Thoughts after Climbing Mt. Rainier

Last month I climbed Mt. Rainier and while I’m glad I did it, it was also one of the most grueling and unpleasant experiences of my life. Strangely, the more time goes by the more fondly I remember it so I wanted to write down these thoughts while they’re still fresh.

I climbed Mt. Rainier because my dad did it back in 1982 when he was 40. I was 4 years old at the time and ever since then I’ve just assumed I’d climb it too, in that distant future (2018) when I’d be 40. I don’t have any special affinity for mountaineering but it seemed like a fun, dramatic way to celebrate that milestone.

What was so unpleasant?

The physical aspects of the climb are the most obvious challenge. Getting up and down Rainier from basecamp takes about 12 hours and for most of that you’re roped together with 3 other climbers and one guide. Everyone has crampons and ice axes and for the most part nobody has done anything like this before except your guide. To give you the best chance of firm snow the climb starts at midnight which means you also (probably) haven’t slept more than an hour or two.

For me, the physical part wasn’t so bad. I’d spent a couple months training for this and while it was strenuous, putting one foot in front of another for 12 hours wasn’t what made this harrowing.

At a typical rest stop

What stands out to me now is that even the rest stops were stressful. Because you’re on a tight schedule and tied to other climbers, the rest stops are the only time you stop moving long enough to take care of personal business like, for example, drinking water (hydration bladders don’t work because they freeze, so you’re stuck with bottles). It turns out there’s a lot of personal business when climbing mountains so the rest stops become a scramble to:

  • Pee
  • Change your clothing (adding or switching coats, gloves, hats, etc) to adjust to weather and altitude
  • Toss on the giant parka you wear only at rest stops so you don’t freeze
  • Drink some water
  • Force yourself to eat even though you aren’t hungry (altitude kills your appetite)
  • Sit down on your pack to rest your legs and not loose heat to the ground

By the time you’ve taken care of all that you’re left with a few minutes to actually rest before your guide yells “two minute warning” and you have to start stuffing everything back into your pack.

The pace isn’t frenetic, it’s just fast and constant. Like you’re in a mild rush for 12 solid hours. I didn’t end up taking a single photo, for example, so all the ones here come from other folks on the climb. Even though the constant rush can feel dangerous you can’t argue with it because it’s actually done in the interest of safety. The longer you stay on the mountain the softer/slipperier the snow and ice get, and the more risk you have of bad weather moving in.

So it’s hard work done quickly, which is rough, but the experience for me wasn’t just hard. It was overwhelming. That came from something else. 

I spent the last 4 and a half years making a game about what it feels like to be overwhelmed so when I encountered that feeling on the mountain I wouldn’t say it was welcome, but it was interesting.

In our game we found that creating a sense of being overwhelmed came down mostly to two elements: (a) emphasizing the power of the forces players were encountering along with their own weakness and isolation, and (b) making any revelations clear and sudden which greatly magnifies their impact.

My experience of feeling overwhelmed on the mountain was quite different. Yes, the mountain was a powerful force (and symbol!) but its aesthetic and psychological impact actually felt pretty minimal. For me, the sense of being overwhelmed didn’t come from any dramatic moments, it came from the sheer volume of new stuff you had to deal with. 

New challenges (for me) included:

  • Using the ice axe. The day before the climb we had a workshop that taught us basic mountaineering skills like how to walk in crampons or hold an ice axe. Like everything else on this list it’s not especially hard, it’s just a constant low-level cognitive tax. In the case of the ice axe, for example, you need to always carry it in the hand closest to the mountain (which changes at switchbacks), with the tip pointed behind you, and ready to dig in with it if someone on your rope team falls.
  • Walking and breathing, but differently. The workshop also introduced us to a brand new way we were supposed to walk and breathe while in the mountains (pressure breathing and rest stepping) having to do with efficiency and altitude. Walking with crampons also takes some getting used to, retraining your brain to go up slopes that would normally be far too steep to walk up.
  • Monitoring the rope. For safety, you’re roped together in teams so most folks have a rope attaching them to someone 15 feet in front of and behind them. To keep the rope from yanking other people, or from getting too much slack and catching on rocks or ice, you try to match the pace of the climbers ahead of and behind you. Easy enough on the flats but tricky on slopes.
  • Crossing crevasses on ladders stretched horizontally across them. I think the longest of these was about 15 feet wide, with a 200 foot drop. They weren’t all that difficult in themselves but there was some rope work required (clipping your carabiner into a special guideline) and the context switch of walking in a slower, more precise way.
  • So much new gear. They recommend / require 40+ pieces of equipment, almost all of which got used at some point on the climb. Carrying three different kinds of gloves isn’t hard per se, but switching them out as conditions evolve and finding them in your pack adds some challenge.
  • Unfamiliar landscapes and materials. I don’t spend a lot of time on snow or ice so judging the best place to put my feet or ice axe took some conscious effort.
  • Doing all this in the dark, since the first half of the climb is before sunrise so you’re focusing on the small patch of snow in front of you that’s illuminated by your headlamp.
  • Altitude sickness which can creep up on you. I felt totally fine until I didn’t.

On their own, none of these challenges were all that noteworthy but each chips away a bit at the mental energy you have available. The high physical and cognitive load combined for me to create a sense of not just this-is-hard, but oh-my-God-this-is-hard that was overwhelming.

And yet, for all that, it still felt doable. Harder than I’d expected but knowing how many people with no more experience than myself climb up and down the mountain every year I had faith that I could do it too.

In a few milliseconds, that changed.

A Little Bit of Terror Goes a Long Way

About three hours into the climb I experienced a moment of terror.

We were crossing a rocky, snowless section of the route called Disappointment Cleaver, scrambling with our crampons over boulders and loose gravel. There was a small ledge ahead of me, maybe 5 inches square, separated by 2 foot gaps on either side, requiring you to gently hop on and off to progress. On the left was the mountain, on the right was a steep slope that descended several hundred feet below us. Our ropes had been shortened to about 5 feet between climbers to keep the ropes from snagging on rocks, making it even more important to keep pace with your neighbors. And it was still dark so the only light was your headlamp. I jumped onto the ledge and heard / felt the ledge and the gravel under it slide a little.

It’s not that I felt like I was going to die but at that moment I did feel like a tiny miscalculation would have been enough to make me fall and potentially pull the rest of my rope team with me. The whole thing was over in a few milliseconds but the effects lingered.

I’ve been meditating for a few years and one of the nicest benefits has been an improved awareness of the way my mind responds to events (ie metacognition). This was the first time I’d experienced terror where I was able to perceive both the immediate and subsequent changes it had on my thoughts.

After that moment of terror it was like I was watching the same movie but with the volume turned way up. Physically, the biggest changes were that my heart started beating faster and I had an urgent need to relieve myself, which added tension of its own and wouldn’t be practical to take care of for another 3+ hours, when we reached the summit.

I would have expected to feel a sense of paranoia but instead what I felt was more like a surge of jittery energy. It’s not so much that the conditions felt more dangerous but that I never again felt calm. Manageable, but not the best state to be in when climbing a mountain.

Things came to a head for me about an hour later when I was trying to clip the carabiner on my harness into one of two carabiners attached to a guideline running across a crevasse. I got the carabiners tangled up and couldn’t figure out which ones I needed to unclip and which ones I needed to reclip. In the end, I had to ask our guide for help.

It dawned on me that my thinking had become seriously impaired and not in a way that I was conscious of. Even though I felt mentally alert I’d just failed a pretty simple cognitive challenge. I’d become like the drunk who can’t see how badly he’s driving. At the next rest stop I told our guide I needed to turn back because it wouldn’t be safe for me or for the other climbers if I continued.

He nodded his head slowly and said “Yeah, you don’t have a choice.” Our guides had always emphasized safety as their number one priority so the situation seemed pretty clear. The mixture of sadness and relief I was feeling took a sharp turn when he added “…the previous rest stop was the final place to turn around. From this point on everyone has to summit.”

And so I did. Our guide told me to breathe more forcefully and that helped with the effects of altitude, as did the simple necessity of having no other options.

It also got easier a few minutes later when the sun came up and the final stretch turned out to be a mind-numbing series of icy switchbacks that didn’t recover a lot of thought, just effort.

