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Inside the World's Greatest Scavenger Hunt, Part 2

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 Part 2 of our five-part series that goes inside the hunt.

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

Part 2: The hunt begins

At 7:30 am on a bright Saturday morning, five members of Team Raised from Perdition gather near San Francisco. (The team name quotes the first line of dialogue ever spoken by Misha Collins on the cult hit show “Supernatural,” now in its twelfth season. He’s GISHWHES’s creator and organizer.)

The other 12 members of the team join by video conference, via Google Hangouts, from their homes in Florida, Connecticut, Illinois, Hawaii, Tennessee, and Brazil.

Although this is the team’s third year in the hunt, most have never met in person. They’ve never been all in one place. That’s typical for teams in this hunt, which is very much a creation of the Internet.

Jason Sarten, an opera singer, reads off this year’s list, which includes items like:

  • Get dental work done while a string quartet plays live music in the room.

  • Enjoy some green eggs and ham (sunny-side up) on a boat with a goat.

  • Provide evidence of having helped at least 10 eligible United States citizens to register to vote.

  • Paint a portrait of a live model while both you and the model are scuba diving.

  • Get an Amazon senior executive to order a small item from you, in a timestamped email. Using a drone, deliver the item to the executive (who must be waiting outside the office building) in less than one hour.

Over 3,000 teams sign up to play GISHWHES each year, and there are nearly as many styles of running the hunt. On some teams, there’s nobody in charge. On others, there’s a captain who organizes but doesn’t actually perform any of the items. Flake-outs—people who say they’ll participate, but are no-shows when the hunt begins—are a common problem.

Team Raised from Perdition is run by a pair of co-captains, Nina Mostepan and Geoff McAnally, who also perform tasks. (In real life, Mostepan teaches at an Early Start program for the deaf and hard of hearing, and McAnally is an American sign language interpreter.)

The corn-husk gown

One reason Raised From Perdition starts off the week with a group pow-wow: To let the team members claim the items they’re good at.

For example, in Vancouver, Rob Fitz-James and Shiane Gailey live together and compete together. (He owns a tree stump-removal company; she’s a children’s entertainer.)

They have radically different skills. “We work well as a team because I’m outgoing and I’ll go and do stuff in person; she’s able to manage social media, uploading, and photo and video editing,” Rob says.

Shiane, fortunately for the team, is also wildly creative. After the hunt-launch meeting, she jumps on item 23: “Make this year’s must-have fashion statement: the Corn Husk Evening Wear!”

Rob persuades a local thrift shop to donate a Justin Bieber bedsheet. (“Thankfully, someone grew out of a horrible phase in their life,” he says.) Shiane duct-tapes corn husks to a hoop skirt—well, the front half, the part that would be visible in the photo. “Then we spray-painted it red and yellow to make flames, and then we went downtown,” she says. “I assembled that thing onto myself in a fancy part of time, and took the picture at the Convention Center. (We got permission, of course.)”

There were funny looks, she says, but she checked off item 23 as completed on the team’s master Google Sheets spreadsheet.

Corn Husk Evening Wear!
Corn Husk Evening Wear!

The space balloon

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, Tia is struggling with item 153: “Secure a legitimate contract with Space X, NASA, etc., to send a message into space, addressed to the universe and written by a child. You must submit evidence that your payload was successfully launched into orbit.”

It sounds impossible. Like NASA is going to carry a scavenger-hunt player’s note into space on short notice?

No wonder item 153 is worth more points (314) than anything else on the list.

Frantic, Tia Googles until she comes across a British company called SentIntoSpace.com. They sell near-space helium balloon kits to schools, hobbyists, marketers, and filmmakers, including everything they need to send small payloads into near space. Incredibly, the company responds to her email and agrees to donate a balloon to the cause.

Destination: space!

The launch goes well; the landing, not so much. Upon its return from space, the balloon blows off course and becomes ensnared high in the treetops of a dense, mountainous forest.

Tia and her team of friends search until nightfall, following the signals of the satellite tracker in the payload box—but can’t find the thing. And without recovering the two GoPro cameras in its payload box, she won’t have the footage of space she needed.

And without that—no credit for item 153, and little chance of winning GISHWHES. Deeply discouraged, she returns home.

When things go wrong

Item 153 isn’t the only GISHWHES item that’s ever gone wrong. Almost every year, an item or two disappears from the list after the hunt is under way. That’s when GISHWHES mastermind Misha Collins realizes too late that he’s created a dangerous or foolhardy challenge.

“There have been people who have been arrested and court martialed and injured during the course of various GISHWHES over the years,” he says. “The second year, we had an item on the list that was, ‘Wrap yourself up in Christmas-tree lights. Plug them in and stand on the roof of a house.’

“And the very first day of the hunt, some of the submissions came in. And one of them was a photo of somebody standing on the peak of a three-story house, right at the edge, on the eave, completely entangled and ensnared in Christmas tree lights. And I immediately thought, ‘WHAT HAVE WE DONE?! There is no way that we can run this scavenger hunt and have somebody not perish from this item!’

“So I immediately sent out an e-mail saying, ‘Do not do the Christmas-tree lights on the roof item! Terrible idea.’

“And so that was sort of an ‘Aha!’ moment for me when I realized, ‘Oh, there are a lot of people who are doing whatever I say. I can’t just come up with whatever pops into my head and have them carry it out.”

The hunt is on

In 100 countries around the world, teams are sacrificing sleep, health, and me time as they scramble to knock off items on the list.

More or less simultaneously, they’re all discovering what Team Raised from Perdition has learned: that it’s very hard to get an item into orbit on short notice, that goats don’t much enjoy floating in boats, and that Amazon.com has no intention of permitting its executives to participate in item 161.

Join us for Part 3 of this series, which dives into the charitable side of GISHWHES—and documents the biggest water-balloon battle ever staged.

Well, in San Francisco.

In Dolores Park.

That we know of.

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

More from David Pogue:

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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.