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The Gnarliest Finales Ever On MTV's The Challenge, Ranked

If we think of "gnarly" as dangerous, difficult, and challenging, MTV's "The Challenge" ticks all of the boxes. Having been on our screens since 1998, viewers follow a crop of contestants as they battle it out for a hefty cash prize across a series of perilous trials. Long-time fans will see their favorite finalists compete more than once across the reality show's 38 seasons, with mini-franchises like "Battle of the Sexes" and "The Inferno" developing every few years. The show has everything a reality TV fan could ask for, rounded out with an epic team-based finale.

Whether rooting for their favorites or delving into possible conspiracy theories, viewers hold the season finales of "The Challenge" in extremely high regard. Known for its unforgettable spats and thrilling races, the show has consistently packed the punches where it counts. With great casting, jaw-dropping locations, and checkpoints that are enough to make the fittest athletes collapse in exhaustion, it's no surprise that "The Challenge" has already been commissioned for Seasons 38 and 39 (per Variety). While we wait to devour those, here are the gnarliest finales on "The Challenge," ranked.

14. Season 37 - Spies, Lies, and Allies (2021)

"The Challenge" may have been on our screens since 1998, but the more recent seasons are still bringing the drama. With an 8.2 rating on IMDb, the Season 37 "Spies, Lies, and Allies" finale has quickly become a fan favorite. This time, it's the race to Rich Mountain, with the finalists battling it out for an impressive $1 million in the heart of Croatia. The remaining eight contestants work through ropes and chains to release a cage with a safe inside — except part of that code is hidden at the bottom of nearby waters. It's clear that some players — notably Nelson in the Orange team — aren't the best swimmers, and quickly struggle to free dive and memorize important numbers at the same time.

Fast forward to later on in the finale and team members are jumping out of helicopters into lakes, screaming at the camera as they scrabble over rocks on the unstable mountainside. The efforts don't exactly pay off though, with the Orange team having to go through a round of same-sex faceoffs. The alliances made earlier in the season are put to the test, with the brutal elimination of each other at the final hurdle feeling like something out of "War of the Worlds." In the end, Kaycee and CT decide to split the money, opting for hard work and friendship over typical reality TV levels of drama.

13. Season 30 - Dirty 30 (2017)

Though it's really frustrating that we don't find out who wins until the later reunion episode, the finale of the "Dirty 30" season of "The Challenge" gives as good as it gets. After lugging some incredibly heavy stones across an Argentinian maze, the finale starts off on a relatively low-key note. The contestants get stuck into cracking puzzles and throwing bolas — which are Incan weapons used to hunt llamas — in order to decide who competes with who in the final round. Luckily, no llamas are harmed in the process, but the puzzles set the stage for when the action really kicks off.

In the final showdown, the players have to climb up the side of a mountain against the clock, and it's here the danger and drama kick up a notch. Camila has a full-on meltdown and temper tantrum, swearing at her teammates while they look on. Though Camila stays irritable as the contestants reach their mountain camp, it's clear that the others are loving watching the emotional breakdown. Cruel? Maybe. But the tension between the two sides makes for an unforgettable finale.

12. Season 21 - Rivals (2011)

Sometimes, the finale episodes in "The Challenge" are so tough that players want to call it a day before they reach the finish line — and in this instance, two teams quit on the spot. In the "Rivals" season finale, TJ announces that the players will be racing to the top of a mountain to unlock a box, and it's a climb that would make the most experienced of climbers shake in their boots. From here, chaos ensues as we follow the contestants scrambling up rocks with cameras strapped to their fronts so we're right in the thick of the action. Mike and Leroy are quickly throwing up, while Paula bursts into tears mid-challenge — with teammate Evelyn yelling at her to get it together.

As far as season finales go, this is one of the more eventful ones — and provides a strong argument against the criticisms of the show being fake. The eating challenge ends in a dangerous hamstring cramp, with Mike and Leroy hobbling out of base camp looking incredibly sorry for themselves. Not only does "Rivals" seem like it laid out the hardest finale to date, but it's also the redemption arc for Paula. Finally winning a challenge, long-time fans of the show watch her progress from underdog to powerhouse champion.

11. Season 5 - Battle of the Seasons (2002)

For the fifth season of "The Challenge," the prize pot was a competitive $300,000, which was plenty of cash to bring some of our favorites back for a dangerous showdown. The crux of the finale is made up of the ultimate relay race, with the "Ultimate Teams" getting to delegate which members do what. The two teams race across the waters in kayaks to unhook a fish, before deep-diving into the sea to retrieve the next set of fish. They then have to swim in tandem to complete the final challenge, with the finish line waiting for them after a grueling ladder climb.

