IT WAS AS IF the whirlpools could think—materializing out of the muddy brown water at exactly the right moment to attack the expedition’s most vulnerable member. it was January 2012, and Erik Weihenmayer and Rob Raker were paddling the swirling Usumacinta River between Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas. Howler monkeys roared, and brightly colored birds chittered. Weihenmayer could hear the beauty around him, including a waterfall crashing in the distance, but couldn’t appreciate it. The river’s enormous flow created traveling whirlpools, eight to ten feet wide, that would appear out of nowhere, swallow boats, disappear, and then reappear farther downriver. A sighted person like Raker, an adventure filmmaker and longtime friend of Weihenmayer’s, could see them forming, paddle hard to the right or left, and avoid them. But they ate Weihenmayer, who has been completely blind since the age of 14, for dinner.
“I’m paddling along, and all of a sudden I feel the river boil beneath me,” Weihenmayer, 44, says. “I can hear Rob ten feet behind me screaming, ‘Paddle! Paddle harder!’ And I’m paddling for my life. I’m completely hyperventilating, in a total panic because I know what’s coming. The river is going to yank my bow, flip me, and suck me out of the cockpit. The first time, I was lucky enough to grab onto a safety boat. But next time, who knows? When I get sucked into a whirlpool, I’m not like other people. I can’t see the light. I don’t know which way is up.”
The Usu was flowing at nearly 100,000 cubic feet per second—seven times bigger than the Colorado River normally runs. On paper it was exactly the kind of high-stakes paddling Weihenmayer was seeking. After four years of training, he wanted to become the first blind person to kayak down the Grand Canyon—a 226-mile stretch that includes a half-dozen or so thumping Class IV rapids.
But the Usu was, in fact, fiercer, meaner, and more treacherous than Weihenmayer and his team of seven paddlers expected. He got sucked into several whirlpools, swam dozens of times, and generally found it more terrifying than anything he’d ever attempted. Which is saying a lot, if you know anything about Weihenmayer.
He has spent the better part of his life doing things most people—sighted or not—would never consider, like hiking through Pakistan and Tajikistan with his dad before the age of 20. In high school he took up rock climbing, which led to ice climbing, which led, in 1995, to successfully summiting Alaska’s 20,320-foot Denali. In 2001, he stood triumphant on the covers of both Outside and Time after climbing Mount Everest, peak number five in a successful Seven Summits bid.
For Weihenmayer, a good day might include skydiving, scuba diving, or skiing, while a good few days have included run-hike-rappeling the 457-mile Primal Quest adventure race and mountain-biking the Leadville 100. And lest you think he’s all adrenaline and no emotion, after every adventure he goes home, kisses his wife, Ellen, and helps care for his children, Emma, 12, and Arjun, 10.
Add to Weihenmayer’s résumé lucrative speaking engagements, a charity that helps former soldiers and others with disabilities challenge themselves through outdoor adventure, and a book, Touch the Top of the World, that has sold more than 600,000 copies. But none of these, according to Weihenmayer, come close to kayaking blind, which he likens to “sitting in a rocket-shaped vessel with your eyes closed while riding an avalanche.” Even that description may need revising, because he said it before he paddled the Usu.
SIX MONTHS LATER, on the first of May, I meet Weihenmayer for breakfast at a Courtyard Marriott in Charlotte, North Carolina. We’re in Charlotte because this is where he has come to attempt to move past the trauma he experienced on the Usu. Not far from here is the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a $38 million outdoor-adventure playground that includes ropes courses, ziplines, and, at its heart, the largest man-made circulating river in the world. Six enormous pumps spray 536,000 gallons of water into two carefully designed, cement-bottom channels.
The rapids range in difficulty from relatively easy Class I–II on the Instruction Channel to bigger, wilder Class II–IV rapids on the Competition Channel. The 400-acre center attracts everyone from school groups to Army platoons to hardcore kayakers, in part because it’s the perfect place for boaters to progress from beginner to advanced. If you flip and can’t self-rescue, it’s likely you will end up in an eddy. Plus, there are “river guards” standing by to throw you a rope.
