Steve Backshall: 'This is my most dangerous trek'
Explorer Steve Backshall takes on his toughest challenge yet - his attempt to become the first man to scale Venezuela's Tepui mountains. By Ella Walker
He's grappled with snakes, been caught in riots in East Timor and was imprisoned in a Columbian jail. He's also best known for his Deadly 60 series on CBBC, for which he tracked down the most lethal creatures on the planet. However, even he was quaking on his latest expedition to Venezuela's Tepui mountains.
At over 500m tall, these sheer sandstone rocks were the inspiration for the sky-scraping mountains in the Pixar movie Up, and Backshall and his team of expert climbers thought it'd be a good idea to become the first people to scale them.
Captured for BBC Two and told in a taut two-parter, Steve Backshall's Extreme Mountain Adventure sees him take on the colossal, never before attempted and, at times, life-threatening challenge, to potentially discover a whole new ecosystem and carry out a biological survey.
"They are utterly spectacular," says Backshall (42) of the Tepuis. "Some of them just jut out of the rainforest - hundreds of metres of vertical sandstone - and they are jaw-dropping.
"It was the most dangerous expedition I've ever been on. We were the first people to actually get up and put our hands on the rock face, so there was no knowing beforehand what we were going to find. What we found was rock that was extremely wet and slimy and greasy - and loose rock as well, that would just keep falling off and come hammering past our ears.
"We had more close calls and more falls on this trip than any other. I am an average climber; the people I brought with me are the best and seeing them scared and not sure whether we should push on was intimidating, particularly if you are stranded hundreds of metres up a rock face."
Every day, filled with genuine fear, the team considered whether it was safe to push on with the expedition.
"We'd bitten off way more than we could chew," says Surrey-born Backshall, explaining that even the lead professional climber found it tough.
"The thought was, 'well, if he's struggling, then what on Earth are the rest of us going to be like?' There were parts of it that he said were simply unclimbable. It was pretty intense."
And it wasn't just the climb itself that was difficult.
"What really gets to you is the non-stop shakes to your morale from not being able to sleep, from not getting enough food, from just being constantly under stress, constantly frightened, and it wears you down. There's a deep, deep tiredness, a frayed-ness to your nerves, that you just can't do anything about."
To make matters worse, the wildlife they encountered during the climb was incredible, but not particularly friendly.
"We were sleeping on these thin ledges, where one side would be a drop of hundreds of metres, and we had scorpions, bullet ants and spiders, we had birds and bats trying to land around us, and all the time, the rain just hammering down on us."
Despite the mortal danger Backshall appears to seek out, the former Really Wild Show presenter doesn't see himself as an adrenalin junkie.
"Far from it," he insists. "I'm not someone that has a death wish. I do have an adventurous spirit, which is something I absolutely encourage in everyone."
The naturalist, who is engaged to Olympic rower Helen Glover, can spend up to 10 months of the year away from home. Does life at home seem dull in comparison to his adventures?
"Not at all. Being able to take my foot off the gas, to see my friends and family, and to do normal things, these are all incredibly valuable things to me."
When Backshall isn't embarking on hazardous expeditions, you'll find him presenting wildlife shows for kids, or on stage talking to young fans.
"I get so many questions from kids. A lot of them are in the format of, 'who would win in a fight between a great white shark and a polar bear?' The toughest questions are the simple, but big questions, so a kid on stage might say: 'What's evolution?' You can never predict what they'll ask."
Tepui mountains ticked off, Backshall is adamant there are new things to discover. However, the way we explore is changing.
"It is more difficult to have an old-fashioned expedition," he explains. "But it's still possible. It does your soul good to know there are still unexplored places out there, but they are being gobbled up. The exploration of the future is the exploration of the deep sea, exploration under a microscope and explorations of the quantum world."
Steve Backshall's Extreme Mountain Adventure, BBC Two, tomorrow, 8pm