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Aldo Kane | Life lessons from the world's hardest man

Royal Marines sniper, world record breaker and extreme TV adventurer Aldo Kane explains how a life well lived boils down to risks well managed

Aldo Kane

The last time Aldo Kane cried was during an expedition in the mid-Atlantic at the beginning of the year while he watched his wife Anna give birth to their son Atlas via WhatsApp video.

“I wasn’t sobbing my heart out, but I was blown away by emotion, of new life being born, of me not being there. It was amazing but also testament to the sacrifice you make having a life of adventure. Before that, I can’t remember the last time. It’s not because I hold it in and don’t want to. I have no problem crying, even on television if something has emoted me,” says Kane, 43.

But you imagine not much does – not because he’s not emotionally inhibited, but because he’s simply focused on the task at hand.

“I’m probably a bit more measured with my emotions,” muses the adventurer. “But whether I’m abseiling off Angel Falls, or exploring a cave system no one’s seen before, I’m there to do a job. I have people to keep safe, kit to sort out.

"So, I fully appreciate how beautiful or dangerous things are but think I’m pretty stoic in terms of being able to park it,” says Kane who had the focus and tenacity to join the Royal Marines at 16, and is now go-to safety guy for TV and film crews embarking on expeditions all over the world.

High kids with drugs and weapons is a bad combination

In his own words, he’s “been risk assessing and avoiding danger for years, basically, so it’s hardwired into me. I almost feel comfort in that discomfort. Living out of a bag, being cold, wet, hot, underground, covered in beasties, that’s my norm.”

Through experience and necessity, it’s understandable Kane isn’t easily overwhelmed by situations, or prone to hyperbole.

He even discusses his feats with a staid matter-of-factness, whether that’s living alone in a bunker for ten days for a BBC documentary on circadian rhythms (“Lockdown didn’t bother me after that”), organising meetings with drug cartels in South America for a Channel 4 documentary presented by his best mate Foxy from SAS: Who Dares Wins (“High kids with drugs and weapons is a bad combination”) or assisting a research team by abseiling into an active volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (“I loved it but you risk assess it so much that you mitigate all the things you think could go wrong”).

Even his take on the rugged action man status and hard man image that precedes him is a balanced one.

“If it’s measured by whether I can endure hardship for long periods, then yes. If I got into the ring with someone who’s remotely trained in boxing, I would get my ass kicked.”

Aldo Kane
Aldo Kane
Aldo Kane

When we speak, he’s home in Bristol for just a few weeks following trips to the Caribbean and the Azores before heading to the Arctic where he’ll ‘basically be off grid’ while he continues to film a six-part series for National Geographic.

Executive produced by film director James Camaron and incorporating the BBC’s Blue Planet team, Kane describes it as “like a modern-day Jacques Cousteau series of ocean exploration. The science is cutting-edge, and we’re at the forefront of oceanography and marine science, so it’s pretty exciting.

“I’ve been 1,000m down to the seabed, which was utterly mind-blowing – and night diving in a shoal of millions of jellyfish. I still don’t take any of it for granted, at all.”

Not least because work ground to a halt during the depths of the pandemic.

“I was out in the bush in South Sudan filming with the BBC when Covid took hold in the UK and got a call to come back – and went straight into lockdown. I basically lost all the work I had lined up and fell through gaps of any financial assistance, but I’m quite proactive so used it to my advantage, and got busy with self-imposed work,” explains Kane, who decided to finally write the book, Lessons from the Edge, he’d been contemplating since returning from Iraq in 2003.

“I just always knew as a kid there was so much more than doing a normal job

“There was no formed plan, but I’d kept a diary of everything I was doing, and lockdown basically gave me the time to put all these notes in some coherent order.”

He doesn’t mind admitting he’s nervous about its publication. “I suppose it’s a bit of imposter syndrome, like why would anyone want to read about what I’ve done? But I have done quite a lot. In fact, I had too many stories. It was basically volumes of boys’ own adventure stories, which we had to whittle down, but it’s been a timely project because it means I’ve laid bare my life up to the point where Atlas is born,” reveals Kane who grew up in East Kilbride on the outskirts of Glasgow before moving to Kilwinning in Ayrshire when he was 11.

The son of an ambulance technician and housewife turned paramedic, Kane’s one of five siblings. There wasn’t a lot of money, he recalls, but he never felt deprived. His dad was a Scout leader, he and his twin, Ross, embraced Scout life long before the typical age. It’s something Kane credits for keeping them both out of trouble, and for fostering an early passion for outdoor escapades.

