Authors: Bear Grylls
Six months in and out of military rehabilitation healed the bones but my confidence took much longer to return. The idea of climbing Everest seemed nothing but a pipe-dream now.
But from where I lay, I began to dream again. And as my movement increased I began to get restless. I soon found that my hunger to climb had returned, and that hunger became the focus of my
recovery. When, two years later, the opportunity to join a team of three other climbers on Everest came around, every ounce of me knew this was my break. It was crazy, but here was my chance.
I had been earning about £45 a day as a soldier and I needed £15,000 for the expedition. I sold all I could, took out loans and got lucky with one amazing sponsor, Davis Langdon and
Everest. The door had creaked open.
Together with Mick Crosthwaite, my friend since we were kids in the Isle of Wight, and an exceptional team led by Neil Laughton, an old army friend, I spent three extraordinary months on
Everest. Finally, at 7.22 a.m. on 26 May 1998, exhausted as dawn broke over the high Himalayas, two of us from our team stood on the roof of the world. A strange combination of luck, friendship and
heart had enabled that moment to come true for me. It was all that I had imagined it would be and more.
Two years later, I led a team that managed to circumnavigate Britain on jet-skis in aid of the RNLI. It was Shara’s and my first summer of married life together, and not quite her ideal
holiday, driving around behind us in a camper van laden with jerry cans. She thought it was crazy but we had a blast. We had the proper sponsorship, we were helping a charity, we were with my
closest mates and we were following a dream. This became my career.
I had been drawn into the world of expeditions partly because it was what I loved but largely because I found it was one of the few things I could do all right.
Early in 2000,
I read about a British team that had previously attempted to cross the North Atlantic, just below the Arctic Circle, in an open rigid inflatable boat
(RIB). They had performed heroically in horrendous conditions. Close to hypothermia and fighting frostbite, they had twice had to put out a call for emergency help – once to be brought out of
the pack ice near Greenland and on the other occasion to be lifted on to a fishing trawler during a storm off Iceland. But they completed their route and had all returned alive.
I was intrigued.
‘Do you think it is possible to complete this North Atlantic crossing in an open RIB without needing such emergency assistance?’ I began to ask various maritime friends.
Typically, they would laugh. I would look at them and wait, expecting an answer which never came.
‘It must be,’ I would then tell myself. ‘It has to be possible to do.’
The idea lingered.
There had been a Hollywood film set in the same seas,
The Perfect Storm
, starring George Clooney, about a group of fishermen who set out and never came back. I had seen it already and
been terrified. I watched it again, but this time differently. I scrutinized the scenario and the conditions – the way the waves and the storm formed. I tried to imagine how a small open boat
would cope. What decisions would I take as skipper? Would I turn round or risk the vessel? Suddenly, almost without knowing it, I was hooked.
Icebergs, gale-force winds, whales, the Labrador Sea . . . I started to sleep badly at night, my mind a race of imaginings. But most importantly, by day, solid research led me to believe the
crossing was distinctly possible.
Three years later, we did it – just. This is the story of that journey across the freezing, ice-ridden, most northerly part of the Atlantic.
In late 2002,
I was invited to write an introduction for
Debrett’s People of Today
. I felt unsure about what to say. I wanted to explain the essence of
exploration and why it still appeals so much to me. But that essence is extremely hard to capture. This was my best effort:
Exploration, I have discovered, is all about taking that one extra step. When you’re nearing the pinnacle of a high-altitude mountain, breathing wildly, with your
physical reserves run dry, and are reduced to crawling on your knees, it is heart that matters. It is heart that tips the balance between dragging yourself one step nearer to the summit, and
turning back for the safety of camp. And it is in these critical moments and decisions that people distinguish themselves.
I don’t think any of our team felt particularly distinguished or individually brilliant, me included; we were a group of well-trained and hungry young guys, but we had a
bond, something special that held us together when it was bleak and cold and frightening. That bond is hard to define, but it’s because of that bond that I explore. It is why I went in the
first place, and it is because of that bond that we all came home.
And it is this ‘coming home’ that, in the world of exploration, is all that ever really matters.
If you want to build a ship, before you give men tools, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The one niggle
that I always had was how would I tell one of my crew’s family if something went truly wrong out there? In the middle of the night, 400 miles from
any landmass, in driving rain and sleet, you are so vulnerable.
Trying to move around a small, open boat with inflatable tubes that are slippery as hell and freezing is a lottery. But even in the worst conditions things needed to be done. You couldn’t
really avoid having to move around the boat. One slip, a careless move, and in giant waves in pitch darkness, at 25 knots, recovery of a man overboard would be near impossible, however hard we
How would I tell his family? What words would justify my pursuit of this dream? No dream is worth a man’s life. And I knew the buck would always stop with me. It kept me awake often.
was always going to be different. In the past, certainly on Everest, I had been happy to sit in the back row at meetings, to listen to the leader of the
expedition and do as he asked. It was also my prerogative, every now and then, to have a grumble like everyone else. I was OK at being one of the crew, a follower. I quite liked it.
Now, suddenly, it was going to be me making those difficult calls, taking the lead. It was a big deal for me and it made me very nervous. I was heading into an infamously dangerous part of the
world, and men’s lives would hang on my decisions. Not just any men’s lives, but my friends’ lives.
I did not particularly seek leadership – it just happened. Leadership is a hard thing to learn, but our past experiences have much to tell us. We’ve all known people who have shaped
our lives – schoolteachers, instructors – but what makes some of them remembered with affection and others so feared? For me, the people who had shown me real leadership – in
fact, more than that, people I would have been prepared to fight alongside and die with, especially from my military days – were the ones who made me feel special, who went out on a limb for
me: my patrol sergeant who shared his last capful of water with me after four days in the desert; the man who said I was OK and stood up for me when it counted.
