God, I hope he doesn’t make me drink my own pee.
That was the first thought in my head as I set out on a 20-hour journey across the world to meet Bear Grylls.
TV audiences got to know the seasoned British adventurer, author and host in “Man vs Wild,” the Discovery Channel show that took him to the most remote parts of the planet so he could face dangers and demonstrate survival techniques. He has done a lot of crazy things in the name of survival—leaping off cliffs, swimming in freezing water, battling extreme weather conditions, scaling massive structures, eating nasty things including tarantulas, yak blood and goat testicles (and yes, drinking his own pee), and occasionally getting injured to horrific levels.
In his new Discovery Channel series, “Bear Grylls: Escape From Hell,” Bear faces more dangers as he reveals incredible survival stories of ordinary people who have found themselves in dismal situations. Bear will relive the moments of the survivors’ journeys to show viewers how to surpass even the worst-case scenarios.
It’s a risky job, but one that seems to be a natural step for the man who, long before his TV career kicked off, broke his back in three places during a parachuting accident and still managed to become one of the youngest climbers to summit Mount Everest.
Undoubtedly, Bear Grylls is badass. And I wasn’t just going to meet the man, I was going to take part in his survival camp.
I gave myself a pep talk: You’ve climbed a few mountains, you’ll be fine. Sure, you were always the slowest except for that time a girl got sick, but that’s okay. And if he makes you eat maggots, just close your eyes and do it.
I found myself in Cotswolds, a three-hour bus ride from London, along with other journalists from all over the world. After a rainy and muddy 10-minute walk from the lovely Ellenborough Park, we entered the woods and found Bear standing in front of a crackling fire. As I stepped onto the campsite, I felt a painful sting on my right leg. I looked down, in search of the insect that bit me, but all I saw were clumps of leafy plants.
I checked my leg—there were no bite marks, but the stinging won’t stop. I rubbed my leg, trying to make the pain go away.
Bear seemed happy about the drizzle. “It’s raining and training is more effective when you’re cold, you’re wet and it’s difficult. Whatever I have to teach you this morning, if you ever have to do it for real, you’re gonna think, ‘Piece of cake. Last time I did this was in the pouring rain.’”
We laughed nervously.
Then Bear asked, “Who here is from the most girly magazine?”
Soon a girl was pushed to the center of the group. “I’m from GQ!” she protested. But since she also works for Vogue Brazil, she qualified.
Bear smeared mud on her face. “Survival is first of all muddy. It’s sometimes painful. It always stinks. The sooner you embrace the mess, the gunk, the hardship, the grit and the pain, the easier your path to escaping from hell will be.”
Then he went around the circle, smearing mud on everyone’s faces, including mine.
There were three things Bear wanted us to do that day: Build a shelter; light a fire; and make what he calls “one of his favorite drinks in the wild”—pine needle and nettle tea.
He said, “Those of you who aren’t from the UK probably don’t know what nettles are. As a kid growing up here, you learn all about nettles. Nettles hurt, they sting, so I’m gonna show you how to not get stung and how to make tea out of it.”
But it was too late for me. Those clumps of leaves I saw on the ground were nettles and they were the reason for the pain in my leg.
We had been divided into groups—I was in a team with Jessica from Hong Kong, Nick from Australia and Kiern and Ching Yee from Singapore.
We were given paracords and tarpaulin to be used to create shelter. “We are not looking for big, saggy handkerchiefs. We are looking for height, angle and protective shelters,” Bear said. “The great thing about shelters is it’s all about your imagination.”
My teammates quickly got to work, looping the paracords through the tarpaulin eyelets and tying them to tree branches. After a quick move and a little help from Bear, we had a nice angled shelter that could protect the fire we were going to build from the rain.
“The key with fire is preparation. It sounds boring but it’s true,” said Bear. “You need the little tinder, the really dry, fluffy stuff. I’ve even used fluff from my bellybutton before. Run your hands through grass and they will pick up dry grass and leave the living grass. Use anything that’s dry that will catch a spark easily. Then you’ll want to find your kindling, small little twigs, then go slightly bigger.”
But because it was raining, we were given a little help in the form of cotton wool.
