Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

Q&A: Bear Grylls, Britain’s hardcore survivalist

WideWorld caught up with Bear on his return from Vietnam to talk about danger, teamwork and smiling in the face of adversity. And bear crap too.
© Discovery Channel

So how would you introduce Bear Grylls? ‘Ex-SAS television survivalist; good sense of humour, loves interesting food and travel’? Maybe. Here at WideWorld we reckon he needs no introduction. He’s back on the British screens with a new series of Bear Grylls: Born Survivor, a rampaging one-hour slice of danger watched by 1.2bn people worldwide. WideWorld caught up with Bear on his return from Vietnam to talk about danger, teamwork and smiling in the face of adversity. And bear crap too.

You’re already synonymous with danger. How much more extreme can the new series be?

Well, the nature of the programme is that they’re all quite full on. I think especially in this last series we’ve really tried to push the boundaries and go to the most challenging places I’ve ever operated in. As you can imagine, I’m pretty bushed now – but really pleased that we’ve done them.

Where have you been this time?

We’ve been to Siberia in the middle of winter – we made two shows there. We’ve done the jungles of Belize, which are really unpleasant and well known as some of the most aggressive jungles around. We’ve done the Iraqi border; the Transylvanian mountains with some big bear encounters. We did a place in America called Hell’s Canyon that lives up to its name; we’ve been dropped on an ex-prison colony island off the coast of the Dominican Republic that’s just hell on earth. We’ve done ten for the new series. I’m really proud of these ones – they’ve really pushed the boundaries for us.

So why did Siberia get two episodes to itself?

Just because so much happened. We flew out into the mountains there and did loads of cool things, like showing how people get swept under the frozen ice of rivers – and how to get out of them. And yes, that’s where I do under-the-ice swims in minus 40 degrees. In the buff. Without clothes. I’m trying to remember all the stuff we did in Siberia, and God, it’s all a blur. There were loads of big ice gully climbs. And some cool yak encounters – we were eating frozen yak eyeballs and then sleeping inside these gutted yak skins. Or catching and eating squirrels in the taiga. God, how do we get out of these places? They’re pretty mad places.

Do you sometimes find it hard to remember everything that happens out in the wilderness?

It all becomes such a blur after a while. The great strength for me is that I have a very short-term memory for pain. So I get out of these places and say ‘I’m never getting myself into a situation like that again, that was BAD!’ Then after about three days at home I’m thinking: ‘Fuck all happened!’ Then you’re ready to go again, you know?

Have you ever made a mental list of the grim stuff you’ve eaten?

The worst things I’ve had to eat while surviving? That’s probably a very long list! In this series, there was the bear crap. I was filming in the Transylvanian mountains, which have the highest population of brown bears in Europe, and we literally just came across this huge one. They have a very fast digestion, bears, and so I came across this huge steaming pile of bear turd and you can actually see the bits of berries and half-digested apples and stuff. I just ate those out of it. Again, a lot of this is life and death stuff – if your life is on the line, do this and it can save you. It really isn’t what you want to be doing in everyday life. But that’s the nature of the show; it’s there to show that if you’re really up against it, with nothing, on your own, this is what you do to get out of a difficult situation.

So Transylvania will stick in your memory?

You know, Transylvania was cool – at one point we were in these deep, 1000-foot-underground, pitch-black caves full of water, with just two inches of breathing space at the top, and it became a real mission. Great!

Is it strange to be facing such a wilderness situation when you’re still inside Europe?

We’ve been to so many places, from the outback of Australia to the depths of the Sahara in summertime, Alaska, Yukon, Siberia, Sumatra, Indonesia, all over Africa – but you don’t have to go to those places to find difficult terrains. And the more places I go to, the more I realise there are an awful lot of hellholes on this planet. And there are an awful lot of stinking swamps and difficult, cold mountains and deserts. We did one in Turkey, right on the Iraqi border – now that’s pretty near Europe, but you’re in one of the hottest deserts and high mountains – it’s a wild, wild place there.

Will we see any new survival techniques in the latest series?

Loads! The kamikaze knot, for instance. I show how you abseil off massive 300-foot cliffs just using very thin ropes, and then – if you’re on your own – how to retrieve it from the bottom. You tie these knots that are basically releasable, so when the tension comes off the rope, the rope drops away. They’re quite committing!

There’s no give for bounce, is there?

Ha! No, there’s no give for bounce. And there are loads more. I was making rafts – that was to get off the prison colony island. There were these masses of old rubbish and plastic bottles, so I made a raft out of these things. In another episode I was using my little drogue parachute to slow me down on big descents down massive ice faces. Every show is packed full of these things. We try not to go over too much old ground, so with this new series my main brief for the guys was just: ‘Listen, before we start, I want to be improvising loads and loads of cool things,’ – and that’s what we did.

Talking about your crew – how often do they get in trouble when you’re out on location?

Quite often. We had crew evacuated in the Sahara when they got heatstroke. Three out of four of them had to go, so it was down to me and one other. We’ve had people getting in trouble in the extreme cold in Yukon before too. We’ve had people breaking ribs, breaking wrists. We’ve had loads and loads of injuries. But on the whole, considering the amount we do, we’ve been really lucky.

What’s the secret to staying lucky out there?

We have a small team, we use the same guys always and we all really look out for each other. I say to them before each show: ‘Look, we’ve got to get it right every time, on the money. You only get it wrong once, so you’ve got to look out for each other.’ And on the whole, we do. Having said that, in the last few months I’ve broken my shoulder in Antarctica, which is a pain. And I’ve just flown back from Vietnam, where I lacerated all of my hand on a razor sharp piece of hidden bamboo and had my finger kind of hanging off.  Which was kind of bad. But on the whole, we’re OK!

Is there a piece of advice that you keep in mind while you’re out?

Yeah. Keep smiling! What I’ve learnt so much, especially during my time with the Special Forces, was the quality of cheerfulness under adversity. It’s such an important thing, you know. And a lot of survival, at heart, is hard. When it’s been pissing with rain for two days solid, you’re cold, you’re wet, you don’t know where you are, and you’re hungry, the winners are always the people who can keep smiling and keep going. There’s a good lesson in that.

Are there people in the team who don’t always see the sunny side?

All of us – we’re all human. But I think that good teamwork is about being honest with each other and looking after each other when someone is having less of a good day. It’s the nature of the job. I think especially on these shows where we go to such difficult places, we’d be inhuman if we didn’t feel like that occasionally.

Finally, what do you want hope to achieve by making these programmes?

All I’ve ever wanted to do in my life is have loads and loads of fun, and mess around with good friends and get covered in mud. You know, if somebody had told me when I was six that I’d end up in a job like that, I would have though I was the luckiest man in the world. And that’s kind of what I do. My problem is I‘m just completely unemployable in anything sensible now. But, hey – I get to be muddy and go these cool places and use these skills that I was trained for by the military, and it’s about the only thing I’m any good for in my life: so I feel very lucky, I guess.

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