It’s 8 p.m. on Thursday, September 23 and pitch-black as I turn off of Highway 7 and guide my car along the rutted path leading to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch (HCR). The earlier deluge has tapered into a steady patter of drops. After a treacherous mile, I can see the lights of the Trading Post. There’s no official lot, but about two dozen cars have pulled along the path. Every September for four days, the population of Jasper nearly triples, from 458 to about 1,200. Since 2006, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch has hosted 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell (HH), what has become one of the biggest endurance rock climbing competitions in the United States.
Logan Wilcoxson, who owns the Little Rock Climbing Center, is out here somewhere, and so are David Harrison and Aaron Baka, both of whom work at the gym and are supposed to meet me at the Trading Post. The woman who checks me in says most people are at a hot-dog roast up the hill. There are, however, three men and a woman huddled under a white tent out front.
“Have you seen a tall guy with a red, curly mohawk and a short guy with a blond, curly mohawk?” I ask them.
“No, but you should totally go on this zip line with us,” one of the guys says. He smells like beer.
“Right now? It’s dark and raining,” I say.
“You got a head lamp?” he responds.
A few minutes later, we’re following Morgan McNeill, a HCR guide, up a muddy, steep trail. Turns out, my new friends are all reps from Backwoods, one of the HH sponsors. The zipline is 3,200 feet long. The wire screams like a freight train.
“You’re a lightweight,” McNeill says, strapping me in. “So curl your feet up in a cannonball, okay? You ready?”
He starts me with a massive push. I hug my knees and soar over the canyon, rain pelting my face like a Super Soaker bazooka at close range. Light pinprick the darkness below, marking campsites. The wind is so crisp that it makes me think of Utah in winter, rather than in Arkansas in fall. It’s incredible, it’s trippy and a minute in, it’s over.
Afterwards, I spread my sleeping bag in the back of my car and wait till morning. Horseshoe Hell officially begins in twelve hours.
Inside the Trading Post, they’re selling coffee for a buck, but it’s BYOM (bring your own mug) because this is a no-trace event. Volunteers in yellow T-shirts mill about, and restless climbers squat by open trunks, going over gear and strategy. According to Barry Johnson, owner of HCR, there are over 270 competitors, 60 VIPs, 60 volunteers and about 150 pre-registered spectators. He expects another 150 spectators, for a total of about 900 over the course of the weekend. Competition registration filled in 15 minutes and crashed the website.
Jason Roy, a HCR guide, orients me. “We have some people from Alaska, some people from California, Colorado, Canada,” Roy said. “Some of the biggest names, the guys you see in magazines, are here. Tommy Caldwell is one of the strongest all around rock climbers in the world. He and Sonnie Trotter, Brittany Griffith and Jasmine Caton are climbing for Patagonia.”
Each team has two people, who alternate on climbing and belaying (manning the safety rope). To earn a horseshoe, each competitor has to climb at least one route an hour for 24 hours. Additional routes are worth extra points and harder routes are worth more. There are four categories: recreational, intermediate, advanced or elite. Elite climbers often have corporate sponsorship and climb well over 100 routes, and the ranch has about 350 different routes total. HH offers prizes — climbing gear, mostly — but has no effect on a climber’s official ranking. It’s more about hanging with buddies and reaching personal goals. Climbers fill out their own scorecards, and everything works on the honor system. Despite a preponderance of alcohol (carted in, since Newton County is dry), the unfettered enthusiasm and community emphasis gives the event a wholesome aura, almost like a church retreat.
“There’s a lot of strategy involved, because you’ve got to go to areas that aren’t congested with climbers … and you have to plan around what time certain walls will be in the sun, because that will zap your energy real fast,” Roy says. Roy and his mentor, Chad Watkins, founded the ranch’s climbing program 11 years ago. Roy designed and bolted many of the routes himself. Because the routes are so concentrated, HCR has become a world-class climbing spot. The ranch still draws summer reunions and vacation crowds who want to ride horses and float the Buffalo, but a lot of its business comes from climbers.
By 9 a.m., hundreds of people have gathered. Lucky for me, two of them are Baka and Harrison, the guys from Little Rock. They’re calling themselves team T-nutters, after the type of screw used to bolt holds to walls in indoor climbing gyms. They both wear khaki cargos and blue tops, with fingers taped and supplies ready.
Baka bounces on his toes, burning energy and nerves. He’s at least half a foot shorter than Harrison, but their heads seem, more often than not, to be at the same level. He greets me with, “Get some pictures of us at 4 a.m. That would be hilarious!”
