Survival: To The Brink and Back

  • Max White

Veteran explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison, who spent weeks in a coma battling Covid-19, says the healing power of nature helped to save his life. This film follows this extraordinary 84-year-old as he climbs the highest hill in Cornwall in a quest to raise £100,000 for Royal Cornwall Hospital's healing garden.

“Heavy winds and torrential downpours across the south-west tomorrow afternoon in what might turn out to be Cornwalls wettest day on record”. It was an uneasy forecast to hear as we packed our bags ready for the following morning's ascent. We stood watching the television, it’s blue light illuminating the dark room and looked down upon the two cinema cameras on the table in front of us. They were wrapped in black bin-bags held together by loose pieces of string, microphones & lenses poking out through scissor cut holes. This can’t be how they filmed Sam Mendes’ 1917 I thought to myself... The words “that’ll do the trick” were spoken. Their recreation of WW1 must have been fought during a dry spell with no need for homemade camera covers.

You could easily presume that Robin, at 84, having just survived COVID-19 and woken from a coma, would be quaking in his boots staring down at the map of his route up Cornwalls highest peak but it seems that this is just what Robin does. He laughs, almost mockingly at the weather forecast that evening, as if to say, “Is that all you can throw at me!”. We had little else to do but to put trust in his years of experience and unashamedly brazen confidence. After all, the moor was calling, and there was a tor to climb.

“Mooorning! What a day for it!” Robin bellowed from the sheltered porch as we unpacked our gear the following day in sideways rain. He was live on BBC Breakfast in an hour or so and we needed to capture his last-minute preparations. Whilst the family raced around grabbing the essentials for the days climb, we captured the cacophony of voices and perfectly choreographed chaos, knowing it would adapt well on film. Robin, between phone calls of support, seemed to be revelling in the theatrics of the day. The excitement was palpable and before we knew it he was live on TV and then in the car on the way to his biggest challenge yet.
“This whole track and the land surrounding it, right up to the house at the foot of the tor is owned by one family” explained Merlin, Robin’s son, as we trundled in convoy along the only road that deep into Bodmin Moor. We couldn’t help but draw visual comparisons with the ending of the Bond film ‘Skyfall’ as we carved our way down the track. We arrived at a small farmhouse nestled below the Tor and gazed up towards the summit. We had hiked to the top two days prior, running through the shotlist and looking for cinematic camera angles however it was only now, seeing Robin standing at the foot of this not-so-metaphorical mountain, that it really dawned on us what an accomplishment this would be for him. Just weeks before we had seen him struggling to walk to his front door using a zimmer frame.

With his wife Louella at his side, and son Merlin following closely behind with us, he set off eagerly into the valley. It was a total nightmare for us and our equipment. We’d expected, based on our limited knowledge of A-level geography and physics, that the rain would be falling downwards from the sky. Instead, what greeted us was horizontal rain from all directions and 50 mile-an-hour winds, we should have listened more in class. The bin-bags we’d fashioned for the cameras were getting a thorough test-drive and were struggling to cope with the rain splattering our lenses at an alarming rate. All plans in weather this severe become, at best, a loose guide and we ran frantically from one spot to the next capturing Robin's ascent. At quick stops, we shouted questions over the roar of the wind at family members during on the spot interviews. We all knew instinctively that it was just going to be one of those days.

About two-thirds of the way up, Robin stopped and slumped onto a rock, Merlin quickly rustled in the supplies bag to make him a warm drink. It was clear to all of us at that point, that beyond the adventurous spirit and bravado, Robin was still a man recovering from a close call with death. We stood, glancing from Robin to his family and giving our best “you’ve got this” eyes. A few minutes past with some heavy breaths and encouraging words before Robin steadied himself to feet and once again began to climb.

“Is that a crowd?!” I asked the team as we came round the final bend revealing the top of the tor. We couldn’t believe it, we’d not told anyone when we were leaving or where from. It dawned on me that the fatal floor in this plan was that there is only one summit and if you keeping walking up, it’s very easy to find. We became very conscious of the nearing supporters and our duty to keep Robin a safe distance from them. After some choice words to a few eager press photographers, people seemed to understand and the outpouring of support gave Robin a vital boost in his last few meters. He’d made it.

We all celebrated. Robin, despite all odds, had accomplished the seemingly impossible. Amongst a scattering of family friends, there was associated press, locals from all ages and touchingly, the NHS nurses to whom Robin owed his life. Spirits were high and it felt like a collective moment of goodwill and hope during these tough virus-ridden times. The winds, however, weren't letting up and having enjoyed the view, a hot drink and caught his breath, Robin swiftly decided on the Jamaica Inn as his next stop for the day. Beer was calling and he had deservedly picked up the phone.

As it turns out, it was the wettest day on record. We paid the price of that in some equipment but bore witness to the culmination of one of the most extraordinary COVID-19 recovery stories. This film, made for BBC News and BBC World is live on iPlayer and will play a key role in raising money for Robins goal, a healing garden at Cornwall’s only hospital, Treliske.

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