Survivalist, television star, Chief Scout, Sorted contributor and all-round action man Bear Grylls
has been with us from the very start. In this exclusive chat to Editor Steve Legg, Bear talks about his journey with the magazine and Running Wild with Barrack Obama.
You always seem to be working?
I like to stay active. I’ve got so many old injuries but I know I am better when I am in the thick of it. I don’t want to arrive at the end of my life in a perfectly preserved body. That would feel like a waste. I want to scream in sideways saying, “What a ride.” I am proud of it. Sometimes the boys at night will put their hands on my face and feel the wrinkles and crow’s-feet but I like those things. They are gentle reminders of many great adventures.
Can anyone be a survivor? Has everyone got it in them?
Yeah, for sure. Knowledge is just one of many tools for survival, but the real key to it is about heart, the determination to keep going despite the pain and fear. And that ‘never give up’ spirit is in all of us. I think sometimes it gets covered up in life by a lot of fluff, but when things go wrong that’s nature’s way of blowing that fluff off and you get to see what people are really made of.
Where did you learn these instincts?
By experience and by mistakes. But I have done this stuff all my life – from early days as a kid with my dad and then in the Scouts and then in the military.
Have there been moments when you thought “this isn’t going to end well”?
There has been a ton of them, from parachute failures to being caught in rapids, close shaves with sharks and crocodiles… but again I try to focus on the good times, the times it worked out. And I always say to the crew, “You only get it wrong once.” If there is doubt, then there is no doubt, stop and we’ll reassess, no ego, we’ll find another way round it.
Would you want your kids to follow in your footsteps and do this type of thing?
They are smarter than me and I am sure will do something different. But they do love the adventure, they just don’t do it for TV. I love taking them climbing, paragliding, or exploring caves. We live on this little island in North Wales and every day there is an adventure for sure. It’s deep in their DNA.
How has having kids changed you?
Being a dad has given me a perspective about what really matters in life that is hard to articulate – but I truly know that my greatest wealth is found with Shara and our boys. They are where I find my greatest joy, and calm, and they so often have been that guiding light, helping me get home in one piece – that’s a powerful force for me. Losing my dad when I was young has taught me the value of just being there for them. They don’t care about who I am, they care about having my attention, time and love – and their hugs and kisses are like a drug to me – they are never enough.
President Obama decided to join you in Alaska for an episode of Running Wild. What did he tell you about why he wanted to do this?
Well, the White House reached out to us and said he was a fan of our show Running Wild on NBC, and could I take him on a mini-adventure to Alaska? One of the big reasons he wanted to do this was he wanted to see some of the effects of climate change close up. I have seen the harsh reality and it can be shocking. We all want to protect this incredible planet. It’s the only one we’ve got, and we want to make sure our children get to enjoy it too.
My overriding feeling after filming that adventure with him was, what a really genuine guy. He was excited to be there and he was … fun to be with. I mean, to be able to pull each other’s leg a little bit in a way that if we were in the White House in an interview situation would be impossible to do was kind of cool. It’s a time I will never forget.
What were some of those hurdles that you had to get through with the Secret Service?
Well, I think initially the Secret Service were quite wary, because they only have one job: keep him safe. This sort of thing was well off-piste for them. So initially, there was quite a lot of pushback. But I think as soon as we got our team with them on the ground, it was just a process of talking through the routes that we wanted to do and going through the process of evacuation plans if somebody got injured. All of that sort of thing. They actually were very respectful of our team with so many of them being ex-Special Forces buddies.
I thought initially they would have five or six Secret Service guys with us but that ended up like 50. It’s a whole team with the press corps, and they’ve even got a guy who’s there to make sure any food or drink is approved. So, it’s a cumbersome group to move around.
But once we got going, I tended to defer to him for what he was OK to do. And if he’s fine to eat what I find and share water bottles and climb up and down stuff, well, then the Secret Service, obviously, just went with it.