Before the Usu trip, Weihenmayer’s whitewater skills were pretty solid; he could reliably right himself if he flipped upside down, even in the middle of a rapid—what’s known as a combat roll. But for months after the Usu, he didn’t go near his boat. “The weird thing about Mexico is that Erik thinks he got beat up when he really didn’t,” says Raker, who has spent the past five years teaching Weihenmayer how to kayak. “Yes, he got sucked into a few whirlpools, but he was never in danger of dying. His fear was getting to him in a way that I hadn’t seen in the ten years I’ve known him.”
The first two days at the Whitewater Center were rough. On the easiest channel, Weihenmayer would lose his balance, flip, immediately try a few panicky rolls, and then pull his skirt and wet-exit—a beginner move he hadn’t resorted to in months. Paddling alongside him, Raker could barely contain his dismay. “I was like, dude, you can hold your breath for a lot longer than three seconds,” Raker says. “But he was freaked to the point of thinking he’d never paddle again.”
“For me,” Weihenmayer says, “every element of boating, from getting the right ferry angle when entering the river to staying upright when my bow hooks into an eddy, is about controlling my fear and being OK with chaos. In some ways I like this. But when a mistake happens—when I miss an eddy or Rob gets too far in front of me and can’t paddle back—things can go downhill very quickly.”
On the water, Raker tries to stay within shouting distance of Weihenmayer at all times, rogue wave trains and surprise keeper holes permitting. Bellowing over the crashing water, he shouts “Small right!” or “Small left!” for 15-degree turns, “Right!” or “Left!” for 45-degree turns, and “Hard right!” or “Hard left!” for 90-degree turns as the two careen toward various obstacles. Most of the time this works. But on those occasions when Raker’s voice gets lost in the cacophony, the scenario that keeps Weihenmayer up at night becomes terrifyingly real.
“I dream about crashing into rocks,” Weihenmayer says. “Rob’s yelling at me, and I’m not hearing what he’s saying. In my dream I’m totally hyperventilating. When I wake up my hands are sweating.”
I see a small example of what causes these dreams when Raker and Weihenmayer take on Entrance Exam, a Class II rapid in the Instruction Channel. Crowds of rafters mill around, oblivious that the guy in the cobalt boat bobbing unsteadily in an eddy is about to attempt to navigate the rapids below entirely by sound.
Standing alongside the channel, I can barely hear Raker over the crashing waves, but I make out, “Two hard strokes to the right, line yourself up, and punch it down the middle!” Clearly nervous, Weihenmayer shudders. Then he pushes into the current.
And damn if for a few short seconds he doesn’t look like a whitewater kayaker. His face seems relaxed, and his shoulders are square to the fall line. He follows Raker’s direction, stroking hard into the gut of the rapid, but when the waves obscure Raker’s voice Weihenmayer panics. In a trough between two whitecaps, he stalls, turns broadside, and flips. Ten, fifteen seconds pass as he attempts to right himself, with Raker hovering nearby. After three aborted rolls, he pulls his skirt and swims, his boat and paddle jettisoning off in different directions.
The unpredictable nature of whitewater also upsets Weihenmayer’s equilibrium, which makes him feel queasy. I only know this because I overhear him discreetly telling Raker about it. Feeling like he could puke at any moment is just one of the challenges Weihenmayer faces in his quest to kayak the Grand Canyon. Though he had initially hoped to attempt it this past spring, the new goal is the fall of 2014. Settling upon a foolproof on-water communication system has proven frustratingly difficult. And there’s one other big hurdle: Raker’s health.
In 2010, Raker, an accomplished outdoor athlete, was diagnosed with a rare form of prostate cancer, the treatment for which slows the disease but doesn’t cure it. The treatment is called androgen-deprivation therapy, a.k.a. chemical castration, and it robs the body of every last molecule of testosterone, causing fatigue, weight gain, and loss of muscle and mental clarity. Like other cancer treatments, ADT can be worse than the disease—and, for the time being, Raker has decided it’s too hideous to continue. He does say, however, that he will start ADT therapy again in November. His hope is that by doing so, he’ll remain strong and healthy long enough to keep doing all the things he loves to do and, eventually, join Weihenmayer on the Grand Canyon.
