[Trip Report] Facing Hell - 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell 2017- 16 minute read
Hell has a line to get in
On August 15, 2017, I found out I’d won the lottery to enter Hell.
A little context. In April of 2017, I got a message from a buddy of mine, Chris, that he had entered us into a lottery to get into 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, a marathon 24 hour climbing competition. Climbers from all over the country converge on a little ranch in Jasper, Arkansas to compete and see who can climb the most routes in a 24 hour period. There’s a lottery to get in, since thousands of people wish to compete in a comp that can only support a few hundred climbers.
So Chris, who had been climbing for less than two years, messaged me, who had also been climbing for less than two years, to let me know to cross my fingers and hope we get lucky. Most people find out in May that they’re getting in, and since we didn’t get a May email, I thought luck was on our side and that we wouldn’t be going to Hell this year.
We’re going to Hell
Three months later, we found out that we’d won a supplementary lottery to gain entry. The competition was in September, so this meant we would have just six weeks to prepare for one of the most grueling and intense events that either of us have ever been through.
Again, at this point, I was very much a beginner climber. I still am, but at that time even more so. My climbing technique was still unrefined and I didn’t know a thing about climbing training. Luckily I had learned to belay earlier that year when I began taking an interest in sport climbing. An even bigger stroke of luck was meeting the guy who taught us.
Juan Rodriguez, Portlander and climber of ~20 years and business owner of a gear shop at the local rock gym, had a specialized knowledge in technique and training programs teaching us newbies how to ‘send. Juan was our instructor for an introductory belay course, and when the time came to prepare for 24HHH, we knew we would need help from someone like him if we had any chance at reaching our comp goals. Juan gladly agreed to the challenge and, with maximum stoke, immediately put us on an endurance program that had Chris and I in the gym four times a week, mercilessly and aggressively pumping our arms ~4-6 hours per sesh. My girlfriend, Shan, also joined in on the fun because despite the fact that she wouldn’t be competing, she told us “you’re not going to learn how to crush this hard without me.”
Our goal for the comp was simple: 100 routes each. This was the minimum amount of routes needed to be able to pre-register for next year’s comp without needing to win the lottery again. Our logic was that as long as we hit 100, we could secure our spot and ensure we get to go to Hell again, because just once wouldn’t be enough.
What this goal actually meant was that we’d need to put up 4-5 routes each, every hour for 24 hours straight. I’m not sure we were comprehending the gravity of this goal at this point.
After getting some solid practice in the gym, we decided to take our training outdoors to see what it’d be like in a more realistic setting, and also to get our first outdoor lead routes in! It didn’t go well. Smith Rock is stiff, the routes are twice as tall as they would be at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, and our first time night climbing at Smith was unnerving to say the least. Above all, we figured out that our transitions were shit.
Our goal for the competition meant that we not only needed to train for endurance, we needed a solid strategy for transitioning between routes and between partners. The rules stated we could each run up a route for a max of two laps. That meant we’d need to be able to complete a lap every 7.2 minutes for 24 hours straight. The 7.2 minutes would need to include the climbing as well as the transition. The transition would include pulling the rope, tying in, changing shoes, eating, bathroom breaks, finding the next route, and fiddling with gear.
24HHH for Idiots
It was a good thing we found a wiki, written by Mark Vabulas, that detailed exactly how to not suck at 24HHH. He wrote it to help people like us do well at the competition, but I think mostly so we can stay out of the way of actual competitors. He detailed all the potential choke points in transitions, gear recommendations, and how to not die on the ranch. He even adds this nice disclaimer to start off the wiki:
Follow this guide at your own risk. I approach 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell each year with the knowledge and certainty that I will die at the Ranch. I don’t mean that figuratively, I mean it literally. The techniques and information in this guide is liable and likely to actually kill you.
We found that we were doing pretty much everything wrong. Don’t tie in for every route, just tie the end of a rope into a carabiner. Use a shorter rope. Skip the first and last bolt. Don’t change shoes in between routes, just wear comfy climbing shoes. Tape up your fingers or they’ll get shredded over time. Leave the belay goggles and stick clip at home.
