I couldn’t help but laugh. Seeing Tommy Caldwell in a mohawk, a pair of bright green short shorts, and a hot pink sleeveless t-shirt was too much to take. In a way, he reminded me of Kelly Cordes, but I can’t put my finger on why. Anyhow, that’s another story, and this one is all about the shortest day of my life – the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell.
Now, one might think by climbing for 24 hours straight that it would feel like the longest day, but that’s the paradox. It’s so much fun that it goes by really fast, and in the end, you wish you had more time.
I first did the 24 HHH back in 2008, when I roped up with fellow Patagonia ambassador Jonathan Thesenga. Luckily for me, JT has more enthusiasm than anyone any of us have ever known and his energy carried us through the night. We had a total blast, and I honestly didn’t know for sure if I’d be back anytime soon – although I hoped to be.
The stars finally aligned this year when I was asked to return and climb with Tommy Caldwell. He might not have JT’s boisterous enthusiasm, but he’s got a rock steady approach to climbing that’s hard to match. Tommy’s a workhorse. He can put his head down and just grind through anything. But he also happens to love climbing rocks, and that combination produces legendary feats. It’s incredibly inspiring. I’ve had the privilege of climbing with Tommy on many occasions and each time I do, he does something nearly impossible. They say excellence is not an act but a habit. Well, to me, Tommy embodies those words.
I was getting pretty excited about roping up again, especially in a place like Horseshoe Canyon. The best word to explain the climbing there is “FUN.” It’s quite possibly the most enjoyable place to go climbing I’ve ever been to, I mean, simply on a pure fun point basis. Allow me to explain. For starters, it’s very easy to access the cliffs from your cabin or tent. A 10-minute walk in flip flops brings you to anywhere in the horseshoe shaped canyon you want to be. Secondly, the routes are safe (most of them anyway). They are well-bolted with proper anchors so there’s no fear at all of getting hurt. Thirdly, the rock is quite featured which makes for some beautiful movements. There are holds shaped like chicken heads, door knobs and steering wheels. The climbing varies from less than vertical to horizontal caves. And the rock is never very sharp or abrasive so your skin will last through the night and into the next day, although you may feel a slight stinging sensation in the hours following this event. But it’s a sting that only this event can produce and it’s one that you’ll share with 250 other people, so it’s sort of fun in itself. And lastly, you can climb over 150 pitches without walking more than half a mile. So you’re never far from a cooler of beer or a spicy BBQ. Getting psyched yet? I am.
Lydia Zamorano starts on Tommy’s mohawk. Photo: Lucas Marshall
Brittany Griffith samples the quality rock.
Like everything about this event, arriving at the canyon feels like a special experience. From the main road, you drop down onto a gravel driveway which winds its way towards the ranch. Suddenly you roll past the gated entrance and you see rock on all sides of you; a massive ranch with horses running wild sits in the middle of a lush green valley. It’s like a little utopia.
This year there were 270 competitors; registration filled up in 15 minutes. You’ve got to want it if you’re thinking of going. Also competing this year were two fellow friends, and Patagonia ambassadors, Brittany Griffith and Jasmin Caton.
Jasmin Caton and Brittany Griffith wisely chose not to get a free haircut.
Jasmin about to top out on one of her 81 routes in 24 hours.
After a few rules and regulations, and an absolutely hilarious motivational speech by Jeremy Collins, at precisely 10:00am on Friday morning, Andy Chasteen, the event organizer, fires off a gun and the hell begins.
All at once, 270 competitors run into the forests, toward the cliffs with smiles on every one of their faces. Some are dressed like bank robbers, bikers, presidents, and doctors, others dressed like it was Burning Man – most are sporting some crazy haircut or another. The 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell is not about looking good, it’s about feeling good. It’s all about the spirit, and if you don’t have it, you probably shouldn’t come.
The man with the plan, and a bad-ass haircut, Andy Chasteen.
The haircuts were free, but the manscaping cost extra.
Never let a man in a pink tie-dye cut your hair.
Where’s… whoa…. doh!
We vote the environment #becauseilove the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell.
Climbing for 24 hours straight hurts way less when you’re these guys. Photo: Sonnie Trotter
Security was extra tight this year.
Jer Collins gets the crowd pumped!
It’s a mad dash to get on a climb that’s free. You move over bullet-hard sandstone – it’s almost a blur. You get into a rhythm with your partner, climb, lower, switch, belay, lower, switch, climb, lower, etc., etc. Suddenly you hear mad cheering like a wave coming from all around you. It’s the cheer that tells us all that the first hour has passed. And the cheers continue every hour, on the hour, for 24 hours. And that’s when time suddenly speeds up. An hour already? I only did four pitches. Well, we gotta pick up the pace then don’t we? The climbing is so good, instead of wishing it were over, you’re now wishing you had more time. Then night falls and the head lamps come out. You start seeing things a bit fuzzy-like, trails follow, you eat a midnight banana and drink some coffee and climb into the darkness.
Morning comes slowly and your energy is waning. It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re now tired, and you’re feeling sleepy. The party is over and all you want is a warm bed. But the 24 Hours is still going so you climb as the sky slowly brightens – you don’t even notice the moment when you no longer need your trusty headlamp. You take it off at the next belay and start getting your energy back. You start feeling quicker on your feet, sharper in the mind. You read the routes easier, you start leaping for holds again. There’s a bounce in your step that wasn’t there only moments before. Then you hear that cheering again. It’s 9am. There’s only ONE hour left so you start scrambling to fill your scorecard. You start trying harder and harder routes again. And just when you think you could climb forever, they announce that all participants must return their scorecards. The climbing race turns to a foot race as everybody sprints for the parking lot, waiving scorecards in their hands. And that same smile that was there in the beginning is still there on every climber, only now it’s even bigger.
The 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell is an ultramarathon for rock climbers. It’s not a competition, it’s an event, it’s a spectacle, and it’s precious. There is no other event like it in North America, (trust me, I’ve been to all of them). And yet, there is still no time to sleep. There’s a free yoga class by Lydia Zamorano in the barn, there’s a huge pasta dinner, there’s the awards ceremony, there’s a zip line to huck, a slide show to attend, and a lot of alcohol to consume.
For me though, it was all about the partnerships. Not just with my own partner, but with others as well. To climb for 24 hours means being flexible, friendly, and kind, it also means rising to the occasion, digging deep and doing something you didn’t think you could do before you started. I once did a route I never would have tried on my own steam only because I watched Tommy do it first. I dug deep and surprised myself. It’s memories like that, that stick with you. Listening to Guns n’ Roses on Brittany’s iPod at 3:30am was a high point for me, a little morale booster. But the laughs I got every time I watched Tommy step up to do another climb in his bright green short shorts, and the absurdity surrounding us, was all well worth the trip in itself. I’ll be back again for sure, and I’ll be bringing my spirit with me, for when you’re a part of the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell event there is no time to be self-conscious. Jonathan Thesenga would have been proud of us all.
Jasmin shares the sting… Photo: Sonnie Trotter
Dick Dower, 63 years young, climbed 105 routes and over 4,400 total feet in 24 hours. Cheers!
Last year it was arm wresting, this year pushups.
Brittany and Jasmin representing for the ladies.
Sonnie and Tommy took the Team Elite trophy.
Who wants to go next year? Photo: Sonnie Trotter
Big thanks to Andy Chasteen for organizing another great 24HHH and to Lucas Marshall for all the fantastic photos. Not ready to leave hell just yet? Check out our reports from previous years: 2011, 2009, 2008.