"Environmentally, we leave every place better than when we arrived. We have had permits for places of historic value and world heritage sites and we have always left places cleaner. We photograph and video everything when we arrive. We clean it and we photograph when we leave. You couldn't even tell we had been there," says reality TV producer Mark Burnett, explaining the approach to location shooting that he put in place on "Survivor" and continues on his latest show "Expedition Impossible," which premieres on ABC June 23. Thirteen teams of three will traverse 2,000 miles of tough terrain in Morocco in an effort to win $150,000 (split three ways) and a trio of Ford Explorers.
"It is not a TV show. It is an event," says Burnett ("The Voice," "Shark Tank," "The Apprentice," upcoming Emmy Awards), whose aim was "to give real people a chance to live an Indiana Jones experience" in a format reminiscent of his old "Eco Challenge" competition that featured pro competitors. "I had to do it on my terms because there is a level of danger. We had a crew of 400. 41 cameras. I hired the best mountain guides in the world and the best doctors. There's no money spared on that. We have doctors, nurses, paramedics there ready to do triage." Inevitably, people were injured, suffering broken bones and worse, "but most people carried on."
Teams, which include New York firefighters, Boston cops, Gloucester fishermen, ex-NFL players and a trio including blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer, who summitted Mt. Everest in 2001, are challenged both physically and mentally. "Everest would be easier than this," believes Burnett. "They have to ride camels, Arabian stallions, then donkeys to traverse mountain passes. Then they've got to climb snow capped mountains and swim through canyons, go through caves and every day solve problems," notes Burnett. "In one challenge, every room in a giant castle has hundreds of Moroccan lamps. They have to find the right lamps that when illuminated and put on a map will show the right destination."
Several people wanted to quit, "but if anyone drops off the entire team is done. You have got two other people that are going to be let down, who got ready for months, who put their lives on hold. There is a level of responsibility to others," says Burnett. Still, no matter how much the competitors prepared, reality was much harder than they expected.
"Everything was so exhausting and draining, we each lost 20 pounds. You'd stay at these outdoor camps and there's no shower or shaving and you're in the elements and the next day you're up and going again. Some days you'd cross the finish line and just collapse," says Ryan Carrillo, who with ex-boyfriend AJ Gibson and Gibson's sister Kari, made up team Fab 3. Adding a level of danger was the issue of being gay in a country where it's illegal. "We were in a predominantly Muslim nation and our parents were nervous about it. Mom cried every day," notes AJ. "But we know who we are and the thing about Ryan and I, we blend well and don't come across flamboyantly over the top. We knew we'd be OK. Being in a foreign country where we don't speak the language, doing something that we never dreamed we'd do was the unnerving part."
They had "epic arguments," suffered injuries (coming home with the scars and blisters to prove it), but came away with a heightened appreciation for nature and the planet and a newfound strength and confidence. "This show literally changed our lives. We're all fearless," says AJ, now back in L.A., where he lives with his teammates. "We live in a high rise apartment complex where they just started a recycle program. We do what we can. We could do more," he notes. "Everyone could do more."
Photo: Richard Harbaugh/ABC