“I will definitely die of this,” says Raker, who has been helping Weihenmayer achieve his goal while also running a film production company and spending as much time as possible with his wife of 16 years, Annette Bunge. “It might be in two years, it might be in five years. The best-case scenario is that, while I’m slowing the cancer with this hideous treatment, they find a cure. But it’s not likely. So with Erik, I just do what I do with him one day at a time.”
A FEW YEARS AFTER Weihenmayer climbed Everest, he became friends with Raker at a 2003 Primal Quest adventure race. Raker, who was filming the event, loaned an under-dressed Weihenmayer a spare fleece during one of the stages, and their friendship was born. He and Raker began teaming up on rock and ice climbs, and Raker quickly became Weihenmayer’s most trusted guide and best friend. When Weihenmayer and his wife ventured to Nepal to adopt their son, it was Raker who accompanied them to help with the process. In 2008, Weihenmayer asked Raker to teach him to kayak.
There was never a moment—before blindness or after—that Weihenmayer hasn’t been adventuring. The youngest of four siblings in Weston, Connecticut, he was diagnosed as an infant with retinoschisis (abnormal splitting of the retina’s neurosensory layers) and throughout his childhood saw only shapes and shadows. But his failing vision was something his dad (and now manager), Ed, refused to let dampen his son’s adventurous spirit. A diehard Evel Knievel fan, Erik was obsessed with launching off jumps on his bike. But by 11, he could no longer see well enough to hit the ramps he and his brothers built. Ed knew that the clock on Erik’s freedom was ticking. So instead of quashing the thrill, he painted the ramps fluorescent orange, briefly extending Erik’s independence.
The years following his complete loss of sight were hard. But right around his 16th birthday, another tragedy hit the Weihenmayers. Erik’s mom died in a car accident. The family fell into a deep pit. Ed, a former human-resources manager on Wall Street, who is now 72, rescued the kids by taking them on adventures to places like Machu Picchu, West Irian Jaya (now West Papua), and Pakistan. Erik fell in love with mountains and the camaraderie of expeditions, and after graduating from Boston College in 1991, he began his career as a professional adventurer.
According to Raker, Weihenmayer was an A-plus paddling student. He performed a roll a few hours after he first tried one. Over the past few years, they’ve paddled Colorado’s Gates of Lodore (Class III-plus) on the Green River, followed by Desolation Canyon, a Class III stretch that they navigated in 2011 at 44,000 CFS, a massive flow rate not seen since the eighties.
Along the way, they’ve identified, and tried fixing, the communication problem. On mountains, Weihenmayer typically follows the sounds of bells attached to his lead climbers. On the Gates of Lodore, Raker tried paddling a few feet in front of Weihenmayer’s boat, periodically blowing a whistle to keep him oriented. But the crashing water and billion-year-old quartzite canyon walls above it obscured and reflected the whistle blasts, so that Weihenmayer couldn’t tell where they originated. Also, it was hard to simultaneously scout and turn back and whistle, and to keep a good distance between the kayaks. When the boats were too close, they’d collide, often tipping Weihenmayer. With his bomber roll, Weihenmayer didn’t mind flipping. But Raker knew that his star student would eventually graduate to rivers with boulders, ledges, logs, and holes. So he tried another method.
The following day, Raker paddled behind Weihenmayer, which allowed him to keep the gap between them smaller. He shouted “Right turn!” “Left turn!” “Wave train!” and “Eddy!” as the river dictated. By the end of the day, Raker says, Weihenmayer was executing each move “flawlessly.” But early on, the pair learned that as the water got bigger, so did the need for more consistent communication.
Enter waterproof simplex radios, which would allow Raker to give Weihenmayer turn-by-turn instructions down the river directly into an earpiece. But the radios failed to work, because only one person can speak at a time (think Nextel push-to-talk). The two-way system had a half-second delay—too long for a self-propelled blind guy in a minefield of obstacles—and would cut out unexpectedly. “You can imagine what happens when a blind man goes into the biggest part of a river and the radio stops working,” Raker says. Duplex radios (like phones, where two people can talk simultaneously) failed, too, because they weren’t waterproof and the sound was bad.