Harrison is more subdued. He even seems a little sleepy. As his girlfriend, Debbie Sellnow, grabs his wrists and tugs his arms back in a deep stretch, he says, “I set all the routes at the gym, I’m climbing every day. I got to take one day off to do this, so that was interesting…”
There are two separate film crews, one for HH and a guy from Missouri (I think) making an independent documentary. About a fourth of the crowd is in costume. Two college-aged girls in blue tights, red striped shirts and black frame glasses, channel the Where’s Waldo character. Christen Meyer and Megean Humbolt live in Tulsa, about three hours west. They’ve never climbed in HH before, but they climb at HCR fairly often. “Our goal is to stay awake and not die,” Meyer announced. There’s also Cheech and Chong, a gorilla and a banana, a handful of superheros, and a couple of guys in suits and Romney and Obama masks. The team names are often quips on climbing terms, hilarious to those in the know and mystifying to the rest of us.
As the names are announced, Harrison translates: “Beta is how to do a climb. You’re not supposed to yell to someone how to do it on their first go, its just kind of bad ethics. But sometimes you get so excited, and you’re like, ‘put your foot over there,’ and then you’re like (he clamps his hand over his mouth). So that’s Another Premature Beta Spray.”
As “Is that a number two cam in your pants or are you just happy to see me?” collects their scorecards, Baka jabs Harrison’s arm. “Dave, you totally missed that! That guy actually had a number two cam in his pants!” (I didn’t miss it. How could anyone? The guy wears bluespandex briefs. For the record, a cam is a chunky bit of plastic that wedges into a crack for climbers to hook into, if a wall doesn’t have permanent bolts.)
The next team is “My couch pulls out, but I don’t.” Harrison grimaces at Baka. “That one’s awful.”
The climbers face their partners and repeat the Climber’s Creed, which changes every year and this year includes whole verses from the Eminem song “8 Mile.” Then someone fires a shotgun, and they’re off. People scatter in all directions, sprinting towards the hills, backpacks swinging. These packs have the water and food the climbers will need for 24 hours. According to the rules, they must carry all supplies themselves.
Baka is strapping on his harness, and Harrison is crouched at the base of the wall, breathless and red-faced, when Sellnow and I catch up. All around team T-nutters, climbers are already on the 40-foot wall.
“That run killed me,” Harrison mutters. It’s about 78 degrees and the air is a soupy 90 percent humidity. But he chugs coconut water and recovers quickly. The route is mid-grade, and these guys – competing in the advanced category – scale it quickly and cleanly.
Twenty minutes in, they’ve both completed two climbs. As Harrison secures his figure eight knot for a third go, Sellnow shouts a bit of encouragement. “Your haircut looks like an early 90’s lesbian!” In response, Harrison comically shakes his curly red mohawk.
“It’s more like an Irish warrior. That’s way more bad-ass,” Baka says.
“I think maybe the 90’s lesbian is more bad-ass,” Sellnow retorts, and two girls we don’t know giggle.
Baka, a linguistics student at UCA, keeps up running repartee with everyone in the vicinity.
“I like your tights,” he shouts to a guy in leopard print leggings.
“If you come by later, I’ll let you touch them,” the guy says.
“Sick dude!” Baka exclaims.
This is all part of his philosophy. Earlier he told me, “The most important thing is to have fun with the people around you. That way you don’t worry about how blasted you get, and it psyches them out.”
There are so many routes on this one wall that the T-nutters move up and down it for hours. In the second hour, Harrison begins a story I’ve already heard twice. I’ll hear a version of it at least a dozen more times before I leave HCR. In a decade, it has solidified into legend, and better yet, it involves one of the climbers at HH.
“Did you know that Tommy Caldwell was kidnapped by terrorists? He was held for six days,” Harrison begins. The story goes something like this – in 2000, four climbers were in Kyrgyzstan’s Kara Su Valley, asleep on the side of a cliff, when a gang of Uzbek terrorists kidnapped them at gunpoint. They were held hostage for five days, they watched one of their captors execute a Kygyz soldier, and on the sixth day, the terrorists went off, leaving only one guard behind. Caldwell, 22 at the time, overpowered the guard and pushed him off a cliff, and the climbers escaped to a Kyrgyz army base. But one climber tells me that some people think the story was fabricated for a National Geographic article, and the man pushed off the cliff has been tracked and is alive and well. I’m warned multiple times not to broach the topic with Caldwell.
