What Is It: The Bear Grylls Survival Academy: The Mountain Between Us experience.
Bear Grylls Survival academy is a bootcamp for survival and outdoor adventure skills. The 24-hour survival experience replicated many of the survival techniques that Kate Winslet and Idris Elba’s characters had to use in their new film, The Mountain Between Us. The movie is about two strangers who have to survive, with just each other, after their plane crashes in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. During the two day bootcamp, a group of 20 other journalists challenged themselves physically and mentally just like the stars of the movie.
Who Tried It: Carolyn Cutrone, PEOPLE Content Coordinator
Level of Difficulty: 7 out of 10
In Preparation: When my co-worker pitched the idea of a survival weekend to me, I got really excited because it sounded like an adventure. I had never been camping except for that one time with the Girl Scouts scouts but I love the outdoors.
Before I even left New York City, I entered a whole new world I was unfamiliar with: the outdoors co-op, REI. I raided the gigantic store for hiking books, active t-shirts, bug spray and everything else hiking related. A couple of days later, the adventure began when I was sent off on a shuttle from Manhattan to a remote area of the Catskills. No cell phone service and no familiar faces… I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But it was no turning back now.
Who’s My Partner? The Mountain Between Us is all about surviving with someone you don’t know and putting your trust in them. Naturally, the first step of the boot-camp was partnering up. My partner was Jake Hamilton, an entertainment reporter at Fox Chicago. I was immediately relieved when they called his name and then mine, because he seemed nice and totally ready to take on a challenge. I knew we’d work well together and he’d have my back.
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Packing Our Bags: I had everything you could imagine packed in preparation for the weekend: Boots, wool socks, deodorant wipes, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, bug spray, a hat and tons of granola bars. To my surprise, none of this mattered because in the first 10 minutes of the bootcamp, The Bear Grylls instructors told us we could only pack ONE additional item after our canteen, knife, rain jacket and pair of socks. I turned to Jake to strategize, and make sure he already had sunscreen and bug spray on. If we were a team, we had to have each other covered. In the end, he decided to bring sneakers and I decided on granola bars. (I was trying to preemptively avoid killing an animal for food like I heard they did on the Bear Grylls TV show.)
Becoming One with the Earth: After we packed our bags, we were driven to the top of a mountain. Once we were all outside, Beargrylls Survival Academy Project Developer, Scott Heffield said it was time to blend in with our environment.
“You don’t belong out here because you smell of perfume and aftershave. Any predators would be all over us in a second,” he said. “We’re going to get rid of our smell, get rid of the shine on our skin.”
Then he reached down to the mud beneath him and slathered it all over his face. “Now you’re going to do that to your partner.”
Next thing I know Jake was slathering a very thick layer of mud all over my face. I could see it mounted on my nose from the corner of my eye. Whatever perfume smell I might have had, was officially gone.
Facing My Fear of Heights: With mud stuck to our faces and arms, we ran across the mountain to the edge overlooking a raging river. “You see the other side?” Scott said to our group, “You’re going to zip line halfway across and pull yourselves to safety on the other side using just your arms.”
I entered breakdown mode right there and then. We were only a half hour into the bootcamp, and they were making me deal with my fear of heights already. I was stunned. I pulled a few people aside to ask advice about zip-lining. Finally, one of the Bear Grylls instructors told me I had to take my fear and bottle it up. As they harnessed me in and attached me to the zip line, I did just that—suppressed my fear to the best of my ability. Then, I stepped off the cliff. As I swung through the air, I let out a scream. Then, reaching the middle of the river, turned backwards to pull myself, one hand at a time, to the other side of the river. It happened so fast but to my surprise — my fear flew away the second I stepped off the cliff.
RELATED: Idris Elba Says Kate Winslet Was Tougher than Him During Subzero ‘The Mountain Between Us’ Shoots
Survival Tactics 101: After zip lining, we learned what to do if our own plane were to crash in the wilderness. The first rule of thumb is to be resourceful with whatever supplies you might find in a purse, luggage, or anything else from the plane wreckage. For example, cotton from the stuffing of a plane seat can be used to start a fire. A lighter from a passenger’s carry on will give you a flame. Vaseline or chapstick from a purse will help keep the fire burning longer. A battery will help create a spark if you don’t have matches or a lighter.
