Meet Keith Partridge, an EMMY Award-winning adventure Film Maker, whose desire to follow his passion has taken him and his camera to the top of Mount Everest and into unexplored caves, with some of the world’s greatest climbers, explorers and scientists. He has witnessed people working in the harshest of conditions in the most remote corners of the world and discovered how connecting with nature can be the key to human survival.
Keith Partridge and Tania Cotton have worked together to bring 15 MovementWise Journeys to life on film, using the power of storytelling to show you how individuals, including elite athletes, can overcome health and performance challenges to do things in their lives they previously believed impossible. If you want to be inspired to follow your passion and discover how you can feel truly alive – this podcast is for you!
- Following a passion
- The power of the mind
- Adventure filming
- Human connection
- Overcoming pain and injury
- Connecting with nature
- Meaning and purpose
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson
The Adventure Game by Keith Partridge
Touching the Void based on the book by Joe Simpson and directed by Kevin Macdonald.
Bonington – The Mountaineer: My Life Story a film from Brian Hall and Keith Partridge
Kate’s Story – Turning a Threat into an Opportunity a MovementWise.org film produced by storyteller Tania Cotton and directed by Keith Partridge.
‘At the age of 80, he still flies and floats beautifully on a cliff. The minute you stop moving that’s a really bad state of affairs – you’ve got to keep at it.’
~Keith Partridge on Sir Chris Bonington, Mountaineer
Welcome to the LifeWise show where we explore the things in life that can make you feel truly alive. Today I am excited to introduce you to EMMY Award Adventure Film Maker, Keith Partridge – a man who has spent his life following a passion.
I first met Keith in Chamonix where he filmed the hugely successful film of the book ‘Touching the Void by Joe Simpson’, literally roping in some of the local mountain guides to recreate this incredible, true story of survival, of following a passion to climb a mountain and having to make a life and death decisions. It is a story of how as human beings we have an incredible capacity to overcome adversity be resilient!
Capturing the essence of adventure in more than 60 extreme films has taken Keith to some of the world's most hostile and spectacular environments. From the Eiger’s North Face, a storm bound winter Arctic, and a toxic fume-filled Indonesian volcano, to hunting with eagles in Mongolia, and the white-water caves of Papua New Guinea, Keith pushes the limits of extreme filmmaking for television and cinema. Last year he won the International Alliance for Mountain film Grand Prize that recognizes those who through their talent, have changed the world of mountain film.
Keith is incredibly multiskilled and his diverse background has enabled him to transport us, the viewer, to the steepest rock faces and the most challenging terrain and environments to experience what it takes to survive, thrive and follow your passion.
Whilst Keith has been following his passions as an adventure cameraman, I have been working as a movement analyst and chartered physiotherapist. My work has taken me from the most deprived areas of Africa and to The Swiss Olympic Medical Centre. My passion is to help patients, including elite athletes, overcome health and performance challenges to do the things in their lives that made them feel truly alive. And part of that passion was to connect people, through movement, to nature.
I believe that to lead a healthy, happy and fulfilling life, our ACTIONS need meaning purpose and direction. Many people lose direction simply because they don’t know what is possible or don’t believe what they are capable of.
This is why, 6 years ago, I asked Keith if he would help me capture true stories showing how people can overcome health and performance challenges to do things in life, they previously believed impossible. Together we have now made 15 films that you can watch for free on the MovementWise website.
Tania: Keith, welcome to the LifeWise Show.
Tania: It’s fair to say that since we first met in Chamonix, we’ve been on quite a journey together.
Keith: Yes, quite a lot of water has gone under that rather broad bridge, I would say (Laughter).
Tania: Let’s begin by exploring what are your passions in life? And when and how did you discover them?
Keith: I think passion for me really began when I discovered the mountains for the first time. It was an environment and a landscape growing up in the flatlands of north Norfolk that I never really believed actually existed. Whilst you, kind of, look at these things in a school geography lesson, until you go and rub your nose in it and you feel the wind in your face and you go and touch the rock and you really realise that these amazing landscapes exist and you can actually move through them efficiently. I think that’s the moment when passion became all encompassing, really. You know, the mountains were much more than a hobby. They became a lifestyle, really.
Tania: From what age was that for you?
Keith: I first went into the mountains when I was 18, really. My dad took my brother and myself up Ben Nevis when we were about 10 years old. I was 10 and my brother was 12. But that was up the tourist path and that’s slightly different to what I then experienced when I was 18, which was actually getting into the heart of the mountains and really immersing yourself in the grandeur of the landscape and the architecture of the rock. That’s when things really came to light, because you were there under your own remit, making all of those decisions yourself.
Tania: So Keith, how on earth did you get into filmmaking?
Keith: I was very lucky I applied to join the BBC at the age of 18. Lucky or unlucky, because I’d actually failed all my exams at school, really, so university was kind of out of the question, really. I suppose if I’d thought about it, I could have resat my exams and done something like that. But I don’t know. Over that summer when you’re thinking, “I flunked everything. What am I going to do?” then to see this advert for the BBC asking for trainees, and you go down all of the things that they were looking for in terms of sound mixing or photography or electronics. I, kind of, ticked all of those boxes because from the age of 14 I’d been a DJ and established a mobile discotheque business and we’d built all our own equipment. So it was kind of like a job made in heaven, really. And joining the BBC in terms of the training was sensational.
Tania: How important for you is the environment in which you work? What helps you be at your creative best?
Keith: I think being creative, you need to be relaxed and you need to have fun. Now, fun, a lot of people think that it’s kind of like a distraction. But it’s not. It enables you to free your mind because it’s not full of angst or worry, you can then see paths through things which you maybe couldn’t have seen beforehand. So that creativity actually exists in everything. It’s not just about painting, or photography, or music, or whatever. Creativity for me is about problem-solving. It’s about finding a path, finding a way through an issue.
Tania: That sounds like the key to survival for all of us. So how long did you stay in the BBC? What were some of the magic moments you had when you with them?