A few hours later as we were coming down I was surprised to find that the ledge which had produced my moment of terror was pretty unremarkable by daylight. It was precarious, but not dramatically more so than several ledges before and after. I just saw it at the wrong time, in the wrong light, in the wrong state of mind.

Kind of like bootcamp

Another factor that increased the tension was the bootcamp mentality of the guides, by which I mean they have high expectations and do a lot of yelling. Some of this is purely practical since time is short, issues can be life-threatening, and people are bundled up for the cold so higher volumes help intelligibility.

Still, I’m not used to being yelled at. Especially for skills I only learned yesterday. For example, when other climbers had difficulty understanding how to clip their carabiners to the guidelines at a crevasse the response from one of the younger guides was to scream “guys, this is f***ing simple!” and then help them.

Or when I asked my guide for confirmation if it was OK to take our gloves off if we got hot his response was “No! We talked about all this yesterday in training!” It’s been a long time since I’ve been yelled at for asking questions.

It’s hard for me to tell how much of this militaristic attitude is simply cultural (they could be called “trips” but instead they’re “expeditions”), and how much is actually for our benefit. As my friend Mike put it, “Their job is to get your ass up to the top of the mountain.” And whatever methods they used, they succeeded. Lord knows that getting nine guys, most of whom had never held an ice axe before yesterday, up to the summit and back safely wasn’t easy for any of us.

Why I’m Glad I Still Did It

By nature, I’m an explorer. Curiosity drives me to constantly seek out new food, books, movies, and experiences. But a consequence of having such easy access to new things is that the bulk of these end up being relatively shallow, brief experiences. The kind that are more likely to teach you than to change you.

On the other hand, I think giving yourself a hard shove out of your comfort zone, especially in a direction that requires learning a whole new set of skills, has the potential to open up starkly new perspectives and insights.

With my dad in 1982, when he climbed Mt. Rainier

This is partly a result of the experiences themselves and partly because of the heightened state you’re in at the time, where your perceptions and memory operate differently. For example, even a one-day workshop on mountaineering skills has a way of coming alive for you when you know your life is going to depend on those skills tomorrow.

In other words, the difficulty of climbing a mountain is a key part of what makes that experience so rewarding because it changes your behavior, your perceptions, and your memories.

Climbing a mountain is also a beautiful aesthetic experience. Here’s a few of my favorite moments:

  • Being roped together and learning to move with the rest of your team. It forces you to pay attention to your own movements as well as those of the climber in front and behind you and how all three affect each other. It’s like dancing with a partner. When the climber in front pauses a moment before a 2-foot gap and then leaps across it, you feel that same motion echo when you, then the climber behind you do that same action. It’s beautiful. If there wasn’t such an obvious practical reason (catching someone if they fall), having ropes between you would feel like a very on-the-nose theatrical expression of human interdependence, like something in a Becket play.
  • The clinking of ice axes stabbing in and out of rock and snow. The axes have long, hollow metal shafts with lengths that vary based on the height of the climber. The effect is a bit like if each climber carried a single note of a xylophone that they pounded with every other step. It’s a surprisingly delicate background sound for those harsh conditions.
  • Getting accustomed to walking up seemingly vertical slopes with your crampons. Having spikes strapped to your feet drastically changes how you’re able to move. It’s bizarre both to find yourself with this new magical power and to realize how quickly you grow accustomed to it.
  • Dawn coming up on the slope of the mountain. There’s a grandeur to dawn on Rainier that I have not experienced elsewhere. It’s like a stage curtain rising on an entirely new world of clouds and distant peaks above them and not one human element in the world except your tiny band of climbers.
  • Getting to know our guides, who were profoundly good at all this mountaineering stuff. Our primary guide Brent Okita had previously sumitted 547 times and holds the record for Rainier. It’s like getting your first violin lesson from Mozart. Although Brent was the most colorful, all the guides were fascinating characters unlike anyone I’ve crossed paths with before.

The whole experience was also a great reminder of what I value and what I don’t. I love learning and finding new perspectives but external marks of achievement aren’t important to me. In this case, it surprised me to discover how little I cared about actually getting to the top of the mountain.

