Bear, 37, is an example of someone who rarely lives the life he makes films about.
While many TV series are about people going off the grid “for a year,” Bear lives that way only a few weeks of the year.
Bear lives with his wife Shara and three sons, Jesse, eight, Marmaduke, five, and Huckleberry, three. According to press reports they split their time between Los Angeles, a houseboat on the Thames in London, and their summer home on a private Welsh island.
While there, Bear’s most valued asset is not his trusted hunting knife, or some other memento from the wild, but his membership of the Abersoch Yacht Club, located on a beach in north Wales. Without it he would be unable to get in and out of his island retreat.
As pale-skinned holiday-makers paddle in the shallows, an enormous roaring sound fills the bay, and a huge, black, rigid inflatable boat – the kind of boat which the A-Team might own, bursts into view, sweeping up a huge bow wave as it turns towards the jetty.
All around, people in socks and sandals freeze with surprise. On board, a deeply tanned, barefoot man wearing an electric-blue fleece grins proudly.
In person, Grylls is below medium height, and as fit and leanly muscled as a whippet. The irises of his eyes are very blue, the whites very white. The half-mile trip to St Tudwal’s Island West takes a couple minutes.
Arriving at a precarious jetty cut into the cliff, he cuts the motor, fastens the boat and boosts me on to the granite steps of the landing stage in about 10 seconds flat.
He and his wife, Shara, bought the island – eight hectares of grey granite, soft grass and seabirds – in 2000.
“We were just married and looking at flats in London, and the cheapest one we could find was £200,000,” recalls Bear. “But then I found this horrible, old, rusted houseboat at Battersea [for £100,000, and this island for £150,000, and I thought that if I could get it for 95, I could tell Shara, ‘Look, we can have two places for the price of one!’ ”
The island owners accepted £95,000, and now the family spend part of each summer here. Initially, there was no electricity, phone line or fresh water.
“We did get water off the roof, but it was, well, stagnant, and it would run out,” says Grylls, talking hard as we head towards the lighthouse keeper’s cottage (the only building on the island, other than a lovely, stubby white lighthouse). “Hard to believe in Wales, I know. So a friend got the SAS to bring a drill over with a Chinook and we sank a bore 350 feet.”
Most private citizens cannot call on a Chinook helicopter to help them solve their plumbing issues, of course. But Grylls was himself in the SAS (Reserve) from 1994 to 1997, serving as a trooper, survival instructor and patrol medic. “The boys needed a training exercise,” he explains, “so they flew over carrying this bloody great drill.
They were low on fuel, racing round – it was fantastic!”
Inside the cottage, out of the wind, it’s suddenly very quiet. Grylls leads me into a bright, pale room where a woman with long, thick, blonde hair reads to a little boy.
Shara Grylls is slim and calm-looking, the opposite of her husband. The two have been married 10 years; she occasionally throws him an “Oh, just get over yourself” glance, and Grylls seems calmer around her. She’s been reading to Marmaduke, who is wearing a Noddy T-shirt.
His eldest son, Jesse, appears, looking mildly impatient, rather like Grylls does waiting to plunge out of the helicopter at the start of an episode. “Have you put the barbecue together yet?” Grylls asks him.
“I can’t do it because it’s so badly made,” says Jesse with emphasis.
Grylls looks unconcerned. Leaning back in his chair, he closes his eyes. “Really, my whole year is about getting here,” he says.
“Six weeks here in the summer; that’s the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Bear Grylls was born Edward Michael Grylls in 1974. He grew up on the Isle of Wight with an elder sister (who nicknamed him Bear) and two charming but eccentric- sounding parents. “Mum’s great, but she’s pretty bonkers,” is how Grylls puts it. “She’s the one who’s always telling me to please give up this ridiculous job. But she tells very funny stories of me aged 8 getting trapped in the quick mud trying to cross the harbour at low tide.” She also gave him his iron-clad stomach; Grylls once recalled her plucking a packet of pork chops out of the bin “that were three weeks old and covered in silvery green mould, and saying, ‘Who threw these out? They’re perfectly good!’?”
It is, however, his father – Conservative politician Sir Michael Grylls, who died in 2001 – whom Grylls credits with his strange, exhilarating life.
“I adored him. He taught me to sail and to climb. It wasn’t that I loved being cold and scared up a rock face, but I loved being close to him, and that was my way of doing it. I think I’ve been trying to recreate that intimacy on expeditions ever since.”
He was sent away to school aged 8. “That was really hard, actually.” Grylls often says “actually”, using it in its peculiarly English sense to emphasise deep emotion.
