I had spent a few days wondering what to write about next when this popped out at me from the television schedule. It was billed as a programme about what happens when an active sort meets a cerebral sort on a testing trip to the wilderness. Stephen Fry, like me, is about the polar opposite of an adrenaline junkie, if polar is not too tactless a word to use given Fry’s much documented mental ill health. He is not especially physically active, is in fact rather unfit and carries a decent sized belly on him. He never stops exercising his mind, however, and remains forever funny, enviously eloquent, stupendously clever and fiendishly full of trivia. Any programme carrying his name will always attract me.
I have encountered far less of Bear Grylls however, being generally disinclined to put myself in death-defying situations and not needing to watch people who do. But I was a Girl Guide for a while, albeit a not especially enthusiastic one, and Bear is now apparently Chief Scout. Though on our guide camps we didn’t have our survival skills especially tested. And we certainly weren’t allowed to carry tampons or condoms around with us like Bear does. I don’t suppose any of us, aged 11, even knew what these items were in the naive early ‘80s. Bear uses a tampon (with a spark from his knife) to start a campfire, whereas our method was to sing Ging Gang Goolie with gusto. For Bear, a condom is a compact instant water carrier, whereas I think our campsites came equipped with taps. For Bear, tying a knot is something your life depends on. For us, tying knots was just getting cross with bits of string. The extent of our guiding initiative on camp was making a wasp trap out of a mallet and an empty tin of shandy. (We had a 13-year-old rebel in our midst.)
Bear and Stephen attempt to bond over the things they have in common. They were both sent off to boarding school at any early age. They both had daft nicknames at school, only one of which appears to have stuck. They were both subsequently expelled from these schools. Stephen ended up in prison, Bear in the army. This is about where the similarities end. But now they have been flung together for a weekend of adventures designed by Bear and aimed to test Stephen’s willpower and physical strength to the limit. Despite their differences, they both make an effort to get on, and to get on with the tasks at hand, tasks that are terrifying to them in their own way - Stephen's to do things like abseiling, and Bear's to have profound conversations in a suitably thought-provoking setting.
The setting is the Dolomites, that beautiful mountain range of jagged pinnacles in the far north of Italy that turn a pinkish hue as the sun sets. But as Stephen and Bear arrive, clutching the side of a helicopter, the cloud is thick and a ton of fresh snow has fallen. This means that the helicopter cannot land. So Bear and Stephen have to throw themselves off on to what the pilot has assessed to be a “soft spot” of snow, with the helicopter hovering precariously a few feet above the ground. You almost have the feeling that Bear has arranged the weather specially.
The snow has also buried the food supplies Bear has had delivered for the weekend by the Dolomites' equivalent of Tesco – a whole deer carcass. You can just see its legs jutting out of the white. “Is that a boomerang?” Stephen asks. They hack the carcass up and then produce the tampon to light a fire on which to barbecue a few choice morsels for lunch. Later in the evening, Bear serves up a venison stew, flavoured with Alpine flora (to match the faun-a). Stephen, picking the flora, says that he has been informed that no Alpine flowers are poisonous. The narrator tells us that Stephen has been misinformed. I am just wondering if Stephen has snuck a pile of Mars bars into his backpack, because these supplies seem barely sufficient to replenish the energy they have drained, when Bear produces a jar of Nutella from his. He smears this onto some bread, but just as you think this is all a bit too normal, it turns out it is bait to attract ants from a nearby nest as the topping for what Bear calls a mountain sandwich. He claims that the ants are full of protein, but the overwhelming flavour (despite the Nutella) appears to be that of formic acid, which no amount of pine needle tea (or Bear’s local grappa) can rinse away. “Tell Ant and Dec to get me out of here,” says Stephen. “Oh, except that Ant's gone.”
Bear makes Stephen climb down a vertiginous and partially frozen waterfall (Stephen screams that this is what yodelling was invented for), using via ferrata cables for support. Bitter battles between the Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces were fought in the Dolomites during the First World War, and the via ferrata were laid by them as a means of scrambling around the mountains. The soldiers also made a shelter, hewn into the rock, where Bear and Stephen spend the night. I seem to remember a character in the Sebastian Faulks novel Human Traces spending a lot of time in a similar cave in the Dolomites. As this character is a clinical psychologist, it seems fitting that Bear uses this setting as an opportunity to ask Stephen about his bipolar disorder. Stephen tells him that his recent suicide attempt made him finally lower his resistance to taking medication for his disease. He claims that as a public figure, after such a disastrous course of events, he felt the pressure to act responsibly. He also discusses his wish but inability to help everybody who writes to him about their own mental health problems, which is why he chose to serve as patron for Mind, the largest mental health charity of them all.
Stephen is exhausted but elated, and falls into a deep sleep. In the morning Bear claims Stephen's snoring is reminiscent of an avalanche. They must then extinguish their campfire, which Bear does by urinating on it. Bear says the fire must be thoroughly extinguished as it only takes "one small ember" to start a catastrophic forest inferno. Stephen, with his back turned to Bear weeing, remarks, "And it only takes one small member to put it out." Touché.
A similar moment of intellectual victory comes as Bear and Stephen discuss religious faith. They are sitting looking at what is indeed a heavenly view of a lush valley. For the Christian Bear, God made all this. The atheist Stephen asks but if He did, then who made God? Neither of these two polite fellows attempts to convert the other. Stephen is an apologist for atheists who criticise the beliefs of others, but then presents such a reasoned logic for why you should have no religion that if anybody from the church actually listened to him they would shut themselves down. Bear believes that we are surrounded by love – the love of God. This belief would make me unwilling to have Bear lead me through the wilderness, since he would have the fervent conviction that a supernatural force is guiding and caring for him. I would rather be taken by somebody who is willing and able to survive entirely off his own bat.
However, Stephen does survive his ordeal and copes remarkably better than I think I would in the midst of such gruelling challenges. Although Stephen does tempt me to consider being braver about giving things a go. But I can’t see myself ever attempting a trip on via ferrata, not even the tamer ones above Honister Pass in the Lake District, because of my crippling vertigo. This is before we even consider my build, which Stephen would also probably describe as a “bin liner full of yoghurt”. I do love a good mountain holiday though. But I prefer my ropes to be attached to a cable car rather than a rocky edifice. And I prefer my views to be easily accessible from a hotel balcony, rather than a cave. Like this view we had of the Jungfrau from the Hotel Edelweiss in Wengen one glorious week in July 2009. And if some news reports are to be believed, Bear may well think the same way.