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Meet The Man Behind Bear Grylls’ Challenges

Scott Heffield is a true survival expert who has scoured the world searching for the most inhospitable, testing yet beautiful environments – so he was surprised when the Lake District provided the most epic of Bear Grylls’ shows...

Scott Heffield is the former Royal Marines Commando who is responsible for recceing the locations for Bear Grylls’ wilderness TV shoots, as well as for the Bear Grylls Survival Academy. In 30 years of hard winter ascents, expeditions into the ice caps, jungles and deserts of the world, Heffield has built up deep reserves of outdoor knowledge.

That’s not to say that this survival expert hasn’t been caught out – his nights spent in hurriedly dug snowholes at 5,000m, and narrow scrapes with disaster are testament to that. He’s stress-tested the best responses to challenging scenarios and what he has found may surprise you: he says a sense of humour can be worth more than the highest-tech gear...

When it gets tough, cold, wet and nasty, being able to have a laugh can really help you through

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Q: What’s the most extreme or surprising place you’ve ever scouted for Bear Grylls’ TV shows?
‘When it comes to scouting and recceing new locations, we really are tasked with heading out to every corner of the globe. The most extreme location I’ve been to has to be Tibet; the entire region is mountainous and challenging, and when you step away from the commercialised areas, the terrain is rugged and wild – along with the weather conditions, it’s one of the least hospitable places on the planet. However, the most surprising location has been the Lake District. It may not sound like the most dangerous or demanding place, but the beauty, ruggedness and challenging terrain was perfect and we managed to produce a really epic show.’

Q: You’ve been on many expeditions but which three have been the toughest?
‘If I had to pick, I’d say: climbing Tryfan in North Wales in full winter conditions at the age of seven; attempting to retrace and follow some of Shackleton’s 1914 epic journey across South Georgia in Antarctica in hostile -30°C conditions; and leading an expedition in the Alps a couple of years ago to attempt to climb the five highest mountains in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Austria and France in two weeks. That didn’t go to plan… it took us longer than expected to acclimatise, the weather conditions were against us and we’d underestimated the sheer physicality required. We’ll be back!’

Q: Have you ever been just totally caught out?
‘Many times! If you’re going to climb, you’re going to fall at some point – especially if you’re exploring the world’s most challenging and extreme locations. A few years ago, I was climbing alone on a high peak in Russia and completely underestimated the conditions. This led to two very unpleasant nights in a snow hole at almost 5,000m – cold doesn’t begin to cover it!’

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Q: What kills you fastest in a true survival situation?
‘You can survive without water for about three days and without food for about three weeks but, truthfully, in an extreme environment without protection you can die in minutes. It’s therefore important to escape the elements: find shade from the sun, shelter from the rain and snow, and get out of the wind, which can be a real killer.’

Q: What strengths do you rely on outdoors and why?
‘Naturally, you have to be good at decision-making and leadership, so you can get yourself and others out of dangerous situations quickly. However, I’d say one of the most important qualities to have is humour – when it gets tough, cold, wet and nasty, being able to have a laugh and crack on can really help you through.’

Q: What’s been your hairiest moment out in the wild?
‘I was in Antarctica at the end of an expedition and ten of us were being picked up by a helicopter from the top of a massive glacier. The weather was starting to worsen – winds were picking up and temperatures were dropping rapidly.’

‘The helicopter could only take four at a time and, in the end, there were just two of us left on the glacier. We’d made a potentially fatal error: in our hurry to get the other members of the team onto the helicopter, our backpacks had mistakenly been loaded and taken away. With winds strengthening and visibility deteriorating dramatically, the helicopter was no longer able to return to pick us up. We were stranded on the ice at the top of a glacier at -30°C with 30-40mph winds, in lightweight clothing and with no food or equipment – our lives were at serious risk.’

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‘After a while, the helicopter pilot asked us if we could move down the glacier. With just one ice axe each and our crampons, we started to navigate our way down the glacier in zero visibility. Eventually, we popped out of the cloud and saw the helicopter sitting out in the ocean on a small iceberg. Moments later, it was hovering dangerously low above us, unable to land. We managed to scramble in while it was still airborne and were flown away to safety. Navy helicopters truly are the best in the world. Lesson learnt: never get separated from your kit.’

Q: What did the Royal Marines Commandos teach you about dealing with adversity?
‘Pretty much everything. Those days were tough – particularly the early days of Commando training when I was only 16 years old, 5ft5in and weighed in at a ‘whopping’ 8.5 stone! They set me up for the rest of my life and taught me not only how to travel across difficult and extreme terrain safely and efficiently, but also how to stay motivated, find humour in every situation and, importantly, never give up.’

Q: What are the safety essentials we all need in our backpacks?
‘First of all, you need to travel light and fast; don’t take the world on your back but do take:
A waterproof liner for your backpack (no backpack is waterproof, no matter what they tell you).
Emergency rations. I always take a Mars bar, a cereal bar and some sweets, and wrap them in a freezer bag. That little packet of goodies will stay untouched in the bottom of my backpack for weeks or months unless needed.
Spare dry clothing, including a hat, gloves, a warm jacket and waterproofs, and – guess what – another waterproof liner to wrap them in.
A map, compass, head torch and spare batteries… always.

Q: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from the ‘Golden Age’ explorers like Ernest Shackleton?
‘The thing that impresses me most about legends such as Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine is their shear hardiness. These men just kept going against the odds and in the worst possible conditions and, let’s not forget, they were doing things that back in Victorian times had never been done before. They were true adventurers. The most important lesson I’ve learnt from them is to persevere.’

For more information about Bear Grylls Survival Academy, visit www.beargryllssurvivalacademy.com

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