Keith: I stayed with the BBC for six years, and throughout that time, you really are just dropped straight in it. They really do make you run before you can walk in many respects, but there’s always somebody over your shoulder making sure that you don’t really make a mess of things. Highlights for that, there are so many. I think really if I were to pick one, it won’t be a project. It was about the people I was with. It was about the team, and it was about the ambience, the atmosphere and the, “Go ahead, I can do it,” attitude. That sticks with you. It’s about not seeing problems. It’s about seeing something which is merely an issue which you have to sidestep, or find a way over. That, for me, was with the team of guys and girls that I was working with, that was what everybody was about. It was about coming together and actually working towards this final goal of this TV show or whatever, but that was really sensational. To feel you’re part of something like that where you do see a team pull together and you see a result at the end of it, that’s really cool.
Tania: So what made you decide to move on from such a prestigious and safe and wonderful environment?
Keith: I think that by then being a hobby-weekend-warrior-climber-mountaineer type, what I’d realised is that it had become more than a passion just for the weekend. It had become all encompassing. It had become a lifestyle. For me then, it was a moment when I felt that if I could join the two of being in the mountains and wafting a camera around and being in the film industry within that environment, that would be like the holy grail. That would be really where you would find the most happiness. That would be the moment where it all comes together, and that’s really important, I think. If I never took that step and went, “No, I’m just going to stay, because the BBC is fantastic,” then I always think I’d have that nagging doubt in the back of my mind as, “What if? What would have happened if…?” So I think you’ve got to give it a go. It was. It was a huge decision, actually, to leave. It felt to me like jumping off the metaphoric cliff, nothing to go to. You know, I ended up selling everything, the house, car, just to follow a dream with no idea whether it was ever going to work. I had no idea.
Tania: So then how do you move on? Where did you go from there?
Keith: So the day I handed in my notice, we went over the Lake District in the north west of England with a very old school friend of mine called James. We just blew off some steam and ran around like lunatics for the whole day, and the weather was foul. At the close of play, we ended up in a climbing shop in Ambleside looking at all the brightly coloured ice axes and ropes and gizmos of the modern mountaineer. As we left to then drive back over to Newcastle, there was a scrap of paper on the notice board and it just basically said, “If anybody fancies coming to Iceland this winter, give me a call.” His name was Paul Walker. So I thought, “What am I going to do?” I took the piece of paper, and I gave him a call.
Then three weeks later, we were on an expedition together. We’d never really met, you know. We just, kind of, busked it as we went along. We’d spent nearly a month together on the edge of the Arctic on Europe’s largest icecap in winter, just the two of us, which is a very, very, very challenging environment to find yourself in. The funny thing was then at the end of that, we literally flew back into the UK. I dumped my rucksack and kit in the flat that I was in and went around to see my old mates at the BBC, and there was a social club. I was crossing the carpark and I bumped into this film producer called Richard. He said, “You look awful. Where have you been? I’d heard you’d left.” I didn’t really know much about Richard. I knew a little bit about his work, but we’d never worked directly together, so I told him. I told him, “We’ve just been on this expedition is south east Iceland,” and literally the next second he said, “Do you want to come to the Himalayas with Chris Bonington filming in the autumn?” I went, “Yes.” That was where it all started. That chance meeting in a carpark. It’s funny, isn’t it? But if you don’t stop and talk to people, that’s what you get. Those opportunities to those doors are not going to happen, so I do like to talk to people, that’s for sure.
Tania: Life is extraordinary. So the Himalayas, tell us more about that.
Keith: It was my first real big trip, and to be honest, I was a little bit awestruck because the cast who I was going with was Chris Bonington, world-class household name of a mountaineer, really, and a bit of a legend in my eyes. I think to find yourself on a trip with Chris was really very monumental. For me, I was like a kiddie in a toyshop. I was so excited, actually, but at the same time, very dauted because this was way outside of my comfort zone. I didn’t really know what I was doing, to be honest, and I’d never been up at any altitude. We were only having to go to Nanga Parbat base camp, so it wasn’t super committing in Himalayan terms. But realistically, as a young lad at that time having grown up in north Norfolk, the furthest I’d been abroad was the Costa Brava in Spain, you know. So this was a real culture shock, actually. Finding yourself in northern Pakistan in the ‘90s. It was a great trip, actually. I look back on it with very, very fond memories, but I was so far out of my depth.
Tania: Hearing you tell the beginning of your story with Chris Bonington, how old was he then, do you think?
Keith: Gosh. I don’t know how old he was then.
Tania: How old were you?
Keith: Gosh. That was 1990. I was 24 years old when I first went to the Himalayas.
Tania: Okay. That was just the beginning of the journey. You followed Chris Bonington on many expeditions and then followed his life. Can you tell us more about that?
Keith: I think that’s one of the things particularly within the mountaineering world, but I think in very many walks of life, it is about the people you meet. I think it is about staying in touch with the people that you meet, and always cracking a joke or having a smile and a laugh with them. Certainly, with Chris, whilst I was totally awestruck, really, starstruck, we did always loosely stay in touch, Mountain Film Festivals, Chris would be there and he’d always say, “Hi,” and, “How are you doing?” Then, of course, over the years, you bump into each other on numerous film jobs, either in Scotland or I ended up for his 70th birthday down in Australia, believe it or not, spending a week filming climbing down there in the Blue Mountains, just north of Sydney with Leo Houlding and Chris. So that was a very, very special trip.
Subsequently, we felt that such stories that Chris has and his life story, kind of, needs to be captured before it’s too late. So a few years ago, a very good colleague of mine called Brian Hall and myself set about making the film of his life story. Chris was totally engaged within this concept and gave us just amazing access to his life. At the age of 80, we really kicked it off when he went to climb the Old Man of Hoy at the age of 80, with the fantastic Leo Houlding once again. So that really was a pivotal trip in terms of the production of that film about Chris’ life. But also, I think really for Chris himself, he did the first ascent of the Old Man of Hoy, this crazy 450ft high tottering sandstone pinnacle that juts out of the crashing Atlantic in the Orkney Isles. So he did the first ascent of that in the late ’60s, but when he climbed it when he was 80, it was just three weeks after the loss of his wife, Wendy. So for Chris, I think it was also a kind of a catharsis. It’s a big story. I think the mountains actually have that sort of healing approach too.
