“Repeat after me…Partner!”
Chris and I are standing face-to-face in costume at the craziest climbing event of all time, holding up our palms, as Jeremy Collins roars to 276 other climbers in outlandish garb at the top of his lungs. We pledge his preparatory oath to each other. We are about to climb together for 24 hours, and we swear to not drop each other, to rise like zombies in the night, and to be lions in a field of lions- among other commitments both serious and outlandish. His medieval voice booms through Horseshoe Canyon, Arkansas, and is followed by the echoes of a shotgun.
A couple months ago, Chris and I were invited by Petzl to compete as a team in this event. It takes place in Jasper, Arkansas, of all places, and is appropriately called the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell. Despite the menacing name, it’s a highly coveted event- the entry fills up within minutes of opening. This competition is point-based (the harder the climb the more points) and the goal is to climb as many pitches as you can as a team over a 24-hour period. It’s been coined the comp where Ultramarathon meets Burning Man. Everyone dresses up, tries hard, and parties hard.
I started training about 6 weeks before the event at the climbing gym. I’d attach myself to the auto-belays and do 30-50 pitches per session with no more than 5 minutes of rest in between a set. Usually the hardest pitches I’d try were 12a, and I’d average 10a. But at the same time I was working hard on my local project, a powerful granite crack climb, which made these training days absolutely exhausting.
Finishing up one of my gym sessions, I remember running into a friend and she was wondering what I was doing there. It wasn’t typical for me to be climbing in the gym this time of year and especially out of character to see my on a bunch of 5.10s on the auto belay. I told her about the competition and she reassured me, “Oh you’ll be able to climb 5.10 all day.”
You would think. But this is actually not true at all- it’s a completely different type of fitness. It would be like saying Joyner-Kersee could run a marathon no problem because each mile is not nearly as fast or hard as the 100 meter.
I’d finish my training sessions at the gym and be like, ok, that wasn’t too bad. But then it would hit me as soon as I’d get in my car. Suddenly it was hard to grip the steering wheel and my whole body felt heavy- all I wanted to do was lay down.
For the past 7 years, my climbing performance has been equivalent to that of a cat. As a climber I’m mainly a projector, which means I try really really hard on a super difficult climb for a total of 5-10 minutes, then I collapse at the base of the climb and rest for an hour (belaying too of course). You see, most of the time I’m taking a cat nap with the occasional attack and pounce in between.
It turns out it’s hard to turn cat pouncing into tortoise steady.
A few weeks before the comp, I started having a lot of anxiety. I’ve never done anything like this before. I had nightmares that I was wrecked after only a few hours of the comp, unable to climb anymore, or of fainting, tendons popping, skin falling off… I’d wake up drenched in my sheets. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to hang physically and mentally.
Last weekend, we flew in to Fayetteville, Arkansas, and rented a car for the 2 hours to Jasper. The man at the rent-a-car desk was giving me directions to where the cars were outside the airport.
“Ar row is on the left.”
“We are in row R?” I asked to clarify.
He laughed. “No, OW-er row is on the left, not row R.”
Welcome to AR-kansas.
We arrived at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch after dark 2 nights before the competition and set out to one of the crags to get a feel for the climbing and hopefully figure out the moves on a 5.12 or two before the comp.
We shined our headlamps up the routes of The Circus Wall and immediately I thought, uh-oh. The sandstone routes looked so steep compared to the granite I’d been climbing back home. I tried a few 5.12s and was dreadfully shut-down. The cruxes were so bouldery and powerful- so different from what I’d been climbing lately.
If I’d had a level of anxiety before, it had tripled by now.
“All we can do is try our best.” Chris felt my tension and attempted to calm me down.
Luckily the 24HHH is not all about climbing hard routes- it’s a lot about strategy. The day before the comp begins everyone stashes a bunch of water and gear at different spots around the canyon. Chris and I had a lot of help from Bobbi Bensman, Brady Robinson, Jeremy Collins, and Team Leather and Lace (Natalie and Dick Dower) about their strategies in the past comps. We walked our potential path, stashed gear and scoped some routes.
