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A man of extremes

Adventurer Andy Torbet of BBC's Coast battled his way from a broken back to a successful career in the army before giving it all up to pursue his ambition to become a filmmaker and presenter. Be Happy finds out what it takes to follow your dreams

Life is looking pretty good for Andy Torbet. As we meet in a pub in London's West End, he's just come from a meeting with a literary agent and, following a drink and a chat with me, he's off to meet a booker of public speakers. Despite the setback of a slow-to-mend knee injury, he looks as healthy as ever and is looking forward to the transmission of the first of the sequences he filmed for the BBC's latest series of Coast and to the start of filming of the next series. 

'The executive producer loved the first film we shot on the Isle of Lewis [off Uist on the Outer Hebrides],' says Andy. 'It focuses on some local crofters known as "sea shepherds" who regularly transport their sheep to the island to graze. The weather was bad and the crofters were not the most cooperative bunch, but I had a great time. The crew said it was the hardest shoot of the series, but I thought it was okay and I ended up carrying most of the gear up the hills to help them. The crofters didn't faze me – I'm a highlander like them.'

So how did this highlander, end up with a dream job presenting on one of the BBC's most popular shows? 'Well it is a dream job, although the money's not as amazing as you might think – hopefully that will come,' he says with a wry smile. 'For me adventuring has been part of my life since childhood, so I guess the urge to do adventurous projects has always been there.'

Andy was born in Irvine, South Scotland and raised on the northeast edge of the Cairngorm National Park between Aberdeen and Inverness. With a forester and gamekeeper father, he was born to an outdoors life and for he and his schoolmates walking through the forest to school, snaring rabbits and bushcraft generally was a way of life. A move to Aberdeen at the age of 12 did nothing to curb his enthusiasm for adventure, and he spent a lot of time with his uncle who was a passionate hillwalker and camper. 

Inspired by the work of David Attenborough, Jacques Cousteau and particularly the Martha Holmes Sea Trek documentary, Andy joined the British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) at 12, initially as a snorkeller and then qualified as a novice diver and then sports diver by the time he was 16. 'When I joined BSAC, membership was £7 a year plus 50p a week subs. I would snorkel out and follow the divers below me. Then, when I started diving, I cobbled together some gear - it was all a bit rough and I wouldn't recommend that anyone does the same. The worst thing was my wetsuit – it was made up of a pair of long johns and an ill-fitting women's jacket. I was always frozen – as a kid I was nails, there's no way I could dive like that now.'

Climbing became another interest in his life. At the time a work-to-rule teachers strike meant that no extra curricular activities took place at his school, but one teacher, a man called Wilson Moir who was one of the best climbers in the country, introduced Andy and a couple of schoolmates to the sport, setting up a training climb at the back of the school.  

With an interest in all things adventurous, it's no surprise that Andy was nursing an ambition to join the army, an ambition that was fuelled by his older brother, who joined the forces at 16. However, a couple of years later when Andy reached 16 and tried to join up himself, he was advised by the army recruitment officer to go to university and to then join as an officer. As a working class lad, Andy was initially sceptical about the thought of life as an officer, but when his brother was commissioned he realised there was no class barrier. 

'I knew I was going in the army, so I thought I'd study something I really enjoyed rather than worry about something specific for a career. I quite fancied zoology and the University of Sheffield seemed to fit the bill as it was more concerned with natural history than the commercial side of zoology.  I wasn't interested in the impact of mites on crops, I wanted to learn about sharks, gorillas, tigers, eagles – cool stuff!'

A positive time at university, punctuated by a three-month trip working across Canada in which he got a job as a horseback trail guide even though he had never ridden before, led to a second-class honours degree. 'I just scraped a 2.1 – I'm pretty sure that being the biology department's unofficial social secretary meant they were kind to me when it came to marking the work.'

Andy's military career began as a trainee fighter pilot in the Royal Navy, but after a few months of training decided that life as a pilot was not for him. 'All the other recruits were desperate to fly, but I wanted to be on the ground sleeping in a ditch. I wanted to be a commando – I'd rather jump out of a plane than fly one.' 

Nevertheless, he logged 25 hours of flying time before transferring to the Royal Marines where he started his officer's course. However, just before his batch of recruits were to earn their green berets, Andy was involved in a life-changing accident. 'We were on a training exercise and I, as the smallest in the group, was given the biggest guy to carry across an assault course. We fell off a platform. It was only 12 feet high but I smashed my lower vertebrae and was temporarily paralysed in the left leg.

'At the time the situation didn't seem that bad, but in retrospect it was a huge blow and I lost the plot a bit. I  became quite aggressive because I missed the training. It wasn't just psychological, it was chemical – I was missing the endorphins.'