Tania: The film you produced of Chris, Sir Chris Bonington, is deeply emotional and moving. You went onto to premiere that film the BANFF Film Festival. When was that?
Keith: We premiered the Chris Bonington life story film ‘Bonington: Mountaineer’ in the BANFF Mountain Film and Book Festival. It’s two and a half years ago now. It will be three years come this November. It was an amazing evening. It was highly emotional. The theatre there holds a lot of people. I think it’s something like 850 capacity, and it was rammed. There was not a single seat left, and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house by the time the film had finished. Then, of course, when Chris comes on stage afterwards to do a Q&A interview conversation, that was really special. Of course, Chris was awarded the standing ovation, and rightly so, you know, for a man of his history and candour. It was wonderful, and wonderful to see.
Tania: What really inspires me about the film is – and I think it should inspire all of us – is that if you keep moving and keep doing what you enjoy doing, you can do the things you love throughout your life. I think that’s a really big take home message.
Keith: I think the story of Sir Chris Bonington is exactly that. He’s still climbing pretty hard at the age of 80 for goodness sake. It was an amazing achievement, and he’s still got it. He still flies and floats really beautifully on a cliff. He’s great. Very, very talented. So I think the minute you stop moving, that’s really a bad state of affairs. You’ve got to keep at it.
Tania: If people want to watch that film, Keith, how can they get hold of it.
Keith: The ‘Bonington: Mountaineer’ film is available very widely. It’s on Vimeo On Demand. I’m sure if anybody googles it or goes to the boningtonfilm.com website everything is there. It’s on all sorts of download sites, or DVD. Yes.
Tania: Okay, that’s wonderful. I met you for the first time in Chamonix, when was it? Six years ago?
Keith: Time just flies and things merge into one, you know. But I do remember that conversation. I remember you saying, “Can you help me with this film, maybe a two- or three-minute project?” I listened to it and I went, “We might be able to do that. We might be able to do something different as well, so let’s have an exploration of what might be possible.”
Tania: I was hugely grateful that you just didn’t politely tell me to move out of the way. Of course, little did I realise at the time that I was wanting to make films that told stories about how people had overcome health and performance challenges, and you had overcome a big health challenge. Talk to us about that.
Keith: Yes. It was 1992, I was probably the fittest and strongest I’ve ever been. I’d been on expedition after expedition and I’d literally just come back from the Himalayas, a private climbing trip, again with my very good friend James. I was at the climbing wall in Newcastle and very late in the day, a bit sweaty on the fingers and un-roped – it was a bouldering wall – and I fell off. Unfortunately, I snapped my right foot in half and I smacked my wrist quite badly as well, which I ended up with a broken wrist and a broken talus, which really, you do not want. It was just a few days later when I was in hospital, the surgeon came around and basically said to me, “You’ll probably never walk again.” That’s quite difficult to swallow at the age of 26 by then, that your fledgling career in the mountains and filming is now in tatters. Nothing is going to happen, because… I spent time in a wheelchair then, learning how difficult it is to get the bathroom when it’s down a flight steps in a flat. So, it was a very, very difficult period of time, actually.
Tania: How long was it until you could, or did you reconnect with the mountains?
Keith: I did, but it took a very long time. The first healing, I would say, was probably nine months, but what we never knew, or what we were never sure about was the absolute conclusion of that first healing process, and it was desperate. The ankle was completely trashed, destroyed to the point where, really, I could only walk for probably 40 minutes or an hour, and then it would be excruciatingly painful. So then I had some surgery using live bone grafts and it worked. They basically fused my ankle joint, a subtalar fusion it’s called, so it’s a partial fusion. Then I had to learn to walk again, so that was probably the best part of a year.
Initially, it was okay. I could walk for maybe six to eight hours before it became painful, then over the years, the degradation in the ankle was considerable to the point where it would take me an hour to stand up out of bed in the mornings. I could walk for maybe 20 minutes around a shopping centre, so totally flat floors, and I would be in agony. I was also having to take a huge amount of painkillers and anti-inflammatories just to try and keep a lid on things. But it was at the point where even they were no longer touching the pain, and so we had to do something about this, because it was at a point now where I couldn’t actually function, period. If you can’t even walk around a shopping centre for 10 minutes, you know, what hope have you got for walking up a mountain? It was just never going to happen ever again as far as I could see.
That’s when I ended up going back to the hospital and they did an x-ray on my ankle and they realised that the bone fusion had failed. So I actually had a broken ankle, effectively, and I was walking on a joint which actually, given a fusion, actually shouldn’t have been there. So the surgeon joked and he said, “Well, no wonder it smarts a bit and no wonder it’s a bit painful.” Yes. What are we going to do about it? He said, “I think we can fix it.” But this was the funny thing that that was the moment when I said, “Well, I’m going to Everest in six weeks’ time.” (Laughter). He went, “I can’t fix it in six weeks. Why do you want to go to Everest with an ankle that’s like that?”
I did question, yes, the sense of my decision (Laughter), but there we go. He fortunately took me into the operating theatre, put a needle deep within the bone into the joint margin, which actually shouldn’t have been there and he pumped the bone full of anti-inflammatory, a powerful steroid, which was fantastic. It acted like a switch and it took away all the pain. So I did manage to climb Everest and get down again just. Anybody that says climbing Everest is easy, it’s not. I mean, technically, it’s easy, but mentally and physically and emotional it’s actually really quite challenging. Yes. Then slowly the writing was on the wall. I knew that at some point we’d have to get the drill out and put some bolts into the ankle and then do a third bout of learning to walk and function again. It has been 20 years, 20 years.
