Former Royal Marine Sniper Aldo Kane Speaks About his Life of Adventure in Extreme Environments
Aldo Kane is a man well acquainted with living on the edge. Having joined the Royal Marine Commandos just before his 16th birthday he went on to become an elite sniper touring the globe on duty in the most hostile environments known to man. And you couldn’t say Aldo put his feet up after leaving the military, forging a new career as an extreme locations safety expert on big TV and film productions.
This line of work has seen him travel even more extensively, using his exclusive skill set to descend into live volcanoes in the Congo, abseil off the highest waterfall in the world and infiltrate drugs gangs with his pal Jason ‘Foxy’ Fox in series The Real Narcos. Added to his achievements Aldo was part of Team Essence, the fastest and first crew to row the longest route across the Atlantic Ocean from mainland Europe to mainland South America in 2016. No mean feat.
He also has serious survival credentials which you can examine for yourself on Discovery Channel tomorrow night when he faces off against Ed Stafford in First Man Out, an extreme race through the deadly mangrove swamps of Borneo.
We caught up with the man of adventure himself to talk about his storied life, from an elite military career to being charged down by rhinos, rowing across the treacherous Atlantic Ocean, that upcoming challenge versus Ed Stafford and much more.
The MALESTROM: What first attracted you to the outdoors and the whole lifestyle?
Aldo Kane: I grew up in Kilwinning on the West coast of Scotland, there wasn’t a huge amount to do there work-wise, it’s also in one of the most beautiful places, I’m a bit biased. Having been pushed into the scouts by my parents at a very young age, I was always involved with the outdoors since I was a kid, and when you have Glencoe, Fort Willian and Loch Lomond on your doorstep then it’s pretty hard not to get stuck into the outdoors. So as a kid I was always playing outside, I just wanted to carry that on into a job and I guess that’s why I joined the Marines.
TM: Was there a particular catalyst that made you join the royal marines?
AK: It was kind of depressing thinking about all the options the guidance counselor would tell you that you could do as a job. I remember going to the careers office and speaking to people about the military, I didn’t know which one to join.
At the time I was in the cadets and the scouts as well, I was away on a cadet camp in RAF Kinloss, and this guy walked in, he was a pilot in the Royal Marines, a Commando helicopter pilot. He walked into the canteen and put his beret down on the table when he was paying for his food. I asked him what it was and he told me it was a Royal Marines beret and I’d have to try pretty hard if I wanted to earn one and I was like, “F**k you I’m going to have one” (laughs).
AK: That was the first time I remember seeing the coveted green beret in the flesh. I must have only been twelve or thirteen at the time. And that stuck in my head and cemented it.
TM: Tell us about the brutal training that got you there…
AK: The Royal Marines training is the hardest infantry training in the world bar none. It’s six/seven months long as opposed to six weeks, and it takes you all the way through from civilian to normal soldier and further on into becoming an elite soldier and trained Commando where eventually you pass out and graduate. There you get your Commando flashes and your green beret.
It’s a fairly brutal selection process. Out of maybe fifty people that start maybe nine or ten will get through. So it’s fairly elitist and selective in the people that it takes. For me, that was one of the reasons why I wanted to try that first. Try the hardest in the world and if I failed then try something else. It’s kind of my mindset to go for the road less travelled. At fifteen and nine months I’d signed up and at 16 I was already down at the Commando training centre.
TM: It’s so young isn’t it?
AK: Most people don’t join the marines till 21 or 22, potentially after they’ve even graduated. To join at 16 you’ve already done four or five years before most normal people join up.
TM: You never joined for the fighting, but rather the adventure…
AK: If you think back to when you were a kid and used to get those Commando comics, I’m not sure whether they’re still around or not, but they were all proper boys’ own adventure stories, some fighting, some just the journey to the battle. In my head obviously, the Marines were the most elite fighting force on the planet, so I thought to become the most elite fighting force, you need to become an expert in every environment, jungle, desert, arctic, mountains, maritime and that to me was more about the adventure.
I wasn’t thinking what I would do past when I left the Marines, I was just thinking I could go from being a normal paperboy or a milk boy, which I was at the time, to being an elite operator working in the Arctic or high altitude mountains in the Middle and Far East. It cemented in my head that these would be good skills to have for the rest of my life. If you can survive in the jungle you can pretty much survive anywhere on the planet and these were the type of skills I was looking to develop.