Each team had also been given a fire steel for starting the fire. Bear said, “When struck, this creates shards of spark. Would I prefer this or a lighter? You might think, this is hard work, I’d prefer a lighter. But the thing is, lighters get wet and they’re hopeless. Matches get wet and then they’re hopeless. I can swim with this, dry it off under my armpit and we’re good to go.”
What a fire needs
We tried to gather a lot of dry twigs but it was hard because the rain had soaked everything. Nick and Kiern bent over our little pile, using the fire steel to create sparks. The cotton wool would catch the sparks but it kept fizzling out— we just didn’t have enough kindling.
Bear hollered, while checking on the different groups, “A fire needs three things, the fire triangle—oxygen, fuel, heat. We need oxygen, we need warmth, we need food. If you starve us of any of these things, we’re gonna die, just like fire.”
Jessica joined the circle around the pile of wool, dry grass and twigs, striking the fire steel like a pro. Soon the cotton wool caught fire, we cheered, and Nick and Kiern expertly added kindling, with Nick saying things like, “This needs to be more vertical,” that I didn’t understand. (Hours later, after our adventure was over, I asked him why he was such an expert at building fires and he said, “Growing up in Australia, my family loved to have barbecues in the backyard but my parents refused to buy a grill.”)
Our kindling had caught fire but we needed more fuel—we needed bigger pieces of wood. “Stuff from trees is great, it will be dry,” Bear had said.
I headed to a tree in search of dead branches and bigger twigs. There were a lot but they were covered with thorns. I cursed myself for not bringing gloves, took a deep breath and started grabbing them. Bear had given us a tip that if you break something and it sounds like crackling fire, then you could use it. “If it just bends, it’s bad.”
I broke twig after twig and branch after branch, choosing the ones that were good. At one point, a thorn pierced my thumb but I just pulled it out. I headed back to my teammates with my haul. By then, they had a good fire going. It was time to make tea.
My teammates asked, “Okay, who’s going to get the nettles?”
I knew then that it was my turn to step up, to really make myself useful. I feigned courage, ignoring my still stinging leg, and said, “I’ll do it.”
Earlier, Bear had demonstrated how to remove nettle leaves from their stems. “The bits that sting are on the edge of the leaves. To collect nettles, put your finger at the bottom of the stem and run your hand along it. I’m not getting stung, I’m only touching the bottom bit of it.”
But I needed a refresher. I looked for Dave Pearce, a survivor specialist who works with Bear and said, “Uh, Dave, how do I get the nettles again?”
He did a quick demonstration, making it look as easy as Bear did. He tried to hand me the bouquet of nettle leaves but there was no way for me to get it without touching those evil edges that, according to the research I did later that day, act like hypodermic needles and inject you with histamine and other irritating chemicals that cause a stinging and burning sensation.
“You’re going to have to get your own,” he said, smiling.
I bent over one of the plants and, using my sleeve to protect my fingers, I pinched the bottom of the stem and worked my way up, trying to remove the leaves. It wasn’t as easy as they made it look. I could feel the plant stinging me again. When I had finally gathered enough leaves in my hand, I wanted to scream in joy (and pain).
I stuffed the nettle leaves and pine needles into our mug of water, poking at it while our fire began heating it, officially becoming the group’s tea lady.
“That tea is healthy and it’s good,” Bear said. “Pine needles were actually the cure for scurvy.” And those damn nettles? They apparently have a lot of medicinal uses. And some people actually enjoy eating them; they are supposed to be good with pasta and in soups.
When our challenges were over, we sat around a fire with Bear as he roasted marshmallows for us and answered our questions.
Before we said our goodbyes, I asked Bear to sign my copy of his autobiography “Mud, Sweat and Tears.”
“Well done!” he wrote, and I beamed with pride.
I did not drink my own pee, I did not eat maggots, but I faced my fear when I harvested those horrible nettles. It took two days for the stinging in my leg and fingers to stop, but the pain was worth it. If Bear has “Escape From Hell,” I have “Escape From Nettles.”
Bear said, “Being in the wild is about having new experiences and learning new skills together.”
On my way to the airport, I spotted Bear’s face plastered on the side of a building with the words “Join the adventure.”
I already did.
“Bear Grylls: Escape From Hell” will premiere on the Discovery Channel on Oct. 28 at 9 p.m.