There he is! A helicopter approaches, descending from one of the ancient volcanic craters that rises out of the sagebrush near California’s Mono Lake on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevadas. Dangling below it on a rope is Bear Grylls, the intrepid king of survival entertainment. But wait—he’s not alone. He’s tied to someone. As the chopper gently sets them on the ground, I see that it’s a middle-aged woman. There’s some brief dialogue. And cut!
In an instant, Grylls is upon me with a bro hug and his signature boyish enthusiasm, a trait that belies the fact that he’s now 43, with graying temples and a lot more lines around the eyes than five years ago, when I spent a couple of days with him in Los Angeles. Do I know what I just saw? I don’t.
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“That lady who I was hanging under the helicopter with is 100 percent blind!” he whisper-shouts (since they’re still filming her nearby). “I had her running down that volcano. It’s amazing! Tears in her eyes, just shaking with joy because she could be free. I had her on a short rope. I said, ‘There’s nothing to worry about. It’s 1,000 feet down, just dust and ash. Run. Embrace it. Let your legs flow. You’re not going to hit anything. Be free.’ ”
He pauses to point out a nearly full moon rising over the crater. He is ecstatic.
The woman, he continues, is going to be featured in a new ten-episode series he’s doing for Facebook Watch, the company’s video-streaming service, called Bear Grylls: Face the Wild, premiering March 21. Each episode will run 12 to 15 minutes and feature Grylls taking what he calls “incredible people” on mini adventures. To find candidates, his team put out a call for video applications in October. They got over half a million submissions.
“Yesterday I was with a U.S. veteran who had both his legs blown off in Afghanistan. Died three times on the operating table,” Grylls says as we walk along a fire road toward the production staging grounds. “I picked him up in the middle of nowhere, put him into the chopper, and said, ‘What do you want to do with the wheelchair?’ He goes, ‘Let’s leave it.’ We climbed cliffs and crossed lakes. He’s got little stumps and he’s crawling. He was such an inspiration.”
The Facebook project is one of a number of new entrepreneurial endeavors that Grylls is rolling out as he plots yet another evolution of his brand to stay in the spotlight. Back in 2006, his breakout hit for the Discovery Channel, Man vs. Wild, had him charging alone through savage landscapes, famously consuming everything from maggots to elephant dung to his own pee. After a very public breakup with Discovery in 2012, he came back two years later with Running Wild with Bear Grylls, a prime-time series for NBC that has him guiding A-list celebrities—Obama, Shaq, Federer—on softcore adventures. (Eight new episodes are scheduled for 2018.) Now, at a moment of accelerated cord-cutting and the prominence of live experiences, he’s pivoting to video streaming and events.
“Listen, we never know whether these things will work,” says Grylls. “And I never go in thinking that we’re only going to do it if it’s a huge success. I’ve had way more failures.”
In addition to Face the Wild, Grylls just began production on an interactive show for Netflix that will allow viewers to choose how he takes on challenges—raft the river or swim it?—with the click of a pop-up icon. In January he broke ground on a $25 million adventure theme park in the UK that will offer indoor skydiving, a high-ropes course, and rock climbing. “It’ll be James Bond meets Indiana Jones meets Rambo!” he says. Then there’s the Bear Grylls Survival Challenge, his unique twist on obstacle racing. The inaugural event will take place the last weekend of April at Southern California’s Blue Cloud Movie Ranch, where up to 6,000 participants will pay entry fees starting at $95 to compete on a four-mile course that passes through a series of sets built for American Sniper and Iron Man.
As Grylls tells it, all this is part of a natural progression toward sharing a taste of extreme survival experiences with regular people. Maybe so, but he’s also clearly in the mood to invest in risky business propositions. Facebook Watch has yet to mature into a viable revenue generator for anyone other than Facebook. Obstacle racing, meanwhile, is in a much predicted decline after an extraordinary boom; overall participant numbers in the U.S. dropped by 30 percent (a million racers) in 2015.
Grylls, who has always sought out new business opportunities—video games, gear and apparel, a survival school—insists he’s comfortable rolling the dice. “Listen, we never know whether these things will work,” he says. “And I never go in thinking that we’re only going to do it if it’s a huge success. I’ve had way more failures.” What matters, he says, is creating new ways to give more people “an experience of the wild that can empower them in their lives.”
With that in mind, he starts gushing about the survival challenge. “We’re creating all these scenarios, from burned-out villages to war-torn areas to mountains, avalanche stuff!” he tells me. “Jungle lands, snakes.”
“There’s going to be everything! Rats, you name it. You’re going to have to eat the unimaginable.”
Actually, the details are still being finalized. But Grylls promises the event won’t be just another Tough Mudder knockoff. To create what he calls “a whole new genre,” he partnered with sports-marketing and events giant IMG. Together they came up with the idea of judging contestants’ performances as they move through various tests, with the results adding up to an overall survival score. Whereas obstacle races are all about physical endurance, he says his event will demand that “you think quickly on your feet.” Resourcefulness matters just as much as fitness.
So many wild projects can, of course, take their toll on a guy. As we stop next to the Jeep that’s going to ferry Grylls back to his hotel, he catches a glimpse of his reflection in the window. “I look a wreck,” he says. “I’m covered in crap.”
Then he smiles. “But who wants to reach the end of their life in a perfectly preserved body?” he says. “The scars and the crinkles and the cracks are what make us interesting.” With that, we climb into the vehicle and roll west toward the setting sun.
“Don’t you just love adventure?” he asks to nobody in particular.
Listen to our extended conversation with Bear Grylls about his new Facebook series and survival challenge on the Outside Podcast.
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