Last March, they finally found a better option, a British company called DS-Neptune Developments that sells a completely waterproof Bluetooth intercom system, which allows two people to be on the line at the same time. According to another of Weihenmayer’s river guides, Chris Wiegand, it allows for real-time speech and activation. It also allows Weihenmayer’s guides to be farther away from him, helping to diminish their risk of ramming him or, worse, following his line so closely that they forget to watch their own.
IT TURNS OUT that the Grand Canyon may be more forgiving—and therefore more doable for Weihenmayer—than most people imagine. Or so says Brad Dimock, a guide for Arizona Raft Adventures who has been working on and writing about the Colorado River for 40 years. According to Dimock, the Usu and the Grand Canyon have similar hydraulics, but only when the Grand is at flood level—which it won’t be anytime soon, because the entire West is in a yearlong drought. The Colorado, he adds, tends to be tamer than many people think, though tame is, of course, relative.
“Of the 227 miles, only 50 have significant whitewater,” Dimock says. Guides like him call the Grand Canyon “big Class III with a couple of Class IV rapids.” Translation: while the scale of water is huge, unlike smaller rivers riddled with strainers (downed logs that can pin boaters), undercuts, and recirculating holes (which pull boaters under the water and hold them there), unless you completely gork, the Grand Canyon is a hard place to drown.
Kayaker Brad Ludden, who has notched first descents on dozens of rivers around the globe and now runs a nonprofit that takes cancer survivors on outdoor adventures, agrees. “You can swim the entire thing and be fine,” he says. “That said, for a blind person it’s an incredibly challenging river. There are giant waves that you can’t avoid. If he can keep control of his head, he’ll be fine. But the second he loses the mental battle, the river is going to become a lot harder.”
Dimock believes that, if they had to, Raker and Weihenmayer could do the Grand Canyon without radios. There are only three or four places—including Hance Rapid, Lava Falls, and Serpentine Rapid—where it’s “absolutely necessary” for a boater to line up perfectly between obstacles. “The water is such that a really good boater could be within shouting distance of him all the way through,” Dimock says.
Raker disagrees: “Not even close. This is where people who have no experience guiding the blind think it’s acceptable to chime in. Erik is totally blind. You have to be on his butt all the time or—you’ve seen it—he completely freaks. The rapids on the Grand Canyon are so big that when you’re in a kayak, you can’t even see above a wave. You only know big holes are there because you scouted them. Plus, what if something happens to Erik and he swims? A sighted person can see what’s around him and swim to safety. Without a radio, Erik has no idea where he is. If he goes floating down the river and I—or another guide—can’t get to him, the consequences could be disastrous.”
As conservative and methodical as Weihenmayer is in his preparation, like all professional adventurers who are pushing the boundaries of what’s humanly possible, he has learned to manage the inevitable risks. On the one hand, Weihenmayer is adamant that he has nothing to prove to anyone but himself. But it’s more complicated than that. A few months after the Charlotte trip, when I asked Weihenmayer why he wants to paddle the Grand, he told me about the time he asked the president of the National Federation of the Blind, Marc Maurer, for money to climb Mount Everest.
After Weihenmayer pleaded his case, Maurer responded with a question.
“When people think of blindness, what do they think?” he said.
“Helen Keller?” Weihenmayer replied.
“Yeah,” said Maurer. “And she died in 1968.”
Then, after a pause, Maurer asked, “When you climb Everest, are you taking a risk?”
“If you go to the top, could you die?”
“Good,” he said. “Then we’ll sponsor you. Because when people think of blindness, we want them to think of someone standing on top of the world.”
Next fall, if all goes according to plan, people will also be able to think of someone who accomplished a feat that is magnitudes more difficult. “On Everest, I felt like I was in my element,” Weihenmayer told me. “But on the water, so much craziness can happen in such a short amount of time. You have to be prepared.”
