Many years ago, as he was growing up in Dunedin, New Zealand, Dean Hall, the soft-spoken creator of the immensely popular Arma 2 mod DayZ, learned about Mount Everest from his father Graeme Hall, who had passed on a love of the outdoors to his son. Through books and on camping trips, the elder Hall entranced young Dean with stories of adventurers like fellow New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary, who, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, became the first mountaineers to reach the summit May 29, 1953. To a pair of New Zealanders who loved the outdoors, Hillary loomed large.
Dean Hall grew up, and that sense of adventure remained a part of him. He climbed mountains in his native New Zealand. He joined the Air Force. He traveled. A few years ago, during a month-long survival training exercise in the jungles of Brunei while on an exchange program with the Singapore armed forces, he fell ill. His fingernails turned yellow. His hair fell out. Bowel surgery and five weeks of convalescence followed.
You can trace Dean Hall's successes back to those periods of learning and weakness. Hall's father provided a magnet. His sickness provided a compass.
On May 21, 2013 at 4:33 a.m. local time — almost exactly 60 years to the day that Hillary did what no man had done before — Dean Hall became the 42nd New Zealander to reach, as he called it in a subsequent tweet, "the roof of the world." Dean Hall summited Everest.
'Me on the roof of the world, Mt. Everest, watching the sun rise at 4:33am, 21 May. The forty second New Zealander ever.'
Polygon spoke to Hall recently about his two-month trek up and down and up and down and up and down again, his encounters with the dead and dying as he watched his own body shut down and why a chronic stomach condition acquired in the jungle moved him to the freezer on top of the world.
"It was a before and after event," Hall said of his sickness shortly after he returned to Bohemia Interactive in Prague. "I'm not sure if any event — including the success of DayZ or even including the summit of Everest — has quite had such a fundamental impact on my life.
"It was a real reevaluation, so I just reevaluated everything, and I realized that maybe I was holding myself back. And why was I doing that? It's not that I threw caution to the wind with stuff. Things made a lot more sense to me for the first time, I guess, in a long time."
'All I had was myself.'
DayZ was the first big thing that grew out of Hall's reevaluation, and it began not as a retail game but as a way to capture his survival training experience in a game. After his deployment ended, he felt like he'd lost the drive to achieve his goals. His inhibitions, he discovered, had gone away.
"When you go through something like that — and I think the whole time when I was in Singapore was a very controlled experience. I went through a tremendous amount of culture shock. So I guess all I had left was myself. I remember thinking, 'All I really have is me.'"
When he returned to New Zealand, he decided to do something he'd always wanted to do: He was going to start making games. His plan was to save money as he remained in the military and eventually open up a small studio. When he left the military, he worked as a producer at Sidhe Interactive. He'd hang out with his team members, work on Arma 3 mods and learned the craft of making games from his fellow employees, but being a producer wasn't what he aspired to be.
"Originally, I designed DayZ to train soldiers — basically DayZ without zombies," he said.
'Surely, it can't get much bigger. But then it did.'
He'd been working on what would become DayZ in his spare time after his Singaporean deployment ended. He showed it to everyone at Sidhe, and though they liked it, there wasn't much they could do with it at the time. Bohemia Interactive got wind of the mod and flew him to Prague at the end of January 2012 to work on Arma 3 as an in-house contractor.
"Every time we'd make a plan, it would be based on the fact that, surely, it can't get much bigger," he said. "But then it did. It just kept getting bigger."
Things went well, and as DayZ rose in popularity, they made new plans. He became an employee — a consultant, according to the paperwork — in June 2012 with a new plan: Scrap the idea of DayZ as a recompiled Arma 2 mod and turn it into its own project.
'I'd actually held onto it the whole time.'
As well as things had been going, the spirit of adventure instilled by his father continued to tug at Hall. He'd paid off all his debt, and he'd earned himself a position at Bohemia. Was he going to buy a new house? A new car? As much comfort as that stability afforded, it also came with its own potential drawbacks, and he realized he didn't care about either of those things. But there was one thing that he did care about.
"It just sort of appeared after a long time of having not been an active dream," he said. "I realized I'd actually held onto it the whole time."
In June 2012, in the wake of his illness, his personal reconstruction and undeniable success, when it came time to sign his contract with Bohemia Interactive, he put that dream front and center.
"When I was talking, I said to our CEO, 'I want to climb Everest,' and he was like 'Okay, we'll put it into your contract as a sabbatical."
Built into his contract was a two-month period without pay, set aside to climb Everest.
'I want to climb Everest.'
Early this year, he went from PAX East, directly to GDC, directly to Prague where he collected his belongings and hopped a flight to Kathmandu where he set out for Everest with a group of 10 modern-day adventurers, their guides from Adventure Consultants and a sherpa.
During the following weeks, Hall and his compatriots from Adventure Consultants climbed up and down to various base camps, willing their bodies to survive in a climate not designed for survival. The path up to Everest isn't linear or quick. Scaling the world's highest mountain involves trudging to a series of strategic base camps designed not only to give shelter but allow climbers to acclimate to the ever-thinning air. The first base camp, at about 17,400 feet, has about half the oxygen of sea level, Hall said.
Despite modern technology and the rise of commercial expeditions, conquering Everest remains a brutal endeavor. Above 20,500 feet, the air is so sparse that it's too dangerous for helicopters to make rescue attempts, and the area above 26,000 feet, where bodies litter the landscape, is known as the Death Zone. In shallow cave at 27,890 feet lies the body of Indian climber Tsewang Paljor, who, in 1996, was caught in a blizzard and died during decent from what he believed was the summit. To this day, his body lies in an open tomb, frozen in a loose fetal position, surrounded by oxygen tanks. Green Boots, as he's known because of the florescent green Koflach boots his body still wears, serves as a landmark for expeditions that pass him on Everest's north side.