Tania: That is really… Yes. So you knew the kind of stories I wanted to tell, particularly since with that ankle, you went onto climb Mount Everest. But you describe yourself as an average mountaineer, yet when you climb, you are climbing with a camera and you’re filming. Average is an interesting word. Average, if you’re always exploring with the best adventurers and scientists in the world, perhaps. Tell us more about that Everest trip, because it wasn’t your average Everest trip.
Keith: I mean, I don’t think any trip to Everest is ever going to be average. They’re all going to fraught with their own issues and personal problems, when you’re trying to push your body to a place where it’s actually not designed to be and those extreme altitudes above 8,000m, the body is in breakdown. We are not designed to function at those altitudes. We are rubbing shoulders with the lower edge of the stratosphere and where jumbo jets fly. That’s not our domain. But realistically, we were on the standard route, we weren’t trying new routes. It was all completely normal.
But we were on an Olympic mission in many respects, because the first ever expedition to Everest was in 1922 and they almost made the summit. They turned around in a storm just 600m below, and their achievements were considered to be so enormous that two years later at the Chamonix Winter Olympics they were awarded Olympic gold medals. It’s one of the only times that Olympic medals have been awarded for alpinism. Now, at that ‘24 games, the promise was made that one of them would be taken to the summit of the mountain, and nothing would be spared to make it happen. That exists in writing in the archives in two letters between Pierre de Coubertin and Colonel Strutt. Colonel Strutt was the second in command of the expedition in ’22.
But in 1924, the gold medals had missed the boat to the next expedition to go to Everest, the very fateful one with Mallory and Irvine onboard. Of course, they die, and then we have the Second World War, and this idea of taking an Olympic gold medal to the summit was all forgotten about until in the run up to the London 2012 games when a very famous, world-class mountaineer, Kenton Cool, came up with this plan of tracking down the original Olympic gold medal and fulfilling that promise. So he got hold of myself and my camera and said, “Are you going to come along and do some filming?” I thought, “Right. Let’s do this, then.”
Effectively, our Everest expedition was, for me, pretty ground breaking. I’d never been above 6,400m at that point, and so to go to over 8,800m is a big ask. For me, it was hugely, hugely challenging, but for Kenton it was the eleventh time, I think, to the summit – maybe tenth – I’ve lost count now with Kenton actually. He’s always up there. So I felt in pretty good hands, actually, with Kenton. Yes, it was an interesting trip, and actually, to try and film up there does bring about its challenges, actually. It’s pretty tricky.
Tania: So not only were you going up there and you had an effectively very injured ankle that was trying to recover, I think you were also quite sick. Then there were some hugely emotional moments. Can you share some of the emotion of going up Everest?
Keith: I think when you are physically at your limit – and I think that most people would suggest that climbing to 8,000m, you’re going to pretty stretched, even if you’re Superman, you’re going to be pretty stretched – I think if you layer on top of that the unknown, because I’d never been to those altitudes before. Then you layer on top of that the fact that you have the worst case of man-flu known to history, and so you’re using two toilet rolls a night just mopping up the mucus that’s coming out of your face, and you’re spending every night coughing incessantly. So you don’t sleep either at all, for days and days and days. It’s pretty debilitating, and you don’t actually get better at those altitudes. You are going to be very unwell.
There are points when you make decisions which at the time are the right decisions, given the way you feel and the way you are and the situations, but in retrospect, may not have been the best thing to do. But hindsight is a beautiful thing. So I’m in the middle of the icefall, one of the most dangerous places on earth and left to my own devices to make my own way down. I’m not really capable of putting one foot in front of the other that day, actually, let alone descending on my own. But fortunately, Kenton had actually radioed down to base camp and one of the Sherpas was going to come up and give us a wee hand.
But I think from that moment, effectively finding yourself on your own in the middle of a very incredibly dangerous place with no support, effectively, and very, very unwell, I think mentally that’s a very difficult place to find yourself. It’s very dark. To come out of that and then to rebuild and try and get better and try and gain some strength so that you can succeed is actually that’s where the battle really is. If you’re going to sit down and just say, “No, I can’t.” Then that’s rather easy. But that’s not what you’re there for. It was my job to get to the summit, and it was my job to take a camera up there and do the best that I could. For me, not being able to do that would have been a professional nail in the coffin, you could argue that way. Maybe that’s a bit over the top, but it certainly would have left a very bitter pill in my mind. So there’s a lot of external pressure there, not only professionally but also physically, mentally, emotionally, and you’re in an incredibly dangerous place as well. There’s a lot of stuff going on there in the mind.
Tania: Did Kenton leave you because he thought he might not get down if he waited for you? And did you yourself feel at any time that you may die?
Keith: I think that moment that I was discussing when I was in the icefall on my own was when we were doing what’s called the acclimatisation rotations. So it’s when you’re going up and then you’re high, and then you’re coming all the way back down to base camp, then you go a little bit higher next time, and then back down. It’s before your summit bid. When we actually were then two thirds of the way through the expedition, we realised that what we needed to do was probably drop some altitude. So go way down below base camp so that we can actually feed up and actually with me, get me a bit better, a bit more physically over the man-flu, over the fact that I hadn’t really spent much time sleeping or eating or doing anything. So that’s what we do. We dropped a lot of altitude, and we basically went on a holiday where the air is thick and the food is good.
Then when we went and started back up the mountain, I felt like I was then on form, or as form as I ever was going to be, because I think I was told – what was it? – about seven weeks before going to Everest that we were actually going to go to Everest. So I had seven weeks to train for it. Most people would train for two years, or something, and I had seven weeks. That’s, like, ridiculous, really. That was another layer of complexity. But when we went for the summit, it was an amazing experience, actually. It took a long time for the dust to settle, but certainly, pushing from the South Col up to the summit ridge to the summit over the famous Hillary Step was really quite something, actually. Then to be first on the summit by, like, 40 minutes and to watch the sun rise, and then to peer behind you and watch this enormous shadow come out of the gloom, this perfect pyramid triangle cast onto nothing but fresh air, it’s really, really spectacular.
