To Hell and Back Again, a Climber’s Tale

Shift Frequent Shifters Club

Every September hundreds of crazies take time off from work, school and epic dirt bag climbing trips to gather for the most sacred of occasions in the Climberverse, Horseshoe Hell. Nine years later Horseshoe Canyon Ranch still welcomes the hordes of stinky grimy people for the hellacious competition, and a weekend of unparalleled outdoor fun.

Hell is a test of insanity, will power, human endurance, a great big party and a reunion for the climbing community. For those who choose not to compete or volunteer, there is an afternoon of the 50 foot slip’n’slide, zip lines, horse back riding, bouldering, 100 foot slack lines to traverse, beer to drink, climbers to cheer for and new friends to make at the After Party.

Finishing Hell is every climber’s goal. Participants climb as many routes as possible in 24hr or 12 hr comp. All routes must be lead climbed in one effort from the ground to the anchors with no falls and no weighting the rope.

An astounding number of teams put up 200 routes or more. (If both teams members break 100 routes they earn early registration for the next Hell). Some teams even climb a vertical mile during the course of the 24. A special breed of intrepid masochistic rock climber will compete in both the 12hr and 24hr for privilege of saying they climbed for 36 hour of Hell. There is a fourteen hour break between the two events, sleep is unlikely and costumes are highly encouraged.

This is my third Hell and my first time to compete. This is my story.


Wednesday September 24, 2014

5:18 p.m. I find the unofficial Camp Little Rock that the Night Shift Ninjas, Anna and Gabie, established. Flushing toilets, running water and the Pavilion are near; it’s a solid site! Bat Man, my climbing partner and our score keeper/team manager, Poison Ivy wait for me so we can get checked in for 12 hour Hell. My wicked headache becomes a demonic headache.

Camp Little Rock
Camp Little Rock

Thursday September 25, 2014

3:23 a.m. My headache is gone, I paid my homage to the porcelain god instead of eating dinner. I CAN CLIMB!

5:45 a.m. Tim calls Gabie and I from our sleeping bags atop the air mattress in the big tent. Time to get ready. I slip my legs into space kitten leggings, put on a crazy cat lady tank and add a cat themed ugly Christmas sweater for full effect. I find a perfectly cooked foil wrapped sweet potato in the camp fire ring–fist food I could eat in the last 12 hours–perfect climbing fuel, re-pack my gear bag, double check my snack stash, and fill water bottles.

7:00 a.m. Climber meeting at the Pavilion and I forget my coffee. Praise be to the rock gods, Kristen, mercifully shares her coffee with me. Team Bat Man and [Crazy] Cat Lady is happening. Bat Man, also called Bruce, and I will put our three year climbing partnership to the test. Andy Chasteen, presider of Hell, reviews the rules, leads us through an oath and we promise not to drop our partners.


7:30 a.m. Off we go. Bat Man picks the wrong trail to our first climbing area, my better sense of direction prevails.

8:05 a.m. I’ve been on this route before. I know what to do–go up. Alright, first route of the day completed, a 5.6 called Poop Deck. Climbers wait at the bottom roped up, climbing shoes on and ready to go. This new element of pressure makes me nervous.

10:30 a.m. Bat Man and I slay our selected routes with no incidents. We find a groove. We switch belay back and forth, tie in quick, double check knots and harness, then climb. Yeah, we got this. “Hi, Poison Ivy!”

12:00 p.m. Squirrel Deck, 5.8+, shut me down two weeks ago. I reach wide with my left hand find the vertical crack, wedge my fingers in and pull hard against it. I wiggle my toes up inches at a time edging into the imperfections on the rock. I gain enough foot placement, holding tight with my right hand, push up with my feet, release the vertical crack with my left hand and move my hand into a horizontal crack above my head. My fingers up to my palm fit perfectly on the large, comfortable hold. Just move my feet to the big holds and I’m through the crux. Woot!

Cat Lady on Squirrel Deck.
Cat Lady on Squirrel Deck.

1:48 p.m. Fatigue sets in at Doomsday Wall. We broke our personal bests for routes climbed in a day. We’re halfway through 12 Hour Hell, I think, am I sane? How much more exhaustion? My hands hurt..I’m doing great, oh god, six more hours. Poison Ivy declares break time. She orders us to camp for rest, hydration, and shade.

3:22 p.m. Eight hours and still going,17 routes thus far. I think Wow! great day it’s okay to stop if you’re not feeling it. “Bruce, time for short routes– ain’t nothing wrong with short and quick.” A nearby climber chimes in with “that’s what she said.”

