Bear Grylls has become known around the world as one of the most recognized faces of survival and outdoor adventure. In this revealing interview he discusses his biggest fears, the importance of father-son bonding time and his latest in a long line of battle scars.
Born on 7 June 1974, Bear Grylls’ journey to acclaim started in the UK on the Isle of Wight, where his late father taught him to climb and sail. Trained from a young age in martial arts and receiving his black belt in Karate as a teenager, he went on to serve as a reserve for the British Special Air Service (21 SAS) for three years. Tragedy struck in 1996 when he suffered a free-fall parachuting accident in Zambia and consequently broke his back in three places. After spending 12 months in rehabilitation, he was discharged from his medical treatment and directed his efforts into fulfilling his childhood dream of climbing Mount Everest. On 26 May 1998, after three gruelling months climbing on the peak, Grylls achieved his dream and reached the summit of Mount Everest, only 18 months after breaking his back. At 23, he was, at the time, one of the youngest climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest, and made it into The Guinness Book of Records for this feat.
Other impressive achievements in his life thus far include circumnavigating the British Isles on jet skis to raise money for charity in 2000, becoming the youngest Briton to climb the iconic Mount Ama Dablam in the Himalayas in 1997, and taking a rigid inflatable board through the infamous, ice-strewn North West Passage in 2010. In 2007, Grylls lead and achieved an incredible attempt to return to Everest and become the first man to fly a powered paraglider to a height above the world’s highest peak, soaring once again into the record books. In the process he raised over $2.4 million for Global Angels and children’s charities worldwide. Grylls has written 12 books, the first of which – Facing Up: The Kid Who Climbed Mount Everest – went into the top 10 best-seller list in Britain. In the world of entertainment he is most known for his TV show, Man vs Wild, which debuted in 2006 and lasted seven seasons over five years. The series features Grylls dropped into inhospitable places, where he shows viewers how to survive in spite of the elements. The episodes see him doing all sorts of weird and wacky things to survive include ingesting liquid from elephant dung, wrestling alligators, utilizing the corpse of a sheep as a sleeping bag and drinking his own urine. Following many other successful shows, his new TV show, Bear Grylls: Escape from Hell reveals the true-life stories of ordinary people in extraordinary survival situations.
However, for Grylls, his proudest post was achieved when he was elected as the youngest ever Chief Scout to the Scout Association in 2009, becoming the figurehead to 28 million Scouts around the world. Through this position he stands for young people from many cultures and countries, helping them realise their dreams, explore the world, provide assistance to countries in crisis, and benefit from being part of a worldwide family. For him it is all about encouraging life values, outdoor skills, a sense of confidence, and belonging and camaraderie through adventure.
PLAYBOY: Bear is not your birth name (It’s Edward Michael Grylls). Is there anyone who doesn’t call you Bear?
GRYLLS: Only one person in the world: my great aunt. Especially when she expresses her disappointment with my attitude. And it happens very often, especially when she’s watching Man vs Wild, nods and says with a rebuke in her voice: ‘What were you thinking, acting so foolish, Edward…”
PLAYBOY: What did you think when you read a PLAYBOY magazine for the first time? Do you remember that moment?
GRYLLS: No. But I do remember we had really tall pile of PLAYBOY magazines in the school dormitory. It was a common good, over one meter high. However, let me emphasize, it wasn’t my collection (laughs).
PLAYBOY: Do you ever worry that people who imitate your actions may fall into serious trouble?
GRYLLS: Of course there is such a risk. That’s why I show how to behave in extreme situations, when the worst-case scenario happens. It’s good to know, for example, that you can light a fire with a mobile phone battery. When we were shooting that episode, one of the cameramen put away his camera and said: “Bear, we can’t show that. Parents from all over the world will get mad.” And indeed they got mad. Discovery TV received a huge amount of emails like: “I spent over £400 on a new iPhone, and now it lies crushed and broken on the burnt carpet…” But on the other hand, the editorial office gets a lot of emails where viewers say they used our tips in real life. It’s amazing. There are so many stories of people lost in the wild…
PLAYBOY: It seems that these are rather rare cases, though.
GRYLLS: But it is exactly the opposite. It really can happen to anyone. Today I learnt about one British man who found himself lost in the Australian bush. He went on a short trip and never returned. Yesterday, someone found his dead body by chance. He spotted the corpse from a helicopter. Such stories happen almost every day. We learnt this doing research for the new Discovery program – Bear Grylls: Escape from Hell. We were looking for real heroes who have gone through the hell of being lost in the wilderness, it turned out that there are hundreds of them. We asked people about the moment when they realized they might not return home and orphan their children – and it’s all because of simple mistakes that could have been easily avoided. We reconstruct their stories and show what mistakes they made, and what allowed them to survive. In one episode we reconstruct the journey of two Polish travellers to Colombia, Maciej Tarasin and Tomasz Jedrys, who canoed a little-known river, Yari, in the Amazon basin. The journey ended with a dramatic rescue operation.