Since I last saw Weihenmayer in Charlotte he’d regained his mojo. He’d paddled a half-dozen Class III–IV stretches of river, including Peru’s Yanatile and Upper Apurímac (the headwaters of the Amazon) and paid another visit to the Usu. This time, says Wiegand, his roll was solid, and he had “no issues with the large whirlpools.” He also did some creek boating, and, amazingly, paddled Mexico’s Chocolja River, a pushy and technical water-way riddled with tight turns and six-to-eight-foot drops. The radios worked great.
This past spring, Weihenmayer and his team decided he was ready for a trial run down the Grand. Raker joined, though his cancer levels had risen. In April, they took a motor-boat to seven of the Canyon’s ten biggest rapids. “Not only did he exceed his own expectations,” says Wiegand of Weihenmayer, “but he exceeded all of ours as well. Over time, in big water, Erik gets overstimulated and mentally exhausted, and he has a tendency to shut down. But on this trip, he performed combat rolls where he literally got his entire boat launched out of a hole. He also did several consecutive rolls in 15-foot-high wave trains.”
When I spoke to Weihenmayer afterward, he told me that one of the rapids they skipped was Lava Falls, among the biggest cataracts in the northern hemisphere and one of the Grand’s most infamous stretches of whitewater. Before I could ask him why, he added, “I need something to look forward to when we return.”
Tracy Ross wrote about her attempt to reboot her marriage with a hardcore backpacking trip in March 2011.
Monday night, HBO will premiere Josh Fox’s new documentary, Gasland II, (9 p.m. EST) about the controversial practice of drilling into bedrock in order to tap natural gas deposits. Fox’s first film, 2010’s Gasland, became a runaway hit, garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary thanks to compelling characters in hard-hit places like Pennsylvania and Wyoming, and shocking images of tap water on fire. Gasland II expands the focus to places like Louisiana and Australia, but still has plenty of footage of burning tap and ground water.
Fox is a leader in a growing army of fracking detractors, many of them environmentalists and community leaders who claim that it contaminates groundwater, makes people sick, and causes earthquakes. But the fame has brought him detractors of his own. His first film came under attack from the oil and gas industries, which released 2012’s Truthland, an industry-sponsored, pro-fracking film, as well as an 11-page document titled “Debunking GasLand.” Nevertheless, Fox’s image as a daring, muckraking filmmaker has remained intact (although the New York Times Greenwire blog said that Fox and the industry had “each made errors”). We caught up with him at Mountainfilm in Telluride, Colorado, where Gasland II played to standing-room-only crowds, to talk about the fracking industry, his transition to activism, and how he keeps it up after five years on the road with his films.
Outside: Were you an activist before all of this?
Fox: I wasn’t a professional activist. I’m a theater guy and a filmmaker. So when my community was thrown up in the air by the gas industry, the way I could contribute was to do something in the film world. I never thought it would be a big deal at all. I thought it was just for the Delaware River basin. That changed.
How many miles have you driven in the course of these films?
I’d guess 100,000 miles in two crappy Toyotas. One of them died. The other is the son of the first. And unfortunately you have to drive in that situation. We try to be fuel-efficient. It’s an old car. Not a new car.
Do you ever step back and think how much this has consumed your life? Do you ever think, “Oh shit, this is the only thing I do now”?
Like Frank Finan [a Pennsylvanian who opposes fracking in his community] in the film says: To some people we’re just someone in the news. But this is a fundamental transformation of where you’re from. When you have your home on the line, you don’t have a choice. Today, I’m living in a completely different world than the one I was living in before I did this. And this is the simply the most meaningful way to live. I’ve been doing this for five years, now. But that doesn’t mean that life has been taken over by it. It means that life has in some ways become more full.
What motivates you? Making a good film? Exposing the truth?
The film is just a tool, a thing that you craft. The film raises awareness. You have to obey completely different rules as a filmmaker and a journalist than you do as an activist. As a filmmaker, you have to tell a good story. You have an audience sitting there, emerged, wanting to know what’s next. As a journalist, you have to double-check all of your sources, all of the things you’re reporting on. You have to do the scientific investigative work to support what you’re reporting on. But, as an activist, you have to spend every single day of your life devoted to it.