When it felt like it wouldn’t be safe for me to continue I had no trouble (trying to) turn back. What mattered to me was feeling like I’d tried my best and not letting others down, but beyond that I felt no need to push on to the bitter end just so I could stand on the very tippy top.

The climb reinforced for me the tradeoffs between appreciating and achieving (ie journey vs destination). I like pushing my limits but in my heart-of-hearts I’m a meanderer. My favorite times were standing on the side of the mountain and gaping at the landscape around us. But there’s no time for that when your eyes are always on the summit.

Rainier was a pretty stark example of what to me felt like the drawbacks of focusing all your energies and hopes on a goal. The actual summit is a crater about 1500 feet across so you go from stunning panoramas on the way up to, once you’re at the top, being enclosed and seeing nothing but the lip of the crater. Of course you have the satisfaction of being there but for me that turned out to be less important than I’d expected.

The underwhelming view from the summit

And yet the lure of reaching the summit was what made all of this possible. It’s what brought my dad up there 36 years ago and what convinced me and two friends to reserve our spots last summer. Having a clear, concrete goal gave the experience its shape. It’s important and maybe even necessary but it isn’t what I really care about. It’s like the plate in a restaurant vs the food on it. Sometimes it can be hard to separate what’s structural from what’s essential.

Even after sumitting I still felt like a bit of a wuss being so exhausted and shaken up afterwards. It was comforting to hear that all the other members of our group had roughly similar reactions, along the lines of “Oh my gosh, I’m never, ever going to do that again.” The guides didn’t mind. They said a lot of people felt like that right afterwards, but the odds were that some of those same people would be back to climb the mountain again next year.

At our last rest stop

I don’t expect I’ll be among them but who knows. The way our memories respond to traumatic events is mysterious. Like the way mothers seem to forget (most of) the agony of childbirth. Or how the turmoil surrounding four and a half years of working on a videogame recedes enough after a few months that you start making plans for a new one. 

When I find myself thinking fondly about the days we spent on Rainier I try to remember how my friends described their experiences. My friend Mike, who had bought a bunch of new gear anticipating that this would be the start of many years of mountaineering ahead told me that as he neared the summit he was adding up in his head how much he could get for selling all of his new gear on eBay.

And my friend Dan nicely summed up the bittersweet satisfaction we felt that day when he said: “It’s more than just having done it, it’s never having to do it again.”


Dan, Mike, and me at the summit

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My Strongest Memories After 6 Months of Traveling

I spent 4-and-a-half years working on What Remains of Edith Finch so when the game shipped I was ready for a break. I moved out of my apartment, put all my stuff in storage, and spent the next 6 months traveling overseas. I chose countries to visit based entirely on how much I liked their food. Here’s a few of my strongest memories from that trip (not including the food, which I covered on my food blog).

Walking to the airport in Kathmandu. Google Maps said it would take an hour and a half to walk there from where I was staying so logistically it seemed feasible. If you ask the Internet about trying this the advisability is mixed. The biggest concerns seemed to be the circuitous route, lack of signage, careless drivers, and packs of feral dogs. Of course it would have been easy to take a taxi but since I had an afternoon flight and nothing planned for the day it felt like it’d be more of an adventure to walk. It turned out to be quite pleasant, culminating in a little group of huts on the side of the road just across from the airport where fresh, curry-infused flatbread was coming out of a wood-fired oven.

The waiters everywhere who did their best to talk me out of the things I’d ordered, usually because they thought I’d gotten too much food. And they were right, I HAD ordered way more than I could eat. I felt a little guilty getting whole entrees when I expected to only take a bite or two of each, but I’d traveled around the world to try as many new foods as possible and step #1 of that plan was ORDERING as many new foods as possible. My favorite exchange was with a waiter in Kathmandu who considered the half-dozen entrees I’d requested and paused for a moment, then tactfully asked: “Your friend also come?”

The smell that hits you when you open the doors to the port cellars in Porto. These are long warehouses carved into the hillside, packed with thousands of oak barrells full of port that’s slowly evaporating through them. It’s not just that it smells nice (which it does), what I remember is that it smells ancient and harmonious. You get the sense that the oak and port flavors have been mingling in that air for centuries.

