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‘That fine line between bravery and stupidity is endlessly debated – the difference really doesn’t matter.’

World War II British Air Force Pilot

After three months in bed at home, I was posted to an Army Rehabilitation Centre. I could move and walk around by now, but still the pain hounded me. Everything felt fragile
and delicate. I winced if I turned a corner too fast. I felt pathetic.

For the next six weeks I spent all day every day being treated. Three-hour stints of stretching exercises under the close supervision of a medical ‘physical training instructor’
(PTI) would be followed by two hours of physiotherapy. Then we would start again. Slowly the movement returned, and I began to regain my strength. My confidence was coming back – I knew I was
healing.

By the time I left the Centre, some eight months after the accident, I was recovering well. I had an almost full range of movement in my back and as long as I continued the exercises for the
next four months, I would be – as the doctor said – ‘better – and the luckiest man around’. Feeling slightly uneasy and with the cheeky grin of a three-year-old
who’s just been caught weeing in the paddling pool, I packed my bags and walked out of the main doors of the Centre. I had been very lucky.

This long road to recovery had taught me that life was precious. I had learnt this the hard way. I had come within an inch of losing all my movement and, by the grace of God, still lived to tell
the tale. I had learnt so much, but above all I had gained an understanding of the cards that I had been playing with. This scared me.

It was a beautiful late summer’s morning and by all accounts I had no reason under the sun to have such a dose of the blues; but I did, and I had them bad. I poured myself
a glass of Ribena and thought of all that had happened.

After three extraordinary and unrivalled years with the British Army as a soldier with the Special Air Service (21 SAS), I made the difficult decision to leave. The nature of the job I had done
was very demanding; if I wasn’t lugging vast logs around some training area, I was tumbling out of the night-sky under a parachute. Whatever the field, the pace was always intense.

From the military point of view I had been given the ‘all clear’ to continue as before. For the present, I was declared ‘fully fit’ – the long term verdict though
was a different story.

My parents insisted I sought the advice of various specialists, who in no uncertain terms told me that to continue such work would be ‘madness’. They assured me that if I continued
to military parachute with heavy loads and sustained a few nasty landings, then it would lead to severe arthritis in my back in ten years’ time. There seemed to be a difference of opinion
between the two camps of doctors. But it wasn’t a risk I was going to take; I had been too lucky already to throw it away for the sake of a few more years with the Army. Still it was one of
the hardest decisions I had ever taken; some of my best friends were still there. Disappointed, I felt compelled to ‘hang up’ my Army boots.

I felt that I had little choice; if I couldn’t fulfil the fundamental requirement to military parachute, I was adamant that I didn’t want to stay on as a ‘non-active’
member. My accident had cost me everything.

I loved my time with the army and feel a huge pride in having served with the regiment. Their professionalism and humour was unlike anything else I have ever known; they were to me a second
family. When I first joined at the age of nineteen, to have been trusted and encouraged like a man is something that I will always be indebted to them for.

The majority of my Army-orientated school friends had joined the Guards or Cavalry, as Commissioned Officers. I felt strangely determined, though, to see military life from a different
perspective – from the other end.

I had applied to join as a ‘squaddie’, the lowest rank available. From here, I was at ground level, the place where the real soldiers were. Nothing smart, nothing fancy, with no rank
to separate us; just good, honest and, at times, wild people. It was the best decision I ever took. I made as good a comrade there as I could have ever imagined. We shared something truly lasting
– friendships, born out of being cold and scared together. It was these soldiers I would miss.

Having now left the Army behind me, I began the daunting task of trying to find a career to follow. Choosing, or even seeing something that felt right, was getting harder and
harder. As frustration upon frustration set in, the likelihood of having to perform a sensible staid job was beginning to raise its ubiquitous head – and it hurt. Everyone knows that tearing
feeling between necessity’s pull and your heart’s pull. That balance between needing to pay the bills and having a dream. It is a difficult road. All I knew was that I was determined
somehow to follow my heart, and was scratching around frantically for a route.

Rumour is a nameless child, and how exactly this one came to me I can’t even remember; but it was one that was to have a profound effect upon me. I heard of an old friend planning to get a
team together to try to climb Mount Everest. Neil Laughton was an ex-Royal Marines Commando: robust, determined, and as I came to learn later, one of the most driven men I had ever worked with.

Neil had been on Everest in 1996, the year that a storm hit high on the mountain, claiming eight climbers’ lives in the course of twenty-four hours. This was the highest death toll ever
claimed at one time in the history of Everest attempts. Out of the eight that died that night, some had actually frozen to death fifty metres from their tents. The others had found themselves
caught out by the great ‘goddess of the sky’, having run out of oxygen, too late and too high on Everest’s perilous slopes.

Climbing above 26,000 feet is unforgiving, and that night Neil had been pinned to his tent at Camp Four, cowering from the wind and fighting for his own survival – unaware of what was
going on outside. Of the people to reach Camp Four, forty-eight hours earlier, Neil was among the few to return alive.

He was now getting a new team together to attempt once more to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain. What is it about a mountain with such fatal accolades that draws men and
women to risk their lives on her icy slopes – all for the chance of that single, solitary moment on the top? Whatever it was, Neil seemed determined to go back, having got so close that
tragic year. All I knew was that something deep inside me was stirring.

I thought of those days climbing on the hills at home as a kid. I had always climbed since then, and my love of the mountains had never changed; it was just the dream of Everest that I had
suppressed. I had felt that I would never be strong enough after my accident, and I guess therefore, part of me had allowed the idea to die. Suddenly, and almost inexplicably, I was finding those
long lost emotions were flooding back.

