Some may call it the greatest climbing competition in North America. Others, well... they may not remember most of the weekend. Regardless of your stance, Twenty Four Hours of Horseshoe Hell is the most unique climbing event that I have yet happened upon. Year after year I find myself there, like many others, in a cyclic dance of life, climbing, and community.
24HHH as its termed (and tattooed) was America's first 24 hour climbing competition. Starting back in 2006 with only a handful of competitors, 24HHH has grown into a full on Burning Man of its own. It has been featured by Climbing Magazine as well as the annual Reel Rock Film Tour. Drawing over 1000 people from across the globe to a small dude ranch in Northern Arkansas for a weekend of fun, hell, celebration, and of course, a little debauchery.
Each year during the last weekend of "send-tember" the masses descend upon the sandstone mecca of Arkansas' Horseshoe Canyon Ranch. Beginning as early as Wednesday, vendors from around the country start putting up tents and an energy starts to fill the canyon. Like Pavlov's dogs the anticipation is half the fun. As the day turns to night the more seasoned "Hellers" become prevalent. The calm before the coming storm.
Thursday morning begins with the start of the 12 hour competition. Surely not as badass, but a welcome addition for people who may want to spectate or aren't necessarily ready to jump into the full 24. For most, Thursday is a day of arrival with the registration table in full swing and the sponsorship and vendor tents filling the trading posts parking lot. That night everyone converges onto the lawn at the base of the Trading Post and watches that year's Reel Rock Fillm on a projector under the stars. Watching a climbing inspired film at a festival with a thousand like minded people is something that has to be experienced to be appreciated.
Friday starts bright and early for it is the day of days. The start of the 24 hour competition. Electricity fills the air and suddenly Gordo's voice can be heard over the loud speaker. A pirateesque-medieval toned voice shouts for competitors to look into their partner's eyes and raise their right hands... "Partner!", "Partner", everyone echoes, "do not freaking drop me!"
The escapade goes on as Gordo goes through the do's and dont's of the climber's creed. Nearly everyone in attendance dressed in some sort of ridiculous outfit or costume. Dragonballz, Gandalf, Men as Women, Women as men, you can imagine the sight. All teams hold equally ridiculous names to go along with the act. I wonder how anyone can survive a full day of climbing in Arkansas heat dressed as big bird, or a shark... Suddenly the shotgun blasts and the competition begins.
For the next 24 hours partnerships are made, and broken. Tears are shed, blood is spilled, and lots and lots of sweat falls. As a competitive team you can climb any route in the canyon twice and it must be climbed on lead. If you don't make at least one route an hour you are disqualified. For some it's a climbing frenzy, for others it feels more like the reckoning. Skin burning into the wee hours of the night.
The madness continues each hour on the hour with screams that echo across the canyon. Standing in the middle you can appreciate the wave of battle cries that encircle you as one side of the canyon usually begins it's calls somewhat prematurely. As dusk turns to night the headlamps and the screams are the only way you know that your fellow climbers are making it through the night. The hourly call, a beacon of hope, that surely the sun will rise.
Volunteers give water and coffee to climbers all day. Keeping everyone safe is a full time job and for many that's why they come. For others, though, they come to party. And a party it is. On Friday the beer starts flowing and a myriad of activities occur throughout the canyon for the rest of the weekend. Slip n slide, acro yoga, tattoos, haircuts, and the infamous Friday night boulder party hosted at the Idaho Boulders by Fayettechill Clothing Company. Music, beer, bouldering, and a dance party, what more could you want?
Saturday morning the lifeless competitors start to trickle in. Everyone trading in scorecards for breakfast burritos and finding anywhere to sleep. Crashing or pounding beers as soon as possible to recuperate for the awards ceremony and more importantly the American Alpine Club party that are to ensue later that night.
Saturday afternoon the awards are distributed. Awards for most routes climbed, total points overall, for both teams and individuals.
That night is the party. Live DJ, booze, and more dancing than anyone could ever need. How the competitors have enough left in the tank to go as hard as I've seen this party go, still baffles me year after year. Someone pours liquor into my mouth from on top of the refrigerator as I grind past a 70 year old woman... I could go on. This is but a regular occurrence on Saturday evening. The party lasts well into the night.
Sunday morning is slow for most, headaches, sunburn and tired muscles, the shells of humans who once were, stagger their way down to the pancake breakfast.
As quickly as we come, we go our separate ways. Hell for me is a yearly centering. A chance to see old friends and make some new ones in my home in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas. I think many come for that reason. That, and like all climbers, a chance to test themselves against the stone.
Interested in a last minute ticket to 24HHH. Check out the Spectator pass below and come join in the fun.
Spectator $45 : http://horseshoehellapp.com/
Other beta for competitors or those who want to know more.
Event: 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell
Location: Horseshoe Canyon Ranch: Jasper, AR
Dates: September 20 - 24, 2017
George Bieker is a Fayettechill athlete & an avid rock climber, mountain guide, and traveler. He is currently working for theAmerican Alpine Institute in Bellingham, WA. For more information or to follow his adventures visit georgebieker.com or@george_bieker.