24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell
"24 hours of HELL," Kristo repeated.
"Well, okay then, sign me up." He had answered my question and we left it at that.
Two months later, I still didn't fully comprehend the meaning or significance of the event's name. I thought it might have something to do with an early Halloween themed party and I could not have been further from the truth. I simply shrugged my shoulders and carried on with my day to day. About once a week, I'd get some informative e-mails from the event organizer Andy Chasteen, followed by a few witty replies from some of our team members at Patagonia. Kristo Torgersen was our ring leader, and besides being a climber/surfer, his job was to make sure we all had tickets to the place they call the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in central Arkansas. It was his decision to sponsor the event and it was with great pleasure that the rest of us arrived to see what all this "HELL" talk was all about. I mean, for Pete's sake, how bad could it be?
[Brittany Griffith on bullet Arky sandstone at the Land of the Lost crag, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, Arkansas. Photo: Jonathan Thesenga / Sonnie Trotter]
At the airport, I heard my name from across the terminal, long time friend and Patagonia ambassador Brittany Griffith was waving at me to catch my attention and welcome me with a warm hug. Towering behind her was Kristo, still dressed in his Southern California get up, surf shorts, surf sandals, surf shirt and surf hair. We all laughed and piled into the rental car, a shinny red Volvo waiting outside.
A road closure off Highway 7 forced us to make a detour, so from the airport in Little Rock it took us nearly four and a half hours to get to the small country town of Jasper. We recognized the world famous Ozark Café instantly and knew we were within minutes of our final destination.
It was 2 am when we opened the cattle guard to the Ranch, the rustic wood finish and the sign that read "Welcome to Hell" made us feel as though we had stepped into a place of more questions than answers. After 18 hours of travel, we were finally at a real dude ranch, and greeted by real dudes.
The following few days leading up to the event involved meeting friendly faces, sleeping in, eating biscuits and gravy and of course, climbing some rocks. We took two days to familiarize ourselves with the area. Local boys from Oklahoma took us on a proper tour of the canyon and showed us where to start. Confederate Cracks was as good a place as any, with solid warm-ups and climbs leading into the very solid 5.12, 5.13 and eventually 5.14 range over by the Prophecy Wall. But we were too hacked to have any success on those routes involving teens. Instead, we readied ourselves with a dozen or so moderate pitches of the Canyons Classics.
"Yep. Didn't you read the e-mails?" Brittany asked followed by a forkful of fresh salad.
"Well yah, sort of. I mean, I thought I painted a fairly accurate picture, but I didn't realize each person had to climb for 24 hours straight, without any sleep at all."
"Well, what the hell did you think it was? A bouldering comp?" She grinned.
"Yah, maybe. So!"
[Brittany makes friends as she hikes between crags. Photo: Lucas Marshall]
Over dinner, I finally understood the beef of the event. It's not a competition at all, it's more of a challenge and we're all free to try as hard as we choose, to climb whatever we want, and to quit whenever we want – which is what makes this event so freaking fun. In theory, each team could create their own ideal of what the challenge was about for them. For some people, it was simply to climb one route per hour, for others it was to climb every trad route in the canyon, some wanted to redpoint 5.13, while a couple of young lads wanted to send every single 5.10. It was a perfect challenge that fit the bill of each participant and the gun was going to blast in less than 36 hours.
The next day, Jonathan Thesenga showed up on the Ranch – the fourth member of our party and my personal partner for the event. His energy was high and the night before we set our strategy. We were going to start on one side of the Canyon and climb all the way to the other side climbing everything that we could and that was available. This would eliminate too much walking back and fourth and we all knew time was of the essence. One minute here and there could add up to an hour, and an hour is nearly 8 pitches.
What time does it start?
Who is there to judge our score?
How will we know when the climbing begins?
I was still full of questions.