TM: What is the most hostile environment you’ve encountered over the years?
AK: I run a company called Vertical Planet and I work in TV and film providing safety services to filming operations that are going on around the world that are high risk or in extreme locations. Warfare and fighting in the Middle East is definitely one hostile environment when I was in the Marines.
Since coming out I was away with my mate Foxy who I was in the Marines with, filming a program about drug lords and we spent quite a lot of time embedded with Narcos, that was fairly high end, extremely hard work. I’ve also been inside a volcano recently when it was erupting. So there’s quite a few, there are natural and man-made extreme environments. I’d take being chased by a gorilla or charged by a rhino any day over people.
TM: Have you ever been charged by a rhino?
AK: Yeah. Foxy and I were working for a charity called Veterans for Wildlife. We were on a foot patrol in one of these parks and we came across this black rhino, they don’t have great eyesight, but they have a really good sense of smell. Obviously Foxy is a big lump of a man as well, so we were crashing through the undergrowth and these two rhinos turned around and headed straight for us.
It’s not often you get to see Foxy looking scared. That was one time when both of us were looking to climb higher than the other in the tree.
TM: That must have been terrifying?
AK: Yeah, it was terrifying.
TM: You became a sniper in the military. It’s a role many can’t help but be fascinated by. Was it a conscious decision to go in that direction?
AK: The Royal Marines sniper training course is the hardest in the world to pass. I suppose from a young age I’d always been looking to get to the best of the best of what I could get to. Once I was in the Marines it was very apparent that to become an extreme specialist in those environments the sniper training route was the course for me.
It fascinates everyone, it’s the dark arts of sniping, it’s looked down upon by everyone around the world and there’s no recourse or no quarter given to snipers that are captured because it’s seen as such a destructive evil force. I suppose for me it wasn’t about the shooting, it very rarely is about the shooting, it’s actually more about what kind of person do you need to become to operate on your own behind enemy lines, or with a partner, just the two of you solely relying on your skills and abilities.
That to me was the pinnacle of all fieldcraft training, that’s why I pushed for it, again there may be 40-50 people doing sniper selection in the Marines, so you’ve already had quite a huge dropout rate to become a Commando and then out of that you may have 20-30 be selected to do sniper training and only six or seven will pass.
TM: So super elite…
AK: It’s quite selective and again another elite unit within a unit. But ultimately what that does teach you is that mental resilience, going through the physical hardship.
I use a lot of that stuff even now in television and film, whether stunt rigging on The Avengers, in a volcano or working on Inside the Real Narcos, I call on a lot of the softer skills that they instill in you on the sniper training course about patience, about resilience, about hardship. So it was the cream of the cream of the cream when it came to fieldcraft and that’s what drew my attention to it.
TM: Seriously impressive. You must have to stay super alert obviously, but on those long drawn out operations how do you stay vigilant?
AK: Training is a lot of it. You’re also a Royal Marine Commando first before you’re a sniper. So you have a very solid grounded foundation to build on. An operation could be that you’re set in a hide in the desert for ten days at a time, you’re shitting into plastic bags, peeing into bottles and you’re working one hour on, one hour off for that ten days, so it can be difficult to keep your attention span for that length of time.
But that’s the job, if you switch off you could end up dead, there aren’t many other jobs on the planet that put you in that high-risk bracket as it were.
TM: How do get the food into you that you need to service the body and give you that energy to perform?
AK: When you’re on operations and you’re doing a sniper job or you’re in a reconnaissance unit, it depends on the tactical situation whether you’re allowed to cook or whether you’re just eating biscuits, but generally it’s rations that are provided. I guess all of that translates into the job I do now, with all of that training, all of that mindset that I use on a daily basis, whether I’m taking fifteen people in a film crew into an erupting volcano, or just in a covert location in a remote part of the world, it’s all been transferable into what I do now.
TM: Are you still in that military timezone where you have to get up early? Or can you ever lie in?
AK: It’s sort of drilled into me. I’ve been away quite a bit recently and when I do come home for two or three weeks, effectually I am off work, but discipline wise I get myself up in the morning, go to the gym and I get myself into a routine to get stuck into, otherwise for me personally I find it quite easy to drift and I have quite a short span of attention, so I need to keep myself continually busy.
TM: What’s your training regime like nowadays? I guess nothing like your military days?
