The daredevil host of Man vs. Wild has run from hungry beasts, eaten unspeakable things and diligently courted peril every week for the enjoyment of couch-bound TV viewers. Is he nuts?
BY DAVID CARR
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFFREY DECOSTER
EVEN THE MOST SEDENTARY among us have occasionally go en into a situation that was a li le over our heads: the quiet Sunday sail in the bay overtaken by a storm, the li le hike that becomes a lot more complicated when darkness falls earlier than anticipated. The only thing more memorable than that sudden realization that we are in a bind is the feeling of relief once we maneuver our way out of it. Bear Grylls lives for that sensation. As the host of the demented Man vs. Wild on the Discovery Channel, he seeks out preposterously dangerous situations and lowers himself right into the thick of them.
Even before the show launched, Grylls was out on the edge. He served in the British Special Forces for three years. At 23, he became the youngest Briton to ever climb Mount Everest. On the way down from the first reconnaissance climb, the ice gave way, and he survived a fall into a 19,000-foot crevasse. He regained consciousness swinging on the end of a rope. Since then, Grylls has navigated the Arctic Ocean in an inflatable boat, climbed an uncharted peak in Antarctica and returned to Everest to fly a powered paraglider over it. He’s wri en 14 books, become Britain’s youngest-ever Chief Scout—akin to being the head of the Boy Scouts in the U.S.—and is a major fundraiser for the Global Angels Foundation, which funds children’s charities.
In the sixth season of Man vs. Wild, Grylls again eats horrible things to survive, faces down ornery beasts and is constantly on the cusp of annihilation on some cliffor ice floe. All of which begs the obvious question: Um, why?
HEMISPHERES: Where is the show off to next?
GRYLLS: New Zealand. We’ve had thousands of people on Facebook lobbying to get us there, and it’s finally going to happen. I’m just back this week from Borneo, which is one of the toughest jungles I’ve ever been in. I got bitten by a big snake out there, so I’m looking forward to ge ing to the big mountains of New Zealand.
HEMISPHERES: Do you keep track of where you’ve been by all your wounds and bite marks?
GRYLLS: I used to. There are too many now. My kids still like looking at all the scars and bites and breaks and bruises.
HEMISPHERES: How old are your boys?
GRYLLS: They’re 7, 4 and 2.
HEMISPHERES: So when they’re climbing on a big tree and you tell them, “Boys, be careful,” do they just laugh at you?
GRYLLS: I tell them they’ve got to have a backup plan. I’ve always got a backup. You might not notice on the TV, but I’m always thinking of the worst case scenario. My kids don’t see that, so when I find them hanging off a tree, I tell them, “Guys, that branch goes, you’re dead. Where’s your backup plan?”
HEMISPHERES: Well, my backup plan usually involves a sofa. The list of crazy things—or, as you might put it, considered risks—you’ve done is endless. Can you think of something you’ve done lately that in retrospect strikes you as a little, um, dumb?
GRYLLS: I was in the Northern Territory of Australia a couple of months ago, in the swamp there, and the place is just riddled with big saltwater crocodiles, really mean ones, the ones that can take people off a boat and out to sea. I was on a little raft, pushing this thing through the swamp, and I was trailing a line trying to catch a fish. I caught one, and as I was pulling it in, I saw this croc li up about 30 meters away. He looked at me, disappeared and then burst out of the water and grabbed the fish.
HEMISPHERES: But not you.
GRYLLS: Right, but that was not entirely clear at the time. I was at sea level with my feet in the water on a ra . Not a great situation.
HEMISPHERES: I’ll say. You come from a long line of soldiers, politicians and cricket players. Tell me something about your background I can actually relate to.
GRYLLS: My great-grandfather wrote the original motivational book, Self Help. Then my grandfather got all of these crazy medals in the First World War. He was awarded the Russian Victoria Cross for amazing bravery, which is incredible because he’s also got these citations from his commanding officers about reckless bravery and directly disobeying orders.
HEMISPHERES: Speaking of reckless bravery, did you once do some naked rowing on the Thames?
GRYLLS: I did. A friend lost his legs in a climbing accident, and he needed $10,000 for a set of legs. My best buddy and I said we’d row down the Thames in a bathtub, naked, the whole length of it, to raise money for his prosthetics. We got him his legs.
HEMISPHERES: You also have this weird thing about setting records. For instance, you hold the record for highest-altitude dinner party, at 25,000 feet.
GRYLLS: The record thing is an interesting aspect of all of these adventures, but sometimes with sponsors you need to drop a tagline. It’s a necessary evil. What motivates me is the adventure, and the kind of friendships you make when you’re in those situations.
HEMISPHERES: Are you still working on your karate? If we were together in person and I asked something that was somewhat impertinent or snotty, could you actually snap me in half like a dry winter twig?
GRYLLS: I was one of the youngest seconddegree black belts in the country when I was about 18. And no, I would not snap you in half.
HEMISPHERES: Do you think humans are the most dangerous animals on earth?
GRYLLS: For sure. They have a combination of intelligence and ego that’s always going to be dangerous.
HEMISPHERES: I find it remarkable given your lifestyle that you’ve claimed that one of the more serious threats to your health and well-being is cholesterol.
GRYLLS: Yeah. It was just a few years ago when I learned how to eat healthy. I cut out most meat and dairy. I used to eat masses of it. Now, when I’m at home, I eat lots of raw fruit, vegetables, nuts and wholegrain things.
HEMISPHERES: You once used the desiccated remains of a sheep as a sleeping bag. That can’t have been good for your cholesterol.
GRYLLS: I did eat a lot of that sheep, including its heart, but that’s fine.
HEMISPHERES: You’re 36 years old, you do a lot of motivational speaking and write books, but it’s all fueled by these trips and these adventures. How long can you do this?
GRYLLS: I remember having done four episodes in the first season and thinking, “You’ll never do more than one season of this, because you’ll either be dead or people will be bored.” I don’t know what’s happened, but we’re six seasons down the line, and I completely love it.
HEMISPHERES: So what’s on the agenda for next season?
GRYLLS: We’re hopefully doing a boot camp series of Man vs. Wild later this year, a contest with 10 people who I will train and then slowly whi le down.
HEMISPHERES: I would like not to reserve my space for that. I mean, you seem nice, but boot camp for survival skills?
GRYLLS: Everyone thinks I’m a nightmare to go on holiday with.
HEMISPHERES: I was trying to be polite about it, but, yes, that was my next question.
GRYLLS: Listen, I have enough danger, drama and excitement at work. When I’m at home, I’m just a dad, and I want to be kind of cozy and mess around and have fun. I don’t want snakes and crocodiles and danger. We have picnics. And swimming.
HEMISPHERES: Swimming in North Wales. Again, don’t save me a place.
GRYLLS: I love swimming in North Wales. It’s great.
HEMISPHERES: I’ll have to take your word for that.
DAVID CARR, who covers media and culture for The New York Times, is capable of running the length of his body, but only if he’s being pursued by something large and dangerous.