At 10 am sharp, the shot gun blasted and we all hiked to our ideal starting route. A line of brightly dressed climbers flowed through the forest. "Climb fast and hard and don't look back," JT would yell up. The rules stated that we could run up to two laps on every climb, this would speed things up tremendously and save plenty of juice because you already know the moves the second time around. We made an effort to climb that way, unless a particular route was so bad it just wasn't worth it. Out of the 60 climbs we did, we didn't find one bad pitch.
The crux of the event thundered in around 4 am hitting me like a tidal wave. My speech began to slow, my reflexes dulled and my skin showed signs of first-degree burns. When my pace was noticeably slower, Jonathan would yell at me and I would snap back to reality, for a while at least. We knew this was a critical point in the event, so we chose to climb a lot instead of hard: 5.9 after 5.9, 5.10 then back down to 5.8. After three or four recovery climbs, I had enough juice to pump through a couple 5.11's and 5.12's and then I would slump back in cruiser mode, my brain fuzzy and my wits dulled. My vision was limited to the five or six feet in front of my headlamp, and the encouraging voices of fellow climbers. "C'mon JT – Giver boy – Pick up the pace!" I joined in the fun.
[Sonnie Trotter sheds some light on the long, dark night. Photo: Jonathan Thesenga]
By 6 or 7 am the sun showed its pretty face again on the opposing side of the canyon, mental spirits lifted, but we hardly had enough energy in our bodies to match it. Thank god for slabs. As a human, our legs are bigger and stronger than our arms, (unless you're Chris Sharma) so we worked hard to rack up more points using lower angle climbs – and just like before, those "easier" climbs would save just enough energy to bust out a few hard moves, or if you were lucky, a few hard routes. It became an effort to keep up the morale, we knew it was nearly over, but if it were not for each other, I would have quit a long time before. I thank my partners.
[What a brand new rope looks like after 220 pitches of abuse in just 24 hours. Photo: Sonnie Trotter]
When the shotgun fired, indicating the end, our faces all looked pale, but we laughed and smiled without control. The reality of what we had just accomplished had settled into our minds and we glowed like enlightened monks during our walk back to the registration cabin.
Unfortunately, we only had two hours to enjoy the rest of the day. We attended the ceremonious giving away of the prizes and places and we cheered for the victorious teams, but soon after we were packing to catch a plane back to reality. We had gear strapped to the top of our car, sitting on our laps and stuffed into corners. But the four of us rolled out of that beautiful valley in one relative piece, the windows of our red Volvo pushed down. The captivating hills of the Ozark Mountains rolled by our tired eyes and the trees had a hint of fall color to them.
[Capilene T's for all competitors kept the humidity manageable. Photo: Lucas Marshall]
Kristo did a championship sleep-deprived drive, a haul I'm not sure I could have done myself, or anyone else for that matter. It was better for him if we all stayed awake and talked, and what better topic to choose than the brute 24 Hours of Hell event we had just suffered through. We shared some high points and low points, and we discussed ratings and pitches, and though we all did slightly different climbs and went to slightly different cliffs, we could all agree on the deep searing sensation our hands produced. I could barely bend my fingers to unclip buckles or write with a pen. Pink flesh had surfaced on all points of our palms and fingers. I imagined that this is what our hands would look like if we pushed down really hard on a belt sander. It's a feeling I have never felt before or since, as though we dipped them into acid, or better yet, into the depths of hell.
I had no more questions to ask.
Sonnie Trotter is a Patagonia ambassador and one of the world's finest rock climbers. He keeps a fantastic blog on his personal Web site, sonnietrotter.com. To see Sonnie in action, visit the Tin Shed and check out Towards Rhapsody. Sendin' big thanks up to Sonnie in Canada for sharing this story.
Patagonia would also like to thank everyone who made 24HHH such a heavenly event. Special thanks to Andy Chasteen for an amazing job organizing the event, our friends at Pimpin and Crimpin for their great company and fun party, the staff at the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, and Lucas Marshall for the photos. If 24 hours in hell is your idea of a good time, stay tuned to the official site for details on next year's event.
To read more about the event, including the final results, visit Climbing.com.