Bear Grylls: “I start every day on my knees praying by my bed”

Adventurer Bear Grylls on his difficulties at Eton, the fear of failure - and why he likes things to go wrong

At 16 I was at Eton and trying to find my identity. I found school hard, especially being away from home. Around 16 I was starting to find my niche, which was climbing and martial arts. I remember getting a bunch of friends to do karate with me and they were all stronger and fitter than me. But gradually they all quit but I stayed with it. I loved the training, the discipline. The same with climbing – we set up these mini-mountaineering trips to Scotland and I just loved it, fighting your way up a mountain in the wind and rain.

It was around 16 I found my Christian faith. I wasn’t brought up in the church but I had a natural faith when I was a little kid, I always believed in something. Then when I went to school I thought, if there is a God, surely he doesn’t speak Latin and stand in a pulpit? But when I was 16 my godfather, who was like a second father to me, died. I was really upset and I said a very simple prayer up a tree – if you’re still there, will you please just be beside me. And that was the start of something that grew and grew and it’s become the backbone of my life. I’m more convinced than ever, no matter how crazy it sounds, that there is a God and he is love. It’s a very personal relationship, I still don’t go to church very much. But to this day I start every day on my knees praying by my bed, and that’s my grounding for the day.

I see miracles everywhere I look, in mountains and in the jungle

Believing in God definitely makes me less scared in life in general. People say I’m not scared of anything. Well, I am, I’m scared of lots of things. After my sky-diving accident in the military [a fall doctors feared would paralyse him for life], I still have to parachute quite a lot and I find that hard. But having a faith reduces my fear hugely because I’m not alone, I’m fighting these battles with the creator and that’s amazing. My faith definitely plays a part in my love of the outdoors – I see miracles everywhere I look, in mountains and in the jungle. And I think I have less of a fear of death as well because I see it as going home.

I’d tell my teenage self to really appreciate having his dad around. He died when I was in my early 20s. He was a wonderful dad, really cosy and fun. He was the man who taught me to climb at a young age and he really encouraged me to go for things. He told me to look after my friends and follow my heart, that matters much more than school reports or things like that. If he’d lived longer I would have shown the gratitude you don’t always show when you’re young.

I would also echo my dad and tell my younger self not to fear failure. I went to Eton, and like lots of schools it was a bit of a survival exercise. Especially if you weren’t naturally sporty or super-clever and I was neither. It took me some time to gain any confidence. So many kids around me – and I was the same – we were terrified of doing anything different, in the class or on the sports field. Never taking a risk. But that’s the opposite of life, where you have to forge your own path and embrace risk and be prepared to get things wrong.

By the time I joined the military I had the confidence to do things my own way. After school I joined the army as a private, rather than an officer. All my school friends who joined went in as officers but I wanted to go in at the other end. It looked more fun as well. I’ve never been very good at drinks parties or that side of things. I wanted to be muddy up a mountain.

If I met the teenage Bear now, I think I’d see a shy young man, still trying to figure himself out. I used to try to wear trendy clothes and spike my hair. If I went back to talk to that boy I’d say, hey, that’s all just window-dressing and you’re not very good at it anyway. Don’t worry about that side of things, just love what you do and keep smiling. And don’t worry if you don’t want to go to university. School is such a small part of life. My dad used to say, don’t peak at school or you’ll mess up the rest of your life.

The younger me wouldn’t have understood the TV personality thing. TV was never on my radar. Fame was not a goal. I didn’t even watch TV. If someone told me I’d be involved in that I’d have said, ‘Really? Ew, doesn’t sound very fun. And it doesn’t sound in line with the values you have.’ The public recognition is the downside but we do actually have lots of fun exploring the most incredible wildernesses. And if someone had told me when I was a Boy Scout that one day I’d be Chief Scout, I’d definitely have said you’ve got to be joking. ’Cause I was a terrible Scout who didn’t get many badges at all.

TV was never on my radar. Fame was not a goal. I didn’t even watch TV

If I wanted to impress teenage Bear, I’d tell him about climbing Everest. I really aspired to that when I was young, it was a dream of mine. I’d warn him to brace himself of the pain of going through SAS selection. That was a long two-year road. I failed selection the first time. If I’d known in advance how hard that was going to be I would’ve questioned embarking on it. But once you’re in, you’re in.

I know Ran[ulph Fiennes] well and he always talks about the importance of preparation. I come from a slightly different place. For me, the adventure begins when things start to go wrong. I’m not one of these meticulous people who loves the preparation and the planning. A lot of the great adventurers are. But I like having to work things out as I go, improvising, being caught out.

If I could go back and relive any time again… it’s tempting to go for the summit of Everest or that moment I passed SAS selection the same day as my best buddy. But in the end I think I’d go for a time on our family hideaway on the little island we own up in North Wales. It’s a little 20-acre place, with no mains or electricity, no communication. Just me, my wife and our three sons – Huckleberry, Jesse, named after King David’s dad in the Bible, and Marmaduke, named after the World War One fighter pilot ace. Those are precious, precious times. Picnics, lots of laughs, messing around on the rocks, swimming. And no crocodiles or snakes.

Ghost Flight is the debut novel by Bear Grylls (Orion, £16.99)