PLAYBOY: I have heard of them. They sailed an inflatable canoe on the river meandering through the jungle and at one point lost their boat.
GRYLLS: Worse – they also lost contact with each other, because one of them dived into the rushing water, trying to chase the runaway canoe. Before they realized it, they were separated and had lost most of their equipment. As a result, each of them was in serious trouble. Both came to their physical limits. Each of them then had to make a very difficult decision – whether to search for a friend, or save their own lives.
PLAYBOY: They were experienced travellers, well prepared for this expedition. What did they do wrong?
GRYLLS: Mike Tyson once said something that I like to quote: “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.” Nature is just like that. You think you control everything, but then you lose the equipment, or break a leg and you’re knocked out by a Tyson. At war, no plan survives first contact with an enemy. And you have to be prepared for that. Soldiers are taught to always carry life-saving stuff – a knife, flint, medicines, water purification tablets, etc. But most importantly, you should never leave a man behind, unless it is agreed. Unity is strength. It’s a simple rule that always works.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of rules. What, in your opinion, should be the life saving rule for a person in a dangerous situation?
GRYLLS: Just remember four letters. P – for protection. R – for rescue. W – for water. F – for food. First you need to ensure you are safe, make sure that there is no danger. Then, prepare for a rescue by making yourself visible to rescuers. The next steps are to ensure access to water and food. If you follow these rules, you will make the fewest mistakes in the battle for survival. Always in that order - PRWF. An average man can live three days without water, three weeks without food and three minutes without oxygen. That’s good to know. And as I know from my experience, people are much stronger than they think. We are all like grapes. Only when we are squeezed, can you see what we’re made of.
PLAYBOY: Do you think that women are less likely to survive in the wild?
GRYLLS: I warn against underestimating women. Sometimes I climb in the mountains accompanied by extremely strong women. On Mount Everest most guys did not keep up with their pace. Women reached the camp first and were already gossiping over tea when the male part of the crew arrived. Women can be much more stronger and tougher than men.
PLAYBOY: Isn’t it so that in extreme cases a lot depends on luck?
GRYLLS: Right. A great friend of mine was bitten by a snake a few weeks ago. He was well prepared. He had jungle boots
on, but the fang went through the eyelet. Unfortunately, my friend lost the upper part of his foot. Doctors are trying to somehow reconstruct the area. It happens. Some people are doing everything right, but they are just unlucky and they die. Others make mistakes one after another and come out from the worst situations unscathed. But believe me – in an extreme situation, you would not want to depend on a lucky card. What matters is the knowledge, fitness, skills, a positive attitude and a talent for improvisation.
PLAYBOY: Don’t you have any fears? Watching your shows, one can come to such a conclusion.
GRYLLS: I’m scared of lots of things. Fear of heights is definitely one of them. But I spend my life jumping from airplanes and climbing cliffs. I do not think we were given our life to surrender to our fears. You have to fight them by taking rational decisions. We all have fears.
PLAYBOY: So what is your worst fear?
GRYLLS: I get very nervous at cocktail parties. Clinking glasses and loud conversations all around me – that makes me afraid. I know this is odd. Shara [Bear's wife] is usually laughing at me. She always says that meeting new people is part of my job. Right. But I cannot help it – I become terribly shy in large groups.
PLAYBOY: Maybe you should produce a show “How to survive a cocktail party”?
GRYLLS: Good idea. I’m afraid nobody would watch it, though (laughs).
PLAYBOY: Your father, Sir Michael Grylls, was a Conservative Member of the UK Parliament. Will you walk in his shoes and step into politics?
GRYLLS: Oh no! God save my country from me. I would be hopeless in that role. Completely in the wrong place. Working for Discovery gives me a great privilege to have influence on young people. I suppose, they trust me more than any MP. And, as we all know, teenagers are difficult. So I use the popularity and urge them to take up Scouts. I believe contact with nature helps to navigate through the most difficult storms in life. Recently at the Survival Academy we launched extreme survival courses for families. We connect parents and children in two-person teams, like father and son, and they light fires, build shelters, look for water and food together. People were doing that for thousands of years accompanied by their children. Modern civilization has taken this kind of simple experience away from us. Experiences that build real family ties. That’s why, nowadays, teens grow up isolated from their parents. But 24 hours of team work in the woods is enough to make a relationship with your child that you can’t buy at any price. You would not believe how much can be done this way. The magic happens before your eyes…
PLAYBOY: Great political speech. Dad would be proud.
GRYLLS: (Laughter). Thank you. But still, I’d never go into politics – too many cocktail parties. You ask embarrassing questions…
PLAYBOY: What was the weirdest question you’ve ever been asked?
GRYLLS: An American journalist asked what was my worst habit. I replied that I pick my toenails and eat them. She totally believed it. To see her face at that moment – priceless.
PLAYBOY: Do you have any addictions?
GRYLLS: I play piano and sing songs for my sons almost every day. I do not know why people often see me as someone completely different. They expect me to be like James Bond spending all day at the bar, sipping whiskey and throwing the mysterious look around. Meanwhile my favorite drink is pina colada. With the umbrella, of course.
