24-Hour Horseshoe Hell
by Joshua Ong
Jazz sax at night as the lights climb up.
After a long, hot day, the smell of sweat, chalk, and campfire cooking fills my nose. The cast iron sizzles with vegetables. Four of us — all climbers — dish out dinner and sit down to eat. After inhaling the food, we sit watching rock climbers’ headlamps rise up the sides of the canyon — the lights move like the curtains of a closing play. And just as the universe heard me say, “It’s can’t get better than this,” the haunting lament of a jazz saxophone swept in across the valley.
Welcome to hell. Twenty-Four-Hour Horseshoe Hell, that is. Beyond Jasper, Arkansas, and tucked back in the hills, is Horseshoe Canyon Ranch. The place has some of the most pristine rock climbing in the middle of North America. Once a year, rock climbers, outdoorsmen, and partiers alike come together in a 24-hour-long rock climbing competition. Each climber and a partner climb as many routes as possible in the given time frame. A route is a single pathway to the top of the rock wall. Each route has allotted points based on how long and hard the route is. The team with the most points at the end of the 24 hours wins.
Past Jasper, past the main road, the way to the ranch is down a long, narrow dirt road through some of the most beautiful mountains in the Ozarks. The entrance overlooks the valley. I had been to the ranch previously but never before has the place seemed so alive. Down the dirt road is the “Outpost” where every climber picks up their tickets. The road widens upon the approach and both sides are lined with vendors — a granola’s dream. On that first night was a showing of a mountaineering documentary. The movie’s flickering lights splashed across the hill in front of the Outpost. A few hundred climbers gathered to watch legends of the outdoors community push their limits in some of the coldest mountains in the world. As the movie ended, headlamps across the valley came on.
A sea of people. Lamps like stars reflecting on water.
We woke to the smell of campfire. And goat poop. After a quick breakfast, we headed to the Outpost for the big start. People camp all over the valley and all meet at the Outpost. As we arrived, people descended from all directions, dressed in every type of costume you could imagine. More and more people showed up and the costumes got more and more ridiculous. It’s everything from Brave Heart to Bladerunner. At 9:45 AM, the climbing teams gather around a pickup-truck-bed stage. Andy Chastine — founder of 24-Hour Horseshoe Hell — welcomed the crowd: “Why the hell are you here?” Then Jeremy Collins (a top climber who often wins 24-Hour Horseshoe Hell) rose to recite the Climbers Creed. The sea of climbers raised their right hands, faced their partners, and began.
Partner, today, my colorful leather boots quiver in morbid anticipation…
BANG! A 10 o’clock shotgun goes off. The competition has begun. People flood out to find their first routes of the day. From here on, climbers push their bodies to their furthest limits, 24-hours straight.
A few hours into the climbing, I went to the wall to check the progress of the day. Blood, sweat and tears have been poured out across these walls. A few hours in and people are already exhausted. The sun beats down hard, warming the walls, cooking the climbers as they go. Even being on the ground is exhausting. On the hour, every hour, Spartan-like battle cries rise in the valley. As night approaches, costumes have been torn to shreds. The climbers gear up to push through the night.
If you know climbing culture, you already know climbers love to party. Fayettechill, a local Ozarks clothing brand, throws a huge party at 24-Hour Horseshoe Hell for all those who are not on the canyon walls. Beer, lights and gear are hiked a half-mile into the woods to an enormous outcropping of boulders. Partiers follow by the dozens. The sound of drinking, dancing and climbing resound in the canyon, louder and louder. The electrifying sensation of the party, plus more than a few drinks, motivates people to climb harder and grab the attention of the crowd. As the party goes on so does the scrabble to cover more routes all over the canyon. Headlamps rise as the climbers push on. The temperature drops and the difficulty of the climbs increases.
The sun rises with hope — hope for the end of the competition. There is a mad dash to complete last-minute climbs. And then — BANG! BANG! BANG! — shotgun blasts end the insanity. Climbers once more come to the Outpost from every direction to turn in score cards. In they come, barely able to walk, hands like tattered rags. They are caked in mud, glad to be done. As the morning crawls on, there is quiet for the first time in the valley. My friends and I head for the Buffalo River, just a few miles away. There is something about the river that seems to rejuvenate even the tiredest soul
After 24 hours of non-stop climbing, folks are ready for food. We all come together at the Outpost for home-cooked pasta. By now, there are uncountable new friendships happening; friendships forged in sweat and upon stone. Climbers are just glad to be done and gather to swap stories strong and victorious. We wrap up dinner as the awards ceremony begins. To collect a trophy, the winners must take a shot of whisky and plunge down a hill-long slip n’ slide. The sun sets behind us as cheers for the victors rise long and loud.
Second nightfall and the real festivities begin. As though there hadn’t been enough partying yet, this time there is one last, giant party to go out in style. The valley is filled to the brim with the sound of music and the smell of beer. Now’s the time to give all you have left. Even the old-timers show up. Climbers are understandably already crazy people. Throw in alcohol and beautiful fatigue and things go wild. People hanging from the rafters. Crowd surfing. Dancing as hard as they can until dawn.
All during 24-Hour Horseshoe Hell — near the mess hall — was the familiar rattling of a tattoo machine. A tattoo artist had set up, giving away free tattoos to all climbers. One particular design caught my eye and I decided to go for it. As the artist finished up and I admired the work, someone leaned in, “These are more than just tattoos,” he said. “Now you have a connection to a family. We are a family at Horseshoe Hell. Whenever you see someone with one of these tattoos, you instantly know you are family.”
Because that’s what this weekend is really about. A family. One big, ragged, dirty, hungry, passionate family. Each giving their all. Each hoping for the best. Celebrating one another. And humanity.
All at 24-Hour Horseshoe Hell.
Near Jasper, Arkansas.