We speak to the modern day action man about overcoming adversity, monumental challenges and survival of the fittest.
If we were to admit it, Bear Grylls is the guy we all slightly wished we were. He’s made a career of journeying to the furthest reaches of the world, of tackling extremes and, on occasion, has even had the odd A-lister join him for the ride. His television shows and books are watched and read by millions, he backs his own survival academy and he has an instrumental role in shaping the next generation of adventurers in his role as Chief Scout of The Scout Association. So far, so impressive.
In many ways Grylls’s childhood and early career were always preparing him to take the mantle as one of the most eminent and well-known survival experts of our time. Growing up in County Down, Northern Ireland and subsequently on the Isle of Wight, he is far from a ‘city child’. At Eaton College he helped start the prestigious institution’s first mountaineering club and he has also been a reservist with the British SAS. As a benchmark for Special Forces worldwide, the SAS selection process is grueling and only 15% of applicants will make it through the endurance tests required to earn a spot in this elite group.
Before venturing into TV, Grylls had already achieved feats that few are capable of. In 1997 he was the youngest Briton to climb Ama Dablam (once described by Sir Edmund Hillary as ‘unclimable’) and in 1998 he reached the summit of the highest of them all: Everest. He was just 23 years old. “Reaching the Summit of Everest was an incredibly poignant moment for me,” Grylls tells us. “Not only was it key to my recovery from a very bad sky diving accident in the army, but it was also the fulfillment of a long-held childhood dream.”
“I believe that with the extremity of technological advances men are beginning to seriously struggle with what it means to be a man” – Bear Grylls
The ‘accident’ he is referring to happened in Zambia where, after jumping from a plane on a military exercise, his parachute ripped at 16,000 ft. Landing with the weight of his parachute pack on his back, he partially crushed three vertebrae and doctors debated if he would ever walk again. The experience was a tough one for Grylls mentally as well as physically, but after 12 months of military rehabilitation at Headley Court, he set his sights on climbing Everest. ‘It became the driving force to get me well again,’ he explains. And two years later he made it.
Following his success at Everest, Grylls followed it by circumnavigating the UK on Jet Skis, crossing the North Atlantic on a rigid inflatable boat and he led the first team to attempt to paramotor over the jungle plateau of the Angel Falls. In short, he led far from a quiet life. “Rather than using their brains, their courage and their resourcefulness, modern chaps are pre-occupied with their computers,” Grylls bemoans when we ask about the appeal and why we’ve always been so interested in his exploits. “I believe that with the extremity of technological advances men are beginning to seriously struggle with what it means to be a man.”
Helping to educate us, Grylls first garnered worldwide mainstream attention when his TV show, Born Survivor: Bear Grylls, became an international smash. Retitled Man vs. Wild and Ultimate Survival for some markets, the show involved Grylls being dropped in inhospitable environments and then demonstrating how one could survive. OK, so it’s unlikely many of us will find ourselves stranded in the Sierra Nevada or grappling to escape the Costa Rican Rainforest with just a canteen and a knife, but he demonstrated that survival is more than necessity – it’s entertainment. Whether using a dead sheep as a makeshift sleeping bag or demonstrating how to make a snow cave in an Icelandic blizzard, he had us hooked.
But whilst it may all make for must-see television, for Grylls going to ‘work’ isn’t always as incredible as it may seem. The black swamps of Sumatra posed a particularly unpleasant challenge, with him describing them as the hardest place he’s had to survive. “The swamps were a 100% unforgiving environment,’ he explains. ‘They had been badly affected by the Tsunami in 2001 and the whole area had turned into a rotting, stinking swamp, riddled with man-eating crocodiles feeding off human flesh. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.”
From the comfort of the sofa, it’s often easy to forget that there’s an inherent risk factor in what Grylls does. Unlike most TV shows, he isn’t acting on a set or on location from a cordoned off city street. The settings are real and the challenges are just that – challenging. It’s a reality he’s grown uneasy with over time. As most people do, he’s settled down, started a family and created commitments for himself that aren’t always best served by putting his life on the line. “The constant high level of danger that my job involves is very difficult at times. Particularly given that I have a family now,” he says. “Before I was a dad I was 100% reckless but I’ve definitely toned it down as we’ve added to the family. I’m about 90% reckless now.” Even then, there are certain dangers that Grylls has always approached with a sense of restraint. Coming from an army background and understanding the harsh realities of nature, he isn’t reckless for the sake of being reckless. “There are four things that I’m particularly cautious of: saltwater crocodiles, big white water, crevasses and glaciers. I allow a 20% margin for error, rather than 10, for these four.”
“The constant high level of danger that my job involves is very difficult at times. Particularly given that I have a family now”
Considering his views on how out of touch we modern men have become, backing his own survival academy was a natural step. “I think people assume it’s more difficult than it actually is to get outdoors and explore,” he says. “The Bear Grylls Survival Academy has been specifically designed to enable every kind of modern man or woman to do just that. We have a huge range of survival courses, from 24-hour courses to the intensive five-day survival course in the Scottish Highlands. We all have what it takes to survive in the wilderness, it’s just about reconnecting with our instincts.”
In an effort to pass on his own knowledge and to ignite the fire of adventurousness in the younger generation, Grylls not only provides children’s day courses at the Bear Grylls Academy, but he has nabbed the top badge at an organisation that has been encouraging kids to partake in the outdoors for over a century. “I’m Chief Scout to 28million Scouts worldwide,” he reminds us, with undeniable pleasure. “For me the role is ultimately centred on giving young people the opportunity to have an adventure and learn outdoor skills with their friends. I’m very proud to be a part of the Scouts.”
Perhaps part of the reason for Bear Gryll’s enduring success is his likeability. He’s of course achieved a lot, but he’s also done so with a sense of character and virtue that so many of us respond well to. His inspirational advice often not only applies to dangerous situations but to the everyday as well. This duality was summed up neatly in his closing words to us, as well as his salient key to overcoming any obstacle. “It is crucially important to remain positive whatever the situation. Never, ever give up and always remember to smile when it’s raining.”