Former Platoon Commander Ed Stafford is no stranger to danger. He’s made a huge name for himself by taking on nightmare inducing survival challenges for his Discovery Channel shows, staying alive in some of the most hostile environments on the planet.
His latest show, Ed Stafford: First Man Out, premiering at 9pm, Thursday 24th September on Discovery Channel, sees Ed face off against some of the world’s best survival experts in a head-to-head race across the wild unforgiving landscapes of China. It’s not a show for the faint of heart, with the challenges pushing all of the competitors to the absolute limit.
We took the opportunity to sit down once again with Ed to chew the fat about the epic new season and the daunting challenges and opponents he faced along the way, and also found out how he copes with extreme isolation and who his dream First Man Out opponent might be.
TM: Why was China chosen as the location for this series? And what different challenges did it offer up?
Ed Stafford: I’d never been to China, which is mad for someone who considers themselves well travelled. The head of the production team is Chinese/Singaporean and he had contacts in China. He asked if I’d like to do a series in China? I said of course I would. Because it’s so big and diverse we could do every episode there, previously we’d gone country to country.
There’s high altitude, swamps, mountains, cold weather, deserts and there’s the South China Sea. Everything is there on a plate, it was an extraordinary opportunity. You have pre-conceived ideas about going somewhere like China, that it’s going to be difficult to film and culturally it might be difficult, but it wasn’t at all. They couldn’t have been more happy to have us there. People are all too quick to bad mouth things that they don’t know about. But any pre-conceptions were smashed. It was a treat mate.
TM: And was it a level up in some ways on the last series, in terms of the challenges?
Ed: I think the courses were physically harder. I always have a little battle with the Series Producer that we don’t make it that hard. I mean we’re still going to get some great TV out of it. But he says, “Ed I’m sorry, but I’m afraid we do need to make it that hard!” That’s what gives the audience the sense that you’ve been dragged through hell, so, you do need to make it hard.
Obviously First Man Out has that extra layer of intensity because of the time pressure. It was rainy season as well, so everything was wet. For some reason I just grabbed this crappy Gore-Tex jacket before I left that’s meant for running. It was so inadequate, it was awful. That was a stupid schoolboy error! The whole series was harder, certainly in terms of the competitors, but mostly just because there’s a decision made that the races need to be tough. That’s why people tune in I suppose.
TM: Tell us a bit about those other challenges you faced…
Ed: Josh James was formidable, he’s a Kiwi who was brought up in the New Zealand mountains, literally running up and down mountains killing goats and deer. I don’t think he’d call himself a survival expert, he’s just someone you wouldn’t mess with, he’s built like a brick shit-house and is just so competent. Funnily enough the Chinese mountains were very similar territory to what he was used to, temperate mountainous environment. He was super tough.
In terms of the hardest environment, I’m not great at altitude and not great in cold weather. The one at height was tough cause of the altitude and the thick layer of snow. During the final stages of that race it was falling through big snow drifts and potentially twisting ankles on all the rocks. The South China Sea one was tough because I’m shit at swimming and I’ve always had quite a haunting experience since being on my own on the island for Naked and Marooned. I find that environment quite chilling. I get taken back to quite lonely, dark times. Although that challenge was quite a positive experience as I felt I came of age in that environment. I built a bomb-proof raft which got me between islands quite quickly, so that was actually quite a good one.
Probably the most miserable one was the high-altitude Zoige marshes, which don’t need much explanation. You can understand why it might be miserable to walk through a marsh for days on end, it was pretty horrendous. That was also just after I’d got over cellulitis, it was from blisters that I got in the first episode against Will Lord that developed into cellulitis. It’s not that bad as it is, but because skin covers your body, if it migrates to your head it can get quite serious. So I was on a drip for that and only just recovering when the marshes came around. Physically I was f**ked by the end of it, it was super tough!
TM: What was it like taking on your former tutor Will?
Ed: It was such a pleasure to do it against Will. It’s nice doing the challenges against someone you know as it adds a level of camaraderie and I wouldn’t be so twee as to say he was a father figure to me, but I learned how to make a bow and arrow from him, and my first bow drill. Anything that I do know about flint knapping, which isn’t very much, came from him.
He’s an amazing primitive skills expert, bringing that in adds a lot to the series. He’s not pretending, he is who he is. It’s quite nice, not from an ego perspective, but how far I’ve come in ten years perspective, going up against him felt like a Dads verses lads thing.
TM: Was there any added pressure with that student/teacher relationship?
Ed: I don’t think so. Will’s not very alpha male, he’s a pure soul. He’s not cynical and inherently decent. We were just approaching it in the if we win, we win, type of way. He’s a genuinely good guy.
TM: You mentioned coming of age with that South China Sea episode. Do you think you have improved as a survivalist after completing the series?
Ed: I did. I do consider these challenges for self development. If you get thrown into a problem or situation and you have to think on your feet, then invariably you’re challenging yourself and forcing yourself to adapt and overcome stuff, therefore getting a bit wiser and growing as a person.
Whether it’s coercing a tribal chief to let you stay in a village, or stopping you from being shot with an arrow, or whether it be how to cross a river, something more practical, then I think it’s a great self development tool. So, yes I do, in every single episode.
These ones were almost designed specifically for that, there’s such a diverse range of skillsets that all these competitors bring. The reason for doing that was to stretch me in different directions. There’s a Hollywood stunt woman in there, a US Marines intelligence ninja in there. Such weird and wonderful skillsets. As a vessel for positive change it was a good one.