What were some of your conversations that the two of you had that stand out in your mind?
We talked about family, faith, hopes and fears as well as all the climate change stuff. When I said, “Were you ever sceptical to this?” he said, “I’m always a believer in science.” That seemed smart to me.
Was there a moment with the President that really stands out in your mind from filming?
If I look back at the whole experience, there are two moments. One was beforehand on the riverbank, waiting. We had this big journey just to get in there. They shut down the airspace, it was all quite frantic, you know? Suddenly, it all went still and I was waiting and I [could] see all the Secret Service, and knowing that there were snipers positioned around this mountain, the helicopters had landed and it was like, “Wow, I am really nervous.”
Then also I think at the end of it when I prayed for him. That was a special moment. I had just felt that here is a man who has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and everyone is taking from him. I just wanted to help put something back in the tank.
What has your faith meant in your life, and at what moment did you realise that was going to be the case?
I had a natural faith as a kid. I just kind of believed in God and that God was good. It was very childlike and simplistic. And then when I got to school it was suddenly all about church and chapel and Latin and I thought, “Oh, I must have got this wrong.” But when I got to about 16 my godfather died, who was like a second dad to me. I was sat up late one night really upset and I remember I just wished that God did exist like I knew him when I was a little kid. And I remember saying a prayer asking God to be with me, and really that is a prayer of salvation. That was the start of my faith there. But it has been a lifelong journey to understand that faith isn’t about religion and church routines, it’s about being held and being loved, about finding home and about finding peace, and that is a continual journey. There is a lot of struggles and doubts within that journey, but through it all I do believe that Jesus holds us if we put our hands out. So that’s my story of faith, I guess.
How important is your faith when you’re out in the wild? Does it really come into play then?
Well, it’s easy to be self-sufficient in the everyday when things are going well, but the wild and life isn’t always like that. And I’ve learned that it takes a proud man to say that he needs nothing. So my faith is important. I’ve also learned that there aren’t many atheists in the Death Zone of Everest. I just don’t meet many people who have been through incredible experiences and come out of it totally without faith. More often I find that massive life moments often bring us to our knees and that when we stop trying to do it all alone and we reach out, then that hand is there.
Do you manage to get to church often?
I do go to church when I can, but not super often. Church is also in your heart and in great communities with friends who support you. We do, though, do a church camping week every year that is so special for us as a family.
Can faith make any difference at all to the everyday grind of life – to the pain, the frustrations, and disappointments that life always has? Does faith matter?
People say to me sometimes that isn’t faith simply a crutch? I used to say no but nowadays I sometimes think yes, maybe it is. I mean, what does a crutch do? A crutch helps you stand and makes you stronger. In that case, sure I need a crutch, especially when this crutch is so much more – when it is also my backbone, helping me stand tall and strong when I face overwhelming odds. Sure I need that.
Faith is like describing ice cream. Or swimming. It has to be tried to be understood.
My Christian faith says that we are known to Christ. Sons and daughters. Bought at a price. Blessed with light. That regardless of our mess, regardless of how many times we fall down, this Jesus picks us up. Sure I will reach out for that.
I’ve always liked the fact that despite moving in a pretty macho world you are not afraid to mention your faith. What would you say to a bloke who is maybe searching for meaning in his life but not as open to it as you are?
Well, faith is a very personal thing, and it’s right that it should be personal and quiet. At the same time I am asked about it so often by celebrities I take away into the wild. It reminds me that whoever we are, we all need spirituality in our lives, and if we can humbly share a bit of the light, then that’s a good thing.
That’s brilliant, Bear. One last thing. We know how busy you are, but you have always found time to be involved in Sorted since the very first edition. What’s kept us on your priority list?
Because we are a family and it isn’t all about what magazine is the biggest most powerful, it is about helping each other wherever we can. Like you guys, we are all just trying to be faithful to the calling of loving and supporting each other through thick and thin.