The list of challenges is exhausting just to read — let alone execute — so it's no surprise that the "Battle of the Seasons" finale has maintained a high level of difficulty. Filmed in sunny Mexico, the format of the season also makes for a much more gnarly finale, with the teams being made up of pairs originating from the same season. Alliances win out and Team Real World takes home the cash, and it's safe to say swimming for fish makes the spring break location look like an episode of "Survivor."

10. Season 3 - Challenge 2000 (2000)

Back in 2000, no one really knew what the new millennium was going to hold. For the producers behind "The Challenge," their iconic "Challenge 2000" season resulted in a partial prize fund dedicated to E-trade online investments. To get there, the teams traveled on a tour bus toward the east coast, with two of the contestants fuelling a feud all the way to the season finale. Not only is the final episode explosive because of the tension between contestants Amaya and Veronica, but the finalists learn that what stands between them and the prize pot is a free-falling solo skydive.

Nowadays, a trip to a sky diving center seems like a fun day out, but back in 2000, the thought put fear into even the strongest of contestants. The cross-country vibes meant the season had a feel like no other, uniquely setting the finalists up to tear each other down rather than form alliances. On top of all that, the winners also got a brand-new car — which was arguably a more useful prize than investing in the fledgling internet.

9. Season 20 - Cutthroat (2010)

Unlike the tropical settings in past seasons, the finalists during Season 20 "Cutthroat" had their showdown in the Czech Republic for $500,000. Favorites such as Emily and Jenn come out of the questionably named "gulag" challenges and dive head-first into firing paintball guns at their teammates. There's a classic feel to these games but that doesn't make them any less engaging — proving the point that sometimes less is more when it comes to amazing reality drama.

The best visual of them all comes from the finalists pushing their bodies to the limit by flipping tires across a tarmac obstacle course. There's visible blood, sweat, and tears here, accented by the need to memorize an important set of signs — all written in Czech. Brad, Dunbar, Tori, and Tyler all have to crawl through mud to try and win their cash, with a mammoth swim across a giant lake also waiting to get the best of them. The final moments see players sprint for their lives to the top of Bezděz Castle — providing a dramatic backdrop for the equally climactic challenge.

8. Season 19 - Fresh Meat II (2010)

How could a finale of "The Challenge" get any more difficult? Season 19 — titled "Fresh Meat II" — seeks to answer this by throwing in some mountain biking for good measure. There are plenty of signature show moments for fans to enjoy, with the teams kicking things off with a laborious canoe journey across to a giant lake puzzle. From there, pairs must complete the game to be able to cycle to the final mountain to climb. The catch? The bikes must stay tied together at all times.

Pushing their bodies through different physical challenges is grueling at the best of times, let alone when the competitors must rely on each other to succeed. If that's not enough, the players must climb the mountain kitted out with a heavy bag, before tackling the final ascent with ice axes and helmet. "Fresh Meat II" truly doubles down the drama and high stakes — and it might all be worth it for $200,000. Landon and Carley have tears in their eyes as they take the victory — though not as much as Jenn and Noor who leave empty-handed.

7. Season 17 - The Duel II (2009)

A season finale of "The Challenge" is often at its best when the creative team throws everything and the kitchen sink at it — which is exactly what "The Duel II" did back in 2009. Typically, a finale episode hones in on one type of grueling activity — whether that's a deathly climb up the side of a mountain or a perilous journey crossing a lake. In Season 17, however, our finalists have to do it all. Filmed in New Zealand, fans see favorites from "Fresh Meat," "The Real World," and "Road Rules" competing for $100,000.

Our players ride into the final battle on jet boats, jumping into a river before hauling themselves out with a piece of rope. After the first puzzle, the teams climb a pole to unlock a mountain bike, riding to the challenge of schlepping themselves and a teammate to the next checkpoint while tied to an iron ring. If that wasn't enough, a sled ride filled with dirt waits before the next checkpoint, with the final push being a punishing ascent to an ancient Maori carving. "The Challenge" doesn't do things by halves, but the sequel to "The Duel" lives on as one of the wildest finales ever seen.

6. Season 8 - The Inferno (2004)

As the first in "The Inferno" series, Season 8 took the gang back to Mexico for an even gnarlier ride. Comprised of "The Real World" competitors, our winners ended up taking home a grand total of $260,000. Before the final inferno took hold, the drama was particularly explosive between Katie and Veronica. Their sparring meant that the pair almost didn't make it through the final episode — with a palpable tension between the two since the beginning of the season. From carrying each other across beaches to calling out ambulances as contestants started to faint, the finale was full of surprises at dizzying heights.

The main obstacle of the season finale was a bungee descent into a valley, with players only being secured by their ankles. Cue teammates screaming, shouting, and crying at each other, with the cameras strapped to their helmets capturing every stomach-churning detail. If that wasn't bad enough, the winners looked set to succeed from the outset — with a team of 8 competing against a team of 4. Not that many of them noticed this, keeping their eyes shut as they were each pushed off the crane.

