Bear Gylls, right, and Jake Gyllenhaal in Iceland during the show "Man… (Steve Rankin, Discovery…)
Bear Grylls, star of "Man vs. Wild," has done plenty of shocking things during the nearly five-year run of the worst-case-scenario survival show. He ate a raw zebra carcass. Escaped from quicksand. He even gave himself an enema on a raft in the middle of the ocean.
But during the sixth season of the show, new episodes of which began airing last week, Grylls will do something unprecedented: He'll cry.
Ironically, it wasn't an event that occurred organically in nature that shook the outdoorsman. Grylls, attempting to re-create a storm in northern Norway, had the show's producers amp up the drama by using massive wind machines — and the result was almost more than Grylls could take.
"They blasted the hell out of me, and I thought I could get a shelter and fire going, but I just got beaten by this thing and was really shaken," he recalled, speaking last week from his native England, where he said he had just finished wrangling a horse in from the rain. "The emotion was there because I thought, 'The reality is, if you found yourself in this situation, you're dead.' I have that feeling loads, where I'm thinking, 'What am I doing?' But I keep a laminated picture of my family in the sole of my shoe, and their smiles remind me to stop complaining and just get on with it."
It's that kind of fortitude that has endeared viewers to Grylls, who attributes his mind control to a three-year stint with the British Special Air Service over a decade ago. Since launching in 2006, "Man vs. Wild," which follows the 37-year-old as he's thrown into a variety of challenging survival situations across the globe, has become one of Discovery Channel's highest-rated programs.
Last week, viewers watched as he shepherded A-list actor Jake Gyllenhaal through the Icelandic tundra, where they braved 90-mph winds and individually pulled themselves across a single rope suspended hundreds of feet over a deep ravine.
Grylls, who once brought Will Ferrell with him to the Arctic Circle, emailed Gyllenhaal about appearing on the program after the actor said he was a fan of the show. (Gyllenhaal declined to comment for this article.)
"I always have to have kind of a weird conversation with these people's insurance guys, where they ask me, 'Can you guarantee us that these actors will be safe?' And I go, 'Well, no, I can't,'" he said. "Then there's a long pause on the other end of the telephone. But you can't predict what's going to happen in the wild — that's what makes the show edgy.… I can look after him to my utmost ability, and my ability is OK."
Grylls says he often has Hollywood types approach him about appearing on "Man vs. Wild," perhaps attempting to prove their toughness — or just looking for a drastic change in scenery.
"It's nice for actors to do something where they're not covered by safety ropes and helmets. There's a thrill for them to be able to do stuff that is very real," he said.
The adrenaline rush that Gyllenhaal experienced has yet to wear off for Grylls too, he said.
"It's a love-hate relationship. I struggle because I'm away from my family and there's a significant amount of risk, but there is that kind of magic when life becomes very raw and unfluffy," said the father of three boys.
But doesn't Grylls ever question why he's putting himself in such danger? How many folks, for example, just happen to find themselves stranded without any supplies in the Sahara Desert? And do the few who do truly remember Grylls' step-by-step instructions on how to skin a camel and use its carcass as a shelter?
"We have had people say I've helped them a lot over the years, and that's a real encourager, because I'll go to these places and think, 'I really hope this helps people, because I'm busting my …,'" he said, laughing.
Though it might seem that Grylls has already traveled to the most extreme places on Earth, the show's star says there are still risky locales to visit.
"I used to think that after one season we'd say, 'That's great. We've done the hardest jungles and mountains.' But the irony is that the more hellhole places in the wilderness the show has exposed, we've found even more incredible wild places," he said, adding that this year he'll venture to the islands of New Zealand as well as Utah badlands.
Before heading into each adventure, Grylls has a team scout the area a week ahead, working with rangers and search-and-rescue crews to create a game plan. After sifting through maps and evacuation plans, Grylls surveys the environment with a helicopter. Once on the ground, a small crew of about four individuals trail Grylls, though unlike him, they're able to sleep in tents.
There are no luxurious accommodations in store for Grylls, however, who admits to feeling some pressure that he must continue upping his outlandish antics every season.
"I'm always wanting to go to nice places where it's gonna be temperate — where it's not gonna be 120 degrees," he joked. "But the fans go, 'Have you heard of this nasty place or this nasty thing to eat?' When it comes to eating stuff, I've just got more used to it over the years. I still don't enjoy it. Survival food is never gonna be pretty. People always say, 'I don't know why you're always surprised that survival food tastes horrible.' I guess I'm just eternally optimistic."