It was a huge game changer, and being able to prepare using Mark’s wiki was instrumental in helping us get from
total noob status to a
less noob status.
Fast forward a half-dozen 5-hour training days to the week of the competition. The first things we do in the state are make a stop by the local mom-and-pop mega Wal-mart for supplies and then a liquor store, where we leave with a questionable local Arkansas-made bottle of moonshine.
The ranch was beautiful. After turning onto a gravel road, you descend into a horseshoe-shaped canyon with rock cliffs on all sides of you, and a massive ranch with horses and goats running around in the middle of a sprawling green valley.
The first morning on the ranch, we run into a guy named Levi Harrell, who champions Of All Nations Photography, and he offered to show us around the ranch.
Levi showing us The Greatest Show on Earth
Meeting Levi was another stroke of luck, because he happened to be a local climber, an adventure guide, a photographer, and overall really cool dude. He showed us all around the ranch and the spots we would be able to climb, and later on in the week he even took us down to a nearby river for some deep-water soloing.
We were most surprised to find that Arkansas was absolutely gorgeous. The nickname “The Natural State” was very fitting. There were also bugs everywhere, which was unfamiliar to us west-coasters. Stick bugs, cicadas, praying mantis, black widows, you name it, they had it. Another thing was all the poop. Goat and horse manure, everywhere! This explained all the teams that had poop-related team names.
Mark’s wiki had mentioned that if you show up to Hell and you don’t get a haircut, you’re a sellout. So naturally we got haircuts.
Getting a haircut from Jackie and Andy!
The morning of the competition saw a lot of apprehension, some stomach knots, and a bit of “what have we gotten ourselves into”. At 9am, everyone gathered at roll-call. There was tension and excitement in the air. The costumes helped relieve the tension. There were goths, crow people, poop people, jorts, cutoffs, speedos, sombreros, superheros, you name it. Then Jeremy Collins, aka Gordo the Great, imbued us with more adrenaline and stoke than I thought possible as we faced each other, recited a climber’s creed, vowed not to drop each other, screamed at the top of our lungs, “WE ARE LIONS IN A FIELD OF LIONS”, a shotgun blew, and all of us in our crazy costumes took off running in every direction!
A fun coincidence was starting out next to Mark and his partner, free soloist Austin Howell.
The first eight hours went by like a breeze It was pretty much fun and games as we glided to 50 routes before dark. We even thought we’d be able to finish before morning and be able to take a nice nap! Our sherpa, Shan, was invaluable. We’re not sure how we would have done anything without her scorekeeping and great attitude. We weren’t locals, so we never knew what routes we were doing. At one point, Chris looked at a route, and told Shan that he’d never seen it in his life. Shan reassured him that we’d already done it, hours ago. Others around us chimed in, “Listen to your scorekeeper!” After way too much explanation of what happened the first time we did the route, a light bulb popped, “Oh ok I remember this.”
Once dark settled though, things got pretty grim. At about 10 hours in, I realized I was too pumped out to climb 5.8. It would be 5.7’s and lighter from here on out, and the lines for 5.7’s quickly became too long for us to keep our initial pace up.
I don’t ever remember getting too tired. I was in a distinct focus state the entire time. But there would be stretches of time where we couldn’t do anything but listen to the bugs and wait for our next route, and it quickly became frustrating. Our next 30 routes were slow moving, and took us until sunrise to complete. I had also sprained my ankle about a month before this, during training, and it was starting to flare up at this point.
Around 5am, when daylight started showing again, we heard the strangest, alien-like yelling. And looking back at the hill, we saw dozens of goats sprinting up it. I assume they get let out in the morning to forage, but the crazy screaming and sight of goats had to be the funniest thing to our delusional 5am selves.
