WARD — "Pound for pound, these are better than steak," says Matt Bragg, chomping down on a wiggling grub as his boot nudges an upturned root, exposing even more of the writhing worms. "Go ahead, everybody grab one."
With his British accent, it's not hard for Bragg to conjure Bear Grylls, the televised survivalist whose fame is anchored in part on his unfettered willingness to eat just about anything, including grubs, dead critter eyeballs, raw snakes and spiders.
The unsure team follows Bragg's lead and begins nibbling the squirming larvae. So ends another lesson in the Bear Grylls Survival Academy, an intense 24-hour course that blasts through more than a dozen survival strategies. The success of the academy in Grylls' United Kingdom homeland as well as in Africa has led the star of Discovery Channel's "Man vs. Wild" to open his first U.S. academies this month in California, New York and Colorado.
Students learn the skills of self rescue, such as foraging and trapping food, erecting shelters, filtering water, navigating through rough terrain using ropes and building fires. In Colorado, the Grylls team is basing their academy at the 600-acre Glacier View Ranch near Ward, where a square mile of jagged granite slabs, trickling creeks and dense forest form training ground for survival.
While Grylls has built a career of capturing the cringe-worthy torment and toil of surviving in the world's roughest terrain, his students will be spared most of that savagery. Most. Grylls warns students: "It may hurt a little."
The courses hardly are simple hikes. The goal is to challenge and empower, says Bragg, a British special forces veteran with an "England" heart tattoo on his bowling-ball bicep.
"Most survival is about mental strength, mental stamina and never giving up," he says.
The lessons begin the first minute, when the cadre of American and British bushcraft survival instructors stomp their wary students into a puddle. Everyone lathers their faces and limbs with mud, to blur the shape, shine and silhouette of pasty urbanites in the woods.
Then there's mock fighting, slapping and blocking blows. Five minutes in, every student is panting and filthy.
"Maybe some city people are afraid to get dirty. We just take that out of the equation first thing," says Alan Pratt, the director of the academy's U.S. operations in New York's Catskill Mountains and near California's Yosemite National Park. "Everything we do has a purpose. It all comes together in the end."
Rotating instructors deliver 20-minute lessons. The class learns how to navigate using the sun and shadows. The class traverses over a creek on suspended ropes, filters water through socks before adding chlorine tablets, scales rock walls, hikes to a summit and forages for edible plants.
Edible being the key aspect. Instructors detail basic warning signs for dangerous roots and leaves.
Every few steps an instructor peels from the group and points out something useful; tree moss for tinder, elk droppings indicating a game trail, water sources, currant bushes and those unappetizing grubs. It's a rapid pace, touted by instructors as a week's worth of information in 24 hours.
When night falls, students gut rabbits and learn astral navigation techniques before retiring in homemade shelters of leaning deadfall. The next morning they shimmy across a rope suspended over a turbid, rappel down a 100-foot cliff and wade their packs across a frigid lake.
Grylls has sold out every 24-hour and five-day course he's offered in the Scottish Highlands and along Africa's Zambezi River since launching his survival academies in late 2012. Longer courses involve more intense training culminating in a three-day improvised scenario, where students are dropped in the wild to have their new skills put to the test.
Grylls plans to open an academy in Texas in the fall. If the U.S. academies go well — they start at $299 per person for the 24-hour courses — Pratt says Grylls hopes to expand into the Pacific Northwest around Mount Rainier and into the desert of southern Utah.
The most popular courses are family courses, with moms and dads joining their 10- to 14-year-old kids on the 24-hour courses, Pratt says.
"It gives them an opportunity to really bond and get through tough situations," he says. "It applies to a lot of things in life. Just setting a goal and the steps to get to that goal."
Taylor Bond is clearing the forest floor at a base of a ponderosa pine. He has leaned a lodgepole against the trunk, preparing a shelter for the night.
"I love this stuff. This is like my fourth time doing this," says the 15-year-old.
His dad, Mark Bond, is helping. They do a lot together, but this will be their first time camping under the stars. An hour earlier, the pair had labored to spark a fire in a ball of leafy tinder using Grylls' branded Gerber survival knife and spark rod.
"He's teaching me some stuff, actually," Mark says.
The academy's mission is to demystify the wilderness. To help people feel comfortable enough in the woods to enjoy not just the sights and sounds, but the camaraderie of family and friends.
"Bear Grylls and his guys have real family values," said Steve Hamilton, executive director of the Christian Glacier View Ranch, which hosts 190 young campers every week in the summer. "They have a goal to get families out in the wild, enjoying it, not being afraid of it. That was one of the appeals of working with Bear."
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, email@example.com or twitter.com/jasonblevins