The following is Stephen Meinhold's post-event wrap-up from the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, an event held yearly at the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Jasper, Arkansas. This unique event has teams of climbers leading as many routes as possible over the course of 24 hours. Points are awarded for clean sends only. Stephen and his partner, Brent Perkins, climbing under the name Team NAO, finished in second place. Last year, Team Petzl, with Brent and Nate Drolet, took first place. Petzl is proud to support this awesome event.
As I was packing the Monday before 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, I remember feeling intimidated by the task ahead. What did I get myself into? Could I even finish? I’ve been exclusively bouldering for the past few years, so I was less than confident in my rope-climbing abilities. My lackluster finish at the UBC tour bouldering competition in Seattle left me feeling the need for redemption. This motivation (and the fact that it was too late to back out) helped me flip the switch. Brent Perkins, my teammate for the event, had the plan. He won 24HHH last year, so I figured that the best I could do is show up and keep up.
Stephen Meinhold climbing through the night. Photo: © Lydia Ruth Freeman
My gear setup for the comp was fast and light, thanks to Mountain Hardwear and Petzl. I hardly noticed the 15 ANGE draws, NAO headlamp, HIRUNDOS harness, chalkbag, and GRIGRI 2 in my carry-on. My full 24-hour climbing setup probably weighed less than my ProBars and other food. One redeye to Atlanta, then a puddle jumper to Little Rock… Hello, Arkansas! Brent made a last-minute post that I needed a ride from the airport, and event volunteers Chris and Tim came to the rescue. I LOVE THE SOUTH. The drive was humid with a side of rain, but I remained hopeful for good weather at our destination.
I was greeted by sunshine and beer upon arrival at the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, and I was a happy camper. I caught up with Brent and, after seeing some friendly faces I recognized and meeting a few new ones, we eventually walked to the cliff and scouted the first 12 hours of our game plan. The crags looked like slightly shorter versions of those in my favorite climbing area in the world, the New River Gorge. The sandstone was bullet hard with a perfect 60-grit texture wrapped around rounded edges and jug flakes. I could almost feel the holds as Brent sprayed me down with beta on a handful of climbs on our tick list.
The morning of 24HHH, the scope of the event settled in, and I finally realized what we were attempting to do. This was my first time to the ranch, and I had been sport climbing about five times a year for the past few years, so I was a little skeptical about pulling this off. But as the anticipation for the event built, so did the camaraderie. The best thing about this competition is that it asks the same basic question of everyone: can you climb for 24 hours?
Squiggles of light from moving headlamps at 24HHH. Photo: © Lydia Ruth Freeman
Out of the gates, I was cruising. I flashed a 10a, 12a, 12b, 12d, 12b and 12c. I didn’t feel invincible, but I was feeling like my training had paid off. Brent was keeping a strong pace, and it seemed like I was the only thing slowing him down. Nevertheless, about 20 pitches in, I was wondering if I would have a no-fall day. Not long after this internal conversation, I took a whipper on an 11c slab at the second bolt and tweaked my ankle. I hopped back on the horse and about five hours and 60 pitches later, the next epic came: the rain.
I was amazed it hadn’t rained earlier, because things looked ominous most of the afternoon. I have climbed on wet sandstone plenty of times before and hoped that it wouldn’t be a skill that I had to use, but it came in pretty handy. There were a couple 5.12s we wanted to hit before they started to seep, so we forged on through the rain, thunder, and hell.
The rain stopped just as darkness settled in, and as things dried up, people started climbing again. As long as the clock was ticking, I was trying to keep up with Brent. We finished up our first 12-hour scorecard with a couple of ego boosters at the North 40, turned in our cards, and then headed to the Goat Cave. At this point we started to slow. At 2:00 am, you question why you continue to push yourself. The hiking and steep terrain at the Goat Cave dropped our pitch-per-hour count. I knew that I needed the steep points, but I didn’t have much left. We left the cave around 3:00 am, with six pitches of 12b and a couple pitches of 5.11, to head to the Far East. Another 15-minute hike brought us to two tall and techy 5.12cs. We were now on the other side of the gorge, where things were more vertical and taller. We were the lone souls here, except for a couple small groups of volunteers who would periodically come visit for a chat or to make sure we were sane. The first route went down, but the vertical climbing was more demanding, especially at night. I really benefited from the reactive lighting on the Petzl NAO when looking from my handholds to footholds. Nothing would seem washed out, but I could see any distance I needed on the rock.
Next up was Supersoul Sureshot. This is the most amazing looking line at the ranch, even in the dark. Perfect light-grey sandstone peppered with just enough edges to make a very technical sequence. First try, Brent fell up high at the redpoint crux. He lowered, and then I was up. I fell about 12 feet up, at the first crux, which is a big pull with a bad edge. I lowered, realizing that this climb would take a serious effort.
Brent Perkins using his NAO during the 24HHH event. Photo: © Lydia Ruth Freeman
I touched Supersoul Sureshot’s holds again, feeling the sting of 70-plus pitches already climbed. I tightened my grip on the holds, stepped on, and executed the first boulder problem. I got a small shake, long enough for Brent to start feeding me beta for the rest of the route. Two more facey boulder problems that even Mikey Williams couldn’t send first go brought me to a precarious shake before the redpoint crux. Left hand on a not-so-great sidepull, right hand on an edge. I managed to chalk up, but knew I needed to keep moving. Pulling to the first edge was manageable, but as I focused on the next foot, I knew things were about to get real. A right-foot dime edge at my waist put me off balance, but gave me the distance to stab the next right-hand gaston. I snagged it with two fingers, screaming. Pure rage was the only thing holding me on. I reset to get a four-finger purchase, then slopped my left foot up and eyed the dyno. I rushed and flung myself at the victory jug in rage, slapping it enough to realize how big a hold I'd just fallen off of. Failure set in, and I let the world know with a few choice words and a shoe pitch that Nolan Ryan would be proud of. I wanted that one.
Brent was next up, and he sent (fueled by similar rage). We took a break. I decided not to give the route another go, so Brent fired it again and we moved on. The next climbs were hard, technical, and damp. We turned into machines: climb, drink water, climb, eat, climb, cheer at every hour mark with those still awake in the gorge, climb, drink water, climb… The next thing we knew, it was getting light out. We had one more 12a, then finally some climbs under 5.11 to finish off on. We took it to the wire, firing off over 20 pitches in the last hour. We kept a quick pace back to the trading post and joined with others emerging from the woods after battle. Scorecards were in at 10am, 24 hours later.
Team NAO, making hay while the sun shines. Photo: © Lydia Ruth Freeman
I should have spent the next hour finding a nest to hibernate, but instead I stayed at the trading post, on a high from surviving Hell with many others. War stories were recapped from the night before, whipper tales told over beers. The sleep-deprived climbers were all proud to say that we made it together. In the end, Brent and I ended up in second place behind Tommy (Caldwell) and Sonnie (Trotter), who put on a good show as well. Last I heard, 41 people climbed over 100 pitches (you could climb each route twice). I finished with 99, Brent with 108. It was still a win for me; it was my best day of first-try climbing ever. I flashed or onsighted 44 routes, 15 routes 5.12a-d and 16 routes 5.11a-d. Of the 99 pitches I climbed, I would only consider one or two to be poor in quality. Overall, every route was a ton of fun (even when wet) on perfect sandstone.
The 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell is a great event with a real homegrown feel, and the competition is about finishing, not finishing first. There is no other event out there close to this, and I hope to see everyone there next year.
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