I should mention the food situation. We had the usual crag-snacks, cliff bars and trail mix, and we had also read a blog post where the guys brought a bunch of burritos and pizza to eat through the night, and we decided to emulate that. All of the above ended up being terrible choices. The humidity and heat baked our bagged pizza into unappetizing blobs of food. The burritos were okay, but pretty heavy. And I’ll never eat another peanut butter cliff bar, because the consistency and my dry mouth made it really hard to eat energy bars throughout the competition.
What did work, was anything bite-sized and sugary. So our bags of candied nuts, honey-roasted peanuts, gummy bears, and candy were the only thing I looked forward to eating throughout the competition. Oh, and I should also mentioned the poop scare.
The Poop Scare
So when you’re snacking all day and night, nature is bound for you, more than once even. Earlier in the night, we had run back to camp to use the restroom, where I had hoped we would be done with our business for the rest of the comp. Not so. In the morning, I remember lifting my leg up onto a big ledge and suddenly thinking, “Oh no.” I remember it being an emergency situation. Hobbling to the bathroom in desperation more than once in a 24 hour period was less than desirable.
Whatever went well for us in the first 20 hours didn’t go so well for us in the last stretch. We only had 84 routes each, and no time to do the last 16. We weren’t completely exhausted yet, we were just running out of routes. All the routes near us had lines and the rest of them were too far from us with no guarantee they would be open when we got there. Things were looking grim.
By yet another sheer stroke of luck, we ran into Mark again! He witnessed our plight, and explained that we should jump on some of the nearby trad routes. They were completely open and 5.5 - 5.6 climbing. So we did, because we were totally in a state to make great decisions like climbing our first trad routes ever at the tail end of a 24 hour competition in hellish conditions. Though the climbing really was easy and more like scrambling, falling on the slings we were using was not an option.
So here was Shan, watching her best friends deliriously soloing 40 ft walls like absolute madmen. We were putting up laps at our best pace of the whole 24 hours. Luckily, none of the routes were even close to being outside of my skill level, except the 100th one. Mark was still there, Levi had found us at this point, and a few volunteers had gathered to see this wild feat unfold. The only 5.7 trad route that we were to do the whole competition would also be our 100th route. The last move being a committing mantel to a reachy jug, and we were done.
Hitting 100 was an absolute rush. We did it with about 20 minutes to spare. So we ran up another route for good measure. 101 routes! We sprinted back to camp and turned in our scorecards with just minutes to spare. It was glorious. So many things had to align for us to make it to this point. We couldn’t believe it.
The afternoon was a daze. People were celebrating, toasting, laughing like crazy people. The power nap was magical. The awards ceremony was a delight to watch. Mark and Austin ended up taking first place in their category. We got our first tattoos, something we were only going to do if we accomplished our goal. We gorged on the pasta dinner. We took delightful cold showers. Our friends in Oklahoma showed up to celebrate with us. We danced the night away.
Reflecting on all that we accomplished, it still boggles my mind that we were able to do this. We only started climbing about two years ago, and only learned to lead about two months before the competition. My first outdoor lead climb was about a month before the climb.
All-in-all, the competition is about the dumbest thing I’ve ever put myself through. I remember thinking that there was no way I would ever do this again, and I also remember knowing that in just a few months I would be looking forward to doing it all over again the next year.
And sure enough, we were able to pre-register in April of 2018, so we’ll be entering Hell again, this time with Shan in the 12 hour and alongside Juan in the 24!
To Juan, for showing us how rad this sport can be, to Stoneworks Climbing Gym, for being our second home through training, to Shan, for being a kickass partner and for guiding us through hell, to Mark, Austin, and Levi, for their contagious stoke levels, and to all the other fellow climbers out there with us, who welcomed us noobies in Hell.
Thanks Andy Chasteen, the owners of Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, the volunteer crew, and everyone else responsible for putting on such a spectacle for us. I won’t forget it.
Here’s some extra pics:
The Babies, stoked
All the gear we stocked up on from Juan’s shop
Baby turned man - Photo cred to Of All Nations Photography