Bear Grylls is apologizing that he’s a few minutes late. Of course, as one might expect with Grylls involved, there are a few extenuating circumstances, which seem rather forgivable: He is calling via an unlisted phone number from somewhere in the mountains of Switzerland, where he’s filming his latest adventuring series. “It’s been beautiful,” he says, casually adding that he’s spent the last few days doing “lots of paragliding and wingsuiting and climbing, it’s just been super fun. I’m in the middle of amazing mountains, it’s just wonderful.”
What would be the thrill of a lifetime for ordinary citizens is a Tuesday afternoon for Bear Grylls, who is a bad man. After a near-death experience twenty years ago while serving in the Special Forces unit of the British Army, Grylls has become of the one the world’s preeminent survival specialists, something like a real-life cross between The Most Interesting Man in the World and MacGyver pre-reboot. Whether by himself or with celebrities in tow—from President Obama to Julia Roberts—the 43-year-old Grylls has managed to turn harrowing journeys into family-friendly entertainment.
And for anyone who has sat at home and thought they could hang with Bear, you’re about to get your chance: On April 28 and 29, Grylls will host the first-ever Bear Grylls Survival Challenge in Santa Clarita, California. There will be 18 different scenarios for participants to navigate, in appropriately harsh settings which range from “apocalyptic highway” to “deserted village” to “infested swamp.”
“This is about testing that survival spirit and resourcefulness,” says Grylls, “that ability to think under pressure, to be calm in a storm, all at the same being under this really pretty physical environment and course you have to get through.” We caught up with Grylls recently to learn about everything from his must-pack travel items to his advice for surviving a mundane day at the office.
He quit working in television! People know about his new way of making a profit. Does a person need to be an extreme adventurer to make it through your Survival Challenge?
Bear Grylls: No, but you do need an adventurous spirit. You need to be someone who wants to push themselves, to see how they react under pressure in a survival situation. This is so much more than just physicality. You need to be willing to kick yourself right out of your comfort zone and be willing to be pushed. You know, if you’re not pushed, you never grow. All genuine survival situations, when you get mega-pushed, that’s when that spirit comes out. That’s very much the point to this course.
What is the most important skill someone needs for this course?
Tenacity. That’s the key to great survivors, that never say die spirit and that ability to keep going. Just keep going, and never, ever give up. I say it all the time, whether it’s to scouts or kids or Hollywood stars I’m taking on “Running Wild,” it’s always about never giving up. You can have all the skills, but if you can’t put up with it when it’s grim and keep going, it’s no good.
There’s a point system attached to this thing. How does that work?
Well, this is really cutting-edge technology called RFID, and they’ve used it for a while for races. But now we’re taking and rather than just measuring time, we’ve actually used it across 40 different points on the course, to actually measure what we’re calling survivability, with a potential point system up to 100. And people don’t know their score until the end, but different obstacles will reward different attributes—some will be strength, some will be resourcefulness, some will be performing under pressure, some will be memory, whatever it is. So it measures how you complete the task. The team that designed this has never done anything on such a scale before. So it’s fun because it’s combining old school grit with cutting-edge technology.
I’m sitting in a office right now, and most people on a day-to-day basis aren’t running around wild with you in places like the mountains of Switzerland. What’s your best advice for someone just trying to survive a day in the office?
Aw man, well, we all have some of those days. I think the link between life and survival is so strong, it’s why people kind of get it when I talk about smiling when it’s raining. People understand that, because we all have days when it’s raining, when for whatever reason things go wrong and we have tough days. So I think it’s that thing of smiling when it’s raining, and then positivity, positivity, positivity—you project that, you throw that out to the world. The tougher it gets, the more you push out that positivity. You make it a conscious decision to give that out even when you don’t feel like it. Certainly in survival, it’s what separates those who make it and those who don’t. There’s no easy day when everything has gone wrong and you crash into the middle of the jungle; it’s going to be grim, you know? But those who throw out that positivity, positivity, positivity, that’s the key to it all.
Speaking of crashing down, is it true you once jumped from 16,000 feet and your parachute did not open?
Well, it was about 14,000 feet, when I was serving in the military, and the parachute ripped and I came spiraling down and smashed into the desert and broke my back in three places. That was a dark time for sure. I spent a year in and out of military rehabilitation, strapped up in braces and all of that stuff. But I got lucky that day, and it gave me a real gratitude for life: To go for it, to try and live boldly and give it my everything. That was what I came away from that with. I should have been paralyzed or I should have died, but I had been given a second chance and I had to make use of it.
At this point has there been a situation or environment that you’ve encountered that you didn’t think you’d make it out of?
There have been a ton of them over the years. I’ve been bitten by snakes, chased by crocodiles, had encounters with sharks, ridden rapids, had parachute failures, falling down crevasses, caught in avalanches… you know, you name it. I think one of the most dangerous things is often really bad weather. I think that’s something people often underestimate. I remember on one of the first Running Wild episodes that we did, with Jake Gyllenhaal, we had a hurricane with a storm in Iceland, and they had a jumbo jet blown across the airport back in Reykjavik. It was proper hurricane conditions, and we were on this mountain and had to stop filming and the crew were evacuated. So it was Jake, me and one other guy, and it was a survival moment, for a day and a night. But I look back and there are so many of those sort of moments. It’s taught me gratitude for the good times, and it’s also taught me I’m not as strong as sometimes I hope I am. I think when I started at this game, I thought I was strong and had trained for this stuff, so I would be good. The longer I live and the more I experience, the more I realize we are very small and nature is very big and powerful, and there by the grace of God go I. You’ve got to hold on and do your best and never give up and all that. But really? We’re pretty small.