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One of the most exciting parts of any “Survivor” press junket is the day the press gets to participate in an immunity challenge against Jeff Probst’s beloved “Dream Team.” (Quick Note: The Dream Team is a collection of athletic young men and women who test out the challenges to make sure they’re safe, fair, and exciting.) This exhibition lets us know how grueling the challenges are, it lets us experience the stress of competing in front of a ton of people, and it gives Jeff Probst a chance to yell at us.
I’ve had a blast competing in these events over the years. Mainly because the dynamic has shifted from the press being humiliated by the younger, stronger, better-looking, better-smelling Dream Team to the press actually being able to hold their own.
In fact, ever since my first loss in Gabon I’ve managed to rack up an Ozzy-esque five consecutive victories. Now, you may think winning exhibition challenges in a reality show isn’t a big deal, but I fully intend to have “Five Straight Immunity Challenge Victories” inscribed on my tombstone, Royal Tenenbaum-style.
The Immunity Challenge:
All three of the tribes will sprint down a tilted runway into a pile of hay. Once they manage to free themselves from the hay, they’ll have to maneuver over a high-step obstacle.
Then it gets tricky. One member from each tribe will have to release a ladder from a box. To do this, they’ll either have to untie about a jillion knots.
From there, they’ll use the ladder to climb up a platform, cross to a second platform, and then climb down.
Next up, they’ll have to pass the ladder through two table puzzles.
Finally, our poor, overworked ladder will be used to retrieve one of three bags of puzzle pieces. The puzzles come in different varieties…
- A 50-Piece Puzzle – Basically a picture puzzle made of squares.
- A 10-Piece Puzzle – A tree-shaped puzzle similar to the one used in “Survivor: One World.”
- A 5-Piece Puzzle – The player must use five flat shapes to create a perfect, 2-D square.
The 50-piece puzzle is the easiest, but takes the longest to complete, the five piece can be done in ten seconds if you can figure out how it works, and the ten piece is somewhere in the middle.
One person from each tribe will tackle the puzzle. The first tribe to complete their puzzle wins bragging rights and first dibs on sandwiches from craft services.
There would only be two actual journalists competing in this little exhibition; myself and “Survivor” Hall of Famer Parvati Shallow. So, we would had to fill out the rest of our tribe ranks with Dream Teamers.
But, if He-Man could partner with Skeletor to take out Hordak, I guess I could team up with my mortal enemies to take down a former “Survivor” champ.
The third team would be led by Samantha, the daughter (and for this trip, the assistant) of CBS’s lovable photographer Monty Brinton.
As the guy who lives behind a computer, it made sense that I’d be White Collar leader. Yoga superstar Parvati headed up the No Collar tribe. And, Samantha was Blue Collar pretty much by default.
The 2nd Twist:
This challenge is all about choices. How do you free the ladder? Which puzzle do you choose? So, Challenge Producer John Kirhoffer insisted that Parvati, Samantha, and I do all of the tasks for our tribe. He claimed that he wanted to pick our brains afterward to see why we made our choices, but I bet he really wanted one of us to be solely responsible for our tribe’s loss. Oh good, no pressure.
The False Start:
The three of us climbed to the top of the ramp and started to talk strategy with our teammates. To add to the degree of difficulty, Kirhoffer made them promise to not give us any tips. While I was deciding which Dream Teamer would be the one we’d send up after the puzzle pieces, I heard a familiar, Emmy-winning voice yell out, “Survivors, ready?!”
In unison, Parvati and I both rushed to the front of the platform and screamed back, “NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!”
Everybody had a good laugh at that.
Probst laughed himself, then gave me grief for not giving him a warmer welcome. I told him I was in the middle of something, but would be sure to give him a sweaty post-victory hug when I was done.
The Real Deal:
Once the strategy session was over, we took our marks. Probst started the festivities with his trademark line and we were off.
Now, most people simply ran down the ramp and into the hay, then stomped around to free themselves. I had a different, probably dumber strategy; I ran down the ramp, then tucked into a forward roll. Yeah, I might’ve gotten hay in every orifice in my head, but I cannonballed right through that mess and was the first one into the next obstacle.
