Inside the World's Greatest Scavenger Hunt: The Finale

David Pogue
Tech Critic

GISHWHES stands for the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen. Teams of 15 have one week to complete a list of 200 difficult, charitable, or hilarious tasks. They prove they’ve completed each item by submitting a photo or video of it; their $20 entry fees go to a charity, and the winning team gets a trip to an exotic location.

This is the final part of our series!

Part 1    •  Part 2   •   Part 3  •  Part 4  •  Part 5

Part 5: The Hunt is Over

It’s been an exhausting week for the 15 members of Team Raised from Perdition. In their fourth annual attempt to win the world’s largest scavenger hunt, they’ve taken the week off from work, palmed off children to relatives, and tested the limits of society’s tolerance for disruption.

They’ve also made personal sacrifices. “Sleep deprivation. Junk food all the time,” says co-captain Nina Mostepan. “Working out? I don’t know what that is right now.”

“We eat a lot of pickled eggs and chili in a jar while we’re driving,” adds Shiane Gaylie.

During the heat of the hunt week, “we get short with each other,” admits co-captain Geoff MacAnally. “Nina and I bicker about, like, how things should be running. And then we’re like, ‘I need to breathe.’”

As the deadline approaches—Saturday midnight—it’s clear the team won’t complete all 176 items on the GISHWHES list. (In the six-year history of the hunt, no team ever has.)

In the end, though, the team managed all but three tasks. They’ve pampered a cow in Vermont, played badminton in a food court, persuaded two old men to play chess in a movie theater, sold bottled air on the street, registered 10 people to vote, built a spa for a mouse, panned for gold in a public fountain, sculpted a life-size dictator out of maxipads, built a working rowing scull out of trash, wrote a phone app for dialing a rotary phone, and played a human piano.

The judging process

“Months pass between the end of the hunt and the actual winner’s announcement,” Christine says. “We spend that time obsessively combing over all the other teams’ entries and beating ourselves up for what we could have done better.”

In general, though, Raised from Perdition was feeing confident. “We figured there was pretty much no way we wouldn’t at least be a runner-up,” says Rob Fitz-James.

“Because we were runners-up the year before, and we did even better this year,” Shiane adds.

Rob agrees. “Better video quality, better photo quality. And submitting items before the deadline problem helped.”

According to hunt creator Misha Collins, the judging takes so long because, well, there’s a lot to go through.

“We take it very seriously. We have stages. We have lots of people that help judge in the first round, and then we narrow it down to the top 50 teams, and then down to the top 10 teams, and then down to the top three.”

Every year, some teams try to get by with “interpretive” items. “Sometimes, people will come up with a creative interpretation; they’ll do a cardboard cutout version of the real thing, or something like that. 19 times out of 20, they don’t get points for that, even if they put a fair amount of creative work into it. Our directive is very specific: you have to do the item as it is stipulated, and not some creative re-imagining to make it easier.”

Nowadays, his team actually employs Photoshop experts. “Because people cheat! One year, there was a team that would have won, but they’d Photoshopped a really big-ticket item. It was very convincing, and we were like, ‘Wow, they did it!’ But they didn’t. They had cheated, and we caught them.”

The GISHWHES judging process isn’t just long; it’s also opaque. Each item on the list carries a certain point value, but “there’s a high degree of subjectivity in the judging,” Collins says. “Like, we give bonus points.”

But the teams themselves will never know.

“GISHWHES never tells the competitors what their point total is,” Christine points out. “We don’t even get a cumulative point total, and we’re never told what the individual items are awarded. And it drives us crazy. Because it’s difficult to know how to improve from year to year if you don’t have a metric for what the judges are looking for.”

“That’s by design,” Collins says. “We don’t want people to get involved in petty arguments. So we don’t give them enough information to fight.”

The big moment

The contest wrapped up on August 6, but weeks—months—went by without any word as to when the winners would be announced.

“Sometimes GISHWHES can be a little disorganized, I find,” says Shiane. “They just kind of surprise you a lot. You don’t know when the winner will be announced, for example. You don’t know when anything will be announced, until it’s there.”

But then, one day in October, there it was: a tweet that Misha Collins would be making an announcement on Facebook Live.

Christine: “I’m sitting in my dark hole of a basement. We gathered over Google Hangouts and held our breath.”

