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About 60 metres up, with the waters of the English Channel lapping below, Bear Grylls wants to know how I am with heights.
We’re strapped into harnesses and standing on a chalk cliff at the Isle of Wight’s western-most tip. In five minutes we’ll rappel down the cliff – part of a formation called the Needles, that juts out like shark teeth – and now he asks?
I mention that heights may possibly rattle my nerves. “Fear is normal,” he says, surely not for the first time. “It’s a tool that sharpens us for what we need to do.”
The idea is that I’ll descend first, with Grylls following. It’s only fitting that a journalist with zero climbing experience would show the Ultimate Survival star (who has summited Everest twice – once on foot and once in a paraglider) how it’s done.
We’ll venture in succession onto a ridge that’s perhaps 15 centimetres across, and from there lower ourselves with ropes to a small ledge halfway down the cliff. There we’ll pause to conduct an interview, and through this process the Men’s Health reader will learn how he can live more adventurously.
Grylls advises me to shuffle onto the ridge, hook my rope into a crack in the cliff and then rappel. “Just don’t look down,” he says. And then it’s go time.
The tricky thing about chalk is that it crumbles – you don’t need climbing experience to know this – and, true to form, once I’m about three metres out onto the ridge, a chunk of cliff breaks apart beneath me. Pebbles tumble down. And so, it seems, will I. “Don’t worry,” Grylls calls out, seeming more concerned with the rock than with me. “It’s only an ancient national monument.”
Grylls can joke because he knows I’m safe. He trusts our rigging. I may feel as if I’m one false move away from a death dive, but feelings don’t necessarily match reality. The truth is that even if I let go, I’d simply dangle in my harness. Eventually this sinks in. I ease myself backwards and down, backwards and down, backwards and then… down to the ledge.
Grylls follows, strolling backward with little apparent effort. He lands on the ledge and fishes into his backpack for a stainless-steel thermos engraved with his name – a gift from his patrol sergeant back in the British special forces, where he served four years before breaking his back in a skydiving accident. He twists off the thermos cap. “I was always brought up to have a cup of tea at halfway up a rock face.”
Edward Michael Bear Grylls has explored the outdoors ever since he was a child here on the island. “We did a load of boating, sailing, kayaking, climbing and horse riding around here,” he tells me. “It wasn’t a complicated life. It was a great life.” But it was only after the accident that he became a celebrated adventurer.
That sense of adventure comes from his father, a Royal Marines commando who later became a wine importer and a member of Parliament. “My dad’s not around any longer,” Grylls says, “but I’m a dad to three young kids, and there’s always a special bond when you climb and you have to trust each other with your lives.” In the age of overprotective parenting, it’s bracing to hear Grylls describe paragliding with his 2-year-old son, Huckleberry (as in Finn), or kayaking with 8-year-old Jesse. The middle Grylls child, Marmaduke, is named after the World War II flying ace Marmaduke Pattle. Grylls is a man who treats bravery as a sacred heirloom handed down from father to son.
“The problem is, they now watch my TV show, so they love it a bit too much. I am now actually trying to scale it back with them. Their teachers have said to me, ‘That’s all well and good having Jesse give me a detailed description of how to rappel out of a helicopter, but his mathematics is suffering.’”
Ultimate Survival, now in its sixth season, drops Grylls into dangerous and remote terrain – jungles, deserts, volcanoes, glaciers – and then follows him as he battles the elements. His two most notorious survival tactics involved guzzling his own urine and crawling inside a camel carcass for shelter. Grylls, 37, freely acknowledges that he’d like to move on from the show. But it’s become such a juggernaut – 1.2 billion viewers in 180 countries, the promo materials boast – that it’s hard to just shut down. Plus, he has product lines to maintain: his clothes, his books, his knives. The dude even has his own deodorant.
“When I’m in Ultimate Survival mode, it’s not a pleasure,” Grylls says. “Every sensor is firing and I’m on reserve power all the time and I’m digging deep – and that’s the magic of it as well, and that’s raw and it’s great. But pleasure for me is good friends coming, picking some adventure – whether it’s a weekend thing or a day thing or a weeklong thing – and then planning it and building it and researching it and training for it.”
And this, he believes, is something every man can do. Maybe even something every man should do. Adventure builds character and camaraderie. Adventure breaks us out of our daily routines. Adventure reminds us we’re alive.
Grylls stashes the tea and we prepare to climb back up. By the time I reach the top, both hands are bleeding and my adrenaline is surging, as Grylls knew it would be. “You feel a complete buzz when you reach the top of that,” he tells me before we ascend, “because you did it. And I feel exactly the same, and that’s the magic and attraction of adventure.”