5. Season 6 - Battle of the Sexes (2002)

The best finales of "The Challenge" are usually ones where there is a separate conspiracy afoot — and the original "Battle of the Sexes" season certainly delivered. As one of the first seasons to introduce long-standing gameplay, the show delivers exactly what it promises with the classic guys vs. girls standoff. The catch, however, is that at eliminations, an "Inner Circle" forms to decide who gets the chop. It's brutal but brilliant, with contestants pitted against each other until the closing moments of the season finale. In this case, the boys win out, with Mark, Colin, and Jamie taking a cash prize of $150,000.

Though the premise seems simplistic, the guy's team was quick to cause plenty of drama. In the final challenge, viewers accused them of cheating against the girls after taking apart one of their puzzles even though they had already completed it. Tensions between the two were high as it was, as accusations of cheating and an off-camera marriage each helped to build the foundations for an extremely fraught finale. As far as gnarly goes, the biggest danger in this season of "The Challenge" might have been between the contestants themselves.

4. Season 18 - The Ruins (2009)

When the competition in "The Challenge" gets really good, you can't tell who is going to win until the very end. Such was the case with "The Ruins," which had already been teed up by a contestant love triangle and a popped breast implant (via Us Weekly). The prize stakes increased to $300,000, so by the episode's closing moments, it was an all-out war. The finalists started out with a grueling eating challenge, promptly vomiting in unison in front of a surrounding camera crew. After their stomachs had just about settled, the teams had to cross a perilous set of balance beams leading into a bamboo maze, with a final crossing through a mud pit waiting before the checkpoint.

Set in Thailand, much of the finale's success was arguably down to casting. Not only were the teams willing to dive head-first into anything, but their wild and crazy personalities perfectly offset the stunning location and difficult challenges. To make things even more exciting, one team gets lost on the way to one of the checkpoints while the other team was simultaneously starting to flag in energy, making it a real nail-biter conclusion. If there's something "The Challenge" can always achieve, it's pushing their cast to breaking point and providing excellent entertainment in the process.

3. Season 25 - Free Agents (2014)

Season 25 of "The Challenge" was the first season since Season 11 that didn't include any existing cast member from "Real World" or "Fresh Meat," making the "Free Agents" finale destined to be something extra special. Though the episode is titled "A Walk In The Clouds," contestants were faced with a final challenge on an active volcano as they raced to win $350,000. The final was divided into five sections, kicking off with a timed kayak ride to reach the starting point of a 10k run. Pushing the finalists to their physical limits, the mountain trail leads to an ascent up a rocky mountainside, before each player must cycle 25 miles on a stationary bike.

While the first four stages were a game of speed, the fifth challenge is an ascent up a snow-covered slope to reach the finish line. Filmed across Uruguay and Chile, the finale had a completely different feel to the seasons in places like Mexico and Thailand. Instead of appearing as a good time on a beach, this season of "The Challenge" really lives up to the show's name and gives it a sense of adventure — with the breathless and nauseous contestants only proving that further.

2. Season 7 - The Gauntlet (2003)

Boasting an impressive perfect 10 score on IMDb, the season finale of "The Gauntlet" easily goes down in "The Challenge" history. Filmed in Colorado, players had a series of classic games standing between them and the final prize pot. From being strapped on to a mechanical bull to jousting on a beam hanging over a lake, Season 7 was one of the first — and most memorable — instances of the show pushing itself out of its comfort zone. If that wasn't enough, the finale included constants being suspended upside down while 10 feet in the air, before having to climb up a pole to make their next checkpoint.

The season finale also marked one of the first real instances of gnarly contestant drama. At the beginning of the episode, Coral is forced to leave the competition due to illness, putting an extra, last-minute strain on her teammates. That being said, it wasn't all bad news, as the winners now received $25,000 each. This grueling final episode clearly took its toll on the competitors, and there are bucketloads of tension between the remaining finalists.

1. Season 9 - Battle of the Sexes II (2004)

When it comes to season finales of "The Challenge," they don't get better than "Battle of the Sexes II." Also rated with a perfect 10 score on IMDb, the episode has no shortage of wild challenges or contestant drama. Before the challenges even get underway, the show opens with players shouting at each other, pointing fingers, and swearing — perfectly setting the stage for the ensuing antics. Filmed in Santa Fe, the remaining contestants are dropped in the middle of the desert without knowing exactly where they are, only equipped with a tracking device to find their way to the checkpoints.

If a blind scavenger hunt in the middle of the desert wasn't gnarly enough, the finalists also had to do a fair amount of paragliding just to get there. Though there are no canoe rides, lake puzzles, or mountain hikes that "The Challenge" became known for, there is plenty of tension between the contestants. Constantly arguing with each other, one of the male players is seen slapping another — later being made to apologize for his behavior (via MTV). Maybe it was the desert setting, but the "Battle of the Sexes II" finale brought the heat in more ways than one.