24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell
I found myself somewhere between darkness and light, fear and abandon. Sprawled out across a bouldering pad staring at a vivid orange horizon. A seam that bifurcated the heavens and the earth. Not yet dawn but the beckonings, the stirrings just before the sun, making its final armaments for the journey across the sky.
"HEY! HEY!! HEY!!!"
I'm jostled out of my seeming equanimity like a bolt of lightning. A slight adrenaline dump courses through my veins. Is someone calling for help or just releasing some primal energies into the cosmic ether to center themselves? Both, equally plausible.
I hear it again. Not my subconscious, not mother Gaia, and not a humanoid primate, the shell of their former selves coming out of a maybe too intense psychonaut voyage.
I rise to my feet, purple tutu and all, and make my way to the edge of the parking lot to get a better vantage on this mysterious entity. It took me a while to gauge where the sounds were coming from.
I see horses running in the distance. Another call, another "Hey!" too close to the horses to be a coincidence.
There, at the break of dawn, the man Pat Lacey is wrangling horses back to the stalls before another day's festivities begin. He is dressed in jeans, a Canadian tuxedo, head to toe with gold chains, gold jewelry, and a gold watch. A fiery mullet that was crafted just a day earlier, absolutely in his element, already working after what had happened, is happening, from the night before.
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Twenty Four Hours of Horseshoe Hell is the greatest, wildest, most fun climbing festival I have ever had the pleasure of attending. For over 15 years now, the last weekend of September, an armada of climbers, vagabonds, and vendors descend upon Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in the heart of the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.
Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, a dude ranch owned by Barry and Amy Johnson has been the epicenter of this festival since its inception. Although the beginnings may have been small, now it is easy to find over a thousand people who venture down to Arkansas for the Thursday - Sunday shenanigans.
Thursday is usually the day when most people arrive, there is a 12-hour climbing competition, but only the craziest do both the 12 and the 24 hours. Most just show up Thursday night to hang out with the vendors and go to the film screening and hot dog dinner that usually happens that night.
Friday is the main course. Friday at 9 am the climbers' creed begins, "Gordo" AKA Jeremy Collins always delivers the prayer. "Climbers raise your right hand, stare into your partner's eyes"..." PARTNER!" The 500 people yelling back in a synchronized echo "PARTNER!".
He proceeds to make them yell both funny but also inspiring, community-building lines like, "You must not friggin drop me!"
All the while everyone in garb. Costumes of all sorts, Gandalf, BDSM suits, nipple tassels, you name it and it's probably on display. We are all committed to the ritual cleansing of the next 24 hours. The fact that right now, for this day, we can be anyone we want to be, or we can just be ourselves, and everyone will see us for who we are. A bonding of strangers like nowhere else I have ever been.
"WE ARE LIONS IN A FIELD OF LIONS!!!"
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The Shotgun blasts! A cacophony of costumes pouring out in every direction. Teams trying to capitalize on their crafted war strategies.
For the next 24 hours, every team/individual competing will attempt to climb as many routes as humanly possible.
The rules are pretty simple:
-All climbs for points must be red-pointed and you can not fall.
-If you fall you must lower to the ground and restart for points.
-Any route can be climbed 2x
-If you do not climb at least 1 route an hour you are disqualified
One of the most beautiful things about this event to me is the camaraderie that is born out of the event, specifically bred during the 24 hours of "the main event", the competition. This thing/event/vision quest takes everyone for it to be successful.
Every person on the ranch, the volunteers, the hell staff, the vendors, meager event hosts like myself, all of us, are in it for the 24 as well. We all, as best we can need to bring the energy for the entire day. "Up all night" is the saying.
And by God, do we get it done.
Until nightfall Friday, not a lot happens on the event calendar. The first set of volunteers swap at 4 pm, they will then "break" until 10 pm when the other team will switch back. These "teams" are assigned to crags or areas and are in charge of supporting the event in whatever way. Running water, RedBull, coffee, providing medical attention, communication, the boots on the ground so to speak. All controlled by the HQ, a cabin by the HCR trading post, where the proverbial, magic happens.