Being in Lisbon for two days. Everywhere else I traveled I tried to stay at least 5 days but visiting Lisbon was a last-minute decision and the timing worked out such that I only had 1 full day there. But I think that was for the best, since the whirlwind nature of the trip added a nice atmosphere of drama. It felt like Before Sunrise if Ethan Hawke had never run into Julie Delpy and instead he spent the day walking all over the city trying pasteis de nata, drinking handmade cherry liqueurs from several bars specializing in it, and watching the sunset from an old castle overlooking the city.

Having egg tarts again in Hong Kong after I’d had them for the first time in Lisbon a few months earlier. The Hong Kong versions were clearly inspired by the pasteis de nata but were also very much their own thing.

The Turkish man I met on the streets of Berlin who asked directions in broken English, then made a joke I couldn’t understand and proceeded to try to dance with me. I felt awkward and a little guilty as I consciously monitored the safety of the wallet and phone in my pockets while at the same time tried to enjoy this strange moment. Nothing happened to my wallet or phone, but a few minutes later my stomach dropped a little when I realized he’d stolen my watch.

The enormous bats in Sri Lanka. These were memorable for two reasons: their 4+ foot wingspans and the fact that I saw them flying around in the middle of downtown in the most densely populated city in the country. After I saw my first giant bat fly overhead in the early afternoon I followed it to a tree by the side of a busy road and found another 40+ bats roosting and a steady stream of bats coming and going.

Waiting for the bathroom in Chengdu. Shortly after leaving a Sichuan restaurant specializing in pork intestines, which was probably my favorite meal of the trip, my digestive system began to protest. I had a 45 minute walk ahead of me through a light-industrial district that had shut down for the night so I resigned myself to a long period of delicate shuffling. Then I saw a public bathroom across the street. Public bathrooms in China are pretty rare and I have no idea why this one had been built here or why it was still open but at the time it felt like semi-magical. My euphoria diminished a bit after waiting several minutes for a convoy of large earth-moving vehicles to pass. I was very tempted to dart out into the modest gaps between them but ultimately it just felt like too embarrassing a circumstance in which to die under.

Driving around Switzerland in an RV with my friend Flavien. Flavien is a French artist who worked on our first game, The Unfinished Swan. He was taking a year off and had bought a mid-size RV to drive around Europe in. After I’d just spent several weeks walking around by myself in unfamiliar cities it was refreshing to be out in the countryside catching up with an old friend while visiting a series of improbable stone bridges in the Alps.

Riding the 3rd class train to Kandy in Sri Lanka. With no air-conditioning and (by the time I arrived) no seats left I spent the 3 hour trip holding on to a handrail, standing next to an open door as the train chugged its way up into the mountains passing villages, jungle, and tea plantations. I never actually used the facilities but the sight of the 3rd class bathroom still haunts me. It was a tiny room with corrugated metal on all surfaces, a small, dark hole in the floor and NOTHING ELSE. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to a Silent Hill hellscape. I’m not even sure if the hole was connected to anything. Maybe it just dropped straight to the tracks? Anything seems possible in that place.

Getting my laptop fixed in Chengdu. It’s strange how much energy we spend avoiding hassles when so many of our strongest, most enjoyable memories are tinged with adversity. When my laptop stopped booting up I was hoping I could take it to the Dell store in Chengdu and have them fix it. Things turned out to be a little more complicated (and more interesting). A salesman at the store told me I had to go to the service center down the street and offered to guide me there. Our 15 minute walk ended at a door with a chain locked around it, then a service entrance down a back alley, then the realization that the center had actually moved to another part of town. My salesman friend turned to me and, using his phone to auto-translate, asked “you ride bike?” Yes. I ride bike. So we rented a pair of bikes and after bouncing around between a couple more service centers finally managed to find one — just as it was closing — that could fix my laptop. By the time I left their office everything else on the floor of their mid-size office building had shut down. But there was a final test: the elevators had inexplicably stopped responding. The solution to the puzzle turned out to be a fire exit on the other side of the building that someone had propped open. Once I found that it was smooth, uneventful sailing.