Shiane: “He did the runners up first, and he did it alphabetically. As soon as he skipped R, which our team name starts with, we knew that we’d won. We were all freaking out before he even announced it.”

Geoff: “And then the moment: ‘And the winning teammmm is…’ That’s exactly how he does it.”

In fact, that is how Misha Collins said it. “And the GISHWHES 2016 winning teammmm… is… Raised from Perdition!”

Christine: “Everyone erupted.”

Kira Sullivan: “We were all freaking out. It was pure joy. I screamed. My roommates thought something really bad happened to me!”

Shiane: “I hit my head on the ceiling. I pushed Rob over a table. We yelled and screamed for, like, 20 minutes.”

Geoff: “I cried.”

Nina “Ugly crying! You can see it in the video. I’m like, ‘Waauuuugh!’”

Kira: “In that moment, we really felt like a team. We didn’t know each other beforehand, but we came together and we won.”

Suzanne Simpson: “It was the most surreal experience of my life.”

Geoff: “After three years of working hard, it was a euphoric feeling.”

The prize for winning GISHWHES is a trip to some exotic spot. This year, it’s Iceland. (For the 2017 hunt, which begins in August, the trip will be to Hawaii.)

Raised from Perdition arrived in Iceland today, in fact, to begin their five-day adventure, orchestrated by the GISHWHES staff and attended (at least for one day) by Misha Collins.

“Well, Misha’s pretty cool,” says Nat. “But the best part of the trip is meeting our teammates! We don’t know the people in San Fran, or South America, or Chicago, or Tennessee, or Connecticut, so we’ll get to meet them all! It’s all going to be great.”

Why GISHWHES

For many GISHWHES players, the greatest reward isn’t the trip.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say things like, ‘I was suffering from agoraphobia. I hadn’t left my house to do more than go to the grocery store in two years. My friend coerced me into participating in GISHWHES, and it somehow broke things through for me,” recounts Collins. “Or, ‘I did GISHWHES and I changed my major in school to art,’ or, ‘I did GISHWHES and I decided to go back to school because of it.

“I mean, I don’t want to be too grandiose about it,” he adds. “I don’t want to make it sound like it’s all about that touchy-feely stuff. It is just a scavenger hunt. But people do have some remarkable experiences.”

Of course, there’s something in it for Collins, too. He’s proud of his seven Guinness World Records. The million-plus dollars raised for charity. The five Syrian refugee families housed and fed. The lives saved from bone-marrow donations. The mountain on Mars that NASA named after GISHWHES.

And he’s especially proud of the 2011 hunt item that required launching a fully decorated Christmas tree into the air with helium balloons.

“There was something just magical about that image, of watching Christmas trees float away. It was one of those ephemeral, magical moments,” Collins says.

“But we didn’t really think it through all the way. Because what happens if untethered is, the Christmas tree just floats away! And there were some regional airports that were closed due to, ‘Christmas trees in the airspace!’ I love that item, even though people’s flights were delayed because of it.”

Over the years, GISHWHES has grown from an impromptu game that Collins ran on Twitter for 300 fans to a truly international competition with 55,000 participants. And in that time, he’s had to add lawyers, and insurance, and a staff, and a website. Is there a danger that GISHWHES might become so Real and Official and Regulated that it loses its sense of chaotic, spontaneous, hilarious fun?

We want the tone of GISHWHES to remain irreverent and free spirited and kindhearted and challenging and humiliating,” he says. “But at the same time, we want it to grow to something that more people participate in. In my grandiose scheme, people all over the world dread the first week in August, because that’s when GISHWHES happens. That’s my ambition for our enterprise. And you know, we’ll see. If it keeps growing at this rate, by the year 2300, we might be a well-known outfit.”

More from David Pogue:

Inside the World’s Greatest Scavenger Hunt: Part 1    •  Part 2   •   Part 3  •  Part 4  •  Part 5

The David Pogue Review: Windows 10 Creators Update

Now I get it: Bitcoin

David Pogue tested 47 pill-reminder apps to find the best one

David Pogue’s search for the world’s best air-travel app

The little-known iPhone feature that lets blind people see with their fingers

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes nontoxic comments in the comments section below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can read all his articles here, or you can sign up to get his columns by email.