For a while, Discovery Channel claimed its show Man Vs. Wild reached 1.2 billion viewers worldwide, exposure that made Bear Grylls a household name for his death-defying survival techniques in all manner of desperate scenarios. Grylls has written several survival guides, adventure novels, and narrowly focused memoirs, but Mud, Sweat And Tears is his first all-encompassing autobiography covering his life before all the fame he shies away from.
Grylls breaks his autobiography down into three periods before his success as a television personality. First, he recounts his youth on the Isle Of Wight, at prep school, and attending Eton College. Grylls is lucky to have a compelling family history, full of intriguing personalities, political figures, and tight-knit, loving relatives, but he doles out the stories in such a haphazard fashion that it renders any sort of narrative incomprehensible. His stories overlap, double back, and switch themes at random, as though Grylls riffed on his favorite family stories into a tape recorder, then handed the tapes to a publisher for transcription without editorial organization. A lot of potentially informative and enlightening information on the formative years of a man with a very specific set of skills gets lost in the shuffle because of a lack of focus, which is surprising, given Grylls’ determination elsewhere in life.
The most famous part of Grylls’ personal history is that he was a member of the Special Air Service, or SAS, one of the most elite special-forces divisions in the British military, roughly equivalent to the Navy SEALs. The training regimen is brutal—candidates log hundreds of miles of running with heavy packs, through rough terrain, building a kind of endurance few can attain. Grylls spends so much time detailing the training tests and physical beatdowns that it’s easy to feel some of the pain with him.
But after all the hardships, crushing marches, and tests, Grylls sticks to proper ethics and doesn’t reveal anything about his time in the service. Military secrets stay secret, which is expected, but it’s a big buildup for absolutely no payoff. The hundred-page training montage explains where Grylls got his endurance, but it’s nowhere near as interesting as what he potentially used those skills for while in military service.
After a laborious first half, Grylls settles into the most enthralling portion of the book, which recounts his ascent of Mount Everest. At 21, Grylls suffered a skydiving accident that crushed three vertebrae. He recovered, in part, due to his focus on joining an Everest expedition, which he achieved at age 23. The arduous crisscrossing ascent of Everest never reaches the high drama of Into Thin Air, but the soul-crushing fatigue and desperate desire to reach the summit forms the best drama in Grylls’ autobiography. The problem is that he’s already written about it—in 2004’s The Kid Who Climbed Everest—rendering the final section a thrilling revision at best.
Mud, Sweat And Tears begins to wrap up after Grylls’ successful ascent of Everest, glossing over his marriage, the birth of his children, and the account of how he came to be on television. Though that part of the story would pale in comparison to mountains scaled and certain death evaded, it’s clear Grylls isn’t interested in telling that part of his story. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have the ability to assemble the parts of his life he feels comfortable talking about into an entertaining form.