[Trip Report] 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell 2019- 20 minute read
The Third Layer of Hell
Back in 2017, my climbing partner Chris and I entered a competition called 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell in Arkansas, where competitors lead as many outdoor climbing routes as they can in a 24 hour period. It was a very dumb decision to enter, considering we didn’t really know how to climb at the time, much less lead climb. But we stepped up to the challenge, and with some discipline, determination, and a lot of luck, we managed to climb 101 routes each with not a minute to spare. I wrote about that experience here.
Hitting that milestone of at least 100 routes each meant we would be invited to return the next year, so in 2018 we had the good fortune to be able to do it all over again! Chris and I managed another 101 routes each in 2018’s competition, and were invited yet again to compete in our third year in 2019!
Chris and I had both made quite a bit of progress in our climbing skills since 2017, and over two years we’ve gathered a good knowledge base for the competition’s logistics and flow, feel for the style of climbing, and beta for a lot of the routes and areas in the canyon. The organizers of the event had also noticed that a large amount of teams were satisfying the automatic re-qualification amount of 100 routes each. So for 2019 they decided to up the tally to 115 routes each in order to gain automatic registration for the next year.
So our 2019 goals were twofold:
- Climb 115 routes each
- Climb a vertical mile each
In the previous two years, we had climbed about 78% of a vertical mile, so this year we would need to climb another ~1,000 ft, or approximately 20 more routes each than before.
This year’s training was much like our training in previous years: 4-5 hour blocks of running laps up moderate gym routes, 3-4 times per week. We also incorporated some higher distance cardio, just to get our bodies used to working for long hours at a time.
Another thing I started to take note of in 2019 is how much of a difference it made in my climbing progression to climb outdoors more often. So I started climbing outside as much as possible in the Spring and Summer of 2019, and I spent a lot of time at our local crags after work and on the weekends. Lastly, we also started to build out a trad rack and skills in preparation for being able to do the trad routes at the ranch.
Back in 2017, one of the things we did in order to get into adequate climbing shape was hit up our buddy Juan, who runs a gear shop and does personalized climbing training here in Portland. He quickly brought us up to speed with the climbing and technical skills we would need to be able to survive the competition.
Then, Juan actually got to compete alongside us in a team of his own the next year, easily climbing a vertical mile and qualifying for this year! And this year he would be partnering up with our friend Jessica, who would be competing for her first time! Having a crew to hang with in the gym for the long hours of training was pretty nice this time around, and it made the long hours go by much more smoothly.
Remembering Austin Howell
In June of 2019, we woke to news that a fellow climber friend of ours, Austin, had passed away in a climbing accident. He fell while free soloing at Shortoff Mountain in North Carolina. I wrote about Austin in my first post about 24HHH because he and his partner, Mark Vabulas, had been instrumental in helping us achieve our goals in that first year. Austin and Mark had been longtime friends and climbing partners, and would climb in (and win) the 36 hour event of the competition that combines both the 12 hour and 24 hour events.
News of Austin’s passing shook us. Even though we met him only relatively briefly, he left an impact on us and my memories with him are bright and vivid. Austin was the one that taught me how to use an ATC. I barely knew him but he just handed me his ATC and showed me how much easier it was to handle than my GriGri. He imbued a lot of stoke and fire in us during our last couple hours of our first time at 24HHH by cheering us on and believing in us that we could reach our goal of 100 routes each.
In the years following, I saw that Austin had a strong presence in online climbing communities, and I noticed that he would pop into just about every Weekly New Climbers Thread on Reddit to answer questions and fuel others’ joy for climbing. He also had a podcast where he would share stories of his climbing adventures and let us peer into his process. He had a pure passion for this sport, and it was great to see him unconditionally share that love with others. Austin will be missed.
Shan got a phone call from Mark. He too was very shaken by Austin’s passing, but he had decided to continue on with his plan of competing this year. And Shannon would be his climbing partner for the entire 36 hour competition. Austin wasn’t able to attend the comp back in 2018, and so Shan had filled in for him and climbed with Mark in the 12 hour event last year. She hadn’t got a chance yet to compete in the 24 hour event, but would instead jump straight to the 36!
Back in Arkansas
When Hell Week once again reared its gorgeous head, we found ourselves in good fortune as Mark had actually rented out a cabin and invited a crew of his friends to stay in it together. They had an air mattress already set up and ready for us when we arrived. And we got to meet Mark’s buddy from France, Michel, who was looking for a partner to compete with in the 12 hour event.
The next morning we decided to do a test run on some routes in the canyon to get warmed up on the style of climbing and take some notes on some of the higher graded routes. I took a burn on Crimp Scampi (5.10d), and although it didn’t go this time, I was able to watch some beta for the next time that I try it. We also found a pretty great 5.10a called Season of the Storm and took note of a certain undercling that made the crux a breeze, leading to a really fun roof section and then to a jug finish.
At the check-in for the 12 hour event, we ran into a guy named Noah, who was looking for a climbing partner for the 12 hour, since his partner had bailed on him at the last second. So Michel got to team up with him!