At the age of eighteen, an old friend and I were sitting around contemplating some sort of high jinks to get up to in the few months after having left school. The Indian Army
became our target. Endless letters and pleas later, and the two of us found ourselves deep in the Himalayan foothills of North India, in the good company of a tall, elegant and turbaned
General.

We spent a wonderful few months trekking through the valleys of Sikkim and Western Bengal, meeting eccentric expatriate gentlemen in the most unusual of places. At the end of the trek, after we
had developed a hunger for civilization again, the General arranged for an evening of dancing girls to entertain us all – at his own ‘humble dwelling’. The two of us rather
tentatively sipped our glasses of whisky as these girls flung themselves around to ripples of delight from the inebriated General.

Soon afterwards he decided to ‘retire’ for an ‘early night’. An hour later, exhausted by the visual stimulations, and apologizing for leaving the party a little early
ourselves, we also ‘retired’. We felt it only courteous to pop our heads round the General’s door to thank him for his kind hospitality, before heading to bed.

As I peered round the door I was confronted by the extraordinary sight of the good General’s buttocks, moving rapidly up and down above one of the servant girls. With his turban off and
clothes scattered unceremoniously across the floor, he was so engrossed in his business that he never noticed me. I scurried back out of the room, deeply embarrassed. From then on we observed the
General in a new light, and believed him emphatically when over breakfast he called himself a ‘prancing stallion’. He, of course, was referring to his old cross-country days. We knew
better.

During our last week with him, he escorted us to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, a climbing school set up to teach advanced ice climbing techniques. I walked round the
museum in awe, gazing at the endless Everest memorabilia on display. My excitement was uncontainable. Here was the culmination of all I’d ever known about climbing. Here were the memories of
the élite; I was totally entranced.

Some of the General’s final words to me out in India were an exhortation to ‘one day try and climb the great mountain of Everest. If you train and try with all your might, and have
just a little luck, then you’ll succeed. And remember: take small steps; that is the key to climbing high.’

Sitting at home, remembering his encouragements, I slowly realized this was my chance. Here was an opportunity for embracing all I had ever dreamt of; I felt an irresistible urge to follow.

Maybe it had taken such a shave with death over the skies of Africa to allow this childhood fantasy to resurface; I didn’t know exactly. But the Army had taught me a few things. The words
from a speech by Roosevelt, that we had read so often, remained powerfully etched in my mind:

It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or when the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high
achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails whilst daring greatly – so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor
defeat . . . for those who have had to fight for it, life has truly a flavour the protected shall never know.

Maybe now was the only chance I would ever get to follow this dream. This dream of one day reaching the summit of Everest – I felt it was now or never. I dug my old
picture out from where I had hidden it over a year earlier, when I was recovering – and dared to allow myself the dream once again.

20 April 1997. After my second glass of home-brew cider at 10.00 a.m., designed to give me a little bit of extra courage, I dialled Neil’s number. The conversation was
brief, to put it in the most diplomatic of terms.

‘If you’re serious I need to know by tomorrow – ring me then, I’ve got to go.’

Considering it had taken me most of the morning to decide whether or not to call him, and then subsequently twenty minutes to actually get round to saying I was interested in joining the team, I
thought his reply had been remarkably succinct. I wish I hadn’t stumbled and tripped over my words so much. I wondered what he must have thought of me.

Like most of us, I have no shortage of weaknesses. One of my faults, which is probably a reaction to bureaucratic and procrastinating senior Army officers, is a far too eager willingness to
accept things with absolutely no prior thought whatsoever. The conclusion I draw is that it’s far better to decide how good an idea something is after the event; and on such a rock has been
founded a host of ridiculous mishaps and disasters. So, keen not to break the habit of a lifetime, I rang him back the next day.

‘Just give me the chance and I’ll put my everything into this. I’m deadly serious,’ I said.

He agreed, on the basis of how I performed on an expedition that October to the Himalaya. He wanted to have first-hand reports on how I coped at high altitude, and insisted I join a team that
was climbing the great peak of Ama Dablam – known commonly as ‘the most beautiful mountain in the world’. Depending on how that went, I had now become the first member to join
Neil in the British 1998 Everest Expedition. I decided not to tell him a word about my accident. I didn’t think that he would ever understand.

As I replaced the receiver, I had a sinking feeling that I had just made a commitment that was going to drag me far out of my comfort-zone; and I felt more than a little uncertain about the
wisdom of what I had done. But I had to look forward, I couldn’t live in the memory of my accident; I wanted a fresh start. This was it and I felt alive.

My mother had always said, ‘Commitment is doing the thing you said you’d do, long after the mood you said it in has left you.’ She was absolutely right; the only problem was
that I was now on the end of that commitment. For me, though, the decision had been made; the strength to stand by it was what I needed.

Subsequent moments of panic about the future were rapidly quashed by my fear of possible morning tube rides to an office job. I was going to throw my all into this. My toes began to tingle and I
ran around the house making animal noises. I don’t think anyone heard.

A few days later, I announced the news to my family. My prior decision to leave the Army had come as somewhat of a relief to them, and I guess they all assumed that I would now
take a definite turn for the quieter life. They were right, that had been the intention; they had been through enough heartache with me already. But something was ablaze within me, and this dream
to climb Everest just wouldn’t leave.

I knew that only a tiny percentage amongst those who attempt this climb actually reach the top. Of those that do, I knew the numbers that achieve this on their first attempt is even smaller.
Everest is no place to prove yourself. The likelihood of reaching the summit is so slim that you’re inevitably setting yourself up to be disappointed. But I also knew that mountains are the
place to express yourself. It was this expression that I now needed after my accident.

BOOK: Bear Grylls
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