He leans forward, hunching his shoulders against the wind. “I felt wholly ill-equipped, and it was very frightening. But years later, during SAS selection, I had to do all this resistance-to-interrogation stuff. By the end of it you’re naked and covered in snot and blood and shivering, sitting there with a blanket round you. And I remember the psychiatrist saying, ‘So, have you ever experienced the emotions you’ve just been through before?’ And I said, ‘Actually, yes. It’s exactly the same terror I felt at school.’ And he said, ‘If I had a pound for every person I’ve heard that from.’ So it had its uses.”
After prep school, Grylls went on to Eton, with its almost 600 years of adventurous alumni, where he became “the kid who could climb the highest flagpole and hang somebody’s underpants up in the middle of the night”.
When he finished school, Grylls joined the SAS (Reserve) and attended Birkbeck, University of London, where he graduated with a degree in Hispanic studies. In 1996, however, on a parachute jump in Kenya, his canopy ripped at 500 metres, and Grylls broke his back in three places. In traction, unsure whether he’d walk again, he vowed – as you do – to fulfil a childhood dream to climb Mount Everest. A mere 18 months later, in May 1998, he did exactly that, becoming the youngest Briton at the time to reach the summit.
An eclectic grab bag of achievements followed. In 2000, he led the first team to circumnavigate the UK on a jetski, and rowed naked for 35 kilometres along the Thames in a home-made bathtub to raise funds for a friend who lost his legs in a climbing accident. In 2003, he led another team that crossed the North Atlantic in a rigid inflatable boat, and yet another in 2005 that attempted to paramotor over the world’s highest waterfalls, in Venezuela.
Then he set the world record for the highest open-air formal dinner party – held at 25,000 feet (7600 metres) in the basket of a hot-air balloon – and the world record for the longest indoor free fall, remaining suspended in a wind tunnel for one hour and 37 minutes.
In 2007, just for good measure, he flew a paramotor as high as Everest’s summit. The following year, he took a team to conquer one of the world’s most remote unclimbed peaks, in Antarctica.
IN THE standard scenario for most modern adventurers, these expeditions were mostly funded by private enterprise, and performed in aid of charity. But beyond the philanthropic satisfaction, what motivated him? Bravery? A desire to prove himself? Simple adrenalin addiction? “I suppose I do like the adrenalin,” he admits.
“Life can be quite fluffy at times, and I like it when it gets much more raw. There’s a strength in the camaraderie of big expeditions. You see people as they are, and you communicate properly, and you work to your max – everything else is stripped away. I like that.
“I loved doing expeditions,” he says. “That was my bag, really. But suddenly Discovery heard about it and said, ‘Let’s film you.’ And I was really sceptical about whether we should do it. I just wasn’t confident about doing TV, and I kept saying no. But then I went, and actually I had a blast – we did everything that I love: climbing, skydiving, shooting rapids, chasing snakes and improvising cool things out of nothing. But I never really liked the TV side of it. I didn’t grow up with an ambition to be on TV. I really had to be pushed into it.”
He does have phobias. “I don’t like heights. And I’m quite bad with bats, though I do a lot with them.”
Has he ever eaten a bat?
“Yeah,” he says simply. “Lots. And then I’m respectful of saltwater crocodiles and snakes. But I’ve spent a lot of my life around those things.”
He says he uses his fear to “sharpen” himself, which is a nice way of looking at a pretty demoralising emotion. “I really feel it, but it’s there to make sure everything’s tuned to getting the job done well.”
As for faith, Grylls is an enthusiastic Christian. “Faith is a big part of my life,” he says easily. “A real backbone. It’s easy not to care when everything’s going well, but there are not many atheists in the death zone of Everest.”
He and his children say prayers together at night. But even with divine intervention, would he encourage them if they wanted the same sort of life he’s had? Grylls looks sheepish.
“They’re my kids,” he laughs. “They can do anything they want . . . just not dangerous things! No, I hope they’ll have far more sensible jobs. My job’s a great job for me, but I really don’t want them to . . . I’m so covered in scars and injuries, and I’ve been really lucky.
“I do believe that life is short and you’ve got to live it boldly.”
“They [his kids] watch me on TV doing this stuff, but I say to them, ‘Papa always has a back-up plan. If that vine breaks, I always have a handhold. If I hadn’t had back-up plans, I would have died a long time ago.’ And they do get it.” He laughs again. “Well, they sort of get it. Of course, now they’ve started saying that their back-up plan is Jesus.”
Even Jesus can’t save you from everything. In 2006, a contretemps erupted in America and the UK over claims that some scenes in Man vs. Wild were faked. Among other things, reports alleged that a herd of wild mustangs Grylls discovered were horses from a local stable; that a grizzly bear threatening his tent was a crew member in a bear suit; and that a remote Hawaiian atoll on which Grylls was apparently fighting for his life was, in fact, a short boat ride from the hotel where he and the crew were staying.
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