24-Hour Competitive Rock Climbing: Finger Tips as Rough as Rhino Skin

MR Free climber in action on a rock (Thomas Aichinger/VWPics via AP Images)

At Outside, Eva Holland profiles the sweaty, rhino-skinned, costumed competitors of Horseshoe Hell — a competitive rock-climbing race in Arkansas, in which participants attempt to complete as many climbs as they can in a 24-hour period in blazing temperatures.

The craziest rock-climbing event in the world happens annually in the Ozarks of Arkansas, in a u-shaped canyon with enough routes for 24 straight hours of nonstop ascents. They call it Horseshoe Hell, but don’t be fooled: for outdoor athletes who love physical challenges with some partying thrown in, it’s heaven.

From 10 a.m. today to 10 a.m. tomorrow, two-person teams will climb nonstop—or as close to nonstop as they can manage—­racking up points for each route they complete. To be considered official finishers, each climber will have to send at least one route per hour; to automatically qualify for next year, each will have to do 100. Some teams will climb hundreds of pitches.

Time crawls by in a blur of increasing pain and exhaustion. At 4 a.m., with six hours to go, there’s a scramble of activity as each team completes a mandatory check-in, the event volunteers verifying that nobody is so thrashed that they become a danger to themselves or others. The temperature has dropped to a halfway-reasonable 67 degrees, but the humidity has climbed to 98 percent. The night is a swamp, the darkness punctured only by headlamps bobbing up and down the rock walls. The cicadas scream. Flying, biting insects charge into every small pool of light.

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