AK: I’m 41 now, I’m actually fitter and stronger, mentally and physically than I was when in the Marines. I think that’s probably down to being a bit smarter and training specifically for what I need it for. I don’t go to the gym and do arm curls or anything in isolation, because I never do anything in isolation in my job.
I need to be able to pull two people out of a cave potentially not using any kit, or maybe I’m hauling bags up a big cliff wall like El Capitan, or I’m just simply yomping through the jungle for ten days at a time with a big pack on and helping people that are filming. So everything I do very much has to be functional, I don’t carry any extra weight, I don’t have The Only Way Is Essex muscles and abs.
TM: So functional?
AK: Exactly, functional.
TM: You’ve talked previously about essentially having a panic attack when down inside an actual volcano, is that something you’d experienced before in warfare or another situation?
AK: No. That was really caused by the way I felt about that, everything else you get trained and prepared for, fighting, dealing with heights, diving, you go through all these drills, if something goes wrong you do this or do this, to be inside the bottom of a volcano and be deeply physically and mentally connected to the earth in that way it’s as raw as it gets. This is the biggest lava lake on earth, it’s 50 metres behind you, as far as science is concerned it’s almost plumbed into the centre of the earth, it’s f**king terrifying!
One puff of gas coming out of there could, in theory, wipe out an entire area round about it, people are killed all the time by these poisonous gas winds, they call them ‘mazuku’ down there in the Congo, it means evil wind. I was in the eye of the storm, I was at the very bottom level of one of the world’s most active volcanoes on my own.
There isn’t a training course that can teach you about that or a volcanos 101 book you can read. At that point I had gas monitors on, I had all the right kit, but your brain is a powerful thing and with that vast, raw connection behind you to the centre of the earth it’s just terrifying and I suppose I knew what all the signs and symptoms of being poisoned by gas were, and it was very, very similar to having a panic attack. It’s hard to differentiate when you’re so jacked up, so high on what’s happening. I guess you’re wired as your right on the edge of what’s safe and what’s fatal.
TM: You obviously came out of the other end though…
AK: Yeah. Bizarrely in the same place about ten days later the entire inside of the volcano collapsed there, so what we thought was a safe area to go down was actually THE worst place we could have been. So pretty lucky.
TM: What’s your technique for managing fear?
AK: Fear’s one of those things where you speak to a chest beating alpha male and they say, ‘I never get scared, I’m double hard.’ Actually, everyone has something their scared of whether a situation or moment in life where you’ve been so terrified you just want to cry or call for your mum.
So having to deal with those fairly regularly with the type of work that I do, I find the biggest thing I do is control my breathing. Because as soon as I control my breathing, by breathing in, then holding it and breathing out, you’re increasing the amount of oxygen you’re getting into your system, you’re also controlling the electrical pulses in your heart. Effectively when your heart is bouncing around all over the place you find it very hard to concentrate, so your judgment is then impaired. Doing that controls it.
The second thing I do is to try and take myself out away from the situation. Almost like if you could picture it, you’d be floating above the situation looking at it and have some sort of separation from it. The majority of things people get scared about are relatively harmless, It’s just what their psychological and physiological response is to that, that’s what has the impact. A lot of the time when I’m scared I have to go what is it I’m feeling?
My stomach is in knots, my legs are shaking, my hands are clenching, my teeth are locked. That doesn’t actually mean I’m scared it actually means my body is physiologically ready to do something, run, jump, fight, climb, pull, whatever that might be.
So I guess my relationship to pressure and stress will be different to yours and someone else’s when they’re at that moment of acute pressure or stress. It’s how you communicate with yourself, I talk to myself when I’m scared, I talk through what I’m doing and the breathing helps me to calm the situation down.
TM: I suppose with your training your less scared of the things other people are. You can stand on the top of a mountain rigging ropes and not be petrified…
AK: I did one recently, I rigged a 400-metre abseil, free hanging. Which is the height of The Shard then Big Ben on top of it! Then take those buildings away and your free hanging on a rope. That is terrifying! I work at height all the time but the exposure and the height is something else. I was totally aware the whole time I was going down that I had the physiological signs of fear, a very dry mouth, quite shaky, not thinking straight.
It’s amazing to have that feeling, you mustn’t forget that it’s there for a reason, that’s there as a protection mode, so it’s always worth listening to.
TM: How did you first get into TV work?