Neil Laughton had been an incredible leader on the Everest expedition, a friend and a man I could depend on, decisive at times when others might easily have hesitated. I thought of him and tried
to think how I like to be led. I guessed that was a good place to start. It was simple: I always felt best when I was trusted, when I felt that what I did mattered, when I was responsible for an
area of expertise. When the rope, or the oxygen, or the food, or whatever it was, was up to me.
So I wanted each of my team to assume responsibility in his own area and take a real stake in this expedition. I wanted him to make decisions and feel pride in what he was doing. I didn’t
want to be one of those leaders who tries to do everything, inevitably makes mistakes and ends up being resented by everyone. I didn’t want it to be about me; I wanted it to be about us,
together, doing our best.
When word went out among the maritime community about this project, CVs started to pour in – ten years of experience here, fifteen there, everyone was an expert, and everyone seemed to
want a piece of the action. But for me they missed what I felt really counted in a team. I wanted people who weren’t ‘experts’, I wanted people, yes, who were well trained and
competent, but above that I wanted people to whom this expedition really mattered. People who would put their everything into it, their heart and soul, their enthusiasm, their reputation if it all
went wrong; people who would be there in the bad times as well as the good.
I wanted people I knew and trusted, people who, when they hadn’t slept for days and their hands were so cold and wet that they were wrinkled, blue and shaking, would still summon up from
somewhere inside the ability to get on their hands and knees at 3 a.m. during a storm and rummage to find you an energy bar from the sodden food sack. That was the sort of person I wanted.
I was looking for people who were kind before they were brave, honest before they were brilliant. People who occasionally needed reassurance but who, when the chips were down, I felt would find
something deep inside them that is special. It’s called heart. I wasn’t interested in people who were never scared – courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the
understanding that fear is human and that we all have the ability to overcome it. I was looking for people who wanted the chance to find that something inside – that part that often surprises
us, a part that is gut and instinct, and that is better than we often expect.
This is a something that people rarely get the chance to find.
If I was going to take an open, rigid inflatable boat into those inhospitable waters, I was going to make sure that I had people on whom I could rely. In the end, I picked friends.
The first name
on the team was Mick Crosthwaite, first and foremost, if I’m honest, because he was my buddy. We had known each other for as long as either of us
could remember, from childhood days, all the way through school, the army and then as climbing partners on the Everest expedition.
Over the years Mick has grown to represent a source of solid friendship, sound judgement and real support. His presence always seems so strong; somehow, with him, I never have to look over my
shoulder to check, never have to cast a precautionary glance. I just know I can rely on him 100 per cent of the time. And that’s very rare.
By nature Mick is incredibly single-minded. When he’s at work, running the Tiscali network, the pan-European network-marketing arm of the Internet communications company, nothing else gets
in his way. Likewise when he is on an expedition, he moves into a different zone and focuses totally on that.
Sure enough, on the day when he was due to fly from London to Canada for the start of our voyage, Mick arrived at Heathrow airport in his business suit, having rushed from some high-powered
meeting where he had clinched, to quote him, ‘a massive deal’. To the amazement of several bystanders, he then proceeded to change into his expedition gear right there in the drop-off
zone at Terminal Four. His mobile was switched off and stayed off until he was back in Scotland, a 6,000-mile round trip away.
Mick’s demanding work commitments meant he was unable to make as much of a contribution to the planning stages as he knew he should, and on several occasions this irritated me. At one
point I told him that if he wanted to be part of this, that had to start now: ‘I am not another of your employees to be curt with, Mick, get out of work mode and realize you need to start
giving a little too much rather than a little too little to this expedition. Everyone is busting a gut and all they see is you leaving early or arriving late. It’s not acceptable and you know
it.’ The phone went silent, not dead, just silent. He was thinking. ‘Make a choice, Miguel.’
This was an important and difficult conversation, but it changed everything in the run-up. The others needed to know Mick would start putting his heart into what we were doing now, not just on
the actual expedition itself. This was different from climbing. The logistics here were more complex than for a small team on a mountain and we needed everyone’s energy in the preparation as
much as when we would leave. What Mick didn’t do, someone else had to – and it was too early on for people to feel resentment. It was all the more poignant because the others were now
working so hard towards the expedition.
‘I’ve got to go now, Mick.’ And I replaced the receiver.
Mick arrived at the next meeting with the biggest file of meteorological data you’ve ever seen. As our weatherman, he was now in. He’d been the first to join me on the team but
really the last to become one of us. But that didn’t matter; what was important was that I had my wingman again.
I suppose our friendship was genuinely forged on Everest. We climbed together throughout, but in the final moments of those three months, when fate and weather and health proved decisive in
selecting who finally stood on the roof of the world and who didn’t, fate chose me. I was luckier, that was all.
Mick had climbed to within 350 feet of the summit when he ran out of oxygen. Soon he was slumped in the snow at 28,500 feet, dying. I had spoken to him on the radio from down at Camp Two. He
calmly told me he reckoned he had ten minutes to live. Then he went quiet on the radio and wouldn’t respond. I was over 5,000 feet below him, powerless to help as my best friend’s life
slowly ebbed away. And in my panic all I could think of was how I was ever going to tell his family.
During this time Neil Laughton found him, helped him to stand up, and together they stumbled down the ridge under the south summit. Exhaustion was too much for Mick though and two hours later,
delirious, he slipped and fell almost 500 feet. In truth he should have died, but he survived, was rescued and eventually came back down from the mountain. He knew exactly how close he had been to