Taking a taxi to the airport in Sri Lanka at 2 am. Transportation options can be pretty limited early in the morning so I was quite happy to see a number of tuk-tuk-style taxis zooming around. The trip evolved into a bit of an adventure, which was fine since I’d left plenty of time. Our first stop was a bus parked next to the beach. This turned out to be the driver’s brother, who was also a driver, as well as a drunk and was sleeping off whatever he’d had that night. Money was dropped off (or maybe picked up? it was unclear) and then we had a pleasant 30 minute chat on the way to the airport in which the driver talked all about his young family, the crops they were growing, the birthday he was celebrating tomorrow, the time he spent working on container ships in the Middle East and why he ultimately came home. Our route took us through the small town he grew up in so he talked about that for awhile too. When I mentioned how much I liked Sri Lankan watalappam, a cardamom spiced coconut custard, he pulled off at a roadside cafe with what he considered the best watalappan in the area. Judging from the lively crowd there at 3am I believe this opinion was a popular one. And the watalappam was good, up there with the best I’ve ever had, as was the ride to the airport.

The plaque in Hong Kong that described how British sailors reacted to misunderstanding the name of the (already inhabited) island they had arrived at. When they heard “Hong Kong” the sailors mistakenly thought it referred to the island when it was actually the name of the city they were in. Although they soon realized their mistake they chose not to correct it because, according to the plaque, “they found it inconvenient to change the name.” So instead they renamed the city to Aberdeen and the island became Hong Kong. The arrogance and insensitivity this implies is staggering but it’s also a tiny bit impressive that men like this once walked the earth.

Watching hawks circle a junkyard on the outskirts of Kathmandu. I don’t know if the hawks were permanent residents or migrants, but either way it was a majestic event in the middle of a mountain of garbage.

Being back home

I’m really glad I was able to spend so much time traveling because it cured me of the fantasy of perpetual travel. On previous trips I had such a great time that part of me wished I never had to come home. What I’ve realized now is that after about 5 weeks it stops feeling like a vacation and starts feeling like your new, regular life. As if your job had become getting to and from unfamiliar airports, filling out customs declarations, studying the layout of this week’s subway system, etc.

It’s still enjoyable to see and eat new things but the constant, low-level hassles start to wear on you. The first time you have to use Google Translate to figure out which buttons to press on the air conditioner in your room is fun. Doing that every week with a new air conditioner loses its charm pretty quickly. 

For me, the novelty of novelty began to wear off. It takes a lot of energy constantly moving around, which isn’t so bad except that it means there’s less time and energy for doing other things.

I now appreciate how comparatively easy life is at home, where the conventions are familiar and I speak the language fluently. As a local, there’s so many things I can explore in Los Angeles that I’d never, ever get to experience as a traveler passing through. 

For example, a few days ago I went into a cheese shop and had a lengthy conversation in the local language (English), getting suggestions for mild sheep milk cheeses, which I followed up with a question about where to go for goose fat and learned about a European sausage shop nearby that might have it, but that definitely carries specialty meats for South African expats that sound worth checking out. The adventures are a little smaller and less cinematic, but I love how seamlessly one small adventure leads to another when you have time and energy to really explore a place.

I was excited to leave and now I’m even more excited to be back.

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Thoughts on Seeing a Man Die on Vacation

This morning I joined a tour group hiking up Bali’s Mt. Batur. There were five of us — two couples and me. The plan was to hike for two hours to reach the summit in time for sunrise. It’s touristy but everyone says it’s amazing. About 45 minutes into the hike a member of our group, a trim 37-year-old man from Singapore, passed out and never woke up.

I’m having a hard time processing what happened. The memories of individual moments are burned in but they’re not connected with each other. It makes it hard to think about the experience because it doesn’t feel like a discrete subject I can wrap my head around, it’s just a jumble of images, feelings, sounds and smells. I thought it might help me sort through it if I wrote down what stands out:

The bus picked me up at 2:30 am. I’d slept about an hour. I dimly remember the man and his girlfriend talking on the ride to the mountain. We got out and were given flashlights and bottled water. We all accepted the suggestion to use the bathroom but only one stall was open. The man invited his girlfriend to go first and the rest of us talked about where we were from and how long we’d be in Bali. When everyone finished we started up the mountain.