AK: So I left the Marines at 26/27 and went offshore and all the while was dodging round learning mountaineering and other skills. I got into the television work about ten years ago. Volcanos in the Congo was the first job I did in TV, I was working for a friend, another ex-military guy who was running a safety company and I came in and did all the climbing, rigging, expedition part of that.
Then it kind of snowballed from there into all sorts of expeditions, driving across Siberia on Driven to Extremes, I’ve done a couple of driving expeditions, the volcanoes, you end up going to a lot of the same places, jungle, desert arctic, that’s just the nature of the beast. I’ve racked up around about 109 countries now.
TM: How did you find the Congo? It’s not renowned as the safest place…
AK: I have to tell you, the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most stunning, beautiful, misrepresented places on earth. It is very dangerous in lots of places, but if you have an appetite for a small amount of risk, it gives huge rewards. There are mountain gorillas down there, it has volcanos, it’s got jungle, beautiful lakes, it has seven UNESCO World Heritage sites. It’s had a very hard time since the colonization of it and of course the history of genocide and Rwanda, it’s out there, it’s a boys’ own adventure for sure.
TM: You’ve worked with big film stars in the past, how did you find that? Are you a film fan?
AK: I’m not really into films. I’ve worked with some super big dudes, Tom Hardy, Henry Cavill, Adrien Brody.
TM: What was Tom Hardy like? He seems like a good bloke…
AK: They were all amazing guys. All the stuff we did was fairly hardcore and they’d just crack on with it. They’re all kind of hardcore adventurers in their own right, doing some good stuff. So I never really get phased by that stuff, people are just people at the end of the day. The environments we work in are great levelers, whether it’s the jungle or the arctic, everyone feels cold the same, everyone has fear the same and deals with stuff in relatively the same way.
TM: Have you ever found yourself in any hairy situations while doing the telly or film work?
AK: With the TV stuff, I’m working on a ten expedition series now with Steve Backshaw and by the nature of what Steve does, he’s pretty hardcore himself, paddling, caving, climbing, abseiling, all fairly full on expeditions. My job is to try and mitigate the risk of things happening as much as I can, but by the very nature of what we’re doing things can and do go wrong, whether its rocks falling or a volcano erupting.
Really, the biggest risk that we face is traveling in cars in foreign countries. Foxy and I spent three months doing some fairly hardcore stuff last year and both of us were nearly wiped out at the end of the shooting period when we were in a car accident where a massive metal roller shutter came through (the car) and nearly decapitated both of us, that’s the kind of thing you can’t write a risk assessment about, there’s no way of mitigating for that, it’s like some kind of Final Destination shit.
TM: Totally. We’ve spoken to Foxy previously and he talked about sketchy moments when filming Inside the Real Narcos. You were the man on the ground with him. How did you find that?
AK: Doing the Narcos stuff was hard work. Basically, it was Foxy and me who put all the plans together when we were on the ground and then we had a camera guy and director who were following us, so it was up to us to make sure things were safe. You’re basing a lot of it on experience and a bit of your interpersonal skills, so a chest beating alpha male would have been shot out there after a couple of days.
Foxy and I are very reserved and laid back in what we’re doing, you have to be when your in those situations, it’s not about going in there big timing it about who you are, cause these guys will just kill you. So Foxy and I had three long months of negotiation access, obviously, we had an amazing production team as well, but on the ground, it was down to us to chase and follow stories, which was cool.
TM: So it was more about talking your way out of difficult situations? Foxy mentioned the time when the cartel guys were doing line after line of cocaine…
AK: Exactly, you don’t know where things are going to end up. Foxy and I had a couple of hairy moments where we got separated, I’m on one side of a river, he’s on the other and this massive storm blows in, and we basically spent an hour stuck on either side of this river. We’d just been seen by this Mexican Marine helicopter and knew there were about ten Humvees coming for us.
Like I say you try and plan your way around a lot of stuff then you just have to revert back to your old military hunches and experience to use when the shit does hit the fan. It’s the old adage about not bringing a knife to a gun fight, we had no weapons, we had to deal purely with the way we talked to people and our attitudes, that’s what kept us alive, not having weapons or anything like that.
TM: Can we talk to you about another experience you and Foxy shared, your rowing challenge from mainland Europe to mainland South America? An incredible achievement, but again fraught with danger…
AK: Basically, there were four of us who’d joined this race from the Canary Islands over to Antigua, then Foxy joined us and I spoke with our team captain, we all knew Foxy and said to bring him along. There wasn’t then a space in the race for a boat with five people on it, so we sacked off that race anyway and thought f**k it, we’ll do it ourselves. So we took our boat down to Portugal and stuck it in the water down there, then we rowed all the way to Venezuela.
