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How to win the World's Greatest Scavenger Hunt

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 Part 4 of our five-part series. 

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

Part 4: How to Win GISHWHES

In the early years of the world’s largest scavenger hunt, when you signed up to enter, you’d have to answer only one question: Have you put together your own team of 15 people? Or would you like us to add you to a team?

But sometimes, the team-building system failed—because people came in with different expectations.

Florida State University students Nat Jones and Kira Sullivan, for example, had a rough ride during their first years competing. “In our first years of the hunt, we were on teams that weren’t as competitive as the one we’re on now [Team Raised from Perdition],” Kira says.

“We were in it to win it, but no one else on our team was,” Nat adds. “They saw us as too competitive: ‘Why are you guys so obsessed with GISHWHES?’”

(Lots of people join just for the hilarity of it, without any intention of completing all 175 items. Some, for example, choose to execute only a few, but in spectacular fashion. GISHWHES offers two showcases for such masterpieces: an online Hall of Fame, and a hardbound coffee-table book that’s published after each year’s hunt.)

That’s why, nowadays, when you sign up to enter, the site asks which kind of team you’re interested in. Do you intend to play competitively, or are you joining just for fun?

Tips from the Pros

If you do intend to enter GISHWHES competitively, Team Raised from Perdition—a runner-up last year, and the team we’ve been following in this miniseries—offers some tips.

  • “Fill the team with a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Spend some time bonding before the hunt.” —Suzanne Simpson
  • “You can’t win if everyone’s not 100% committed. I’m talking, no work for the whole week, no school for the whole week, no anything but GISHWHES for the whole week.” —Nina Mostepan, Co-Captain
  • “Another really essential skill to have in GISHWHES is the ability to not sleep for long periods of time. This year, I went for three and a half days on less than four hours of sleep.” —Christine Gervais
  • “A lot of teams struggle with keeping communications going. We talk to our team all the time [using a system like Slack or Google Hangouts]. Even all year long, we talk to them. We do a lot of practices, too.” —Shiane Gaylie
  • “Strategize in advance. You can look at past years’ item lists, and items created by top teams, for inspiration.” —Suzanne Simpson
  • “A good strategy is to have more than one person in a town. You have to have someone modeling, and someone taking the pictures. And someone to bounce ideas off of, or talk in the car on the way to the place you’re going to.” —Nat Jones
  • “Recruit a friend or family. Gishing is very social, so it’s always more fun if you have someone to do it with.” —Kira Sullivan
  • “We have a spreadsheet [a Google Docs sheet] full of all our items, and we claim them on the spreadsheet, so that everyone on the team knows who’s doing what.” —Shiane Gaylie
  • “We make up a laminated list of the items. So when we’re talking to someone about helping us with one of the challenges, we start by handing them the list, show them which item we need help with. It has explanations of everything that’s going on. A lot of the time, they’re like, ‘Hold on, I need five minutes to read this.’ (Laminated versus not laminated makes a miraculous difference. You don’t want to hand someone a piece of paper that’s floppy and has stains on it.)”—Rob Fitz-James
  • “We’re fortunate that we have a good camera, but some of our team members just use their phones. If you pay attention to composition and lighting, the results can be just as good.” —Kira Sullivan

The week winds down

So far, for Team Raised from Perdition, it looks like those tips are paying off; as GISHWHES week draws to a close, only three of the 175 tasks seem unattainable. Unfortunately, one of them is worth a lot of points:

#127.  Do the “airplane” with an astronaut—you know, like your parents used to? Lie on your back with your feet in the air while an astronaut lies face-down, hips on your feet, hands in yours, pretending to be flying. This must be a real, official astronaut or cosmonaut, wearing appropriate flight garb.

NASA’s official response to team requests for an astronaut for this purpose is, of course, “Um, no thanks.”

(Overall, though, NASA has a good relationship with GISHWHES. “One year, we put an item in the hunt that was to get one of the eight astronauts on the space station Mir to hold up a piece of paper that said ‘GISHWHES’ and your team name written on it,” says hunt creator Misha Collins. “Which resulted in all of the people on the space station having their social-media feeds bombarded. And so NASA posted, ‘Please leave our astronauts alone. They’re doing serious work.’ So the next year, I put an item into the hunt that read, ‘Last year, NASA asked us to leave them alone. We know that they’ve been kicking themselves all year for this. So here’s your second chance. Get ‘GISHWHES’ written in space.” NASA ended up naming a mountain on Mars ‘GISHWHES,’ maybe just to shut everybody up.”)

Things are going more smoothly for item 41:

#41. Treat a Vermont dairy cow to the most pampered milking session in human/bovine history. At least three attendants must milk the cow. One person must be feeding her clover by hand, as another milks her wearing satin gloves, as another massages her gently. The attendants must be dressed in semi-formal attire. The milking must take place in a well-appointed living room.

By a stroke of good luck, Tia’s step-grandmother Janet Watton lives in Vermont—next door to a dairy farm. By a stroke of bad luck, the farmer informs the team that you can’t bring a cow indoors. Cows don’t respond well to new environments, and even Paula Deen, the sweet-natured cow he has in mind, might balk—or, worse, rampage.

Janet devises a plan B: In her small barn, there’s a space that she can dress up to look like a living room. She sheetrocks the walls with posterboard, hangs curtains and a chandelier, brings in furniture, books, flowers, paintings. It’s not an actual living room, but it’s close enough for GISHWHES work.

On the last day of the hunt, the attendants, including a violinist, arrive in formal wear; the farmer sets up to do the milking; and Paula Deen takes her place. Distracted by the bucket of delicious fresh-picked clover, she performs like a champ as the camera rolls. “She didn’t even relieve herself,” the farmer marvels.

The cow is in the can; now all the team needs is an astronaut.

They have six hours left.

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

More from David Pogue:

Inside the World’s Greatest Scavenger Hunt: Part I

Inside the World’s Greatest Scavenger Hunt: Part 2

Insider the World’s Greatest Scavenger Hunt: Part 3

The David Pogue Review: Windows 10 Creators Update

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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.