At 10am last Friday, the gunshot rang through Horseshoe Canyon and everyone sprinted to the walls. We started out on the East side of the canyon, giving us a point advantage due to the longer approach. Two minutes into running to the crag I’m drenched in sweat and my lungs are burning. Fortunately we were the first at the wall and got to work on our 24 hours of climbing.
On any normal day of climbing, we’re like vampires. We avoid the sun at all costs. Sun makes the rock slippery, your hands sweat, and your body temp rises- all a recipe for not sending. But today, we had to avoid the crowds and the crag was quickly becoming sun-filled. Everything felt wet- because it was. I’ve never climbed in Thailand but that’s what I’d imagine it felt like. 5.11s felt horrendous. We were only 3 hours in and our fingers and toes burned. How the hell were we going to last another 21 hours?
Soon we switched to the other side of the canyon and we were finally in the shade. We felt better overall, but our skin was quickly becoming intolerable. My fingers were stinging so bad that it was making me clammy. I had to try some of these techniques I’d heard about from the other Horseshoe Hellers.
I started by taking Ibuprofen and lathering my entire fingers with superglue. This was a first. It felt really slippery on the rock at first, but it actually took some of the sting away! Ah, to have some relief. Soon, however, the sting became intolerable again and we started taping our entire fingers. This worked great for the skin but made it impossible to try hard routes, which was okay because by this time our tendons were tired.
Climbing by headlamp, everyone tries to keep the psyche high. There’s plenty of music, glow-sticks, and goofiness. At about midnight, we were climbing next to two guys dressed in hot pink crop tops, 80s-style Lycra tights, and a wicked playlist. I was belaying Chris on a steep 5.11 roof when surprisingly- after many hip-hop and techno tracks- came the opera of Andrea Bocelli. Soon we were all belting out the famous Italian Con Te Partiro ballad with arms passionately raised in the middle-of-nowhere Arkansas in the middle of the night. Chris came down laughing hysterically. Apparently we had almost laughed him right off the wall.
Throughout the night there were plenty of laughs but it certainly wasn’t all fun and games- particularly, as Libby Sauter called it, during the “witching hour.” The hours between 3am and 5am I just really wanted to lay down and I questioned what the hell I was doing with my life. I had moments of complete despair; I wanted to cry and eat Oreos. It was a terrible feeling.
But it’s all super mental- the body is truly capable of incredible amounts of stamina. I had to force myself not to think of any alternative to climbing and just keep focused on every move. During the witching hour it helped tremendously to have the best partner ever. Chris continued to cheer me on, tell me to eat and drink, and keep on moving on. This is what you need in a partner. It’s all about supporting each other, trying hard, and keeping morale high no matter what.
Soon the sun came up and our energy was renewed. Only 4 more hours of climbing! We flogged our way up as many 5.8s and 5.9s we could at this point, our muscles locking up and our skin burning. I never knew just how hard a 5.8 could feel.
Every hour of the comp on the hour, everyone would yell wildly and a bull-horn would sound. The last hour of the comp, at 9am, we all screamed louder than ever- ONE MORE HOUR!!!
Chris and I scurried up as many 5.7s and 5.8s as we could stomach and soon the gun went off once again. We had done it. At 10am Saturday morning we had finished the comp.
Chris and I did 112 and 108 routes respectively, averaging a level of 5.10b. We had reached our goal. We celebrated with a beer, and after one beer- feeling buzzed from dehydration and lack of sleep- took a nap. 3 hours later we woke up for the dinner and award ceremony. I’d never felt so stiff and sore in my life.
Completely unexpectedly, I’d won for women’s highest points and Chris and I won for co-ed! All the winners had to take a slip-n-slide (naturally) down to the stage to pick up their awards…somehow none of us opposed this rule.
24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell is definitely the best climbing competition I’ve ever experienced. It’s absolutely nutty and wild, but I’ve never felt such camaraderie and support from other climbers. We all tried and suffered hard together, partied hard together, and laughed our asses off.
I can’t think of any better way to spend the day. And to feel truly alive.