So, you attempted a vertical, previously unclimbed mountain face in Venezuela. What were you thinking of?
I had climbed in the area before and this place is the most exciting spot for adventure and exploration on the planet. Everyone was enthusiastic and dying to get on with it. But it genuinely wasn’t until we got to the rock face of Amaurai Tepui and touched it with our hands that we realised we’d bitten off more than we could chew. The rock was covered in water and slime and there was lots of vegetation. I’m not a great climber, but the guys I was with are and seeing them in utter terror said it all. Me being frightened is not new, but seeing them frightened brought it home that we’d gone too far.
But you decided to go ahead anyway.
Yes, but then on the fourth day we got hit by a storm while we were on the rock face. It just went very bad very quickly. I was hanging in my harness 600 feet off the ground for six hours seeing the guys below me being blown around and rock fall coming down around my ears.
How scared were you?
The most scared I have ever been. If you’re climbing in the Arctic or the Himalayas, you go prepared for extremes of weather. As we were climbing essentially on the equator, everyone was dressed in T-shirts and trousers – we didn’t have any thick clothing. The temperature had dropped by 15–20 degrees and we were all soaking wet. One of the climbers actually had hypothermia, on the rock face, on the equator. It was the most frightening thing I have ever done.
More frightening than the cha cha cha?
If Strictly is the only thing people know me for, then this will show a different side to me. Banging my head against a cliff wall, screaming and cursing and very close to tears.
You’re now engaged to Helen Glover, who’s the world’s greatest rower. Has that made you think differently about risk taking?
It definitely has. When I was hanging there on the rock face close to death I just thought, what on earth am I doing? I have the best woman in the world back at home – something so wonderful that I could lose – this is insanity.
So it’s pipe and slippers from now on?
Ha ha! Not just yet. Obviously everything changes when you have a partner, but this is what I do and what I’ve always done and I’m not ready to completely give it up yet. It’s a learning experience for Hels as well because she, all of a sudden, has to face the fact that a lot of the time I will be away and there will be a week between phone calls. It’s something she has found quite difficult to get used to.
But you must have earned lots of brownie points for your marriage proposal last year at sunset in the Namib Desert?
I took so much time, care and attention in getting the proposal absolutely right. It was a total surprise. I said we were going out for a walk on the sand dunes and insisted she put a nice dress on and did her hair. She said, “What on earth are you doing? I’m not doing my hair to go for a walk over the sand dunes.” So I put the camera on a tripod, set it running and went down on one knee. The look on her face was wonderful. It was a very, very special moment.
You’ve mentioned starting a family. You’re 42, Steve. You need to get a move on.
Yeah, you’re right. We both definitely want to have a family, but at the moment Helen [who’s 29] is in training to a degree that’s just mind-blowing. And I speak as someone who prides himself on his fitness. Everything is about the Olympics in Rio now. After that we’ll see. Maybe we could do an expedition together – that I would absolutely love. Who’s the toughest? Helen’s definitely tougher than I am. She’s officially the world’s top female rower. She’s unbeaten for five years. It’s pretty special. I’m phenomenally proud of her. It just makes going away on these expeditions harder and harder.
Back to the series, you must be the first person on TV, outside of Embarrassing Bodies, to talk about priapism…
There is this particular phoneutria spider that we encounter in the first programme and its venom has the effect of causing long-lasting priapism in men. You could have a priapism that might last for three, agonisingly painful, days then total loss of sexual function for the rest of your life. They are seriously dangerous spiders.
And you cap it all off with an abseil down the world’s highest waterfall, Angel Falls. As you do.
It was such a wonderful way to finish the expedition. It took us two days. It’s the biggest abseil in the world and just goes on and on and on. The grandeur and scale of it simply takes your breath away, and to be dangling alongside it on a rope is one of the greatest experiences you could ever have…
Steve Backshall’s Extreme Mountain Challenge begins Sunday 6th March at 8pm on BBC2