In the middle of Harrison’s version, Baka trots down the trail. Harrison interrupts his story to mutter, “What’s he doing? Aaron has severe ADD.”
“Should we go after him?” I ask.
Dave shakes his head. “He’s like a puppy. He’ll come back.” Sure enough, Baka rounds a curve, jogging and grinning. He just had to check on some carabiners he’d lent out.
After awhile, I leave the T-nutters to find the bouldering clinic, offered for non-competitors. It’s being led by Lisa Rands, a 37-year-old North Face ambassador and perhaps the best female boulderer in the world. Bouldering is free climbing of low rocks and overhangs, with portable thick pads laid about to break any falls. It takes an astounding amount of upper-body strength, and Rands’s biceps are bigger than her quads. She expected maybe 20 people to show, but when Sellnow and I hike over, nearly 80 folks are already there. Some people have tossed down pads and are attempting to climb. A few representatives from Little Rock’s Ozark Outdoors are lending climbing shoes. The box is tipped on its side, and there are shoes and people everywhere. Rands is overwhelmed. She warns everyone about poison ivy and apologizes. There will be no clinic today.
But folks do fall into a bit of a system, taking turns on the walls. Those with pads and chalk share with everyone. Strangers stand beneath strangers with lifted arms to break falls, a few people pop beers, and Rands makes the rounds, correcting technique.
By mid-afternoon, the sky has gone from overcast to threatening, and the temperature has dropped nearly 20 degrees. At 4:45 p.m., I meet a couple of guys from Grand Rapids near the Trading Post. They’re sitting on the back of their car, taking stock. “We’ve done about 25 climbs, and we’ve been sticking to easy stuff,” says Alan Zeitlin, a med student. “We’re not sure about the weather.” He opens a bag of beef jerky and offers me a stick.
“There’s the goat cave way over there, it’s all overhanging, it’s really hard stuff, so we might look at that,” says his teammate Carl Sobel, an aeronautics engineer, testing their rain plan aloud.
“We said we’d climb even if it rains, but lightening? I don’t know, we’d have to assess,” Zeitlin says, shrugging.
“We got more than we said we were going to,” Sobel says.
“Yeah, our goal was to at least get 24. So now we’re here, it’s a good time to take a rest, recuperate, and see if we can get another 24…we’re not trying to win anything, we’re just trying to go through the hell,” Zeitlin says. His flight was late, so he’s working on four hours of sleep. “I feel like it’s 48 hours of hell,” he adds, wryly.
Neither of them have hit the caffeine yet, but they have Monsters for later. Overhead, thunder growls ominously. It sounds like the mountains groaning, protesting the weight of 270 climbers.
By the time the clouds break, I am with Andy Chasteen, HH founder and about six HCR employees inside the Trading Post’s tiny back office. Outside the window, the patch of sky that we can see is a dark shade of bruise.
“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Chasteen says, sipping coffee from a mug. “We did have a light shower once, came through and left super fast. But the routes, when they get wet, are still somewhat grippy because it’s sandstone.” Chasteen is a photographer and headhunter from Oklahoma City. Seven years ago and he and some friends were climbing at HCR and decided to gather a small group, come out one weekend and climb as many routes as they could in 24 hours. But Chasteen decided it would be even better to invite the public. He pitched the idea to Johnson, and the first year they had 120 competitors.
“One of the coolest things for me, people come here, they make friends, they come back and it’s like a real family reunion,” Chasteen says.
Just then Leinau, the medic, leans into the doorway and says, “Andy, are you going to do anything more official about the weather? It’s raining real hard with a lot of lightening.”
“The announcements we’ve been making are that we don’t recommend climbing in the lightening at all,” Chasteen replies.
“Maybe if you give them a break on 5 o’clock routes, in case anybody is more worried about their route count than they’re life,” says Leinau. “Because it’s not a safe time to be climbing.”
Chasteen relays the message into his walkie, so that the crag-volunteers can spread the word. But then he says to Leinau, “That’s not going to de-motivate people. Tommy and Sonny won’t stop.”
Leinau says, “I know. This just makes it a little more clear that they are the ones deciding to climb.”
Roy chimes in. “Tommy does El Cap (a notoriously dangerous Yosemite ascent) in snowstorms.”
“Exactly,” Chasteen says. “We’re not worried about him, right?”
The rain slacks around 6:30 p.m., and Roy and I take the four-wheeler up to the North Forty. The air seems luminous, everything lit with that watery half-light that comes when a storm fades just as the sun sets. The first climbers we find are Tommy Caldwell and Sonny Trotter, the Patagonia guys. They’re on a somewhat protected route, but they both have wet hair. The pink tie-dye tees they wore this morning are long gone, and now they’re climbing in nothing but neon green shorts. They work quickly and efficiently, without much conversation.