You do literally have the whole world at your feet. You see the curve of the earth surrounding you. It’s very, very sensational. But that’s where the critical moment really begins, because the summit, as an incredible moment as it is, and it’s a moment that nobody can ever take away from you, you do still have to get back down. But by now you have very little energy, and you have no adrenalin or it’s all kind of used up. Somehow you have to find something else that’s going to fuel you on the way down. For me that was really about dredging through all the times in the mountains beforehand to realise that you’ve done long days in the mountains, you know, 20, 23 hour days of climbing and being physically really, really pushed. Now you are going to have to do it all again. You know, when the energy is depleted and you have got nowhere else to run, and your oxygen has gone, then the only thing that you really do have left is your mind. I think that’s a very, very powerful tool. It’s something that I wish I’d had a bit more experience of. (Laughter) But you know, I think that when you do start dragging back through the memories of those expeditions in Iceland with Paul Walker and then days out on the hill with James and Phil, you know, I was always an average mountaineer, at best, but we did have some hard and committing days out. I think that those are the things that can fuel you along the road and make sure that you do get down in one bit, as difficult as that was, because from the South Col downwards I was effectively on my own, because I sent Kenton down with the card from the camera so that he could then satellite link some of the pictures back from our satellite link at base camp, because the batteries had failed through the cold in the one that we had with us. Kenton felt he was strong enough to get all the way down to base camp in a one-er, and I certainly wasn’t. Kenton and myself sort of parted company, and he raced ahead, and it was left to me to kind of plod on down on my own in my own little world. That’s incredibly difficulty actually, because as I say, you have really very, very little left. You have no reserves. I certainly didn’t. Some people might, but I certainly had nothing left in the tank whatsoever. But I think that when we got back to Katmandu we were on the satellite phone actually, and having completed this promise and the Olympic medal had been delivered to the summit, and actually dare I say we did bring it back down again, it wasn’t ours to leave up there, but Lord Coe from the Olympics phoned us, and we were both being invited to run with the Olympic torch in London the day before the opening of the 2012 games, which was an incredible reward for doing something that really was to commemorate the achievements of the 1922 Everest team. You know, it wasn’t really about us getting to the top. For me it was a job and it was an amazing thing to do to pay homage to, I guess mountaineering heroes that nobody had ever heard of, and yet their achievements are so enormous that they were all awarded Olympic golds. I mean that’s pretty outrageous.
Tania: Really a monumental achievement. What comes to my mind is that there are other important people in this story. Where were your wife and children, and how did they feel about this?
Keith: Well I think for the family back in Scotland in Fife it was a very, very stressful time. But we had an amazing community in the village that we lived in, in Lower Largo that really I think supported my wife Andrea and the two kids Jamie and Erin incredibly well. But I think it was very worrying and very traumatic actually, and certainly when I was unwell, and because we were posting a lot of stuff, as you can these days, on social media, the good and the bad, just to create a realistic impression of what it was like on the mountain, then of course that does prove very upsetting, I guess, when you see that I’m incredibly unwell, and in an incredibly dangerous situation, and yet that’s being, you know, swamped across the Internet. But I think it does show the power of storytelling. But what was really sweet is my wife went onto my airline points and wondered when she could spend them to come down to London, to Heathrow Airport, to meet Kenton and myself off the plane when we landed in from Katmandu. They said, “Well, we need an email from your husband to say that it’s okay for you to spend his points.” Well I wasn’t going to send an email. I didn’t know anything about this. This was a surprise. She just wrote the email herself and emailed it off, and then spent the points anyway. (Laughter) But it was quite funny when we landed at Heathrow Airport and went through arrivals and there was Andrea and Jamie and Erin and Kenton’s friends’ and family were there as well. It was a wonderful moment actually. That was great fun, although my daughter Erin was very young and I think she screamed for most of the time. But it was a great moment. Then for everybody to be there when we ran with the Olympic torch was very, very special as well. It was a story that actually captured the hearts of a lot of people.
Tania: Then to reflect back on your decision to leave the BBC and open up a world of possibility, I mean it almost gives me goose bumps to think where this led.
Keith: Yes. I mean nobody ever has a crystal ball, and you make these decisions, as I mentioned, you make these decisions based on what you feel is the right thing to do at the time. Certainly leaving the BBC, I think it kind of was the right decision to make at that time, as difficult as it was, and as precarious as that decision made my life. But I think if you have commitment to something, I think people recognise that.
Tania: Oh yes. All of us who have worked with you really know your commitment and your work ethic and your attention to detail. But let’s move off from the summit of mountains, it’s not only they that have lured you, but you have also been drawn down to the darkest depths of underground caves. You are no stranger to danger. Tell us about this.
Keith: Yes. Caving. (Laughter) It always makes me laugh actually, because I’m not a caver in any way, shape or form. I was going to say I’ve fallen into it, but that would be a bad idea wouldn’t it really? But I think it was because of all of the kind of rope skills, but also the mindset. There is a lot of crossover in all of these adventure activities that if you can deal with the unpredictable nature of going somewhere adventurous, you are doing something where you do not know what the outcome is going to be, it is uncertain, which is the true definition of adventure, if you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but you are willing to explore the possibilities, then virtually any adventurous activity is open to you. Of course, you do need to be aware of the technical limitations and the physical limitations. Of course you do. You don’t want to overstep the mark. But I think a lot of the game is in the mind, and I think the mind is a very, very powerful tool. I think with the caving, it’s something I do and I really love being down there, but I’m not so overly keen on the really tight stuff. You know, I’ve been through caves where I’ve had to totally exhale, no air left, deflated chest, and then try and get through, and that is quite a mind stretch actually. Sometimes you kind of wish you could divorce yourself totally from reality.
Tania: How do you divorce yourself from reality? How do you cope with those moments where if you don’t hold your mind together and you don’t focus that it’s literally a matter of life and death?
