It was 10 am, Saturday morning. Several hundred people (mostly looking like climber types) stumbled around Horseshoe Canyon Ranch like zombies. They looked exhausted, dehydrated, and (if you looked closely enough) their hands were torn up and extremely filthy. Some seemed excited by this fact, some appeared sickened as if they just lived off power bars for a few days straight. All of them made their way towards their tents, falling into a deep sleep despite the rising sun and the heat building up. Several could be seen sprawled out on crashpads and picnic tables, some in the bed of a pickup truck and others on the reclined seats of their cars.
For those of you who not in the know, this scenery is common following Twenty-Four Hours of Horseshoe Hell, an annual climbing competition near Jasper, Arkansas, often simply called Horseshoe Hell. Around 250 climbers gather from across the country to climb for twenty four hours straight through the night. The rules are fairly simple, you and your partner receive a certain amount of points for every route that you lead cleanly. If you fall, you must be lowered and start the route again. More points are awarded for more difficult routes, as well as traditionally protected routes versus their similarly rated sport routes. For each new route your team attempts you must place quickdraws as you climb. At the top of each route are a pre-set pair of carabineers to make lowering and removing your gear much faster and safer. Additional points are given to every team whose members each complete at least one route per hour. There are different skill categories in which to compete, providing for climbers of all levels.
Training and strategy are imperative aids in this competition. Many teams' aspirations are to only climb the minimal one route per hour, some are to win their category, and some are to achieve their own personal goals. Upper Limits had many staff and members competing and volunteering this year, making it refreshing to bump into them at 5am. Some team's training involved climbing every 5.10 at the gym in one day, mine was to simply climb as many different routes as I could at both St. Louis gyms. Some practiced night climbing at the gym, some came to HCR to practice climbing harder routes at nighttime. Anything to prepare for climbing fifty or sixty pitches in a night. Most climbers had some idea of which routes they'd like to climb first, ideally getting to sending the harder routes while still fresh.
At 10am Friday morning, after roll call of the teams, the shotgun (and many other guns) fired, signaling the start of the day. Everyone hustled out from in front of the Trading Post up to the canyon walls, some picking up gear at the camp sites, some having stowed it at the cliff base. We grabbed our gear bags at the camp and jogged across the footbridge and up the low hills to the North 40 crag. Several 10a's, an 8, and a 9+. Our plan was minimize travel time and knock these out of the way, but we were forced elsewhere when a line formed behind Ace in the Hole. Throughout the day we made quick work of a variety of 8's, 9's, and 10's, accepting any amount of beta that others would contribute. For most competitors, the North 40 offered more than enough routes to stay within for the whole day, other teams were forced to cross the valley in search of more routes or shorter waits.
Periodically volunteers, competition administration, and promoters would wander past, offering tips, checking on well being, and supplying energy bars and snacks. Every hour, on the hour, the canyon would be filled with primal yelling from wall to wall. Towards sunset the exhaustion began to set in for many, strategies being thrown out the window, resorting to the one route per hour minimum. Headlights began illuminating the cliff base. At 10pm every climber had to check in at a station, submitting their halfway done score card. Cold brewed coffee became available now, and it became common to see climbers napping while waiting.
Panic would ensue when a team member's one hour window began to close, begging to cut in line. Luckily we only had one such instance, and were able to return the favor later in the night. Arguing between teammates became more common. Our routes per hour dropped, as well as their difficulty, 5's, 6's and 7's became what we looked for. Unfortunately that seemed to be what everyone was looking for and the wait for some of these routes was 45 minutes or more. The 4am check in came and passed, providing the administration a chance to see if we were still functioning, mentally. This was one of the low spots for our team, as the following 5.7 was one of the more difficult climbs for the whole day. Somehow we persevered, aided by 5 Hour Energy drinks, coffee, and banana-peanut butter sandwiches.
It seemed the end was within comprehension now as the edges of daylight began pouring through the tree leaves. Competitors looked excited to be climbing and a new energy was with some. At 8 am I realized I needed 6 more pitches to reach 60, so I and my reluctant partner quickly moved through two 9's before camping out at a nearby 6 to get our one route for the 9-10am window. Once we completed this we headed back down to turn in our scorecards. All in all we combined for 101 pitches and 11,240 points, nothing compared to the 260 pitches (a supposed local) or 56,900 points (Team Petzl) that other teams put up, but we were content. Festivities marked the rest of our stay; awards ceremony, spaghetti dinner, pancake breakfast, arm wrestling and slacklining. We left with our swag bags and tender fingers, always happy for the chance to climb.