Are you able to do that? When the camera is in your hands, you’re a journalist, but when you’re here at a film festival, you’re an activist?
Of course. Because I’m going to be taken to account for any mistakes. Certainly, we don’t want to open up ourselves to a real mistake. There are no real mistakes in either film. The industry has spread a lot of misinformation. The film is about journalism. Once the film is done, you can go out there and talk to people.
Activism is just meeting people. Look at John [Fenton, a Wyoming cowboy and character in Gasland]. A six-foot-four-inch rancher and rodeo champion from Wyoming in a white cowboy hat, and me in a funny glasses and a Yankees cap. We’re a ridiculous odd couple. But he’s one of my closest friends in the world. That’s because we’re meeting not in a culture of something shallow, we’re meeting in a culture of something really important. That’s what real activism is.
When the industry came after you, were you surprised?
I was deeply surprised that they attacked the film. It got us so much attention. The best thing they could have done was ignore it. We had no chance to win the Oscar. But when they wrote the letter attacking the Academy Awards, trying to get the nomination rescinded, all of a sudden we had a chance.
How do you deal with the attacks?
Everybody has a different reaction. Tony Ingraffea gets super fired up when they attack him. He’s one of the geologists who used to work for the industry who we feature in Gasland II. He loves it. He’s the cement guy. The godfather of cement. You have to understand that they attack because they’re afraid. Because we can [create energy] another way.
And we know that. The fossil fuel industry perpetuates this myth that if we don’t use oil and gas and coal, our standard of living will go down. But it’s exactly the opposite. If we keep using oil and gas and coal, our standard of living will go down. What we’re talking about is two million projected new wells in the United States of America. That’s one well per 150 people. That’s insane. That’s handing over our quality of life to become an oil and gas extraction zone.
What do you see as that other way?
I think it’s a question of consumption. We have to make some really clear cultural choices here. When you’re facing down the oil and gas industry, it’s pretty clear what matters in life. And when you see the waste in everyday life ... I remember when I was flying back from New Orleans from looking at the BP oil spill. I was on Jet Blue, which gives you unlimited snacks. And each of those snacks is wrapped in a plastic thing, made from natural gas. When you’re out on the Pacific and encounter all of those wrappers, that’s going to make an impression.
We have to start processing what we’re really made of in America. American character is not dead. American integrity and honesty are not dead. When we’re backed up against the wall against the largest corporations in the history of corporations, it’s there.
James Randolph "Randy" Udall was found dead on Wednesday, July 3, in Wyoming's Wind River range. The 61-year-old alternative-energy expert and lifelong outdoorsman had entered the Elkhart Park trailhead on June 20 for a solo backpacking trip and had been expected to return on June 26. He appears to have died of natural causes; an autopsy report is pending. He was reportedly found lying on his side, still wearing his backpack and carrying his hiking poles.
Randy Udall belonged to a dynastic clan of environmentalists. He was the brother of U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-CO), and cousin of U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), both well known for their pro-conservation politics. Randy’s father, U.S. Representative Mo Udall, championed the Alaska Lands Act, while his uncle, Stewart Udall, led the Interior Department through the 1960s, where he grew the National Park System and advanced a key environmental laws including the Clean Air Act and the Wilderness Act.
A Search and Rescue team found Udall’s body on an off-trail route he had intended to explore. A statement from the family said, "Randy left this earth doing what he loved most: hiking in his most favorite mountain range in the world."
In a tribute posted Thursday to the ClimateProgress blog, Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company and a close friend of Udall, called him a clean energy pioneer and an innovator who could bring together people from opposite sides of the energy spectrum. Plus, Randy Udall was a badass.
Schendler wrote, "… He chose me to join him on grueling and epic skis and hikes in the Sierras, the Wind Rivers, and the Colorado Rockies. He was one of the strongest humans on earth, both physically and mentally. As an Outward Bound instructor on winter courses, he was known to ski into camp in the dark, eat a stick of butter, dig a hole in the snow, and go to sleep."