One very unique feature of the 24 is the hourly warcry. Every hour on the hour, everyone in the canyon yells at the top of their lungs. A Battlecry in the void, into the day and then the night. A cohesive bonding of everyone, to everyone, a reminder that we are all on this together. It usually starts on one end of the canyon and quickly resonates throughout. There is no refuge.
This year we yelled "Honey Badger" in remembrance of a fallen lion and monumental individual in the climbing community of Arkansas and 24HHH, Logan Wilcox.
Night falls on Friday. The glowsticks come out, the dance music, the Boulder Party ascends into the woods to crank up the energy. We all must "Rise like zombies in the bowels of the night" as Gordo would put it.
From 10 pm to 2 am or so the Boulder Party event/party/spectacle occurs in the Idaho boulders, a nest of well-populated moderate sandstone boulders. We sync up Bluetooth wireless amps, LED lights, and libations for a grand old time. These "coordinated" festivities usually go until we run out of battery or gas when we use a generator.
It's pretty natural for things to start to quiet down around the 4 am volunteer swap. Most climbers migrate to the North Forty at this time, a tight cliff band of well-concentrated moderate sport lines, so teams dare stay on the Far East side of Horseshoe, everyone is desperate for the sun to rise.
Everyone at 24 does some questioning during these hours of the night. The 4 am to dawners. Some of us climbers do it more than others, but this time it is a shared experience for everyone. The comings and goings, the doubts, the worries, the self-talk. No matter why you are there or have found yourself as such. You'll do some soul searching, physical, mental, spiritual, the whole myriad of interrelations therein. Each of us entering into our own 24-hour pact and this time more than ever is when the abyss always seems to gaze back. The time when you just have to make it simple, make it through, battle cry to battle cry and hopefully soon enough the event/climbing/vision quest will be over and we will emerge as someone different, someone better than we were before.
"Hey!" Hey!" Pat effortlessly trots the last horses into their pins, I feel like I've been in a time warp.
My purple tutu with matching cat ears and god knows what else. An amazing dichotomy, such different lives, different people, my costume, him on his horse, an utterly ridiculous scene from a third-party perspective as we greet each other, in such an ordinary way. Knowing we went through something together and are now personally, on the other side. It feels like it's been a marathon, in body and mind, if even only a small amount compared to those competing who still have almost 3 hours left to go.
God help them. I think to myself.
As the climbers come in they are mostly obliterated (as you would imagine after 24 hours of climbing). Everyone is there to cheer them on, food and beer of course. The excitement is short-lived, everyone is desperate for rest before the 4 pm awards ceremony. Many of us head over to the Buffalo National River to do some deep water soloing and/or hard power napping on the banks of the river.
The award ceremony is equally as ridiculous as the rest of the event. Each winner (and there are TONS!) takes a shot of whiskey and rides down the slip and slide to get their trophy/prize. It's a fun spectator sport while the Ranch feeds everyone Spaghetti dinner (that garlic bread though...). The carbo load/reloading before the final party Saturday night. DJ, fireworks, a massive dance party. Send things off with a bang, ya know.
Sunday morning the pancake breakfast is the usual meeting ground for most everyone who came. A final time to catch up with friends, the old ones who keep coming back, and the new ones who you just met.
Some say goodbyes, some say, “See ya in Hell.”
I tell every climber I have ever met about this event. I tell them that at least go witness and experience it one time and see for yourself what it is. I did that same thing, some six years ago, and somehow am fortunate enough to go back year after year. To a place where I know I'll see some of the same faces, meet some of the best people, and share an experience that no matter how much you read about, you'll never really know.
Huge shout out to the Hell Staff, Volunteers, Barry & Amy, Jeremy Collins, and of course the man, the myth, the legend Andy Chasteen for keeping this thing alive through the years and for making the most inclusive event I have ever have the pleasure of attending, working, and partying at.
See y'all in Hell.
Written by George Bieker
Photos by BLKELK Media
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