Busy climbers at Cotton Candy and Summer Rain.
Busy climbers at Cotton Candy and Summer Rain.

4:30 p.m. An “easy” short climb feels akin to scaling Everest. I send overhung Perfect Hair Forever, 5.7, with a grunt fest of profanity. It’s only 27 feet tall. We change tactics. Onwards to the 65 foot ladder like climbs. Moving up the rock, chicken-head by chicken-head we resurrect our climbing groove. We move to finish up at Kindergarden Boulder. We will finish.

7:30 p.m. Bat Man clips the final anchor as dusk settles upon Horseshoe Canyon Ranch. On the ground we pack gear and dig out headlamps. The shotgun blast summons us ecstatic, exhausted and content.

7:37 p.m. A welcoming vision of headlamps, campfires and shenanigans await us at the Pavilion we left 12 hours ago. Hell’s population has tripled and morphed into an environment somewhere between a climbing festival and Burning Man. New arrivals beckon us competitors with hugs, cheers and for me a, shoulder rub. Thanks, Baxter. “Hi, Eve!” The Arkansas Climbers Coalition serves amazing hot dogs. New Belgian Brewing pours tasty pints. Anna of Night Shift Ninjas radiates joy from her climbing victory. I am content 25 climbs for me, 33 for Bat Man.

Rest time, kinda.
Rest time, kinda. (Photo by Craig Wynn)

8:30 p.m. Hundreds gather in a field under the starlit sky to screen the 2014 Reel Rock Film Tour Valley Uprising. You know a climbing event is big time when Reel Rock is there to film. Alex Honnold, a climber interviewed in the film, is here for the 24. The film ends. Quiet and effervescent anticipation seep in Horseshoe and lull the occupants to sleep.

Friday September 26, 2014

9:00 a.m. We finish the volunteer pledge chanting, “I am 24 Hell Staff.” This is my third Hell to done the Hell Staff t-shirt. Everyone then gathers near the trading post. The cacophony resembles a crowded medieval village market, encircled by stalls peddling every aspect of climbing-wears, geared out climbers in costume, volunteers, ranch staff, spectators and revelers. Goats bleat and graze in the nearby pastures.

9:45 a.m. The time is nigh. Andy Chasteen, the director of Hell, goes over the rules. He reads the list of Team Names, “I Swear This is the Last Year I’m Doing This, Space Jesus Take the Wheel, The Dyslexic Agonistic Insomniacs (Who Climb All Night Thinking About Dog),” Andy blushes, “My Finger Doesn’t Feel Good in that Hole”, he turns a deeper shade of scarlet, “Exposed Arete-tion…Free Solo Repellers, A Beer Counts as a Route, Skydiving is Expensive but I Can Skip Bolts for Free.” Leather and Lace, now in their sixth decade, receive resounding applause-they’ve been climbing at Hell since the beginning.

9:54 a.m. Jeremy Collins leads the Climbers Creed. “I’ve got 99 problems, but 100 pitches ain’t one…Partner do not freaking drop me.” As the words, “We are Lions in a field of Lions” rolls off the tongues of 250 competitors a shotgun blast punctuates the air. Climbers, volunteers, spectators and revelers scatter towards the beckoning bands of rock. I return to camp, to rest before my first shift.

3:52 p.m. Crag Team exists to combat the ever present threats of dehydration and delirium from sleep depravation, to keep the climbers safe and the comp fun. I’m sure Crag Team is issued walkie-talkies solely for the corny jokes, late night trivia and tantalizing silence on the whereabouts of the pro climbers. According to the Hell gossip system Alex Honnold is at Prophecy Wall and headed towards Titanic Boulder.

6:00 p.m. I stand at Titanic Boulder’s backside cheering for a competitor working a sick trad line. Alex Honnold, a uber famous climber, appears to inquire about a good spot to water the trees. I respond “ you get style points for watering from that ledge.”

6:47 p.m. Alex Honnald ties in, takes a deep breath, then moves with ease of squirrel scampering up a tree, and sends Cradle of the Deep, 5.12b, cool. (12b is 10 grades harder then my best climb ever). Alex must have some gecko DNA in his gene pool. He sticks to rock where no holds are visible, while exuding a calm, self assurance when every muscle strains and his body covered in grimy sweat. Once on the ground Alex takes out a pack of Oreos, eats a few and offers to share with everyone. He’s a cool dude.

Alex Honnald.
Alex Honnald.

