Trenton Harper crouched naked behind a hill in the high country of Udhampur, India, trying not to hyperventilate. He was about to meet the woman he’d be surviving alongside for the next 21 days, half a world away from his Missoula home. They’d have no food, no water, no clothes. Just a bowl, a custom knife from Missoula’s Behring Made Knives and the tireless scrutiny of a Discovery Channel camera crew. As his anxiety began to peak, Harper noticed an old friend sticking out of the dirt nearby: Verbascum thapsus, more commonly referred to as mullein.
“It got me my high school girlfriend,” he says, citing the plant’s medicinal applications. “She had an upper respiratory issue. I gave her mullein and it cleared up all her snotty stuff.”
The sight of that mullein in the foothills of northern India last May quelled Harper’s fears, convincing him that he could, in fact, survive an episode of Discovery’s wildly popular program “Naked and Afraid.”
At the time, Harper says, he was “mostly trying not to freak out,” realizing that he was representing both Montana and his native state of West Virginia. Nearly a year after the experience, and roughly two weeks before the episode’s May 17 air date, the Missoula paramedic and 10-year Aerie Backcountry Medicine instructor laughs easily about it all. His only worry now is how he’ll come across in the final cut.
“If I’d had a full belly and been well hydrated and clothed and known I was on TV, I probably would have faked it and just pushed through it,” he says. “But the whole show is a fascinating study of physiology and psychology. The stress, the physical stressors, overwhelm you so that you are as much yourself as you’re really going to be. And I’m a cranky bastard it turns out.”
first heard of “Naked and Afraid” ahead of its debut in June 2013. It was all the buzz on Facebook among friends and acquaintances in the primitive skills community, he says, and Harper even knew one of the first season’s female participants—survivalist Laura Zerra—through their mutual past work with the Buffalo Field Campaign. He didn’t have much interest at first in applying for the show. But it didn’t take long for Aerie Backcountry Medicine to wind up in Discovery’s casting net. When the network contacted director Dave McEvoy, one name immediately jumped out.
“Once I started talking to people about it, like friends and coworkers within Aerie and other places, everybody was like, ‘Oh my god, you should totally do that,’” Harper says. “So I did.”
Harper felt the experience would be an excellent test not only of his backcountry savvy but the primitive survival skills he’d practiced since youth. He built his first bow-drill fire at age 15, he says, and has since blended that knowledge with more equipment-reliant pursuits like backcountry skiing and backpacking. Back in 2010, while working as a paramedic-ranger in Yellowstone National Park, Harper found himself alone up Cache Creek re-reading Doug Peacock’s Grizzly Years when a grizzly bear popped up a few hundred yards from his camp. Not wanting to test nature’s boundaries, Harper “totally ditched.”
“Your decisions are dictated by the environment,” Harper says of recreating in Montana. “And that’s really rare. Montana’s one of the only places in the lower 48 where your decisions are actually dictated specifically by megafauna.”
When Discovery informed him a couple weeks in advance that he’d be heading to northern India, however, Harper knew predators would be the least of his worries. The temperatures dropped into the 50s at night. The sole source of water was a mud-hole with “like 15 monkeys in it,” Harper says, making fire an absolute necessity not just for warmth but purification. And food was scarce, limited mostly to small frogs and a single dove. While Harper says he did eat something every day, he’s quick to add, “I don’t know if a single grasshopper counts.”
“Honestly,” Harper says, “two weeks into it, if someone had been like, ‘Here’s a granola bar,’ I probably would have been like, ‘Yeah, okay.’ You’re for-real fricking starving.”
Most challenging of all was the dynamic between Harper and his naked partner. She was much more reluctant with the experience and “it totally threw my mental game,” Harper says. He typically subscribes to the motto “control the controllable.” Being partnered with a less experienced survivalist was the one development he hadn’t anticipated, and while the two have since become good friends, he still regrets letting his frustration show.
“I definitely said a few different times, ‘I just don’t want to look like an asshole.”
Harper’s eager to see the final cut of his 21-day ordeal. He felt he hit his stride in the third week, though he never got around to several of the tasks he planned to complete. For example, Harper had every intention of making clothes, but found the small deciduous leaves native to the area would have done little other than reduce Discovery’s need to pixelate.
“That’s all my mom wanted,” Harper says, “was for me to make clothes.”