in the case of Greenland summer, take an eye mask. It’s just something that’s easy to forget as it’s a bit on a mundane item like earplugs. It’s the basics that count. Most expeditions end because some is ill, not because they forgot their latest ice axe.
Talk us through the event you created called the 3 Lakes Challenge
This was he first thing I did when trying to make a living from adventure stuff. I new nobody would let me write for them as a no-one. So I put my money where my moth was and did something I could write about and take some photos of, then I could knock on some doors. I wanted to do something different than just another diving article. Most people had heard of the 3 Peaks Challenge. I then bought about diving the highest lakes in each of the home countries, thus the 3 Lakes Challenge. By altitude we are actually talking about the physically highest lakes not depth of lakes. This is tough because of the sheer weight of kit needed, and the Scottish Loch for example isn’t accessible by road, so you have a fair way to walk. It all sounded very easy when we chatted about it in the pub, but it really was’t. We did do it though. It was reasonably tight, but we did stop on the route to do things like take photos and shoot some videos. We did it in something like 23 hours, 20 minutes. Lots of people have done it since, and in much quicker times.
I’ve not really been tempted to go back and try and do it again in a quicker time. The lakes themselves aren’t particularly special, but the locations very much are. There is actually an old plane in the lakes in England, there isn’t much left, but that’s interesting. So, for me it’s onto new challenges now really.
Can you tell us a little bit about the recent shipwreck you’ve recently investigated around Patagonia?
Most shipwrecks I had done to date had been around the UK in deep water. The one was different and dated back to the 1740’s and was an old wooden ship (HMS Wager) not like the metal ones I had previously done. It was during the time when us and the Spanish were beating the hell out of each other, and this is one of the ships that was wrecked in a storm. There are then some epic stories about a mutiny that ensued. The captain took his team north, the mutineers went south. Both groups made it back to England and wrote stories about their adventures.
So, our job then a few years ago was to find this shipwreck. The problem was that this island is uninhabited, it also blew a gale and rained heavily for the entire month we were there. Our diving was pretty restricted as we were so far from help, going down to just 20 meters at most. This goes back to planning and thinking ahead that I talked about earlier. The logistics were really tough for his as you had to keep 12 people fed, watered and dry for a month in heavy rain with no help nearby. We also had to keep diving each day to find the wreck. Finding a lost wreck sounds really sexy, but the work it takes to get there is just unreal.
We did find the wreck in the end, but it wasn’t exactly a hollywood ending. We were camped out on this estuary so we had good access to the beach for diving, also we could move upstream for fresh water, so the lower end could be used for washing. We knew the wreck was somewhere in the bay near the estuary, but after nearly a month, we couldn’t find it. Until we were hit by a big storm a few days before we left. One of the guys was washing in the stream and stubbed his toe. He had the presence of mind to look down and saw it was a stock, but a stick that looked too polished to be natural. So we starts shouting, we all go into the stream start wafting the sand and realise we’ve found the wreck, literally right outside our tents. We had actually been washing on top of it and cleaning for the last month.
Even here in the UK there are still places to discover and genuinely explore. Especially underwater, it’s really easy to find places people haven’t been. We’ve got something like 20,000 miles of coastline, about 10,000 miles of rivers and about 10,000 lakes to discover. The vast majority is accessible with as little as a snorkel. That’s just on your doorstop too!
This isn’t just for diving either, there are loads of new climbing route going up across the UK all of the time. There are always more hills and mountains to discover. The sea cliffs on Exmoor for example, there are parts of those that no one had ever climbed before. There are caves, both wet and dry that have never been explored. Simply loads of stuff.
I often get asked at talks what my secret is to making a living in the outdoors. But, to be honest I made the same mistakes most do. In my first two years at the army I messed around a lot, and just tried to find out from others how they did stuff in stead of just doing it myself. I couldn’t find out their secret, so I just did it. I often do talks for schools and Ill never claim to be a life skills preacher, but I do know and tell them that you need to work hard. I’m not particularly gifted at anything, but you can succeed by putting hard work in. Life isn’t like the X Factor where you can just cross your fingers and hope it will all come true. Get off your arse and make it happen.
What sort of famous and inspiring people have you met on your journey?
There are a lot of good guys out there doing adventure stuff. I class myself as an explorer first and foremost. These days the ones between adventurer and explorer are being blurred by more people calling themselves explorers. Somebody who skiis to the North Pole is a Polar athlete maybe, but not an explorer. It’s a great achievement but it’s not new. In my mind an explorer is someone who brings back something new, not necessarily just going to a new place. They are discoverers. I guess it’s easy for me as a diver because there is so much new stuff to see, whereas on land it can be much harder. I’ve got friends who are adventurers and have done things like swim from Lands End to John O’ Groats. That’s something like 3 months of swimming. That’s an epic adventurer but it is not an exploration, and to be fair he doesn’t call himself it.
I personally have worked by myself a lot, i’ve also worked as part of teams. I personally prefer teams, mostly because it’s much more fun. I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time with some great guys like Chris Packham. Most of the guys who I respect though are probably people your listeners won’t know such as Rich Stevenson, Phil Short, Rick Stanton. For people like me people like Rick who hold world records are a real inspiration. On the climbing front I know Leo Houlding, he does the kind of stuff i’d really enjoy. There are probably guys in the world that are technically better but they work similar route for years. Whereas Leo will go off and climb stuff that no one else in the world has climbed before in laces like the Arctic or South America. More of that expeditionary and exploratory climbing. The stuff i’d love to do if I was as good as him.
I’ve also met Chris Bonington once. That was a real privilege. We had a chance to climb the Old Man of Hoy which of one of the best climbs in the UK. I did this with Chris and Leo to celebrate Chris’s 80s. I am confident to date that will be the highlight of my climbing career.
Could you tell the guys listening about the book you have out?
It’s called Extreme Adventures. It began as an idea to write an introductory book for adventures. But, the publishers were more interested in looking at some of my more extreme stuff in the UK. It’s basically a collection of stories about the things I have done in the UK. Things like finding lost shipwrecks in the English Channel. Exploratory Cave Diving in Scotland. There is a chapter on diving in a flooded mine, where no-one had been since it had been flooded. There is some stuff in there about climbing and trekking. I had this stupid idea of finding out what is the longest distance you can walk in the UK in a straight line without crossing a road. So I did that and walked about 80 km across some pretty interesting territory. There’s also some sea kayaking, but no sky diving unfortunately.
What sort of stuff are you up to at the moment then?
I’ve just finished doing this speed skydiving film, which was really cool. The aim was to beat a Peregrine Falcon and dive at over 220mph. I managed to do it too. I’m also going to start doing some filming whilst flying in a wingsuit. I’ve also got some big diving expeditions. Some Cave Diving Films. I’ve entered the Yukon Rive Quest Race which is a 440 mile canoe race, non-stop. So the biggest issue there will be sleep deprivation.
How can people find out more about you?