“When was the last time you were up all night?” I ask. It is the morning of the competition. I expect that for Luke it had been since college, or at least 5-6 years in his case. This is our first 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell (individually or as a team), and for the past few weeks I’d gotten the sense that he seemed nervous; I’d figured that this was the reason why.
I’m a doctor-in-training (resident), and a radiologist on top of that; I spend hours upon hours in the dark, and have taken a pleasure on being at the top of my game in the wee hours of the night. If you land in the hospital at 4am, you want a physician who could cut out their own appendix with one hand and sip coffee with the other, all while half awake– that is, someone who is well-attuned to running on adrenaline at that hour, and maximally effective at their job. I was hoping that several years of training in this realm would be to some kind of advantage… an advantage that I would need. I’d wanted to do Hell for the prior 4 years, but work had gotten in the way every time, not to mention in the way of any kind of serious training over that time. I’d been psyched to climb 15 routes at the gym in an evening two weeks before the comp. It was as ready as I’d ever get.
“Last May I climbed through the night for 20 hours on El Capitan,” he replies, a little bit more casually than I expected. I had forgotten that Luke was an expert at Suffering (not to mention one of the better trad climbers I’d roped up with, routinely putting down Valley 5.11s). We’d climbed well together on Steck-Salathe in Yosemite, a physical route notorious for its off-width physicality, and Luke revealed himself as one who got going when the going got tough. I’m not nearly as good at suffering, but I don’t quit; we were going to be a solid team.
Truth was, despite how much I’d looked forward to Hell, by Friday morning things were off to a rough start. I’d barely even made it to the ranch. My Thursday morning flight from California into Bentonville, Arkansas had been cancelled, after which my new afternoon flight to Dallas had been delayed, causing me to miss the last flight into Arkansas. I was on the verge of driving from Dallas at 11pm, before I “lucked out” and caught the last flight to Tulsa, and coerced my long-time friend Kelly to drive from Fayetteville to pick me up. When we arrived at the ranch on Friday morning, I’d only gotten a little more than two hours of sleep, and was looking at zero hours in the night ahead.
Climbing-wise, things start off well when the shotgun goes off (and after the Partnership Pledge, shown in the video above, which includes memorable lines as: “Partner, Don’t Friggin’ Drop Me. I’m Fragile.” ) Our initial plans to start at the Titanic boulder quickly reset when a wall of people go off that way. We skip up to the Prophecy Wall instead, where we are one of only three teams, including the legendary team Dower Power (having participated in every 24-HHH to date). It is clear that they are miles (years?) ahead of us in strategy (our goal was to climb continuously and try to get to 100 routes apiece, if possible), so we ask a lot of questions and soak up their experience. We’re not trying to win anything, only to survive. We’d run into them again and again throughout the competition– they’re truly a class act, and we were lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
One hour flies by. Then two. (Besides soaking in Dower, we are already soaked in our own sweat. The morning humidity is in the 90s.) We are off to the Ren and Stimpy wall, where I surprisingly cruise up a 12a– not my initial intention, but I’d climbed “Space Madness” several years before, and remembered it being relatively casual for my 6’1″ wingspan. Then three hours are gone. Time flies, and so do we. We are already behind our “goal” of 4 routes an hour (apiece), but it doesn’t matter, we’re having a blast. We run off to the West Side, which is blissfully quiet, and where we get coerced into climbing “Balrog” (a spiteful 11c slab) by a pair of attractive Texan lasses (team “Tejas Chicas”), who had danced up the thing and tell us that it’s “merely technical.” A few more routes, and we are onto the North Forty (where the crowds are, and the party is).
Luck is again on our side when the rains come, as we happen to be below the Lavendar Eye roof near the Circus Wall– one of the few places where there is a half dozen routes between 5.8 and 11b under a huge roof, largely dry. When the cloudbursts come, we charge on towards the heavens and keep scoring routes.
I don’t know what the general mood was in the other parties, but for my teammate, with the rain, comes The Psyche. The mid-afternoon had proved a little bit frustrating for him, as we landed on some more height-dependent 5.11s that had given him some difficulty. The rain (and subsequent darkness) is the great equalizer, however, and the grin on his face gets bigger as we plow into the darkness, and into the beginning of 5.9 madness.