With my tribe right behind me, I was the first one through the high-step course. I went to work on the knots with a slight lead.
Why did I choose the knots? Honestly, the locks scared me. I’d done really well with the knots in the Philippines and I knew no matter what I’d be able to finish. I worried that a rusty lock or a faulty key could cause some serious problems.
(Note: A few days later when Probst walked the actual players through the challenge, he showed them that the locks are perfectly fine. They may look old and rusty, but they’re totally functional.)
Parvati decided to try the locks, while Stephanie took on the knots.
All the knots…
So many knots…
Actually, twenty ropes of ten knots apiece for a grand total of 200 knots.
When I was done with a rope, I’d pull it completely out of the hole so we’d have no problem freeing the ladder. This strategy led to a pretty nasty rope burn on my hand. As I looked down at my bleeding finger, Probst gleefully shouted out, “Holmes is worried about his manicure!”
No sympathy from that guy.
Meanwhile, Parvati was killing the locks. In fact, she had opened all three of them and removed her ladder while I still had about ten ropes to go.
To make matters worse, I looked back and Samantha had about seven ropes to go.
Samantha would later tell me that she was hooking her thumbs in the ropes and pulling them apart while I had been griping the individual ropes.
Samantha destroyed me. I went in a with a lead and she passed me by a significant margin.
Probst was loving it.
Eventually, I learned that there’s one thing worse than Jeff Probst standing over you and saying things like, “Your 401K can’t save you now, Holmes!” in front of the entire “Survivor” crew. And that’s when he has to stop making fun of you so he can rush to the end of the challenge to call Parvati and Samantha working on their puzzles.
Yes, it was that bad.
With numb fingers and a bruised ego I finally got through that 200th knot. My compassionate teammates hopped into action as we tried to salvage the challenge. We were quick to get up, across, and over the platforms.
Then, as we were plowing through the two table puzzles, I noticed that the other tribes weren’t celebrating just yet. Apparently Parvati had chosen the five-piece puzzle, Samantha had chosen the ten-piece, and neither had made any significant progress. Now, I had a decision to make.
Going into the challenge, I thought I’d go for the 50-piece puzzle if I had a lead. And, if I was behind I’d go for the 10-piece. Thinking of how difficult that five-piece puzzle must be completely psyched me out. I wasn’t going near that one.
We quickly retrieved the ten-piece bag and I went to work. I emptied all of the pieces onto one side and one by one, rotated them around the tree-shaped frame looking for a combo that fit…and I didn’t find one. Uh oh.
It was at this point that both Parvati and Samantha made the call to switch to the 50-piece puzzle. Now we’d all pretty much be starting from scratch.
I kept with my strategy. Eventually it dawned on me that there was some empty space in the puzzle. Once I figured that out, it was off to the races. With each piece that I put into place, the puzzle got easier and easier. Even Probst had to admit that I was in the midst of a miracle comeback.
And once that tenth and final piece was secure, I was finally able to give Probst that sweaty embrace I had promised him.
After I shared hugs and high-fives with my Dream Teamer besties, Probst took me aside and made a simple request…
“You know, you can go talk trash to Parvati if you want.”
And talk trash I did.
As I strolled over to my press team sibling, I noticed that Samantha was getting the best of the situation. Parvati tried to ignore me, but I managed to get in her ear and convince her to switch to the ten-piece. However, by the time that bag was opened, the challenge was over and the No Collars were on the losing end.
When it was all said and done, we went over our strategies and hypothesized as to which ones we thought the future players would undertake. The Dream Teamers admitted that the locks were always the way to go and that the five-piece puzzle is a nightmare if you don’t know the trick.
Personally, I came to the conclusion that my hay approach was foolproof, my knot skills could use some work, the Dream Teamers aren’t so bad, and my Tenenbaum tombstone will now have to read “Six Straight Immunity Challenge Victories.”
Don’t miss the 90-minute premiere of “Survivor: Worlds Apart” on Wednesday, February 25, 2015 at 8 pm ET on CBS.