Animal attacks, deadly falls and other near-misses at the Bear Grylls Survival Academy
Author Chris Wright Illustration Daniel Downey
I can’t say I have much in common with Barack Obama, other than the fact that we’ve both faced the prospect of eating bugs. I refer, of course, to last month’s news that Obama is to appear on a future episode of the NBC show “Running Wild,” in which he will traipse around the Alaskan wilderness alongside celebrity survivalist Bear Grylls. As for why the U.S. president agreed to subject himself to such an ordeal, I’ll leave that one to the historians.
Grylls, an ex-British Special Forces soldier, has built a successful franchise out of torturing himself in the name of human resilience. If you’ve ever turned on the TV to see a square-jawed man swimming among icebergs, picking a fire ant out of his eye or dining on a rat nose, it was probably him.
Meanwhile, more and more people are signing up for BG-branded getaways, including one in the Catskill Mountains, in upstate New York. “It may hurt a little,” the brochure said, but this vague threat was trumped by the disclaimer form, whose caveats included: “injuries received may be compounded or increased by negligent rescue operations.” How could I resist?
There were, I was told, six other amateur adventurers joining me. The itinerary involved three days learning survival techniques at a camp, followed by two days in a remote area, left to our own devices. “You’re gonna be tired,” a BG rep had told me. “You’re gonna be hungry. You’re gonna be cold.”
But there were more pressing concerns. The first of these was bears, specifically man-eating bears, or man-mauling bears, or even looking-at-man-in-a-funny-way bears. I have a bad fear of these creatures. I think it has something to do with the dissonance between cuddly toy and dead-eyed killer. I’d feel a similar discomfort if I were headed into an area infested with men in Barney costumes wielding machetes.
My second worry was the “rugged cliffs” and “craggy outcrops” I would be expected to “climb.” Recently, while removing clothes from the dryer, I stumbled backward into a wall, chipping an elbow. I am a wobbler. My inner ears are all messed up. Imagine what a rugged cliff could do to me.
My adventure begins in Liberty, a small town two hours north of Manhattan, where I’m supposed to meet my ride into the hills (I’ve been offered a pre-course night in a yurt). I’m early, so I pop into a gift shop, whose elderly proprietor turns out to be an expert on local wildlife. “Well, that’s good bear country,” he says, adding, “What’s your name, so I’ll know when I read about you in the paper?”
I leave the shopkeeper chuckling to himself and head out to meet Jeff, a bulky, buzz-cut BG rep who communicates almost exclusively in quips. One peril out here, he tells me, are “widowmakers,” unstable trees or branches that occasionally fall on people’s heads. “All I ask is that you don’t die,” he says. “This is a survival course.”
After an hour or so, we bounce up a rutted path and into a clearing. “Ooo-eee!” Jeff hollers into the trees. “Out here, that means ‘Where are you?’ In the city it means ‘Po-po! Run!’” We’re looking for Claire and Will, two of the three instructors who will be aiding my efforts to stay alive. A slight incline (puff, wheeze) leads us to a steeper, scree-topped incline (slip, scratch), which leads to a 30-foot vertical. “Ooo-eee!”
Jeff’s gone off somewhere, so I grab a dangling rope and start climbing, navigating the nacho-size toeholds with the dexterity of a baby giraffe. About three lifetimes later I make it up, quivering and bleeding, and offer a breathy hello to the instructors. Claire, who is English and in her early 30s, chides me for climbing without a helmet and harness, but is otherwise extremely friendly.
Will, from just outside New York City, is also extremely friendly. Come to think of it, Jeff is extremely friendly too. Must be the air.
Heading back to camp, Claire tells me about the northern copperhead, one of two deadly snakes out here. “That bite is fatal pretty quickly,” she says brightly. “You’d need about 20 vials of antidote.” I ask her why, in the interest of saving time, the doctors don’t just have one large vial of antidote. “It’s like those fiddly little coffee creamers,” I continue. “By the time theyre done going rip-rip-rip, you’re dead.” Claire doesn’t respond. Can’t say I blame her.
I wake at dawn, after a night spent interpreting a repertoire of sounds—the rain rapping on the yurt-top, the forest groaning beyond the flimsy walls. Outside, I meet a whitetailed deer. “Blurgh!” he barks, like someone with tonsillitis stubbing a toe, and runs off. Maybe he saw the trowel in my hand and wanted to give me some privacy.
Soon I’ll be meeting my fellow survivors. I’m hoping at least one of them will be less suited to the wilds than I am—maybe someone with a wooden leg. But, as the group assembles for a briefing, it quickly becomes clear who’ll be playing the role of lumpen oaf in this adventure story.
There are Kevin, Jonathan and James, all early middle-aged and reasonably athletic. There’s babyfaced, hyperactive Paul. There’s pint-size Carmen, who belongs to a mountain-climbing club.
And there’s Juan, who’s from Bogotá. Juan looks promising—he’s a bit short and has a wispy mustache. “I was a boy scout,” he says, “for eight to 10 years.” Rats!