Building Shelter: We had to use only a tarp to build our shelter for the night, so Jake and I ran to a nearby fallen tree to use as the structure for our shelter. We learned to block ourselves from the wind by putting the tarp facing the direction of the wind in case it started raining or it got colder as the sun went down. Both Jake and I also had to fit inside the shelter. If there were any predators like bears in the area, we both had to be protected.
The next couple of hours consisted of perfecting our shelter, collecting dry branches for our fire, and starting a fire of our own. This part was the most enjoyable because there were no heights involved and we got to enjoy the sunshine while tending to our fire, and talking with each other about what challenges we’d be faced with next.
Food and Water: As our water supply from our canteens dwindled, Jake and I were taught what to do with more items we might find in our bags. This time it was a condom.
The Bear Grylls instructors told us to bring the condoms they had secretly stashed in our backpacks to the river. There, we’d open them and use them like a bucket or cup, to capture the water from the stream. We brought what we had collected in one condom (because the other one broke) back to our fire. Then we boiled the water to get all the toxins out, and added some leaves to make tea.
It wasn’t the most delicious beverage I’ve ever tasted, but actually it wasn’t bad.
Time for Rest: The day concluded by a campsite. Fortunately, we did not have to stay in the shelters we had built, and we were going to get some dinner other than the raw fish we had fried over our self-built fires a few hours before. We made stew, got a sleeping bag, and went to bed in preparation for day two.
Crack of Dawn Wake Up: When the Bear Grylls crew busted into our cabin with a drum to wake us up at 6am, let’s just say no one was happy. We had five minutes to get ready. If we were late, we would have to do ten pushups. I was excited to be nearing the end of the experience, but petrified of whatever the last stunt was going to be. I had a feeling the zip lining was not the last of the heights challenges, and this fear was confirmed when we were told not to pack anything except for our helmets and harnesses. With much less sleep under my belt than the day before, no shower for 24 hours, and no information about what we were about to do, bottling up my fear wasn’t really working anymore.
Final Challenge: We were driven once again through the mountains. This time we put our harnesses on, left our backpacks behind, and hiked up to the top of the mountain. My anxiety was climbing with each step I took and I found it hard to cope as well as the previous day. Once we got to the top, we had to use a rope to climb down an extremely steep slope. I was so scared I would slip and roll-down the mountain side. But I was able to do that part and when I got to solid ground, I heard water. That’s when we all realized we were at the top of a waterfall — somehow, we were going to have to get down from it without going around it. Without knowing how I’d get from the 100-foot distance above the waterfall, to the river below, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to get it over with. I started shaking and then turned to my partner: “Let’s go, we have to do this now.” And just like that I had volunteered us to be the first partners to go. Whatever was ahead of us I wanted to face it. We were given two minutes of instructions and then harnessed in, connected to each other. This was something we had to do together, yet again.
The catch? Only one partner had control of our descent and it was Jake. I could only help us move down the mountain by keeping my legs on the cliff and holding onto him. I leaned backwards knowing that all that was underneath me was running water and rocks and decided I had no choice so might as well just do it. I stuck my feet out to touch the wall, leaned my torso back, and let my partner control the wire dropping us down the cliff. We swung to the left and I hit my arm, losing control. We went further down and our feet no longer could reach the mountain because it was concave. Our limbs dangled in the air trying to reach the rocks, but the only thing we could cling to was the wire suspending us in the air. Finally, we began dropping through the air inch by inch, at a faster pace. Eventually we reached the bottom and I felt like I had just slighted an ill fate. I had successfully rappelled down a mountain, beside a waterfall, with not a scratch on my body!
The Verdict: This weekend was extremely fun because it challenged me in ways I am never challenged in my day-to-day life. I loved being outside, meeting new people and putting myself out of my comfort zone. But having to face my fear of heights twice in one weekend in very extreme ways was not fun. I think anyone could do this challenge if they are in decent physical shape and are open-minded. It was made much easier because we had professional survival instructors with us every step of the way. But to be completely honest, you won’t find me rappelling down a mountain anytime soon by my own choice, or without my partner Jake.