Around the corner, Dick Dower — at 63, the oldest competitor — and his partner Natalie Neal, are also climbing through what is now a drizzle. They seem undaunted by the water-logged rock, but Dower laments that the hour of heavy rain will wreck their route count.
Further down, along the Circus Wall, we see Leinau, who reports that there have been no real injuries, although a climber did fall at the second bolt. There is some question as to whether or not he hit his head, although he says he didn’t. Of course, he wanted to continue the competition. Around 7:30 p.m., headlights begin to blink on and Roy greets his mentor, Watkins, who is competing in HH. Watkins bolted HCR’s The Prophet, a grade 5.14 route (the most difficult route in the world is a 5.15) that fewer than a handful of climbers have successfully completed. “You shouldn’t chalk when the rock is wet,” he advises another climber. “It makes the rock slick.”
A few minutes later, I find the Waldo girls again. They’re psyching themselves up for their first climb, ever, in the dark.
“We’re on Five Hour Energy and candy corn pumpkins, our recipe for success,” Meyers chirps. “We’ve done a route per hour, except the rain hour where they gave us leeway.”
“At first we were thinking of napping, but I think that will make us more tired. So we’re going to pull a college move and stay up all night,” Humbolt says.
“We’re probably the only ones out here eating candy,” Meyers says. “All these other people are like, ‘you stupid rookie.’” She haplessly reaches in her chalkbag, grabs a fistful of powder and claps, sending white puffs into the beam of her headlamp.
Every hour on the hour, all 270-plus climbers let out something akin to Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp, a siren of sound that reverberates around the canyon. It’s beautiful and potent, the wilderness version of the yogi’s om. Roy started the tradition about three years ago, to annoy a particular set of neighbors who had been complaining that HH was too loud.
Now, as the echoes die out, I ask a guy sitting on a rock what time it is. He looks at his watch and says, slightly disgusted, “7:54.” Everyone wants to start the yell, so as the competition goes on, each new “hour” comes earlier and earlier.
Around 8:30 p.m., I find the T-nutters again. “How are y’all?” I ask.
“I’m boss!” Baka shouts. Despite the fact that the temperature’s about 50 and he’s damp, he’s still shirtless.
“Fine,” Sellnow nearly whispers. She’s wearing a giant cameo rain slicker. She looks miserable.
“Did y’all stop in the rain?”
“No,” Harrison says glumly. He’s wearing a bright orange windbreaker. “And I wasn’t totally happy with it. It’s not my bag.” He glances at the oblivious Baka. “For awhile it was lightening and stuff, and it was just like, ok…and my job centers around me climbing, so if I get hurt, I’m fucked.”
Baka disappears and then comes back, still traveling at a trot. “On the backside there are two 5.8’s and a 5.9 open,” he yells.
As the group heads toward the routes, Baka clutches two bagels (each with one bite missing) in one hand and a gallon jug of water in the other. He dumps his stuff at the foot of the mountain and hurriedly knots his rope. His mannerisms are twitchy, his words rushed, like he’s overdosed on non-drowsy cold meds. “Dave, are you ready? Now we just have to find what we can. I wanted my lowest to be 9, but 8’s aren’t that bad, and there’s three of them right here.” He’s already partially up the wall, clipping himself into the first bolt before Harrison, on belay, is done with his knot. “I’m in the zone, where I can’t function normally, but I can totally climb,” Baka yells down.
10 p.m. We’re halfway there.
Harrison starts to misplace bits of equipment and Baka stumbles over the log he tries to hop, while heading off-trail for a bathroom break.
At the first of three check-ins, the North Forty is hopping. Dozens of climbers sign the log, re-tape fingers and chug complimentary cold-brewed coffee. One guy eats unheated Chef Boyardee from the can. There are a few battery-operated floodlights, and everyone has headlamps, giving the place a twinkling carnival air. The chatter and buzz are back.
Down the ridge I find Caldwell, Trotter and Trotter’s wife, Lydia Zamarano, a yoga instructor. We sit on a flat rock and watch the guys climb sheer 70-foot sheets of rock. They move like dancers, precisely replacing one foot with another, gripping a half-inch knob with their toes, pointing, stretching and lightly leaping, each move flowing into the next. Even Zamarano is impressed. “I can’t believe they’re still doing 5.12’s,” she marvels.