Udall founded the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, a non-profit that develops energy efficiency projects throughout Colorado, and earned the moniker "Robin Hood of Aspen," based on a program he developed in which homeowners are taxed if they install things like heated pools that push their energy consumption past a limit written into the building code. The money collected through the tax is invested in green energy projects.
More recently, he had been working as an independent energy analyst and helped broker a deal between Aspen Skiing Company, utility provider Holy Cross Energy and Oxbow energy company for a system that captures methane gas leaking from a coal mine and converts it to electricity.
During the half hour I spent interviewing Udall for a story on that methane project, it was clear he was not only deeply versed in our dizzyingly complex energy economy but could also quickly articulate why the U.S. needs much more than turbines and solar panels to combat climate change.
“All we hear about is carbon dioxide, but methane is carbon dioxide on steroids," he said. "Here in the U.S. it's wind and solar, but [capturing waste methane to convert it to energy] has become more common in Europe, because the Germans took a more sensible approach in deciding what it green."
Udall was also a gifted writer and big-picture thinker, as is clear in this piece he penned on the hydraulic fracturing—aka fracking—boom.
He is survived by three children and his wife Leslie Emerson, another former Outward Bound guide. Udall's father-in-law, Richard Emerson, was a highly regarded mountaineer. As a member of the American Everest Expedition of 1963, Emerson helped Jim Whittaker become the first American to reach the summit.
Even without his green pedigree, Udall's merit as a pragmatic environmentalist, a protector of natural resources, and a lover of long, arduous journeys will stand on its own.
The last big news most Americans heard about Bear Grylls was his very public breakup with the Discovery Channel, in the spring 2012. At the time, headlines screamed that the charming British host of the hit survival show Man vs. Wild had been “fired.” The truth was more complicated, as I reported in a feature profile of Grylls for Outside that fall. But still, it was a critical moment for the king of adventure television: What does he do now?
The answer, it appears, is everything. On July 8, NBC will premiere his first-ever network series, Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls, a weekly reality game show that plays out (roughly) in the Survivor model: Ten two-person teams try to prove their mettle in the wilds of New Zealand. Each week, Grylls sends one team home. The duo left standing at the end wins $500,000. Later in the fall, Discovery will debut another brand new series, Bear Grylls Escapes from Hell, which has him retracing horrific real-life survival tales. (The cable giant has also purchased the rights to air Get Out Alive after the show runs its course on NBC.) The 39-year-old also has a new book (his 12th), A Survival Guide for Life, new gear (including a boat), a growing network of survival schools (Bear Grylls Survival Academy), and, coming towards the end of the year, an obstacle race (BG Survival Run).
I recently phoned Grylls at his family’s barge on the River Thames in London, where he was enjoying a brief break with his wife and three sons, to talk about Get Out Alive and his life as the world’s busiest and best-known survivalist.
OUTSIDE: It’s been an interesting year for you. When we spoke in the spring of 2012, you really weren’t sure when you’d be on TV next.
GRYLLS: That was a pretty tricky time for us—we were right in the heart of all those tricky negotiations but we steered our way through it. Ultimately I really wanted the freedom to make some of our own shows. It’s a bit like a teenager leaving home, there’s a certain amount of pain. But I always said to them, Let me make Get Out Alive, you’re going to love the show, and then we’ll come back and make some other shows for you. We’ve done that and it’s so nice. I feel much lighter now.
Get Out Alive is a big departure from Man vs. Wild, which was all about you.
It’s the show that I’ve always wanted to make. I get the biggest kick from taking other people out, whether it’s people on expeditions, or the few cases where I took celebrities with me on Man vs. Wild, or what we’re doing with the Bear Grylls Survival Academy. So I wanted to take 20 regular Americans on these big journeys and guide them and help them to fly. There are ten couples, whether it’s mother-daughter, father-son, married couple, best friends. Each week I send one couple home that least shows the qualities that I’m after.
So what qualities were you after?