Dean Hall summited Everest from a different path and did not pass Green Boots on his way to the summit, which stands atop the world at 29,002 feet. But he encountered tragedy on his final push to the summit.
'He's dying. What do I do?'
He first learned about it from a radio transmission.
"There's a guy here," the voice on the radio said. "He's dying. What do I do?"
About half an hour later, they encountered the man.
"We got there, our lead sherpa shook the guy's hand, and its was floppy as anything," Hall said. "I looked at the guy. I'd seen plenty of bodies in the military before. He looked as dead as a doornail to me."
Hall's military experience had acquainted and desensitized him to death, but he was filled with sadness. Before he ventured up Everest, Hall read accounts of climbers encountering the dead and dying. Many critics have chastised expeditions for allegedly confining them to their fate.
"At the time, I was like, 'Look, there's no way I'd carry on to the summit if I could be somewhere helping someone,'" he said. "But I realized that if we didn't — the guy was unconscious, at least. Definitely. And we argued about this back at base camp. Well, what if we'd put oxygen on him? Sure, it would have revived him, if he was actually still alive. But then what? We couldn't bring him down. It's just not physically possible. In which case, we would have revived him so he could be in pain."
The brutal truth of Everest is that she claims lives like this, and there's little anyone can do about it. Green Boots and now this poor climber are legendary proof of that stark reality.
'We couldn't bring him down. It's just not physically possible.'
"I just remember realizing how sad it was," he said. "And that was the overwhelming feeling: just how sad it was that he died alone."
But to hear Hall tell the story, climbing Everest wasn't that bad. Some of the darkest times were at the first base camp, where the freezing wind seared through the party. He believes, however, that his expedition leaders were so well-trained that he and his fellow climbers were as safe as they could possibly be.
That relative safety also allowed Hall, with the aid of a satellite phone, to stay in communication with his team at Bohemia Interactive and continue working on DayZ until his final push to the summit. He handled mundane aspects of development like budget approvals and broader topics like design decisions and establishing priorities in his absence. As he climbed Everest, he also planned DayZ's presence at E3 2013, the fruits of which will be seen next week.
And then, one day in late May 2013, when the weather was right, it was time to make the final push. Everything was perfect until just before the summit when his toes on his right foot went numb.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'What do I do?'"
So close to the goal and in such a precarious position, he had a decision to make. Would he risk frostbite or even death, or would he turn back to safety like other people from other expeditions had done?
He had both chemical and electrical heating devices in his hands and his feet. Maybe those would keep the worst at bay.
'What do I do?'
"In the end, I was like, 'Bugger it,'" he said. "'I've come all this way. If I lose a couple of toes, so be it.'"
The enormous weight hit him as he retold the story of his life. From the safety and comfort of sea level civilization, that thought process seems strange even to him. He paused for a few seconds and continued.
"Just now, thinking about it, it seems like such a bizarre thing to think about and consider," he said. "But at the time, it made sense."
He moved on. Hall and a companion were the first from his expedition to reach the summit.
"The feeling on the summit was like you were being smothered by the view," he said. "I've seen views from mountains before, but I felt completely, well, claustrophobic in a good way. The opposite — the absolute opposite — of claustrophobia. It's like it enveloped you, the view."
As the sun rose over the horizon, Dean Hall spent half an hour on top of the world.
"The most amazing thing was seeing the dawn come up. You could see the curvature of the earth because of the way the sun's rays were hitting the atmosphere. That was the moment I lost it."
Descending Everest can be as dangerous as ascending, as Green Boots' silent testimony proves to the modern day adventurers who shuffle past his lonely tomb, but Hall's return to thicker atmosphere came slowly and without incident. High on the adrenaline Everest instills in those who know her best, the trek back to warmth and running water flew by.
He and the team from Adventure Consultants made their way down the mountain, back the way they'd come, Everest at their backs this time. One by one, they departed, back to Australia, and back to Iceland, and Venezuela, and the U.S..
"I remember getting back into the hotel room and opening the door, and just the absurdity of it, the juxtaposition of it," he said. "One minute, I was at base camp. The next minute, I was in this hotel. I turned on the shower, and I just sort of looked for a bit. It was a very bizarre feeling. It was almost like it happened to someone else."
Despite his initial plan to decompress for a while in New Zealand, Dean Hall flew to Kathmandu, to Dubai and then returned to Prague and Bohemia Interactive and resumed his work on DayZ, much as he had before he left. Next week, he'll show off the game at E3.
Everest still looms large, but in a different way now. It's no longer an insurmountable object. Dean Hall conquered Everest. DayZ is next.
'It was almost like it happened to someone else.'
But his adventurer's spirit won't let it end there. The life changing reassessment born of sickness that brought DayZ received an analog in the base camps of Mount Everest. Hall has a new goal.
"It's funny because before DayZ was able to happen, I had to have the epiphany at the end of that survival training in Brunei. That was the epiphany that bore DayZ in terms of even just basic design decisions. So I had the same kind of thing on Everest, which I was very, very pleased with. I've always wanted to do that, and do it properly."
DayZ will be the focus of his life for at least the 12 months following the game's alpha, he estimates, but Everest showed him what's next.
"One of the big reasons that I wanted to go to Everest was that I've always wanted to do a mountaineering game," he said. "And I'm happy to say that, because I had a lot of spare time at base camp, I put together what it think is a really, really cool design."
It's in the earliest stages, but the excitement in his voice is palpable.
"In many ways, I like it better than the idea for DayZ," he said. "I don't know whether it'll have the same sort of mass appeal, but it's different. And I like different."