At 1 a.m., Zamarano and I head down the mountain, with the goal of crashing for a few hours at the Patagonia cabin. The porch railing is lined with at least a hundred beer bottles, and we are greeted by a cluster of men in various degrees of slump. At someone’s feet, an unzipped medic’s bag spills its contents. Nate Borchert, the HH logistic coordinator, has an IV bag rigged to a post and a needle in his vein. Borchert slurs something about drinking since this morning and how they give themselves IVs to prevent hangovers. The whole scene is unsettling.
We sidestep the drunks, remove our caked shoes and enter the cabin — a haven of blonde wood with duffle bags of rope, granola bars and vitamin powders spread about. The cabin’s rightful occupants will be climbing for the next nine hours. From the sleeping loft, we can hear the activity on the porch. It seems the IV’s have worked their magic, and the boys are on their second, or maybe their seventy-second, wind. The walkies crackle to life in what we can only assume is a volunteer-wide trivia game – perhaps a last ditch effort to keep the exhausted crag-team on their feet.
“What’s the highest mountain in Africa?” the radio sparks.
“Keel-uh-mah-jar-oooo,” the porch guys say triumphantly.
At 6 a.m. the guys are gone, but the IV bags still hang limply from the posts. Back at the North Forty, in the chilly, periwinkle dawn, I find the T-nutters. Volunteers are passing out bananas, which Harrison declines. Apparently, he puked a few minutes ago. “Too much caffeine and not enough food,” he hypothesizes.
Harrison is competing in HH for the second time, and Baka for the third time. In 2010, Baka grew confused and eventually blacked out. Once he revived, a volunteer led him to his tent, and he didn’t finish the competition.
I offer Harrison some cheddar crisps. They’re the closest thing around to saltines. He is reminded of the triathalon he was in when he was 13, and how, as he crossed the finish line, there was an ESPN camera in his face. He puked directly into the camera. “I did see the clip. There is this picture of me running towards the camera, then cut,” he recalls. “It didn’t get on the camera, but it did get on his feet. I felt pretty bad about it.” Even Baka is moving noticeably slower, but the guys are still in it. They set up for their next climb.
For the first time all competition, I spot Brittany Griffith and Jasmine Caton, the Patagonia/Black Diamond-sponsored women’s team. They’re in pullovers and ski-caps, studying the route guidebook and sipping Pabst Blue Ribbon. Yes, PRB, at 7 a.m.
“Don’t judge,” Griffith says, raising the can.
They choose a route, and I follow. Even 21 hours in, they’re animated. Caton strips off her teal pullover and lifts her ropey arms to the rock. As she tugs, waves ripple between her shoulders. These women have the most defined back muscles I’ve ever seen. Griffith hops around more than necessary on the belay, probably to keep alert and warm.
By 9 a.m., the T-nutters are back, full steam. Harrison thinks he’s just going to climb the last route once, but both he and Baka climb, then climb again. It’s a brisk hike to the Trading Post, to ensure that the scorecards get turned in by 10 a.m. Final route count: Baka 75, Harrison 54.
In front of the Trading Post, it looks much the way it did 24 hours ago, except that now the crowd is dustier and bloodier and several costumes are missing pieces.The competition’s quiet star is Emily Cole, a petite, auburn-haired 16-year-old from Oklahoma City. She set a new HH record for most routes climbed by a female competitor (133) and she had the highest women’s score. Griffith and Caton place second and third. On their way to collect their awards, Caton asks Griffin, “What did she score, again?” Her tone betrays a tad of disbelief.
Cole has been climbing at HH since she was 14. Her first year, she came in first in women’s intermediate. But this year, her third, she registered as elite because her teammate was climbing elite. “My partner wanted to beat his [and the all-time HH] record of 160 [routes], but I didn’t have such high expectations,” she said. “He told me, it’s just a fun competition, don’t worry about it. But when I found out the women’s record was 120, I thought, ‘I got that.’ ”
Thus far, Cole hasn’t trained seriously. She climbs at the gym about twice a week, in five-hour blocks. “Before this competition, I felt like climbing wasn’t going to be the focus of my life — it was going to be a hobby,” she says. “But now I know it means too much to ever be a hobby.” Next year Cole plans to climb with Katie Childs, a photographer and distance runner from Little Rock who has won climbing competitions at the Little Rock Climbing Center. This year Childs attended HH as a spectator.
“Next year, Katie and I will probably try to break my record,” said Cole.
And the sun sets behind the mountains, ending another year in hell.