He was left with a tough choice: give up his dream of being a soldier by being discharged on medical grounds with a pension or be classified as physically unsuitable for commando service but still be allowed to continue in a less physical role. Andy chose the latter, thinking that over time he would be able to prove himself fit for full commando service. When I put it to him that this was a brave choice, he gives a typically direct response. 'I struggle when I've nothing to work for, but can be incredibly focused once I've got something to go for. I don't do excuses. It's easy to find excuses. People blame school, the government, their parents for things that have gone wrong in their lives – and this might be true – but it's your life and it's up to you to change it.'

So, Andy set about changing his by enlisting in the Royal Engineers. It took him two years to prove himself medically fit and he then took the army diving course. 'It was six weeks of being beasted [an army term for very hard physical training] senseless – mostly press ups and running,' he says. 'But it makes you mentally a lot stronger, and the soldier next to you wants to know that the guy next to him is mentally and physically fit. From then on his career progressed quickly, he had already served in Kosovo and Bosnia and was now a lieutenant. Wit the question mark over his fitness gone he applied to P Company – the paratrooper selection course. It was the toughest four weeks of his life, stretching him to the limits. 'It's a nails course, it breaks you – only one in four gets through.'

Having earned his maroon beret, he was now a junior captain in the Royal Engineers, when he transferred to the 4-9 bomb disposal unit. By now he was juggling several roles acting as airborne bomb disposal commander, underwater bomb disposal commander and commander of the maritime counter terrorist unit high risk search team – he's not one to do things by halves. 

The rest his time in the army short spells in the Falklands and Northern Ireland, as well as a tour of duty during the second Gulf War. He is also very proud of the work his did assisting the police diving team and he was involved in several high-profile searches. 

Now 30 years old, Andy was being steered towards to more of a desk job and was about to be promoted to major, but the idea of a more sedate role didn't appeal. 'I was a soldier,' he says. So, in typically decisive fashion, he left the army with an unformed plan of becoming some sort of expedition leader. After a few months of taking stock, he took some security work in Afghanistan and Pakistan to earn some much needs money, but in between spells abroad he started setting up adventure projects that he could write and film. The first of these was with TV presenter Monty Halls a former marine who had been introduced to Andy through a mutual friend in Bristol. The Three Lakes challenge was to dive the three highest altitude lakes on the British mainland in the fastest time possible. They completed the challenge in 23 hours and ten minutes, raising several hundred pounds for the Help for Heroes charity. 

The Three Lakes challenge  was to give Andy his first break in the media, when he pitched the idea for an article about the Three Lakes Challenge to Simon Rogerson, who at that time was the editor of DIVE magazine. The feature subsequently appeared in the magazine and Andy had a platform from which to build up his profile. His face seemed to fit and the adventure sports community took to the straight talking Scot, who was always prepared to go the extra mile. His ready smile, self deprecating humour and can-do attitude helped him get many of those early projects off the ground and a spate of films and adventure was to follow including the Cave of Skulls (exploring the limits of the underwater passages at the bottom of Scotland's deepest cave); the Monach Isles (filming grey seals in the Outer Hebrides) and Britain by Snorkel (a tour of the UK's best snorkelling sites).

Now an established figure in the outdoors activity world, Andy decided to dedicate himself full-time to his adventure/film work and he gave up his security work and his share in an adventure travel business he had set up with a friend. He had settled in Bristol, where he had a good circle of friends many of whom worked for the BBC's natural history unit, and still lives there today with his girlfriend singer songwriter and Grammy nominee Becki Biggins, but he was still looking for that big break.

In April 2011 he set a goal – he would give himself seven months (which is how long he budgeted his savings would last) to make it as a full-time adventurer  and presenter or else he would have to go back to security work. 'Again, I had set myself a goal and I felt completely unstressed – I had focus. It was like when I was disposing of a bomb, I felt completely clam and Zen. That said, I knew that it wouldn't be hard work alone – you can work to get sponsorship, book deals and speaking positions, but with TV if your face doesn't fit it won't work.'

He wrote to Steve Evanson the series producer at Coast and eventually Steve got in touch and asked to see his showreel. 'Steve has been a massive help,' says Andy. 'He asked if I would do more zoological presenting initially with a view to doing more adventurous stuff in the future – I said "yes" of course.'

For Andy, Coast has been a joy to work on allowing him to pursue the sort of adventuring that he has enjoyed all his life. One sequence to be shown later this year has Andy leading a team on a climb to the top of the middle Needle off the Isle of Wight. It was only the second time someone has climbed this chalky rock pin of rock that juts out to sea and they took a new route. 'It was very dodgy, the chalk is so crumbly and was just breaking off,' says Andy with a chuckle. 

So what does the future hold? 'Well, Coast is such a great platform for a presenter, it's a massive chip of credibility,  so I've got lots of new projects being planned, including one that I can't speak about yet – it's an exciting project, it involves an iceberg. But I've got lots of other ideas as well, one of my army reports described me as "a man of extremes" and I think that's a fair point. Hopefully I can show that in some of my future work.'

• The next series of Coast will be televised in the summer, for more information about Andy Torbet and his work go to www.andytorbet.com. You can see clips of Andy's films on the Be Happy magazine You Tube channel www.youtube.com


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