Then there’s Josh, the team leader. Josh has a thick beard and biceps you could cut bread on. “I grew up having my diaper changed in a canoe,” he says. He unsheathes his Bear Grylls knife—each of us has been issued one of these—and shows us what not to do with it, such as whittling in the vicinity of your lap. “The femoral artery is here,” he says, pointing. “You cut this, and my credibility spills out with your blood.” Oh, Josh.
Anyhow. We’ve covered not stabbing ourselves in the groin, but there’s more. For instance, when it’s dark and we need to go, we should find ourselves a “poo buddy.” We learn that the bark of a silver birch makes good kindling, and so do certain feminine hygiene products. (Later, I will find myself in a rainstorm, hunched over a pile of sodden twigs, shouting, “I need a tampon!”) Also, we shouldn’t carry food, as this will attract bears. Ah, yes, about that: “You’ll be okay,” Josh says. “Though chipmunks are a concern.”
The rest of the day is spent building a shelter, finding water and learning what in the forest is OK to eat. Hemlock needles are nice. Wood sorrel, which has a lemony tang, is delicious. But the big fat earthworm, even after you’ve squeezed the matter out of its digestive system, is an acquired taste. I eat mine like an oyster: head back, wiggle-wiggle, gulp. Next up is a large, maggoty-looking mealworm, which is determined not to go in my mouth. I can almost hear its desperate cries as it writhes between finger and lip. But in it goes. Chew, pop!
The light is fading, and the forest has settled into a heavy lull, the green-gold air thick with the musk of decay and regeneration. At moments like this you can see why people are drawn to the backwoods. There’s a sense that your edges are becoming less defined, that you are somehow a part of all this, which may be as close to spirituality as someone like me can get. Josh squats down and gives us a primer on traps. “Your trap does one of four things,” he says: “tangle, mangle, dangle or strangle.” Amen.
Back at camp, we light a fire (using flint: no matches allowed) and speculate about dinner. Food is a constant preoccupation for all of us, because there’s never enough of it. “We’re not going to let you starve,” Jeff had said, “but we’ll get as close as possible.” He’s here now, holding a rabbit (mangled). “We should put its head on a stick,” I say, after we’ve finished hacking it up, “as a warning to other rabbits.”
We cook the bunny and dole out the leathery flesh, along with a few onions. Later, among flitting fireflies, I go back to the spot where we’d cleaned it, which looks like a crime scene. About 50 feet beyond the spatter is the shelter we built earlier. I’ve called dibs on being the person to sleep in it.
My yurt-mates are still asleep, so I tiptoe out to light a fire, watched by a green-brown frog not much bigger than my thumb. Breakfast is an apple, a handful of oatmeal and coffee filtered through a gym sock. We sit around the fire for a bit, Josh sharing a few of his injury stories (“I had bits of muscle fiber on my shirt”). Then he puts us through our morning exercises, one of which involves a hybrid of push-up, squat-thrust and coercive interrogation technique. It’s awful.
Next up is a mock mountain rescue. In the driving rain, we put makeshift splints on Claire’s pretend broken leg, then heave her onto a stretcher made of shirts and branches, which we have to carry up a mudslide. At the top, we are told to light a signal fire, which results in a flurry of interfering hands and overlapping advice. “Tampon!”
In shows like “Lost” and “The Walking Dead,” it becomes clear pretty quickly who the leader is going to be. In real life, leadership contests tend to be more chaotic, like first graders chasing a soccer ball around a field. Our group mostly works well as a unit, but there are times when everyone is delegating to everyone else, particularly when it comes to fires. Spark makers are everywhere, but wood gatherers are very hard to find.
Having abandoned the signal fire (and Claire), we shove a few handfuls of processed turkey into our mouths and start running up and down a hill, counting our steps. Next, we plunge into an icy river. The water is rib-high, fast-moving, so we form a kind of conga line to get across. It’s a lovely spot, the river sweeping in a wide arc through the trees, but we’re too busy not drowning to truly appreciate it. “If I fall,” I whisper to Juan, gripping his waist, “I’m not letting go.”
Next, we do some compass work, fumble a few knots and begin the debate about who’s gathering firewood for the evening meal. The only real moments of peace are spent with the trowel, deep in the woods, and I am grateful enough for these that I can almost forget the bears that are looking on. But then, squatting beside a tree, I hear rustling. Something is there. Something is coming. Oh God, it’s a … Claire! “Sorry!” we shout to each other. “Sorryyyy!”
Dinner is a nub of fish. I go to bed hungry and damp, too tired to sleep. And so it goes for the rest of the week: the climbing, the teetering, the endless trudging. Everyone seems to handle this stuff OK, except me, bespectacled and blobby, wobbling along a rope above a rushing stream (into which I fall with a despairing bray): This is not working out at all.