Effectively we were the first people to get in a rowing boat and row across from Europe to South America. Which was pretty epic, it took us fifty days, I shared a cabin with Foxy for most of that and then swapped on and off doing varying different shifts. So you get in the boat and row for two hours, you rest for two hours, you row for two hours, you rest for two hours and you do that continually basically for about two months.
AK: We capsized a couple of times at night, it was the same as warfighting, it was like 90% boredom and tedious monotony and then 10% fighting for your life.
TM: Tell us about the capsizing, that must have been awful?
AK: It was one of the most terrifying things. We’re in a boat, we’ve got no backup, no liferafts and no lifejackets because on the first time we capsized they were all pressurized and lost. The closest person to us at that time is Tim Peake in the Space Station orbiting the earth (who tweeted them), there’s no one near us, there really is no backup, to redivert a ship to that part of the Atlantic is going to take at least a week just to get someone there, so you’re on your own, you’ve burned your boats and left them on the beaches at Troy, you’re balls deep in that situation.
You have to rely on yourselves to get yourselves out of that situation. And actually, that’s the whole ethos that comes from being in the Marines. Three of us on that boat were ex-Marines, so it’s that drive as a crew that kept us going through those hard times and on into the Guinness Book of World Records. Apparently, we were the self-styled rogues of ocean rowing.
TM: Now that’s something that should be on a T-shirt! You did actually nearly lose one of the crew that night though, didn’t you?
AK: Yeah, we capsized during the middle of a crew change, there couldn’t be any worse time to capsize. So at night, crew change and there were these big 20-30 foot wave swells. The hydrodynamics of a body in the water and a boat doesn’t mean you can just swim back. When something is in the water it’s gone, one of the guys was just in the process of clipping on when the capsize happened.
It all happened very quickly, we were only under the boat for around 40 seconds or something like that, but it’s quite a long time when you’re thrown into it, it’s freezing cold, your terrified, it’s dark and you can hear the boat being smashed above by waves. So you get up and right the boat then spend the next six hours fighting hypothermia, the anxiety and everything else that goes with it.
TM: There must have been sharks in that water as well?
AK: We had actually been followed for about ten days at this point by a big Oceanic whitetip shark, they’re the bad boys that clean up after wrecks. It had been following us for quite some time, but luckily nothing happened.
TM: We always like to ask survival experts we speak to which piece of kit you couldn’t do without?
AK: With all the jobs that I do, whether in the Arctic or the mountains I guess apart from the survival essentials food, water, shelter the thing I would need and use is a knife or a multitool. Of course, clean water is a big one, so I always travel with a bottle that has a filter in it, so I can have fresh water anywhere I go.
TM: How much do you crave adrenaline?
AK: I don’t crave it, but if I’m at home for too long and don’t have anything booked up that’s going to be interesting I then have to go out and find that myself. I stay fairly current with diving, with sky diving, with mountaineering and climbing, so keeping going with all the skills that I use in my job and still getting that buzz.
TM: Can we finish by talking about First Man Out this new show your a part of on Discovery…
AK: So First Man Out is Ed Stafford who is a worldwide survival legend, he’s pitting himself against six of the world’s best survivalists and outdoorsmen, and somehow bizarrely I’ve been put into that bracket (laughs). I know Ed anyway, he’s a mate, but he asked if I’d come along and go head to head with him, so we flew out to the mangrove swamps of Borneo.
To cut a long story short we got dropped off by two separate boats about half a mile apart and over the next ten days or maybe a week, we had to get to a finish point, but it’s not just a race, we had to build our own shelters every night, find water, catch food and moving through the mangroves is one of the hardest environments on earth, there isn’t a harder environment to move through. Twice a day it floods, there are saltwater crocodiles there and basically, your body is just rotting the whole time you’re in there. So I think Ed stitched me up on that. I think he gave me the toughest environment out of all of them. But it was an amazing experience.
TM: Finally we always like to ask for a piece of wisdom or mantra that you live your life by…
AK: My main mantra is “we become what we think about” and the commando spirit “Courage, Determination, Unselfishness and Cheerfulness in The face of adversity”.
Watch Aldo face off against Ed in First Man Out debuting on Discovery Channel Thursday, Jan 31st, 9 pm.
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