I wish that I had more insightful thoughts about the night, but the truth is, we put our heads down, Keep Calm, and Climb On. A rhythm develops: “climbing… clipping… take Luke… dirt Luke…” Repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. A few thoughts penetrate the repetition. Drink more cold press coffee. Eat a banana. Pound a Rockstar. Drink more water. Which routes are free? Damn, Sonnie Trotter’s nice. Keep climbing, climb faster. How many draws do we need? Oh, look, it’s the guys in the green shirt again. Where the hell is my scorecard? Can’t stop won’t stop. Are we even close to our pace? I bet my girlfriend is asleep. Wait, it’s only 9pm in California? Who thought of glowsticks? Is that fog? Where’s the next bolt, is it below me? Am I tired?
One guy next to us quits on his partner at midnight. It floors me, how quickly it happens. “I’m done. I can’t say awake,” he says. His partner is a bit stunned, too, and clearly disappointed, as his night is suddenly finished. I’m surprised to see this happen at the bottom of a 5.8; I watched the two of them cruising 5.12s this morning. I’m reminded of the Tortoise and the Hare, and realize that my Tortoise will collapse before giving up. I always knew I’d finish, but now I Know. I’d have to break a leg before quitting on my partner.
Crimp Scampi, however, nearly ends me. I climb it, onsight, at 3 am, mostly because I think I can, and because it has a reputation for Having A Reputation as the best Ranch 5.10. In the dark, and in my mental state, I can barely process the movements well enough to stay on the wall, not to mention climb it efficiently– I climb it like shit, but reach high, crimp hard, and pull, and somehow reach the chains. Two successful leads puts me in The Hurt Bag for the next hour, before I can regain my wind. Even the coffee stops helping. Luke’s pscyhe carries the two of us.
Around 5 am, we run from the crowds back to the Front Corridor, where a row of popular 5.8s and 5.9s sit empty in the darkness. Luke and I are mentally and physically sagging, and we turn to Nirvana’s “Nevermind” on his small stereo, for inspiration. We rock out, and feel like heroes as we crush these sub-5.10s. I look over to our left, as I’ve always wanted to climb Horny Goatweed, the classic 5.11a, but the thought makes me laugh out loud. I don’t even walk over to check out he start. We’re wasted.
We’re definitely behind our goal of getting to 100, but I have a plan. As the sunlight rises, we lower off the spectacular pockets and roof of Sour Girl, and hike to the Titanic boulder, where a few poor souls are trying to sleep. Somebody brews a fresh pot of coffee, and the smell is an adrenaline jolt as we start pounding up the short, bouldery routes. I somehow manage Cracked Rib, 10c, which looks improbable, but do myself a favor by skipping Port Side, the challenging 10d. By 9:10 am, I’ve gotten to 101, and turn into a belay slave as Luke blitzes up every route he can conceivably send. I’m absolutely amazed. As soon as he realizes that 100 is within range, he becomes A Man Possessed, and sends 16 (short) routes in the last 90 minutes, to get to 100. We’ve both done it. Luke’s last send comes at 9:58 am and we run down to the Trading Post. Our white shirts are caked in dirt.
We have to leave before the awards ceremony; we have wonderful hosts taking care of us in Fayetteville, and need to do our jobs as guests. Andy, the event organizer and consummate host, grabs me two beers, which I promptly drink. I’m asleep within 15 minutes in the passenger seat. We have no idea we’d win our team category.
It’d take me over a week to catch up on sleep.
I’d like to say that I’d never been that tired before, but sadly, it’s been true all too often. But now when I go into the hospital on-call and work all night, I say, “This is no big deal. I’ve been through Hell, and climbed 4800 feet through the night, through the rain…”
Dr. Jonathan, as I often call him, is a Stanford Radiology resident and psyched climbing partner. We are both proud members of the High Sierra Kitten Rescue Squad (our 24Hell team name) and thank Moto and Monty( our kittens) for bringing joy and fun to our lives. We climbed a total of 201 pitches and won the Men’s Advanced Team category.
Thanks for reading,