The man was in front of me and I noticed that at the start of the hike he and his girlfriend held hands. I was impressed that they kept it up even when we had to pick our way through a field of small boulders and walking was difficult for one person, much less two people stuck together.

His girlfriend was having trouble keeping up with the rest of the group so the two of them and one guide lagged behind, going at a slower pace. After we hadn’t seen them for a few minutes we went back to check on them. I heard that he sat down while they were taking a rest and then passed out. His girlfriend and the guide spent 5 minutes yelling at him to wake up. Wikipedia says brain damage is likely after 5 minutes without oxygen.

While they were yelling at him a tourist walked by who happened to be a nurse and she started CPR. Actually, the way she phrased it later was “I’d call myself a nurse” and I never heard her explain what she meant by that.

His girlfriend kept saying “Suresh baby, wake up. Come on, baby, wakeup.” Over and over.

It’s exhausting giving someone CPR. Thank goodness another member of our group knew how to do it. It turned out he was a vet. So he was more familiar giving CPR to dogs and cats but for what we needed he seemed great. There were roughly 30 other people standing around, including a dozen guides, and no one else knew CPR.

I didn’t realize how serious it is to be getting CPR. You’re really just hoping to keep the heart beating long enough for paramedics to arrive and start defibrillation. But even if paramedics can get there within 5 minutes the survival rate is 30 percent. In Bali they’re not coming for hours.

The guides had no idea what to do. Everyone was standing around. A few phone calls were made. I tried to find out if they’d called a doctor and if he was coming. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that in Bali it’s not uncommon for people to just say “yes” to any question you ask since it avoids embarrassment. When I asked if they’d called a doctor the guides said “yes,” and when I asked if the doctor was coming here they said “yes” to that as well. I never a saw a doctor.

No one announced that he was dead. We gave him CPR for close to 45 minutes. When the stretcher arrived we hesitated about whether we should stop but ultimately putting him on the stretcher felt like the next thing to do since CPR wasn’t having any effect. In hindsight that’s when we were saying he was dead and when it stopped being about trying to save a life and became about transporting a body. At the time it didn’t feel like we’d made a decision just that we were taking the next available action.

As we were doing CPR there was no sense of anything beyond that in terms of a plan. It was like we were spending all of our energy treading water, everyone hovering around looking at the process and trying to think of how they could be helpful. I have never wanted to be a doctor before today. But standing there, looking at all the people who were just watching a man die I really wished I could have helped.

After we started carrying him down someone asked the nurse if she wanted to follow the body and she said “You know, actually, I kind of would like to go to the top of the mountain.” It was an amazingly heartless thing to say. No one else had any desire to keep going up the mountain. I think she was in shock. It was an odd way for that to come out. During the walk down she was shaking a lot.

Our guide said the same thing happened last year with a Frenchman.

When we got back to basecamp I stood far back from the body, trying to give everyone space. I felt guilty when a woman gave the girlfriend a cell phone and suggested that she call his parents and notify the Singaporean consulate. I should have thought about what the girlfriend needed and appreciated how confusing it was for her to be surrounded by people speaking broken English and not knowing what was going on. By the time we were down the mountain and the police were there I thought there wasn’t anything more I could do to help but I gave up too soon.

After we’d been down at the bottom for a few minutes a girl asked for hand sanitizer. I think because she realized she’d been touching a dead body. I felt good that I had some in my backpack. It was the first time I’d been able to help. She passed it around to her friends. Everyone used a lot of hand sanitizer.

The man’s girlfriend said that both his parents were dead. Later, when the policeman started asking questions we found out the man had been a management assistant at a bank.

When we laid him at the basecamp there were more flies than I’ve ever seen in my life. Even standing 20 feet away from the body in a crowd of other people I had so many flies on me that I had to keep stamping my legs like a horse.

The vet, his girlfriend and I rode back to our hotels together. We talked for awhile about CPR and how weird this whole thing was, then we were silent for a long time. Just before I got dropped off they mentioned that they’d decided to return the motorbike they’d rented. Too risky, too easy to get into an accident.

The vet said that in school they were given a greyhound whose heart had just been stopped. Then eight students worked together to restart its heart using CPR and shots of adrenaline, all while giving the dog pure oxygen. It took them 45 minutes but they finally did it. Their instructor said the animal was braindead though.

