10am. The crack of a shotgun erupts and the scene around me explodes into chaos. Climbers wearing absurd costumes run in every direction. I spin around and realize my partner, Trent, is no longer standing behind me. Frantically I look around for him. There. He’s running up the hill wearing nothing but a pair of stark blue shorts and a giant Wal-Mart sombrero. I scramble up the hill after him.
This is 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, a marathon 24 hour climbing competition. Climbers come from all around to compete and see who can rack up the most points in 24 hours. It’s a competition, but definitely a loose one. Scoring is mostly done by an honor system. A lot of people who compete have no intention of winning and just want to have a lot of fun. When I say fun, it’s definitely a type two kind of fun. I agreed to this back in June over text with Trent and I’m starting to wonder exactly what I signed up for.
Heaving and panting I finally catch up with him. We find our supply cache and gear up. Quick draws, belay device, rope, headlamps, tp, a gallon of water each, and snacks. There are three other stashes just like it in dry bags around the canyon to save us time and energy.
Simply put, we get down to it. The next twelve hours pass like a blur. We climb roughly eight pitches an hour. Our system is refined perfectly for maximum efficiency. We hand in our first scorecards at 10pm, exactly 12 hours from the start. I’ve done about 80 pitches and Trent’s done 90. If we could’ve kept up this pace we would’ve done great.
11pm. I am still psyched, jamming to Kesha on our Bluetooth speaker and cranking out around eight pitches an hour. Within an hour this is no longer the case. Trent already got tired a couple hours ago and I’m starting to feel the same way. It’s getting harder and harder to keep up the pace.
1am. We are now climbing at a much slower pace. 5.7’s suddenly feel like 5.10’s. I have to shit really bad but I want to get to a better stopping point before I do it. My turn on our latest route. I start climbing and do the first move. I fart a little bit. It’s possible something might have come out with it, but I’m not sure, so I keep climbing. Another move, another fart. I’m fairly certain I may have shit my pants. Another climber is climbing almost parallel to me about five feet away. Deliriously, I strike up a conversation with her.
“So hello stranger. I’m going to tell you this because it’s 1am and I’m pretty loopy at this point. I have to shit really bad, and I’m pretty sure I sharted myself a couple times down there but I’m really not sure.”
“Wow.” she chuckles. “That’s…great.”
Once I get back to the ground I rip my harness off. “I’ll be right back. May be an emergency.” I tell Trent.
“Sure.” he replies.
I grab the teepee and run off into the woods. It turns out I’m fine, but I still take a huge shit. The great thing about Horseshoe Canyon Ranch is there’s already a metric fuck-ton of shit everywhere from the goats and horses. Your one tiny human shit isn’t going to mess up the ecosystem whatsoever. I remind myself of this fact as I bury it.
We get to our next route, and the team in front of us has three burns left, which means I have about ten minutes. I curl up in a ball in the goat-shit covered ground and take a power nap. Bliss. All too soon Trent wakes me up and tells me it’s time to get up. I’m badly in need of a morale boost. Our friend Callie is there with an air horn. “Callie, give me that air horn.” I grab the air horn from her, and point it at my right ear. “When I blow this, I want you to slap me, ok?”
“Uh, ok I guess.” she says. I blow the air horn. My right ear is immediately deafened. I feel a light pat on my face.
“No. I need you to hit me hard. Like, seriously hard.” This time I aim the airhorn at my left ear. My right ear is ringing. “Ready?” I ask.
“Yeah.” she replies.
I blow the airhorn again. Now both of my ears are ringing. Thwack. A sharp pain explodes across my face. “AWWW YEAH!” I scream. “Let’s do it!” Psyche is back. I run over and start climbing again, filled with energy.
3am. It’s time to cross the valley. We put the gear we won’t take with us in a dry bag and begin the trek down the hill. As we emerge from the trees we’re greeted with a gorgeous view of the moonlit canyon. If we weren’t trying to climb so many pitches maybe we could stop and enjoy it. “Oh wow!” Trent says and stops, startled. I turn and see a skunk just over ten feet away from us illuminated in the beam of our headlamps, tail poised to spray. We back away slowly and take a wide path around him.
“Well that would have made this even more miserable.” I say.
“If we had gotten sprayed at least we could have given up with dignity.” Trent replies.
We pass by our campsite on the way through the canyon floor, and resist the urge to just lay down in our tent and forfeit the rest of the comp.
4am. Roman Wall. The routes next to us are closed due to a hornets nest on them. The nest regardless has been agitated. As I belay Trent I am fighting off hornets. They are sending them at me one at a time. I flail my free arm wildly and slap them to the ground, stepping on them. As soon as I do this another takes his fallen comrade’s place to avenge him. Trent lets out a shout of pain on the route. He is hanging from a chicken head flailing his arms fighting off a hornet. It has stung him through his shirt.
He clips the anchors. We still have another lap each to go, but I’m growing tired of my perpetual battle with the siege of the hornet collective. “Hey Trent, do you want to just go ahead and clean this so we can get the fuck out of here?”
“Absolutely.” he yells back. He cleans the route and we leave quickly.
5am. I’m starting to feel nauseous. Maybe it’s my diet of V8 Juice, granola bars, and Gatorade, or maybe it’s just the fact I’ve been climbing nonstop for 19 hours. I fight off the urge to vomit for a couple hours but it gets worse and worse. As I’m belaying Trent I’m falling asleep standing up. (thank God for GriGri’s.) He gets to the top of the pitch and I lower him. I inform him of my situation. “Hey dude. I’ve had it. I can’t do it anymore. I’m going to do a pitch an hour to stay in, but I’ll belay you on anything.” He understands. For the next hour one of my friends stands by me and pokes me as I belay Trent to make sure I don’t fall asleep entirely.
6am. The sun finally starts to rise. We turn our headlamps off for the first time in almost ten hours. I’m still pretty nauseous, but the sun gives us a little boost of energy and increases morale. Trent does Horseshoes and Hand Grenades at 7am. Twice. I’m fairly impressed, and it kicks up our score a little bit. It’s our only 11a we log during the comp. I continue to do a pitch an hour just to stay qualified. Blisters have formed on my toes and finger tips. Every point of contact to the rock feels like fire. They feel like some of the hardest pitches of my life.
9am. We finish up the comp at Mr. Magoo Rock. I’m at 118 pitches and Trent is at 149. Last year he logged 150 pitches, so he must climb two more pitches to bring his total pitches to 151. I pound the PBR tallboy I’ve been saving for the end as I belay him. The airhorn blows signaling the comp is over. No complaints here. We hike down the canyon to turn in our score sheets, share our congrats with the other teams, and get advertised to by the companies there.
Back at our campsite I throw my sleeping pad under the shade of a tree and immediately pass out. I sleep through the post-comp spaghetti dinner, barely stay conscious for the awards ceremony, and go to bed before the after party that night. The next day I hitch a ride back to the Red River Gorge with my friend Dalia.
If you had asked me at 5am if I would do it again next year I would’ve replied with a certain “fuck no.” Ask me now though…
Here are some other shots from my week in Arkansas:
Second to last pitch of the comp.
My hands after the comp.
April hitting the swing to some stellar views.
Getting our caches ready the day before the comp.
Trent belaying on Lamp Chops.
Rest day swimming hole down at Kyle’s Landing. So nice we went back the next day.