After a full day of climbing, we headed out to the local burger joint, Ozark Cafe, and feasted together. The calm before the storm that was about to hit us.
The MANE EVENT
The 12 hour event started Thursday morning, so Shan and Mark and some of the others got up early to get out there, as anyone competing in the 36 hour event began with the 12 hour event. Rain had begun to pour in the early morning hours, but that didn’t phase the competitors and the climbing would go on, rain or shine.
Another event was organized for those not competing in the 12 or 36, a scavenger hunt / adventure race called “The Mane Event”. The ranch was quite big, and a lot of us had only ever seen a fraction of the place. So it was really fun to travel to some of the hidden corners of the canyon during the race. This whole event was an absolute blast and I really appreciated the amount of effort and detail that went into the whole thing. Here are descriptions of the challenges we got to partake in:
At the Horse Barn, there was something called a SpeleoBox, which is a crawl maze that acts as a cave simulator for spelunking practice. You can barely fit in the thing and you have to crawl up and down and at one point it gets pitch black! So you’re crawling around in this thing, claustrophobic, freaking out, for at least 10 minutes, until you finally emerge back out and run off onto the next challenge.
On the east side was an awesome via ferrata that had you ascending a cliff face, across a canyon, and through a cavern.
Then we made our way to the Land of the Lost, where we had to dodge through some disturbing people in masks tasked with tickling us that led to a neat 4th class chimney downclimb.
At the Goat Cave, named so because a bunch of the ranch goats hang there and thus create an actual shitstorm of goat poop, we were given a zip lock bag and were asked to fill it to the brim with the goat poop! At first my partner and I tried to be nice and sanitary about the whole thing, but we quickly gave that up and just filled the bag with our bare hands and moved onto the next challenge!
At the North Forty, where most of the 12 hour event climbers were climbing, our challenge was to find a climber, give them a massage, and then take a big whiff of one of their climbing shoes!
Having completed all of the above challenges, we raced back to the pavilion and made it back just in time. Our prize was a bunch of climbing swag and a hat / beanie from Jeremy Collins’ new clothing line, Meridian Line.
Haircuts and Tattoos
Last year, on the last night of Hell Week, we ran into a volunteer that offered to fix up our hair for us before we ventured back out into the real world. Her name is Rebecca Wallace, and she owns a barber shop in Springfield, Missouri. This year, she had one of the spots doing free haircuts for folks! While I was getting my mohawk, we were able to convince Nick in our group to not only get a haircut, but to have Rebecca do whatever she wanted to his hair! She got super excited about this because she had been saving up the perfect haircut for such an occasion. The best part is that he was supposed to be starting a new job the next Monday!
Next up was our ink from tattoo artist Megan Franklin. She and Jeremy Collins came up with a sweet new set of designs this year.
Then we went to check up on how Shan was doing in the 12 hour event. She was about eight hours in by this point, and she and Mark were both absolutely crushing it. They had over 70 each and still had a few hours to go! And by the time the 12 hour was over, Shan had clocked in 90 laps! Absolute insanity.
After the 12 hour event was finished, we enjoyed some grilled hot dogs and a screening of a new documentary about 24HHH called The 24. I can’t wait until this one is available to purchase, it was really fun!
When the morning of the 24 finally came, we were, like previous years, full of apprehension and excitement. We knew what we were getting into this year, but the jitters crept regardless. We left the cabin early to stash away our food and water along the canyon, then met down at the pavilion to get our costumes in order and ready our bodies.
Like previous years, Jeremy Collins aka Gordo the Great led the Climber’s Creed by having us face our partners, vow not to drop each other, and to keep the stoke alive throughout the next 24 hours. At the end of the creed, we screamed in unison,
We are LIONS We are LIONS We are LIONS IN A FIELD OF LIONS!
A shotgun blast, and we ran off into another round of Hell! Shan and Mark in one direction, Chris and I in another direction, Juan and Jess in yet another. We all went towards the North Forty, Chris and I starting in the Groovy Area this time.
I don’t have a great timeline of events for the day and night since memories of climbs and things just sort of blend together in a partially blacked-out miasma of fear and adrenaline. But here’s a rough bullet list of some things that stand out:
- Getting to see a bunch of the returning teams from previous years is so fun. I look forward to the special brand of camaraderie in the people that participate in this event. And when you’re exhausted and near a breaking point, rounding a corner and finding your friends is really great and energizing. It makes the whole thing very manageable.
- Meeting Hans Florine! At first I didn’t quite recognize him, but he had injured himself climbing El Cap last year and so we realized it was him when we saw him with his crutches. It was awesome getting to climb with a guy that literally wrote a book on speed climbing, and incredible seeing him climb through the night so soon after a major injury.