8:08 p.m. Peering through a screen of trees in settling darkness I glimpse points of light across the valley. Head lamps twinkle like stars moving towards the sky. During the night a climbers’s world exists only in the glow of a head lamp. Your partner’s voice is the sole link to the ground. The West Side can be a lonely place. I hike the cliff band looking for climber’s lights at desolate crags. I stop to say hello, offer camaraderie and good natured banter. I lug a 5 gallon jug of water from the trail head to the Titanic Boulder.

10:00 p.m. Half way! A horn blast sounds across the valley followed by a jubilant Hell wide yell. Up in the North Forty a party breaks out. Glow-stick lit quickdraws make psychedelic trails up the rock walls; the music is bumping. Pizza and cold-brew coffee are mana from the rock gods. You can reach out and touch the energy, it’s intense. I hike to camp choosing to forego Bouldering in the Lights, a new Hell event. Why is there a couch in the woods? On the East and West side of the canyon lonely specks of light moved up as determined teams work the walls.

Saturday September 27, 2014

2:45 a.m. BUT I only fell asleep three hours ago…Tim, my faithful other climbing buddy and human alarm clock prods me from my nap and placates my groggy, grouchy, distempered self on the hike to the next shift.

3:51 a.m. The climbers look like the damned forced by Hades to climb ceaseless rock towers only to be lowered to the ground. Oh wait, that is exactly what’s going on, this is Horseshoe Hell.

5:38 a.m. Indiscriminate piles of exhausted climbers litter the ground. Around the sleeping bodies teams keep on climbing. I spy Baka and Bice from Tune Squad. The last place I saw them was 12 hours ago. “What number climb?” “We’re at 122.” “Nice, I remember what you guys looked like at 100 last year.”


7:00 a.m. SUN! Humans, not delirious zombies, place hand after hand, foot after foot and move up the walls. THREE MORE HOURS…

Between 7:18 a.m. and 8:33 a.m. The frantic pace of 21 hours ago is now slow and steady. Those who started on 5.10‘s now climb 5.6. All are elated to make it up the rock once more. Some teams have hit the hundred climb mark; other teams push towards it. For most teams the goal is to finish.

8:40 a.m. Baxter and J.D. fight their way up a 5.6 trad route hauling their bodies up on raw pinkish-red hands. I witness two people, who greeted me with cheers and hugs after the 12, send their hundredth route. I am proud of my climber tribe

Baka and Bice on the West Side.
Baka and Bice on the West Side.

8:54 a.m. Honey Badgers again…oh that Badger doesn’t look so good. “Logan are you trying to kill David?” No response. “Hey, Slay (I answer to Slay more than my given name). Can you feel David’s forehead?” “It’s warm and clammy. I think he has a fever.” I considered invoking my volunteer privileges and sending Team Honey Badger back to their den and possibly the emergency room. Then I remembered who owns the climbing gym.

9:00 a.m. The hourly yell tolls out. One hour till score cards are due, one hour till it’s over, one hour for a more few climbs. The North Forty evolves into a ghost town of stashed gear, lone climbing shoes and assorted empty bottles. Climbers, now ghosts of the people who started climbing yesterday climb once more then make the trek in.

9:45 a.m. Two ladies with awesome hair nab 100 routes. Elation spreads across their rope-gak stained faces.

10:00 a.m. BOOM! Exhausted climber dash, stumbling down the trails towards the Trading Post. The 24 is done. One last sweep for trash and I make for the Trading Post.

Slightly later that day, “Hey, Slay. Wanna go climbing?” “No! I’m napping…Hey, Carlos bring me a beer?” IPA tastes even more amazing after a long night. Sleep is a no go. Instead Lauren, Cale, Carlos and I pile into my dirt covered Civic to make the quick drive to Kyle’s Landing. Icy cool water of the Buffalo River brings relief to my chigger bites and tired muscles.

Wailing (photo by
Wailing (photo by Craig Wynn)

Sometime that evening Spaghetti dinner fills my stomach, the award ceremony is over. I sip a chocolate stout and absorb the air guitar competition at the After Party. Spider Man and rock climbers hang from the Pavilion Rafters. All is good in Hell. I learn no Honey Badgers came to harm during the comp and their leader Logan climbed for a whole 36 hours–the Badgers made me worry.

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“Bat Man, when do you want to start training for Hell? You know next year will be Horseshoe Hell #10.”

(Thanks to Craig Wynn, Bruce Cash and Paula Cigainero for all the photos)

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