I thought a lot about how the man never regained consciousness and never saw all the commotion around him at the end. He just slipped away.

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A quiz on the difference between Arial and Helvetica

Ever wondered about the difference between Arial and Helvetica? Then I encourage you to play this amazing quiz.

I do this partly because I love typography, partly because the quiz is super fun, and partly because it’s the most effective teaching game I’ve ever played.

I actually learned something. Something I’ve tried and failed to learn before. Putting the information in the context of a game somehow made it easier for my brain to digest. And it has nothing to do with making the subject fun; I already had an interest in this, I just couldn’t get the knowledge to stick.

I think the key is that using the information in a game forces you to apply your knowledge and rewards you for it both extrinsically (with messages like “You got that one right!”) and, even more important, intrinsically, because as you get farther along in the quiz you’re able to identify very subtle clues you probably couldn’t have spotted in the beginning. The combination of all that is surprisingly powerful.

Incidentally, if you’re not into typography at all and want to take the quiz here’s a hint: look at the ends of letters like “t”, “s” and “a”, Helvetica has perfectly vertical and horizontal lines while Arial tends to use diagonals.

I think another reason the quiz is so effective is that it puts the relevant information side by side for us to compare, and that’s something humans are freakishly good at. We’re so good at doing it that it doesn’t even feel like work, it’s actually fun. Kind of strange, really. As game designers we’re often trying to find ways to make an experience more fun but we rarely think about information density as a source of enjoyment.

And why does our brains like finding stuff? My guess is that it’s at least partly a result of our being genetically engineered to find bits of food in the wild. Two examples of this type of ancestral gathering behavior come to mind: one, the bafflingly popular hidden object games genre, and two, my parents, who spend half a dozen weekends each year out in the woods picking mushrooms and huckleberries. For fun.

James and Shirley Dallas
James and Shirley Dallas
Shirley Dallas and her mushrooms
Shirley Dallas and her mushrooms

Edward Tufte mentions a second reason why information density can be fun in Envisioning Information:

[Putting information side by side enables viewers] “to select, to narrate, to recast and personalize data for their own uses. Thus control of information is given over to viewers, not to editors, designers, or decorators.”

In other words it’s a way of making the data more interactive, of creating interesting choices. Which is another goal that certainly comes up a lot in game design.

It’s odd. As designers we’re usually trying to make things simpler, to get rid of all the non-essential bits so players can get right to the good stuff. Most of the time when a game presents me with dense information I have to wade through I think it’s pretty annoying, but sometimes a little confusion can be fun. God grant me the wisdom to tell the difference.

And thanks to Swiss Miss for the link (Swiss Miss is an eclectic, highly recommended design blog that covers everything from playgrounds from the 70’s to foam clouds to surreal painting games).

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A Bunch of Strange, Interactive Sketches I Made at USC

I finally got around to posting documentation for a bunch of little projects I made while I was at USC.

Among them is a game called WhiteSpace, which eventually grew into my current project, The Unfinished Swan. Note that the project started in color, then changed to black and white (unlike just about everything else in the world, which tends to go the other way — films, newspapers, cell phones, etc). I’ve also included footage of the non-interactive previsualization, which is a design methodology I should really talk more about on this blog. In fact, looking back over all these projects I think getting comfortable with non-interactive prototyping was one of the most helpful lessons I got out of grad school.

Basically, making interactive prototypes is hard and often unnecessary. Doing non-interactive prototypes like animations, physical mockups, or shooting video footage can get you most of the way there for a lot less work. And in the early stages all you really need is something concrete to help you visualize where you want to go, as well as to help you start communicating what’s in your head to other people.

Another lesson I’ve taken away from these sketches: quantity is often more helpful than quality. As a designer there’s a huge temptation to make things perfect, or at least less-sucky, and that’s great for later in the process. But early on you’re better off just throwing a ton of ideas at the wall to see what sticks. Or to put it more bluntly, the desire to polish can insidiously prevent you from actually getting anything done. The blog Coding Horror had an interesting post on that subject awhile back related to a pottery class that was given an option to spend their time making one perfect pot or lots of crappy ones.

These sketches are like my shelf full of misshapen pots.

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