How a game saved one man’s life

June 26, 2019
5 minute read
Last updated June 26, 2019

Why are games—which can be frustrating, hard, and repetitive—so much fun while work, well, isn’t? What makes puzzles and solitaire fun, but doing your taxes and reports dreadful?

The answer can be found in a story of one mountain, two men, six miles, and a lot of snow. 

The story of Joe Simpson

The bottom of a cold, dark, and secluded hundred-foot abyss: that was the rock bottom mountaineer Joe Simpson hit in 1985. 

Clothed in full mountain gear, Joe and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, stood at the top of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, the largest mountain in the Southern Hemisphere. Its 4,500-foot western face had never before been climbed, and Simon and Joe were the first ones to do it. 

Ecstatic to have accomplished such a monumental task, they just had to descend the mountain. But that’s where 80% of climbing accidents happen. And this was no exception.

While going down the mountain, Joe, tired and exhausted, slipped and fell. His leg was shattered. 

It was morning, and they were still high up in the mountains where rescue teams couldn’t easily reach them. Both Joe and Simon knew it was a matter of time before Joe would die. But they had hope that everything would be okay. 

And that’s when things went terribly wrong. 

The descent into darkness

Simon connected himself to Joe with a rope. Using his own body as the anchor, he slowly lowered Joe and then himself. Progress was excruciatingly slow. After a while, the snowfall was so dense Simon could barely see what he was doing. 

They did this for a half a day until suddenly, Joe slid from the edge of the mountain and into the crevasse. Simon was almost pulled down with Joe, but he dug his feet deep into the snow and managed to stop himself from falling. 

Joe was hanging in mid-air, unable to see more than two feet in any direction. The mountaineers couldn’t see or hear each other. Joe felt the rope jerking until suddenly, the rope tore and he started falling down into the abyss.

Joe fell about 15 stories; he woke up in a pile of snow in the crevasse. He used his flashlight and realized he had fallen onto an ice bridge—just two feet to the right and he would have been gone. 

A dire situation

Joe pulled the rope, and the more he pulled, the lighter the rope felt. He soon realized it had been cut. But he didn’t blame Simon—cutting the rope was what he and every other mountaineer would have done in the same situation. 

But this meant one thing; Simon thought Joe was dead, and there was no way for Joe to communicate otherwise.

So he took the rope, tied one end of it, and with his frozen, frostbitten hands, half his leg shattered, and his entire body bruised, he went the only way he could—further down into the pitch-black crevasse. 

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After a few hours of dragging and pulling, Joe found hope in a ray of sunlight. But the moment of ecstasy was fleeting. To reach the source of the light, he had to climb a 130-foot tall slope at a 45-degree angle. With the snow, frostbite, and his tortured leg, it felt like crawling across sand. 

But Joe somehow pulled himself up … and up … and up, until he finally hit the surface. There, he took a moment to rest his torn body and rejoice in his victory—he was at the base of the mountain! But then he realized that his base camp was six miles away

And this is where Joe started playing the game of life. 

The game of life.

“Can I make it to that glacier in 20 minutes?” Joe asked himself. And if he managed to do it, he was elated. If not, he used the rage as fuel to push him further.

Once he reached his checkpoint, he played the same game over and over.

”Can I reach the snowbank in 10 minutes?”

He slowly dragged his limp, exhausted body through the challenges he set up for himself. 

As Joe said in his book “Touching the Void”, “An excited tingle ran down my spine. I was committed. The game had taken over, and I could no longer choose to walk away from it.”

The snow was forgiving, but when he dragged his body over rock, it felt like broken glass had penetrated his body—but Joe kept playing. 

After four days, Joe Simpson won his game of life. 

Having collapsed in a pile of manure not far from camp, Joe—delirious by this point—called out for his partner. 

“Simon! Simon!”

Nothing at first, but then a flashlight appeared in the distance. Simon rushed over, pulled Joe from the heap, and held him tight while they both cried with relief.

Make work into a game—and win.

So why does one task feel frustrating, hard, and repetitive while another task feels fun? It’s all about mindset, and the story you choose to tell yourself. 

Joe Simpson could have seen the odds stacked against him and succumb to a fixed mindset. But he made it into a game with: 

  • clear goals (reach the glacier in twenty minutes)
  • checkpoints (glaciers, snowbanks, rock formations, the lake)
  • rewards (awesome feeling of accomplishments)
  • punishments (rage used as a motivational fuel)

People fail around 80% of the games they play, but that doesn’t stop them from trying again. When you choose to see obstacles as fun challenges to overcome, hard work becomes exciting and invigorating rather than frustrating. 

How will you use the same gamification elements Joe did in your business to push yourself and your team members into better, winning situations?