Aldo Kane
Aldo Kane

Camping, night hikes and learning to ‘survive’ in the outdoors “precluded me doing anything that would see me chained to a desk, I was always going to work in the outdoors,” he notes, but reveals his passion for what was deemed nerdy pursuits rather than football prompted bullying.

Then there was his quirky interest in taxidermy, which saw him collect dead animals and keep them in shoe boxes under his bed before attempting his own mounts. As Kane’s wife Anna, a TV producer, has informed him, it sounds like something a burgeoning serial killer might do.

“I just think it’s the mechanics and process of the natural world that fascinated me, and probably what inspired me to be part of TV programmes where we look at how things work, live and die,” says Kane who’s always sought to live a life free from predictable societal constraints.

“I just always knew as a kid there was so much more than doing a normal job, working to a pensionable age and then retiring, and perhaps because there was less expectation, it allowed me to go out on a limb and try things,” he notes.

I was obviously driven at that age to get through training at such a young age

“I know so many people who’ve had a private education and all the money thrown getting them into the right places and they just have a lacklustre attitude to getting things done. It’s why I think people can achieve the extraordinary when there’s no real pressure or ability to achieve.”

At 12, he joined the Air Cadets and remembers seeing a man with swaggering confidence place a green beret down on a shop counter in front of him. After informing him that he was a Royal Marines Commando, the man told Kane he couldn’t touch the beret – “you have to earn it” – leaving a transfixed Kane determined to do just that.

It’s why, through dogged determination, he signed the paperwork when he was 15. “My parents really didn’t want me to go but I was dead set in my ways and the biggest gift you can give someone is to allow them to make their own choices. It’s how I want to be with Atlas” says Kane who started the formidable training when he was 16.

“My little nephew’s just turned 13, and I look at him and think in three years’ time could he pass Commando training? Probably not and why would he want to. I was obviously driven at that age to get through training at such a young age. I certainly didn’t fly through it. Everything I do, I sort of get there in the end,” says Kane who describes himself as both “infuriatingly logical” and “distinctly average” but always gives 100 percent.

Aldo Kane

He also works steadily through a tried and tested approach: make a plan, acquire the necessary skills, and do the graft.

“The only difference between someone who’s successful and isn’t, is that the person who’s successful has applied themselves in one direction, and given it their all rather than drifting. Time is so valuable and only goes, so if you have an inkling of what you want to achieve, then all you have to do is break it down into sizable chunks. For me, it’s always been about having a target in mind and trying to reach it.”

He adopted the same approach when he decided to join the Reconnaissance (Recce) Troop at the age of 18. Some people thought it an audacious move at such a young age, but Kane reasoned “why wait five years to find out I’m good enough” and went onto fulfil his ambitions of becoming a sniper. But by 26 he was ready for new challenges and a different life, so left the military.

I was out of the Marines,and now there was only one person that was going to be responsible for my success or failure

But “once a Marine, always a Marine,” he notes. “It’s that elite brotherhood, and you don’t ever lose that, whether it’s confidence, physical ability, muscle memory, they’re lessons for life, and what I do to this dayis based on its ethos and core values.”

Not that the transition from honed killing machine to civvy life was a smooth one, a particular low point being asked to dance to the Birdie Song to see if he had the confidence for sales during one demoralising interview.

He did, and the job provided some financial stability for a short while, but further cemented his determination to avoid the nine-to-five grind and he promptly jacked it in. “It put a rocket up my arse. I was out of the Marines, and now there was only one person that was going to be responsible for my success or failure.”

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He went on to gain rope and inspection certificates, worked offshore on an oil rig, read business books, made plans, and then in 2010, got a call from someone who’d heard he was an ex-Marine and “handy with ropes” asking if he could get a film crew into an active volcano.

It opened a door he never knew existed, he recalls, and through word of mouth, one job led to another.

All these years on and his thirst for adventure remains undiminished; not even becoming a dad has quelled that desire.

“I’ve been diving with whales and sharks since Atlas was born, so I’m managing to compartmentalise it, and I’m happy with who I am and what I do,” says Kane.

“If I tried to be anyone else, I wouldn’t be true to myself, or give Atlas the true representation of me. I bloody love my job.

"It’s not about the money, it’s about life because at best it’s brief, so it’s about collecting experiences rather than things.” 

'Lessons from the Edge: Inspirational Tales of Surviving, Thriving and Extreme Adventure' by Aldo Kane is out now.