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Black Diamond Athlete Mason Earle on 24HHH

Wednesday, Septembre 7, 2016
Arkansas's 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell is notorious for its wacky team names, bomber sandstone and wild after parties. Despite having an aversion for competitions, Black Diamond athlete Mason Earle, along with teammate Nik Berry, took the 24HHH by storm this year, shit talking Alex Honnold, grunting through 5.8 cruxes and winning the team division while setting a new high score.

When the shotgun blast rang through the woods of Arkansas’s Horseshoe Canyon Ranch at 10 a.m. on September 26, 140 climbing teams raced up to the cliffs. The teams had until 10 a.m. the following morning to climb as many routes as possible, and by the wee hours of the next day, hundreds of caffeine-crazed climbers were running through the woods. The event, 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, happens each year during the last weekend of September, and this was the event’s ninth year.

I’d heard about 24HHH over the years, but I’m not that big into events or competitions. But this past summer my good buddy Hayden Kennedy talked up the event. “It’s pretty all time, dude,” he said. The previous year he and his partner Chris Thomas had climbed a combined 402 pitches with difficulties up to 5.12c. Respect. They won the team division, shattering records set by all-stars like TC, Sonnie and Honnold. Hayden’s stories of climbing through the night, wild after parties and bomber Ozark sandstone got me psyched. If young OG HK approved, it had to be worth checking out.

Big wall dominator and fellow Salt Lake City local Nik Berry was equally psyched, so we teamed up. We choose to honor our favorite alcohol-free bubbly drink when choosing a team name, calling ourselves Team Stable Pop. Over the years there have been many interesting team names and nothing is off limits with names like The Hung and the Breastless, Spread our legs and Trust the Rubber, and We Just Sharted, and We Haven’t Even Started.

The comp was only a couple of weeks away, so Nik and I tried to get serious about training. We made it to the climbing gym once together to train endurance, but we became tired after only a couple hours. I immediately decided that the gym was bad for morale, so I went back to playing Banjo, and Nik looked for a job.

Feeling a little overwhelmed about the comp and wanting more info, I called up my buddy Todd Johnson, a climber from Springfield, MO. Todd is an undercover legend who can motor all day on nothing but nicotine and the athleticism that comes from working long days building houses. No stranger to huge endurance feats like speed soloing the Nose on El Cap, he had competed in 24HHH a few times, winning it the first year.

I asked if he had any beta. “Lots of Copenhagen,” he responded. He offered to pick us up if we flew into Missouri, and, not wanting to miss out on local knowledge, we immediately booked tickets to Branson, MO. At some point Todd must have gotten carried away, because when we showed up in Branson, he had a folder full of custom spreadsheets and route lists. “I’ve got you guys scheduled for three hours at Ren and Stimpy, three at Titanic, 12 in the North Forty, then you’ll finish the final six on the East Side.” We had no idea what he was talking about, but we had a coach.

At 24HHH, points are given for difficulty. A 5.9 is worth 120 points, 11a is 220 and so on. Trad climbs are worth more points, and each team member can climb a route twice, so as a team we would climb every pitch four times. Todd’s strategy for us was based on an energy-to-points ratio, and he handpicked a list of routes with the shortest cruxes, softest grades and that were the least sustained in nature. On our first day at the ranch we walked the cliffs, with Todd pointing out routes that corresponded to our list. As we walked under a beautiful, steep orange wall, I asked Todd if we were going to climb any routes there. “No,” he said, “too long and sustained.”

While I was struggling to work out beta on one of the harder routes from Todd’s list, Alex Honnold and his girlfriend, Stacey, arrived at the crag. Perfect timing, I thought, as I slumped onto a bolt.

“Dude, why aren’t you sending?” Honnold inquired. Cause it’s hard, and I fell….dick, I thought. Alex promptly sussed out the tricky 12d…and the 13a variation. Even though Nik and I were gunning for a team score, and Alex was going for an individual, the shit talking continued for the duration of the event. We moved onto other areas, Nik and I working out steep 5.12s while Alex dialed in more 5.13s.

That night, after checking out nearly every route we were to climb, we sat chatting on the porch with climber and hip-hop artist Kris Odub Hampton. I grumbled about how Honnold was going to climb four different 5.13’s, while we would climb none. Odub put it into perspective: “Alex can out-climb me any day of the week, but I bet he’s never been in a fight.” I wasn’t sure what that had to do with the comp, but it made me feel better. I was gonna fight on game day.

By the morning of the comp, things were quieter, and everyone was focused. At the start, 24HHH founder and coordinator Andy Chasteen went over the rules for the last time. Odub laid down some rhymes, “…I got 99 problems, but 100 pitches ain’t one.” Jeremy Collins took the mic, walking the competitors through an unforgettable Partner’s Oath, “… or I will drop you like a burrito without a tortilla!”

Then the gun sounded. “SHIT!” We raced up the hill, racing a massive crowd and wanting to be the first to the crag. The cliff ended up not being too busy, and in two hours, we had ticked the crag. We walked briskly to the next crag, The Titanic, and in another two hours, Nik got made fun of for wearing women’s Solutions, I got made fun of for my wool socks we had 40 more pitches. On the hour, every hour, hoots and hollers echoed around the canyon.

As the sun made its way toward the western horizon, motivation began to wane. Then Todd popped out of the woods after putting in a mega 12-hour work day. “Coach!” we yelled. As night fell our pace picked back up, and at some point in the night we heard through the grapevine that Honnold had fallen off of a 5.12. He wanted a ceasefire.

“HAHAHA, BOOOYAH!” Nik and I high-fived, sharing newfound stoke. We motored through the night. On one of many rope pulls, Nik got nailed directly in the eye, causing him to go partially blind for a few minutes. With each pitch, rock climbing became less and less fun. At around 4:30 a.m. I started bonking hard. I had to grunt my way through the crux moves…of a 5.8. Simply existing was unbearably painful, but we kept our pace.

At 9:20, we finished the final route on our list. Before we had time to fist bump, Coach Todd cracked the whip. “I’ve got an 11d over here you guys have time for!” Through much effort and pain, we both climbed the route with 20 minutes remaining for one more 5.8.

At 9:55 we headed back towards the trading post, scorecards in hand. Jeremy Collins and Nate Moore, who ticked off an impressive 320 pitches of trad, threw some stoke at us, but all I could do was shake my head. I was still in the hurt locker. I shook my head again at the lady handing out burritos. I went up to our cabin to try and sleep, but I was too fucked up to catch any Zs. Instead, I sat shivering in the 85-degree sun with a jacket on, trying to get warm. Passers by looked at me with concern, like I was an Ebola victim.

I slowly began to feel better, and Nik managed to get in a solid nap. We went down to the awards ceremony that afternoon to find out we had won the team division, setting a new high score. Honnold had set a new record for the individual scores, and we were psyched to be not far behind for our individual scores. Coach Todd was beaming—this was really his victory. We had just put in the legwork.

We slept right through the party that night, but I heard it was an all-time rager. Rumor has it there were gallons of beer, people swinging from rafters, even some broken bones. Nik and I can’t wait for next year, but this time we’re just going for the after party.

—Mason Earle