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.