TM: You clearly enjoy learning new skills, is there a drive to keep pushing yourself to the absolute limit?
Ed: I’m glad I still do it. I always try and duck out of it before I do it, or for the producers to make the race a bit shorter, but they usually ignore me. I still think I’m at the stage where it’s important to challenge myself, whether I need to push the boundaries quite as much as I used to do I don’t know.
I’m a little less reckless these days, once you take on dependents you’re not going to take on the same risk. On the flip side of that I’m keen to keep risking my life, because I owe a lot of my success to taking risks, I think it’s made me who I am and has given me lots of opportunities.
I’m keen for my kids to have elements of risk in their lives as well, not wrapping them up in cotton wool. So, getting outdoors is one thing, but there’s something about adding an element of risk or danger that gives them an energy that helps with positive change and makes them more rounded. It also gives them more depth of character. I’m obviously a massive advocate of us all getting outdoors firstly, but adventure and risk is what makes it such a positive experience for people.
TM: Which is harder taking on these mad challenges or parenthood?
Ed: They’re sort of incomparable. I don’t believe you’re what you do, I believe you’re who you are. I am a Dad and a husband and I do adventure, so in that respect the core of my life is home and family and I’m lucky enough to have a job that can provide for them which is also good fun and a great privilege to be a part of. But if I had to prioritise, then family would come first every day.
But which is harder? Maybe the adventures are physically harder, but obviously that’s TV so a bit more trivial than anything to do with family.
TM: You mentioned getting outside just now. Of course the whole world has been stuck in to some degree as of late, but you’re someone who would always advocate getting into the outdoors as much as possible for our mental health…
Ed: In lockdown, with the TV industry grinding to a halt, I pulled a few mates together and we’ve been filming an online Bushcraft course which is specifically designed to get people outdoors and equip them with skills. So how to make a fire properly, how to cook on a fire outside, how to use cutting tools, how to fell a tree.
These are skills that enable you to spend more time outdoors and therefore you can live a more enriched life. I’m an ambassador for the Scouts, so I am a massive advocate of people getting out. The more time people spend outdoors, usually the healthier they are.
TM: It’s so important that people learn these skills isn’t it? Tell us a bit more about the course?
Ed: We’ve got three courses that we’re going to run initially. It goes out on the 23rd of September. The first one’s on fire, the second on wilderness cooking and the third one is on cutting tools. With cutting tools, everything you do outside usually involves a knife, unless you’re daft like me and get put in situations where you don’t have a knife. That’s just how to use a knife safely and sharpen it. It equips you with the knowledge to take everything further.
We are in this post-lockdown phase where people want to go outside more and be in nature, but people also want to take things further. It could just be being in your back garden and cooking over fire there, equally I think it’s enriching to know that you can walk into some woods and start a fire by rubbing two sticks together that you find on the floor around you. These are skills that enrich peoples lives.
Again, it’s a bit like adventure in that it’s a vessel for being a more complete version of yourself and the antithesis of being locked up in a house with your family for the last for months with the monotony and claustrophobia that brought. The more people that can be taught these skills the more time they can spend outside comfortably and the healthier they’ll be.
TM: In terms of isolation, you’ve spent a lot of time in isolation with your challenges over the years, do you have specific coping techniques for that?
Ed: Isolation was certainly my achilles heel early on. It’s a difficult thing to be isolated, especially if you don’t have any distractions like a phone or a bottle of whiskey (laughs). Therefore it’s quite disturbing and unsettling. Equally I think it’s an incredible vessel for self awareness. You can’t hide from yourself, it’s like a mirror, you’re faced with yourself warts and all. I think it was a good catalyst for being honest with myself, understanding myself and eventually developing a bit of emotional balance.
It’s not so much dealing with the isolation, but from my perspective it’s giving you the space to get to know yourself better. To not fight anything, just to say this is the space which gives me the opportunity to understand myself better and have the capacity to grow. I don’t see it as much as an obstacle to get over as much as a space in which to embrace the opportunities it gives.
TM: Do you have a dream opponent for Last Man Out?
Ed: Of course. You know who that would be right?
TM: It would have to be Bear Grylls?
Ed: Right. If Bear Grylls agreed to it, it would be such a fun show. But he probably won’t. He’s amazing in what he’s done and achieved. You put your reputation on the line when you do a show like First Man Out and I don’t think it’s in his interests to do that. He’s a megastar. I would love to do it if he was up for it, it’d be a dream.
I mean of course there’s other people like Bruce Parry and Ray Mears. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve asked them all (laughs)! But Bear would be the dream, if we could culminate season three by getting him as the last opponent that would be fantastic, but I wouldn’t necessarily watch this space.
TM: Is there anything in particular that you learned from filming this new series that you’d like to share with us?
Ed: On a very general level I’m kind of in love with China. The people were amazing and I couldn’t believe how diverse the environments were. It was a privilege to work and film there, but also nice to have a stereotype blown apart and be faced with great people, generosity, smiles, great food, all of that. On a personal level you’re constantly learning, you never go into one of these races having all the answers.
The one that probably sticks in my mind most was Matt Wright in the South China Sea. Going into that I was intimidated by the island environment, I still have those haunting memories and I think that was a coming of age. Making a bombproof raft with a really good sail that hopped me between islands. I started to feel quite competent, although I’m still a terrible swimmer, so I’m never going to be a master of that environment. But I certainly felt it had lost the fear factor in my mind and I’m no longer going to consider it my achilles heel.
The new series of Ed Stafford: First Man Out premieres 9pm, Thursday 24th September exclusively on Discovery Channel
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