PLAYBOY: Relax, your image will not suffer if you tell us about your latest injury. Women love scars.
GRYLLS: (Laughter). Okay. Let it be. [Grylls unbuttons his shirt and shows his right shoulder. Around the neck and collarbone I can see a long cut]. It happened two days ago. A parachute line left this mark on me. I was using a paraglider with an engine on the back. I tagged my son Jessie to me, and we flew through the clouds. I’m probably not supposed to talk about it. It’s probably illegal… But you can write that he loves it.
PLAYBOY: You have three sons. Will they follow in your footsteps?
GRYLLS: My father always said “Look after your friends and follow your dreams.” That’s what I stick to, and I repeat exactly the same to my boys. The rest will work out somehow. The middle boy, for example, wants to be a librarian. Great. The eldest one says he’s going to be an African bush pilot. And he asks me constantly why he has to learn Latin or math at school if he wants to be a pilot, not a mathematician. Frankly, it is very difficult to find a good answer.
PLAYBOY: Jesse is the eldest?
GRYLLS: Right. Yesterday he fell down from a tree and got lacerated. My wife called me. She panicked a little bit. “Listen, it’s a nightmare,” she said. “He has scratches all over his body!” I asked her to put him on the phone. “How are you?” I asked. And he said, “Brilliant. What a pity, you couldn’t see it. Blood was spurting so much that I could wring out my T-shirt.” Then I knew I could calm down (laughs).
PLAYBOY: Your other two sons are Marmaduke and Huckleberry. These are the title characters of two well-known dog movies for children. Do you particularly love dogs?
GRYLLS: Very much (laughs). I am a Bear, and my wife is Shara. So we both have strange names. We could not have just Colin, Alan and Terry. It would have been terrible. Jesse is named after King David’s dad from the Bible – he was a cool guy. Marmaduke got the name in honor of the British pilot who shot down the most enemy planes during World War II. And Huckleberry owes his name to Mark Twain… I would like to have more children. And, of course, a girl. It would be nice if the house was littered with toys other than weapons, ammunition and cars.
PLAYBOY: Do your wife and sons have an adventurous spirit?
GRYLLS: My three young boys are pretty wild. They love climbing everything, running around, canoeing; they have been paragliding with me, you name it! Shara is adventurous in the sense that she puts up with it all. She is my dream girl, and always my reason for coming home.
PLAYBOY: What made you join the army and what did it do for you?
GRYLLS: As a kid it is what I really wanted to do. I always loved being filthy dirty, covered in mud and climbing things. The Army seemed a good route to achieve this. It did though give me a great sense of pride and a confidence in my abilities that I never had before. I owe so much to the friends I made in the Army and the extraordinary training it gave me. My parachuting accident meant that I had to leave and I remember very vividly what a low point in my life that was, turning my back on all that sense of family I had there. That tight knit community within the Special Forces world is very strong and it is probably why I wanted to return to my climbing after I left. It was the nearest thing to re-finding that intimacy in adversity. But I have been lucky and a whole new world opened up after I left. I think life teaches us that we need to keep on moving, to keep smiling, to go for it and follow our dreams. We only get one shot at life after all, and as my Mum used to say: “if it is to be, it is up to me!” What’s going through your head when you’re doing something like paragliding over Everest or facing imminent danger in the wild? You’re in the moment; that’s the magic. Nothing clouds you. Life is reduced to just life – no fluff.
PLAYBOY: Can you sum up the concept of survival from your perspective?
GRYLLS: To me, survival is all about ingenuity, thinking outside the box, being inventive and resourceful and ultimately having a simple determination never to quit.
PLAYBOY: What is the best survival tool to carry with you besides a knife, flint, and canteen?
GRYLLS: Our brain is our greatest survival tool – survival is all about ingenuity: thinking your way around a challenge, calmly, in the heat of the moment. And a big heart is then needed to keep going and to never give up.
Bear Grylls knows what it takes to survive. But he’s not the first. Take the American bombardier Louis Zamperini, who survived 47 days stranded at sea by catching and killing hungry sharks and drinking the warm blood of albatrosses – only to be captured by the Japanese and horrifically tortured for years in their most brutal POW camps… Or Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL who single-handedly took on a Taliban regiment before dragging his bleeding, bullet-ridden body for days through the harsh mountains of Afghanistan… Or Nando Parrado, one of the survivors of a horrific aircrash high in the ice-bound Andes, who only lived because he was willing to eat the flesh of his dead companions…
In this gripping new book, Bear tells the stories of the adventurers, explorers, soldiers and spies whose refusal to quit in the most extreme situations has inspired him throughout his life. Some of them make uncomfortable reading – survival is rarely pretty. But all of them are tales of eye-watering bravery, death-defying resilience and extraordinary mental toughness by men and women who have one thing in common: true grit. From Random House Struik R275
BY ARKADIUSZ BARTOSIAK
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF DISCOVERY
Published in Playboy South Africa December 2013