Keith: I don’t know about life and death, but you know, you are going to come a cropper possibly. But I think sometimes, and it’s a very dangerous thing to do in itself, but if you feel that you need even just a few seconds of break, mentally, is I actually use the camera, because then it feels like I’m watching TV. It’s not real. But you have to be aware that you are doing it, I think because if you do remove yourself entirely from reality that’s when the problem really, really comes. But if you need a short break because the mental stress is kind of like getting to you a bit, and the situation is just feeling a little bit overpowering, sometimes that can work actually. It can just take you away from what you are up against for those few seconds. Then you have to refocus, obviously, and get yourself back into the game. But really you shouldn’t go with the idea that you are ever going to take your eye off the ball. That I think is where a whole world of pain lies, because mentally you exit the game, and that’s really, really dangerous.
Tania: Tell us the story that an editor told you of the bull elephant.
Keith: Oh, this was years’ ago. There was a cameraman in Africa filming a bull elephant, amazing shot, so amazing that this bull elephant was charging in full ear-flapping, trumpet snorting sort of knarly charge straight towards the camera. I mean you could imagine what an incredible shot to get. Unfortunately the cameraman or the camera operator was just so engrossed and divorced from the reality of the situation that he got trampled and was killed. That’s the story that kind of like gave me the idea of sometimes using the camera to take yourself away from the reality, but also being aware that you don’t really want to do it too often or too much. You know, you do have to strike that. It’s just a momentary idea that you can achieve a sort break from intensity. But the minute you really take your eye off the ball then that’s a whole world of pain.
Tania: I’ve watched some of the clips you have taken inside the caves, and I have to say they take my breath away. They awaken inside me some really dark fear deep inside me of being buried alive. I mean there must have been moments when you thought, “What the hell am I doing here?”
Keith: What the hell am I doing in a dark hole that’s full of water and is going to get swept away at any minute now over a waterfall or something? Oh yes, you do kind of wonder. I think retrospectively, because I don’t think you ever think about that at the time, because again I think that is the moment when you’ve said no, and you’ve actually taken your eye off the ball. I think you always have to go, “I can do this. I’m going to have to do this because I’m committed now. If I want to retreat I will do a tactical retreat, but if we are going to go on we need to be in this together and we need to be focused and we don’t want to take our eye off the ball here. We have to be in the game.” I think that’s a difference. I think that your mindset has to be in with the problem solving of it constantly as a team. But there has to be that unity within the team, and I think that mentally if the team are up for it, and I’m usually the weak link, but if the team are up for it, then I think that’s good. If anybody isn’t, then that’s the time when everybody should tactically retreat, because that one person will ultimately become the very weak link that will break the chain and the whole thing could turn disastrous. I think it’s a very interesting balancing act between realising about the jeopardy, the possible dangers that you are facing, the strength of the team and the skill set of that team, and realising that together you can probably work out a solution to get round the issues if everybody is in and focused and ready to take that step.
Tania: Yes. Team message is so important, not just in climbing the highest mountains or going down to the deepest caves, but also overcoming any kind of health or performance challenge. Now your passion for adventure filming has led you to film the BBC series, ‘The Human Planet’, for which I believe you won an International Emmy award. Talk to us about this. What was that project about?
Keith: So, the 'Human Planet' series was epic, I think, to be involved in. Revolutionary, actually, in many respects, because it was the first time that world-class natural history camera and filming techniques had actually been turned around- The cameras would literally turned around, back on us humans, as a race and as an animal species, to see how we lived and how we interacted with nature, wildlife, the natural world. It was a sensational series to be involved in, so, yes, I'm hugely in debt to the BBC for actually inviting me on board that, actually.
Tania: Right, really wonderful. What were a couple of the most memorable moments for you? Is there one that stands out?
Keith: Well, the stand-out moment for that series is definitely when we were with the eagle hunters in Mongolia and filming [Silow 0:01:23] and his son, who was aged 16, [Barek], and Barek's journey into manhood, really. To do that, they take an eagle chick from the nest. They train it to be the family hunter – their weapon of choice on a hunt, and then to join them on a live hunt early in the winter of that year, and witness, hopefully, Barek's bird making its first kill of a wolf or a fox. When we captured that, that was an amazing moment, actually. Sensational.
Tania: Yes, incredible. When I look back at how our MovementWise journey began, this must be some of the safest work you've ever done. I presented my MovementWise vision to you, in the shape of a 12-film storyboard. We had the Clinical and Performance Director of the Olympic Medical Centre there, and the CEO, at that time, James Bissell. It amazes me to look back to look at the storyboard and see how we managed to bring this complete story to life, but you never seemed fazed.
Keith: Well, I think when you invited me in to help you with the project- I think you always have to look at the potential, and stories are incredibly powerful, if told in a meaningful way, in which people can engage with. I think it's very visionary of James Bissell and Dr Finn Mahler and the Swiss Olympic Medical Centre, at that time, to actually do that alongside yourself. They could see the potential power of communicating through story.
Communicating stories of inspiration and hope and of wellbeing has got to be more effective than letting people go down the rocky road and becoming ill through lifestyle, or thinking that, "I have this condition, and therefore, my life is over." Well, it's not. "Let's look at some case studies. I think because of my ankle issue, for 20 years of abject pain and horror with that, I kind of knew that I just needed the inspiration.
Tania: Now, I, personally, believe storytelling is one of the most powerful ways for us to be able to share knowledge and experience. That is critically important to people's health and wellbeing. There's so much that people just don't realise what is possible. You talk about the importance of the team, and most people have no awareness of different professions and what they have to offer. Not only that, but within professions, often, we don't know what each other do. So, this whole project was around healthcare professionals communicating with each other, and also, then, really, to give our patients, including our elite athletes, a voice, so that we really could have a shared vision about how we could move forward in a healthy and supportive way.
Keith: Well, I think it's all about joined-up thinking, isn't it? There is a tendency, I think, for people to operate in isolation, because they're busy. But I think the minute you get people talking together, and as a team, operating together, then just like in the film industry, when we operate together and we're all on the same page and we're all focused in the same direction, wonderful things happen. Because everybody is working on the minutiae of the issues and finding ways and pathways through, over or around those issues, but together.
So there are kinds of similarities in very many walks of life about this. It's all about the joined-up thinking.
