My Perfect Adventure
If there were a prize for the world’s most bizarre resume, British adventurer Bear Grylls might take the cake. As the star of Discovery Channel’s Man vs. Wild, a survival show that had him battling some of nature’s roughest environments, Grylls can proudly list past work experiences such as sleeping inside a dead camel for warmth; fashioning a toboggan out of a yak he skinned; spending a night up a tree with ants, bees and orangutans; drinking his own urine to stay hydrated; and swimming in a river with nearby alligators. And that’s just getting started.
Grylls was raised an adventurer. He learned to mountain climb when he was eight years old and reached the top of Everest when he was 23, one of the youngest Britons ever to do so. (That feat came less than two years after breaking his back in a parachuting accident while serving with the British Army.) And although the 38-year-old has stopped filming new episodes for Man vs. Wild, he’s still keeping plenty busy, with a new TV series, Get Out Alive, for NBC and a new film in the works. Other job duties include promoting his autobiography and his Survival Guide for Life, set for release in the United States next spring; leading the U.K.’s Scout Association after taking over as the youngest ever Chief Scout; and developing his gear and clothing lines, iPhone apps, and even a survival training school.
Here the adrenaline junkie tells us about a naked swim in Siberia that was almost too much to handle, his initial apprehension about entering the world of television, and his recovery from a broken back to climb the world’s tallest mountain.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
I’d spend the day on our little Welsh island hideaway; it’s about 20 acres, a few miles offshore into the Irish Sea, surrounded by amazing mountain views, our islands sea cliffs, seals and frequent dolphin visitor friends. The island has great caves that my three boys love to have me take them exploring in. The day would consist of a workout to start, hill runs up to the lighthouse and pull-ups on the scaffolding bars over the big cave, and then the rest of the day would be a mix of swimming, climbing and maybe a paraglide off the top, too. This would all be nicely intermixed with a barbeque and a sun snooze in the heather!. There’d be sun downer wine on the cliff tops with Shara, my wife, before bed (I’d probably be exhausted). Days never quite work out like this, but that’s my ideal—you did ask!
If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
The Antarctic Peninsula in a rib. I’ve lead a team to the Antarctic mainland but never to the peninsula, which sounds amazing, with the many islands, coves, mountains, and penguins. The Nordenskjold coast is riddled with these islands and many unclimbed peaks, which are all ripe for adventure, from paragliding and first ascents to epic kayak crossings.
Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
Siberia in winter—the conditions there force cultures to work together or die, and that brings with it a special understanding of wilderness. I was there a few years ago to film several episodes of Man vs. Wild, and in the winter it proved to be a tough wilderness. It was rarely warmer than -35 degrees, so cold that pee freezes almost as it hits the ice. I remember having to swim naked across this river one day (naked, so I could keep my clothes dry in my pack) and I almost didn’t make it out the other side. There’s a haunting silence to the place, and the scale of the infamous Taiga forest is incredible, with vast, snow-covered dense trees and epic mountains. It’s humbling place to survive.
If you could have lunch with any adventurer, explorer, or athlete, who would it be and why?
Roger Federer, who I admire hugely for the way he lives and plays. He has proven to be the greatest player ever to live, yet he values home, his family, and his privacy hugely. Whenever we’ve hung out, he’s always fun to be with and is the first to laugh at himself, which in my mind is the true mark of a champion in life and not just sport.
What's something you can't travel without? And why do you need it?
A sense of humor for when “stuff” happens.
When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
I check my escape routes. You never know when you might need to make a speedy exit, and as the scouts say, it pays to be prepared. As Chief Scout to 28 million brilliant young people, I like to try and lead by example.
What motivates you to keep exploring?
The edge is always a fun place to hang out—it stops us from getting dusty.
As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
My dream job was to be a combat survival expert in the military and to climb as a living. My father had taught me to climb as a young boy and I found an identity and calm in the mountains with him. After school, I went on to spend three years as a soldier with the British Special Forces, with 21 SAS, and during this time was trained in many skills, including skydiving, climbing, unarmed combat, evasive driving, medics and demolitions.
During my military time I had a freefall accident in Africa and broke my back in three places. I spent a year in military rehab and was unsure whether I would ever climb or walk properly again. Soon after I left the Forces due to my injury I became totally focused on realizing my childhood dream of scaling Everest. For me it was the symbol of my recovery: to get strong enough to attempt the biggest mountain on earth.
When and how did you first venture into your field of work?
After the Everest climb, which claimed the lives of four mountaineers, I stayed in the expedition world until I was approached by Discovery. They asked me to show some of the skills I had learned for a TV show, and so Man vs. Wild was born.
I was nervous getting into TV, mainly because it had never been on my radar and I felt pretty un-TV like. But they assured me they didn’t want a regular smiley host and that they just wanted me to be myself and do what I do. I gave it a go and soon forgot about the cameras and got on with doing my stuff and explaining the process along the way.
I look back now and realize that it’s been such a privilege, and what an opportunity it gave. I never take that for granted, even after seven seasons of Man vs. Wild. It’s been an amazing stepping stone for all our new shows that we’re now producing as well as all the lines of outdoor kits we’re now producing. These and the programs allow me to fulfill my goal of empowering others to gain confidence and pride in their ability to survive the worst that nature can throw at them. That’s the mission, always.
What's one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring adventurer?
Don’t listen to the dream stealers. We all have dreams, but people love to rob us of them by belittling them or telling us that we aren’t strong enough or capable enough. I always tried not to listen to them as a young boy and was determined to learn, and to learn through experience. I have made many mistakes but through those I have come out stronger and smarter. So hold onto your dreams—they are God given—and don’t listen to those who tell us that we’re mad and we should go home.
Have you ever had any role models or mentors? Describe the most influential and what he or she taught you.
My late father, who taught me to climb and to thrive in adversity. As a kid we used to climb in all kinds of weather and I used to get really cold. But my father always said to focus on the process and forget the discomfort—the pain never lasts forever. That was good advice.
Do you have a life philosophy?
Smile when it is raining and push harder when it gets tough.
Have you ever made a mistake or experienced a near accident in your travels that made you think twice about going out again?
Often, from underestimating the power of jungle rivers to not checking my parachutes well enough. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, and I have never made a mistake that didn’t make me stronger—and I have never been too afraid to fail.
Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
Empower others to learn the lessons of the wild through great TV; a couple lessons would be to trust your instinct—it’s the nose of the mind—and never get complacent because complacency kills.
To make our movie that we have in development; the title and plot are under wraps, but in short, the film allows me to show many of the military skills I learned way beyond just the world of survival.
To keep coming home safe; I have three young boys, and losing my father taught me that all that really matters is coming home in one piece, every time.