Deep in the backwoods of Northern Arkansas lies a canyon brimming with small yet immaculate sandstone cliffs. Climbers have developed Horseshoe Canyon Ranch over the course of the last few decades, but it has really been put on the radar of the larger climbing community by the “24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell” event, which began in 2005.
The premise and rules of the competition are simple: you and your partner have 24 hours, beginning at the sound of a shotgun at 10:00AM Friday morning, to climb as many pitches and earn as many points as possible. You earn points by climbing routes, each of which is assigned a point value: the harder the route the more points you get. Each route can be climbed twice by each person, but the routes must be lead climbed and must be done clean (without falling or weighting the rope.) Regardless of the rules, the event is less an organized climbing competition and more a 24-hour party for rock climbers. Many people wear costumes, consume excessive amounts of alcohol, and generally try to have an excellent time over the course of the 24 hours. This makes for arguably the most fun climbing event in the country.
At Horseshoe Canyon Ranch there are hundreds of routes under 5.9, which makes it very reasonable for a fit team to climb upwards of 200 pitches each. In order to win though, you not only have to climb an outrageous number of pitches, but you have to do as many hard routes as you can muster. The previous record holders, Nik Berry and Mason Earle had climbed 387 pitches totaling 76,290 points. That’s a lot of rock climbing! My partner Dalton Bunker and I were optimistic about our abilities, but we didn’t set our expectations too high. We wanted to have fun and join in the festivities while still trying hard and climbing our best. We thought that if we were able to stay on course we might be able to earn 30,000 points each, which would mean climbing approximately 1 pitch each every 7 or 8 minutes given the routes we were planning on completing. We knew that high quality hydration and nutrition would be a huge asset for us, so we packed plenty of Gnarly along.
At the beginning of the day, Dalton and I woke up, filled our bottles full of BCAA’s, recited the climbers’ creed (a sort of pledge of allegiance), and began our day of climbing. When we started out we felt quite strong. Dalton and I climbed nearly 15 pitches every hour for the first couple hours of the day. However, with the mixture of midday sun and southern humidity, we soon found ourselves soaked to the bone in sweat, and burning calories faster than we could replace them. We kept chugging down the Hydration and BCAA’s though, and were able to keep rallying into the wee hours of the night
Around 4:00AM, we could feel ourselves hitting a wall. We were physically and mentally exhausted, and were acutely aware of the 6 grueling hours ahead of us. At that point in the event, we had climbed about 150 pitches each, and the thought of trying to maintain our pace for another 40 pitches was almost unthinkable. After that much climbing, the skin on my fingertips was completely wrecked: it felt as if I was holding my hands a little too close to a campfire, and my feet were aching more deeply than I thought possible. Again, we turned to the Gnarly for a caffeine boost, and as the sun rose, I felt my brain flip 180 degrees. My attitude went from one of dreading the last hours of the event to an attitude of psych beyond measure. Despite hardly being able to walk in a straight line, cramping muscles, and debilitating hand pain, we turned back on. We dug deep into our reserves and kept our pace going until the last seconds before the shotgun rang out to signal the end of the competition.
After the event, Dalton and I took a long nap as we waited for the awards ceremony. At the ceremony it was announced that we had not only won, but we had broken the all-time point record! We had collectively climbed 380 pitches, averaging 5.11a, and totaling 78,760 points. The math on that works out to each of us doing a route every 4 minutes for the entire 24-hour duration. We outdid our highest expectations, and we were incredibly psyched! In order to claim the award, we were required to dive bomb down a massive slip and slide. After awards, there is one final test of endurance: a raging dance party that lasts well into the night. When all is said and done, 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell makes for an unforgettable weekend in the woods, and Dalton and I would not have been able to do as well as we did without Gnarly.