Tania: Yes, totally. Absolutely. In making the MovementWise films, are there any moments for you, or any films in particular, that stand out?
Keith: Films that stand out that we've done, I think, dare I say it? The first one with Kate coming through breast cancer. I think that's a multifaceted film and journey. It really does plot the journey that Kate went on to huge success, actually. That was wonderful, and actually, wonderful in that it was wonderful when we finished Kate's story, and I will never forget this. When we played it both the James Bissell and to Finn Mahler, grown men, they both cried.
Tania: Yes, it took me a long time not to cry at the end of that film. But I suppose, also, for us, when we were making the film, and as a healthcare professional, I was also very involved in that journey and what we could capture on film. You just hope that you can transport people into that story.
Tania: What do you think the key was to making that film such a success?
Keith: So you have to engage the audience with your characters, first and foremost. So on every film, there is a recipe, for want of a better word, and the ebb and flow of a story, so it has peaks and troughs. It has points where they fail and they come back from failure. That's always good. So when you look at the arc of a story, if you can then find that within the characters that we were working with, who were coming back from some form of health issue, then that's always going to be better. And actually, get them to say some really powerful stuff upfront. Get them to feel relaxed about telling their own personal stories.
Tania: That's what really did it for me in the MovementWise films, you see the real people tell their stories. Not actors or actresses, but the real people. I think a lot of people don't realise that this is possible that when you have the person who's experience it really is express those feelings, then the authenticity and the power really comes out.
Keith: if you build the trust with your characters, so that they are open and honest about that story, that's as close as you can come to being truly authentic within a film. I think that's what we've always tried to do, is to give the story holder the ability and the confidence to actually tell their story as it was, warts and all, and that we were going to treat it with true respect. Because that's the other thing. The minute you start to twist somebody else's story editorially, I think that's when trust will break down. Then, as a film maker and as a storyteller within the film industry, that's when I think you fail.
Tania: Absolutely. Now, you clearly have a passion for teaching and sharing your skills with other people. What opportunities have you had to do this?
Keith: Well, I've always enjoyed trying to bring other people on. So I have had the fortunate opportunity of running the Adventure Filmmakers Workshop in Banff, at the Banff Centre, in Canada, for a very long time now. I think it's 12 years now. That's been fantastic. We've seen a lot of very talented filmmakers come through and develop, through that workshop, to becoming hugely successful filmmakers in their very own right.
But also, we're now running a summer masterclass of adventure film in the Banff Centre as well, which is great fun. We have people strung on cliffs and wandering around through the forests, dodging bears and whatever. It's terrific fun. It's not for the fainthearted, I don't think, that one.
But also, I've been acting as a visiting professor within the University of Cumbria, which has been a real joy to see the students develop their own style, actually, but hopefully, pointed and poked in kind of the right direction by the staff there and by my own input. So to try to encourage people within the film word to actually engage with storytelling, I think, is a really fantastic thing to be able to do.
Tania: You've won, yourself, numerous awards. Last year, the International Alliance for Mountain Film awarded you the Grand Prize. What did this mean to you?
Keith: Well, the International Alliance for Mountain Film represents, really, all the major mountain film festivals across the planet. I think for them to award a Grand Prize to somebody is a big deal, because they're, effectively, my peers. They're the people who know the world of mountain film inside out, upside down and backwards. They realised, hopefully, the impact or the contribution that I'd made over a career of 30 years. So, to receive such an award from an organisation which really knows their stuff in the mountain film world was very, very humbling and very satisfying, actually. It gave us a nice opportunity to head over to Trento and drink nice red wine and eat decent pizza for a couple of weeks, rather than freeze-dried food on an expedition, for instance.
Tania: That sounds very good. What about your book, 'The Adventure Game'? Did you take all the pictures in that book?
Keith: Well, the book was a funny project as well. It came about because of the surgery, actually, when the bolts finally went into my ankle. I was going to be out of action for months and months and months. A very good old friend of mine said, "You're going to be bored out of your box, aren't you? What are you going to do with yourself? Why don't you put on a show?" So, I ended up booking the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, and just did a behind-the-scenes of lots of these films, like lots of stills that I'd taken over the years and funny stories, and 600-odd people turned up.
But anyway, the week before, I went over to sort out all the technical stuff. I was still on crutches at the time, so I slumped into a seat on the train, as we sped towards Edinburgh. There was this old guy sitting next to me, and he went, "Football, was it?" I went, "For goodness' sake. No, it wasn't." He went, "Well, come on. Spill the beans, then." So I told him the whole sordid tale, and I showed him the summit shot that I took from Everest, and he went, "Do you do any writing?" I said, "Well, I never really have the time." He looked down at my plaster cast and went, "Well, it looks like you've got the time now, sonny." He then introduced himself as a publisher.
Now, I said that I like to chat, so we had a really great conversation on the train, and I invited him along, the following week, to the show in the Lyceum. The next morning, at 10:00, the phone rang. He said, "Hello, it's Bob here. We're going to do a book. 'No,' is not the answer I'm going to hear, is it?" So that's how the book came about.
I spent a year writing it, and I think out of the 200 photographs that are in that book, probably, 190 or 180 are mine. The rest are from very close colleagues and friends who were on some of these expeditions and journeys and jobs together; people who I hugely respect for their skill, not only as photographers, but as mountain guides or safety experts, or production people or other camera people.
Tania: But that one photo in the book that you've spoken about, that you took from the top of Everest, is truly extraordinary.
Keith: Everybody, when they watch the sunrise, they look to the sun, because that's the very thing that you crave. You crave the light. You crave the warmth. I think you bring that back down to caving. When you're in a crave, you crave warmth and you crave light. So when you're on the summit of a lofty mountain and a summit which is very, very hard-won, and you're watching the sunrise, you want to watch that sunrise. Why that photograph, I think, is very special is because I'm facing 180 degrees away from the sun, and I'm looking at the shadow of the highest mountain on earth; a beautiful and sublime mountain, and its shadow cast perfectly, at maximum height, on nothing but fresh air.