It’s everything—not just determinations and courage. It’s just as much about humility and kindness and going that extra mile for your friend. You see people arrive wide-eyed without any knowledge of the values or skills that matter. And then they click in and realize it’s about digging deep.
Was it hard for you to send people home?
It was easier at the start. But as they really went through hell and I started to restrict the gear they were taking and the journeys got bigger, I got really close to them. In the last episode, we had three couples. We were in the rainforest in torrential storm conditions. They had no gear at this point—no sleeping bags no tents, nothing. It’s very moving when you see people with real relationships go through that together.
When you were casting the show, did you have a specific idea of the kinds of characters you wanted?
I didn’t want just classic reality TV melodramatic whining. I wanted people who had a real reason to go through this with me. Not just the money, but the fact that they would get to know each other in a way that sometimes you have to be married 20 years to get to know someone like that. People who wanted to prove to themselves and each other that they had heart and they had soul and spirit. That they could put up with hardship and get on with it.
Given your habits, I assume the hardships included eating disgusting things
I’ve always said: Wild food is never going to be pretty and it’s never going to taste nice but it’s a big part of surviving. It was interesting seeing people who’ve never done anything like this drinking their own pee or eating worms and maggots and fish eyeballs and all of that. But it was all for a purpose. If you don’t eat then you lack the energy and you suffer and your performance is weaker and you can’t help people and other people have to help you.
What can you tell me about your other upcoming new series, Bear Grylls Escapes from Hell?
We’ve almost finished it. I follow the most incredible stories of people who’ve got into nightmare situations in jungles, deserts, mountains. I redo their journeys and show what they did right, what they did wrong, and champion their stories. They’re really moving stories of everyday people who should have died, really. We did one in the Rockies, in the Guatemalan jungle, in the Sahara. We’re about to go to the Alps.
Two new shows and you have time to oversee the Bear Grylls Survival Academy?
We’ve seen incredible growth this year. I didn’t expect it. I thought it, Oh, it’ll be a nice run with a couple of schools around the U.K. But it’s just gone crazy. We’ve started these father-son, mother-daughter 24-hour survival courses and they’re booked out for four years in advance now. We’re also opening up a couple of school in the U.S. and we’re licensing out as well to other schools.
How involved are you in the curriculum? And what would I actually learn on a course?
I totally wrote the course initially. But it wasn’t hard—stuff I do in my sleep. I know exactly what pushes people and builds people. Then we brought a lot of ex-military guys we’ve worked with and ex-Man vs. Wild team that I’ve worked with. And then we got them to train people. It doesn’t take long to get the brand and the style and the stuff that matters. Instead of just boring bush crafty survival things where people are whittling a spoon out of a bit of wood we have them doing river crossing in the Scottish Highlands and unarmed combat up a mountain by lantern at night.
That sounds more like an obstacle race. Have you thought about creating one yet?
We’re doing it! We’re devising one at the moment called BG Survival Run at the end of the year in the U.S.
Of course you are.
It’s gonna be a really fun 12K, big numbers of people, and all based around survival and teamwork and having fun. So many people over Twitter and Facebook over the last year have been saying, “You should do one of these! You could do it in such a cool way.” You see so many companies clutching at ideas—Grecian races or whatever. But it’s so logical for us to do a really gritty, muddy, dirty survival-based run.
Anything else I’m missing?
A Survival Guide to Life, my new book, has done well over here in the U.K. and is launching soon in the U.S. It’s all the lessons of life I’ve learned. It was voted the most influential book in China in 2012—beat Obama! Oh, and we’ve launched our RIBs.
What on earth is a rib?
Look it up: bgribs.com. They’re the most incredible hardcore offshore rigid inflatable boats—RIBs. And then we’ve hugely extended all our gear ranges, from tents to backpacks to sleeping bags.
It’s safe to say you landed on your feet after last year’s breakup with Discovery.
We’ve been super lucky. We’ve worked hard. But for me, all off these things—the TV shows, the books, the gear—are about inspiring people to be better, stronger, and be braver in the big moments. I get such a kick out of hearing and telling these stories. It’s all good fun.