Fear and exhaustion are a potent cocktail, particularly laced with hunger and humiliation. This explains the methods used in military boot camps and cult initiations. You can feel your character traits scurrying for the corners, leaving a space behind. If all goes well, something worthy will move in, like courage or empathy. But cunning and cravenness are also in contention. As we prepare to haul ourselves, one by one, along a high and impossibly flimsy wire, I make sure I am among the first to do it. I think this is because I’m aware, on some level, that the connections might get progressively weaker.
But the death-defying stuff is only half of it. It’s wearying to expend so much effort on the simplest of tasks. It occurs to me that this course might be less about survival and more about coping with the aftermath of survival, the absence of comfort. More and more, our campfire conversations revolve around what it would be like to have a shower, a burger, a pair of dry socks.
Then, on the morning of day four, Jeff pulls up in a minibus, and the real ordeal begins.
We are in the Big Indian Wilderness, at the base of Double Top Mountain, which rises 3,868 feet and whose “Risky Animals” are listed as “Bears (High).” Our mission is to climb the mountain off-trail, our shoulders gnawed by packs containing a ton of gear (but no food or water). Josh, Will and Claire will follow at a discreet distance, just to make sure none of us actually dies, but this isn’t much of a comfort. This is going to be hard.
First off, there’s a world of difference between following a trail and making your way through the rough. Branches smack you in the face. Thorns claw at your extremities. Rocks and crevices cause your ankles to bend in odd ways. You fall over so much you forget you’re even doing it. Your legs scream for you to stop, but you have to keep going. And there’s another bloody incline, another river to cross via glistening rocks.
And when we finally make it to the top, we have to find a spot to set up camp, build a shelter, light a fire, start thinking about food. Paul and I set off in search of water, and I notice that there’s a lot of scat on the trail, thick and black. It appears we’ve settled down beside a Main Street for bears. Great.
When we return, we find the group poring over a scrap of paper, presumably left by the food fairy, bearing coordinates that eventually lead us to another dead rabbit. I don’t like this. This is bait.
And, for once, I’m not the only worrier. Jonathan, the most rugged person among us, suggests we pee around the edges of the camp to mark our territory. We eat in silence, passing around the rabbit, taking turns to gnaw at the carcass, then carefully bag up the scraps and get them as far away from camp as possible. Bed time.
Our shelter is a lean-to, open on one side. It’s not as large as it could have been, so we have to pack ourselves in, like fish sticks. Sleep does not come easy: There are roots digging into my back, a cold wind on my face and, from the looming trees, the unmistakable sound of bears sharpening their claws. I don’t believe I’ve ever anticipated anything as keenly as I do the end of this night.
Earlier, we’d agreed that none of us would get up to relieve ourselves, which would require climbing over each other, but by daybreak my bladder is in no mood to honor agreements. Creeping through the trees, I come across an outcrop, looking out over a range of pink-tinged mountains. I stand for a while, mesmerized by the beauty, the majesty, the ARGH! Josh walks up behind me, almost causing me to jump to my death. “Come on,” he says. “Time to clear out.”
We break down the shelter, pack up the bags and head downhill. Oh, happy day! Or not. I’d heard that climbing down a mountain is harder than climbing up, but this is ridiculous. I stagger and stumble, wobble and flail. Hardly a step is taken without some kind of painful incident. I can tell the guys are losing patience with me. I’m slowing them down. Everybody wants out.
Around midday, I sit on a log and announce my intention to quit. As if by magic, Claire appears. “Stay here and you will be testing your survival skills,” she says, “because no one is coming to get you.” Besides, she adds, we’re nearly there. “We’ve got a treat for you at the end!” A picnic? A beer? I drag myself up and lurch on.
The treat turns out to be an unusually scary climb to a point beside a huge waterfall, maybe 75 feet high, where Jeff awaits with a clutter of clips and ropes. We’re going to rappel down.
Surprise! I take stock of the situation and, for the first time since I was a child, shed tears for no other reason than I am afraid. But I force myself to do it. I allow myself to be buckled in by this joking man. I lean back. I step over the edge.
It wouldn’t be so bad if this were a sheer cliff, but it isn’t. I keep swinging into crevices, stumbling on ledges, spinning in midair. Then the Bad Thing happens: I lose my footing and swing helplessly into the falls, a violent, noisy, terrifying place to be. “Aaaaaah!” I remark. “Nooooo!”
At the base of the falls, the brave and wonderful Josh yanks the rope and pulls me out. I’m OK, and a little later I am down. There is no relief, no euphoria, just dull shock. I sit down and watch the others make the descent, whooping and high-fiving at the bottom. All I can think now is, I need a beer.
A few hours later I am having one, sitting in a cozy diner with my new pals. The previous night, we sat around the campfire and fantasized about sweet, sticky cinnamon buns, and I see now that they have them at the counter. I buy one, and we pass it around, breaking bits off and stuffing them into our mouths.
Later, when people ask if the experience has changed me, I keep returning to the same moment, standing outside that diner with a bit of bun I’d squirreled away for myself. Just before I popped it into my mouth, a small fly got its feet stuck in the icing. I popped that in too.
Ink Global international editor, U.S., Chris Wright did not see any bears during his Catskills adventure—but he heard thousands.