So, it says a lot about the grandeur and the status of that wonderful mountain that's been denigrated by so many other things over the years.
Tania: Now, you've been to some of the most beautiful places on the planet. Have there been moments when you've just had to pinch yourself that places are really that beautiful, and how people can just not want to immerse themselves in nature and to protect it?
Keith: Well, when you go into these environments, there's a huge sense of wonder, not only because of the scale of the landscape, for instance, but also the things that live there, be they plants or animals or insects or bugs, or whatever it is. It's the way that they all work together to create that environment, and indeed, that entire landscape – the whole ecosystem. So when you are in there and you are deeply immersed with a bunch of people who are all focused on the same thing and are hugely knowledgeable.
If you work with somebody like Steve Backshall, who's an incredibly knowledgeable naturalist, it always amazes me that you can see the weirdest bug, and he'll know exactly what it is and what time it has a poop in the morning, almost. He's really quite incredible, that guy. But it means that you're all on the same page again, so the immersion into those landscapes becomes, I think, even deeper. You can't help but feel just a sense of wonder and a sense of awe and wow about where you are.
If you're going to chuck yourself off the Angel Falls on a spindly little rope that's about 10mm thick, you've got to have a lot of faith in everybody around you. But also, it's an opportunity to go, "Whoa, we are really somewhere incredibly special here. That's the world's highest waterfall, and we're right next to it, on a tiny rope, doing something crazy. This is what dreams are made of, really." It's that search for the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow that's caused by the spray from the waterfall.
Tania: It's wonderful that you've been able to share what dreams are made of with so many of us. Over the past 25 or 30 years, your work, we've seen it on the BBC, Discovery, Channel 4, Channel 5, ITV, National Geographic, Pathé Films; so many places. You've brought it in with your talking at the Royal Television Society, BAFTA, the Royal Geographical Society. You've done so much, Keith. Where can you possibly go from here?
Keith: Well, I never like to predict the future, but one thing is certain: that journeys never end. Well, I suppose, until they end. You'll probably pop your clogs tomorrow. Get mown down by a bus or something. I like to let opportunities happen. I think as long as you're open minded and willing to let those opportunities interrupt the path that you thought you were on, they can spin you off in a different direction, which might not be a bad thing. They could take you off in an unexpected direction, which actually, ultimately, can carve an entirely new path. I think that's a cool thing.
As a filmmaker, I think really making films that count, making films that engage and work and actually create an ambience and deliver a message, really, that's a very positive thing.
Tania: Well, I've certainly experienced spending time with you and all these phone calls that come in. We were climbing up Ben Lawers in Scotland, and you were talking to Red, a guy who wanted to make a film that you've now called 'Shared Vision'. I feel extremely honoured that we're going to be able to share that with viewers on the MovementWise website. Talk to us a little bit about that. Because you get these phone calls, and then that's it: the next leg of your journey is on its way. This is very powerful, this film.
Keith: Well, in many respects, the film is kind of like six lads go on a five-day holiday in the North West of Scotland, really. It was a triathlon, so we start by mountain biking, then we hike, and then we swim. In actual fact, then we go climbing, but it's a very, very special climb. It's on a sea pinnacle – a sea stack – jutting out into the crashing Atlantic. To most able-bodied people, this would be a challenging day out. This would be tough. I actually found, because there are so many things against you – the weather. You have to swim. You have to get the tide, the sea state – everything is trying to stop you from achieving this objective of climbing Am Buachaille, which is this wonderful… It's almost 200ft high, this sea stack.
But it's even more of an amazing journey if you have somebody who's blind. So, to actually film Red on that journey, with him, all the way to the summit of that wonderful, crazy pinnacle in the Atlantic, that was really fantastic fun. A great team. Again, all so focused, very, very skilled, and very relaxed together as well. We had a lot of fun. As I said, it was like six lads going on a holiday. So, it's a, "What we did on our holidays," film, kind of.
Tania: I found his words very, very powerful. You talked about getting the trust of the person that you're filming. There was so much trust in that film, and there was such insight, and I think, yes, 'Shared Vision' is the perfect title for that film. And it's the perfect title, almost, for this podcast, because the words, 'Shared Vision-' It's so ironic. It's as if we've come full circle.
The film project we began together was about creating a shared vision between health and performance professionals, and giving our patients and athletes a voice, so that we could better understand how to meet their needs. So Keith, I have to thank you just so much for really making this possible for me, for really being able to share the journeys I've been on with my patients, including elite athletes, and for allowing them to have a voice, and as healthcare professionals, for allowing us to understand each other better.
Tania: What about a book? Do you have a favourite book?
Keith: Well, actually, one of my favourite books has got to be 'Touching the Void', I think, purely because once you open up that first page, you're on the journey. You cannot close that book, and you cannot put it down. I think, also, as a mountaineer, you have a bit of an understanding. I guess not a total understanding, because nobody ever will know and understand, fully, what Joe went through, but you have a little bit. I think that helps to bring it to life. You can relate to the power of that story. I think we all can. It always asks the question, "What would you do? Would you give up, or would you find a way round? Would you find a solution to the problem?" That's why.
Tania: Yes, it really is that question: "What would you do?" In many parts of the book, it asks you that question. So, yes, let's leave it there, with a little bit of intrigue, for those who haven't enjoyed reading it yet.
Thanks very, very much, Keith, for joining us today.
Keith: You're welcome. I hope that your listeners will find something of interest in my humble words.
Tania: Thank you for joining me today on The LifeWise Show. I hope you’ve been inspired to never stop exploring! As Keith’s experiences have highlighted – to follow a passion often means we have to move outside our comfort zone to discover what we are really capable of. And this requires us to be resilient when things don’t go according to plan - life is unpredictable.
In Episode 5 I will be at the Youth Olympic Games where I met up with Boris Cyrulnik, known as ‘The Pope of Resilience’; and Mark Milton an expert in self-awareness. They reveal how engaging in sport can help us successfully overcome adversity. I look forward to meeting you there.