- I was feeling really good about my climbing in the months leading up to the competition, and felt like I could maybe climb any 5.9 or 5.10a throughout the entire 24 hours. This was a far cry from the first year that we competed, in which we were physically incapable of climbing a 5.8 past the 10 hour mark. I was delighted to find that this theory was mostly true and we were making our way through 5.9’s well into the 20th hour. We even flashed a 5.10c, and then did another lap on it!
- I tend to get these awful cramps in all muscles of my body during the competition. In pretty crazy spots too like in my lats and my forearms, muscle groups that otherwise never get cramps. This almost proved disastrous at one point when we were on a 5.10b at night and I started pumping out and cramping up. I frantically and stupidly tried to find a rest spot in easier territory and nearly traversed off-route and into a position that would have me swinging back and slamming into a nearby wall if I were to fall. I eventually pulled back and through with some hidden miracle reserve strength, but Chris was not enthused about my climbing on that one.
Earlier in this post I mentioned a route named Season of the Storm that Chris and I had taken notes on earlier in the week. Well, we jumped back on it in the middle of the night, excited to climb it with the moves for it were still fresh in our minds. Except, while Chris was climbing the route, his headlamp died right at the crux! Luckily we had rehearsed a hidden undercling on it, so he was able to manage and pull the roof and finish it out in pitch darkness!
At about six hours in, Chris and I were feeling ready for a food break. All we had in our backpacks to hold us over until we got to our food stash was a pound of gummy bears and a bag of honey-roasted peanuts. We made our way towards the food stash, but stopped at pretty much any open climb along the way. Well, we had forgotten exactly how far away our food stash was, and our little pit stops quickly added up so that we didn’t end up reaching our food for another eight hours, until after midnight!
- Oreos taste heavenly while in a 5am delirium.
- As in previous years, the sunrise is always a massive energy boost and something to look forward to. This year there was a bright pink glow as it broke the horizon, which was such a delight to see.
At the 22 hour mark, we were at about 90% to our vertical mile goal. So we made our way to this area that we knew had four easy 60 ft routes. There was quite the party at this spot but we worked our way in and got two laps in on each of the four routes. We managed to get all of these done with just 5 minutes to spare, and ran down to the pavilion to get our scores turned in.
When we finally logged in the last of our climbs, we realized that we had done it. 5,280 ft! We had each climbed a vertical mile in 24 hours, 123 laps each! It was difficult to process what we’d just done, and the next few hours were pretty hazy as we cleaned up our stashes, feasted at Ozark Cafe, then PTFO’d for a few hours. But looking back now, I’m incredibly proud that we finally managed to hit a climbing goal that had been in our sights for the last three years.
The Awards Ceremony was epic as always. Shannon won third in her category in the 12 hour competition with 90 routes climbed. Over the entire 36 hour event she managed to climb 103 routes, while her partner Mark got the most routes in 36 hours with an astounding 356 routes climbed!
Chris and Juan and I were all happy to receive shirts for climbing a mile. But what Chris and I weren’t expecting was placing 2nd in points in the Team Intermediate category! We were in the middle of some chit chat when Shan yelled at us that they had just called our team name. We didn’t even know what it was for until we got down there and got our trophies, dumbfounded!
The party was a total blast, just as in previous years. A local punk band called Zero Zero played a great setlist of classic pop-punk hits, and then DJ Flawed put on another amazing show and we danced the night away.
I’m not sure how but we managed to get our climbing shoes on and got a few more routes in in the morning before we left. I hopped on some 5.9’s and 5.10’s that I had avoided in the final hours of the 24, but after climbing them this morning I decided that I shouldn’t be avoiding anything of those grades at any point in next year’s comp.
I also got to see a bunch of our other friends totally crush. Juan and Michel sent Mine Mine Mine (5.12a); Noah, Juan, and Aubrey all sent Love Slave (5.11c); Juan onsighted Mclovin’ It (5.12b).
And that concludes our third round in Hell. I’m still amazed when I look back at the progress that we’ve made. From barely knowing how to climb just three years ago to stepping up to the gates of Hell with confidence and achieving the goals we set this year. Shan didn’t even climb in this event the first year, and this year she climbed for 36 hours and placed in her category?! Unreal.
Now I wonder, with the mile out of the way, what’s the goal for next year? Perhaps we improve enough to where we can flash any 5.10 sport or 5.8 trad route we come across? We’d be bumped up to the Advanced category by next year, so placing might be a bit more difficult. But, seeing the tallies for other teams in that category, I think we can place if we can climb just ~15-20 more laps each! Might as well aim high.
Thanks again to the Pine Knot Cabin of Crushers for the friendships and camaraderie, to Mark Vabulas for his energy and leadership, to Juan Rodriguez for his guidance and training, to Stoneworks Climbing Gym for being our second home, to Jessica Mason for being such a great climbing and travel buddy, to Chris Borg for not dropping me and inspiring me to crush, to Shan for being such a supportive partner, to Shan’s mom Lisa for watching our pets while we were away for a week, to Megan Franklin for the new ink, and to Andy Chasteen, Jeremy Collins, and the rest of the event organizers and volunteers for another event of a lifetime.