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The Most Dangerous Survivor Challenge In The History Of The Show

Despite no longer enjoying the cultural prominence that it did when the show dominated ratings in the early 2000s, Survivor continues to be a hit for CBS, and in February 2020 it premiered its 40th (not a typo) season, Survivor: Winners At War. The reality TV show is known for the extreme conditions contestants must endure to have a shot at the $1 million prize. Days without food or water, sleeping on bug infested beaches, and living through wind and rain with limited shelter have their way of separating the pretenders from the, well, survivors. The show's challenges, which decide who wins valuable rewards and immunity from being eliminated, have also frequently driven contestants to brink of collapse, and sometimes beyond.

From the classic gross food competitions that helped put the show on the map, to extreme feats of endurance and physical strength, the show's challenges are designed to test the will of the contestants. When a chocolate cake, a visit from a loved one, or the opportunity to ensure that you'll advance in the game are on the line, how far are you willing to push yourself?

Most of the time, these tests are difficult but ultimately harmless. However, there have been a few that have pushed the boundaries of safety, and even one that was so dangerous it scared its own designer.

The challenges that pushed contestants too far

Often, when challenges end in disaster on Survivor, the elements have as much to do with it as the challenge itself. The show's 11th season, Survivor: Guatemala, began with a grueling 11 mile overnight race through the dense rainforest, with the winning tribe getting a superior camp as their reward. With temperatures over 100 degrees and humidity that probably felt akin to hiking through a sauna, the trek would have been extreme even at a leisurely pace. In the end, the Nakum tribe won, but the race left multiple tribe members vomiting and passing out from dehydration and exhaustion. One even found himself poisoned by a thorny plant that pricked him during the hike.

Similar hot and humid conditions led to an incident that host Jeff Probst described as "the most frightened" he's ever been during filming (via Entertainment Weekly). In the fourth episode of the series' 32nd season, Survivor: Koah Rong, contestants faced a challenge that required them to dig up bags of balls that were hidden on the beach. Searching for the bags took nearly an hour of grueling work, and when the challenge was finished, multiple contestants collapsed from heat stroke and required medical attention. One contestant, 27 year old Caleb Reynolds, had to be medically evacuated from the game after his heart rate plummeted and it appeared to the medical team that he was at risk of dying.

Both of those contests ended in calamity, but neither were as dangerous as the one that the show's longtime challenge designer refused to run after back-to-back seasons of fearing for the lives of the contestants.

The challenge that was too dangerous for TV

Survivor superfans will know John Kirhoffer as the man who designs the challenges for the show. Since the first season, his creative mind has helped propel the series to new heights, and other than Probst, few people are as responsible for the show's continued success as he is. If anyone would know exactly what the most dangerous challenge ever featured on Survivor is, it would be him, and when the Huffington Post asked him that question in a February 2019 interview, he had an immediate answer.

The challenge in question was featured in seasons 21 and 22, Survivor: Nicaragua and Survivor: Redemption Island, which were filmed in the same location back to back. In the challenge, contestants were strapped to a large wheel that sat partially submerged over a tank of water. Their tribe mates would then turn the wheel to dunk their heads underwater so they could get a mouthful of liquid, which would then be spit into a tube to release a ball that would be used later in the challenge.

At first, this sounds fairly tame compared to a trek through the Guatemalan jungle. But when you consider that the players getting dunked had no control over when they were going underwater and the fact that contestants were encouraged to spin the wheel quickly, meaning the people on the wheel were getting dunked every few seconds, it becomes clear that there was a real danger of drowning for those on the wheel.

Thankfully no one was injured either time it was run, but regardless, Kirhoffer said, "we've never done it again, just because my hair's gray enough."