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At 7 a.m. Friday, Sept. 24, mist still shrouds the green hills and rock cliffs of Jasper's Horseshoe Canyon Ranch (HCR). In the Trading Post yard, cars are wedged bumper to bumper, and the hills are flecked with tents and more vehicles.
Every fall for four days, the population of Jasper nearly triples, from 458 to about 1,200, as rock climbers come to town for the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell. It's one of the biggest endurance rock climbing competitions in the United States, hosted at HCR Ranch since 2006.
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 Climbing Center. By ranch owner Barry Johnson's estimate, there are more than 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.
"We have some people from Alaska, some people from California, Colorado, Canada," says Jason Roy, a year-round HCR guide. "Some of the biggest names are here, the guys you see in magazines. 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, a 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'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.
There are four categories: recreational, intermediate, advanced or elite. Elite climbers often have corporate sponsorship and climb well over 100 routes. The ranch has about 350 different routes along the crescent of mountains cradling the valley.
Horseshoe Hell 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. "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, and two of them are the Climbing Center guys, Baka and Harrison. They are team T-nutters, named after the screws used in indoor climbing gyms. They both sport curly mohawks, khaki cargos, blue tops and surgically taped fingers. Local climbers Rez Carleton and Tucker Olson, from Jasper and Nail, wear black tights, stocking caps and homemade black and white striped shirts. "We're Partners in Climb, this is our second year climbing together, and our goal is 100 routes," Carleton says. Another duo, two college-aged girls in blue tights, red striped shirts and black frame glasses, channel the Where's Waldo character. Christen Meyer and Megan 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 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. All around the T-nutters, climbers are already on the roughly 40-foot rock wall. It's about 78 degrees, and the air is a soupy 90 percent humidity. The route is mid-grade with lots of chunky hand and foot holds, and these guys — competing in the advanced category — scale it cleanly.
Twenty minutes in, they've both completed two climbs. As Harrison secures his figure-eight knot for a third go, Debbie Sellnow, Harrison's girlfriend, shouts her version of encouragement. "Your haircut looks like an early '90's lesbian!"
In response, Harrison comically shakes his 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. This is all part of his philosophy. Earlier he told me, "The most important thing is to have fun with the people around you, and that way you don't worry about how blasted you get, and it psyches them out."
There are so many routes on this single wall that the T-nutters move along it for hours.
In the second hour, Harrison begins a story I've already heard twice, once from Roy and once from Rob Leinau, the competition medic. I'll hear some version of it at least a dozen more times before I leave HCR. In a decade, it has solidified into climbing legend, and involves one of the HH competitors.
"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 when a gang of Uzbek terrorists kidnapped them at gunpoint. They watched one of their captors execute a Kyrgyz soldier. Then, on the sixth day, the terrorists went off, leaving only one guard. Caldwell, 22 at the time, pushed the guard off a cliff, and the climbers escaped to an Army base.
But one climber tells me that he thinks the story was fabricated for a National Geographic article, and the man pushed off the cliff is alive and well. I'm warned multiple times not to broach the topic with Caldwell.
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 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.
Overhead, thunder growls ominously. It sounds like the mountains protesting the weight of 270 climbers.
By the time the clouds break, I am with HH founder Andy Chasteen and about six HCR employees inside the Trading Post's tiny back office. The patch of sky that we can see from the window is a rich shade of bruise.
"Nothing like this has ever happened before," Chasteen says, sipping coffee. "We did have a light shower once, it 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, he and some friends were climbing at HCR and decided to gather a group and climb as many routes as they could in 24 hours. But then he decided it would be even better to invite the public. Chasteen pitched the idea to Johnson, and that 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 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 their life," says Leinau. "Because it's not a safe time to be climbing."
Chasteen relays the message into his walkie so that crag-volunteers can spread the word. But then he says to Leinau, "That's not going to de-motivate people. Tommy and Sonnie won't stop."
Leinau says, "I know. This just makes it a little clearer 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 to the North Forty, an area with 70-footers laced with horizontal cracks, the kind that are perfect to inch along in search of a higher foothold. These are some of HCR's most popular routes. 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 Caldwell and Trotter, the Patagonia guys. Their pink tie-dye shirts from 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.
Around 7:30 p.m., headlamps begin to blink on. 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 see 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 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.
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 it's 50 degrees and damp, he's still shirtless.
"Fine," Sellnow practically whispers. She's wearing a giant camo rain slicker. She looks miserable.
"Did y'all stop in the rain?"
"No," Harrison says glumly, tugging at his day-glo 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 lightning 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 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.
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.
At 6 a.m. the porch has been abandoned, but the plastic IV bags still hang limply from posts. Back at the North Forty in the chilly, periwinkle dawn, volunteers are passing out bananas, and even Baka appears sedated. Harrison declines his banana. 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 faint and confused, and 17 hours in, had a volunteer help him to his tent. He blames his trouble on dehydration.
At 7 a.m., for the first time all competition, I spot Brittany Griffith and Jasmine Caton, the Patagonia women's team. They're in pullovers and ski-caps, studying the route book and sipping Pabst Blue Ribbon.
"Don't judge," Griffith says, raising the can. 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.
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