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One of the many costumes seen at the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell. Photograph by Lucas Marshall

Underdog Climbers Challenge Alex Honnold

Alex Honnold sure knows how to pack a lot of climbing into a single day. For example, in Yosemite in 2012, Honnold soloed the “Triple”—an enchainment of Yosemite’s three tallest formations: El Capitan, Half Dome, and Mt. Watkins—which cumulates to climbing over 7,000 feet of vertical rock, in just over 18 hours.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Honnold would be drawn to the annual climbing competition known as 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell at the Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in northwestern Arkansas. Every year since 2006 in the last week of September, hordes of masochistic climbers of all abilities descend upon this midwestern climbing destination to try to climb as many routes as possible over a 24-hour period. Part serious endurance competition, part Burning Man-style festival, Horseshoe Hell has become wildly popular over the last ten years.

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Climber competing at the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell. Photograph by Josh Beecher

Honnold won the competition in 2010, setting records for both individual and team points. Since then, however, others have surpassed his records. In 2014, Honnold vowed to reclaim his position as top dog and returned to Horseshoe.

As it turned out, Honnold would face some serious competition from two dark horses in the climbing world: Nik Berry and Mason Earle, who had come to Arkansas not only to win the team competition, but to unseat the Goliath that is Alex Honnold.

This is the plot device, anyway, that drives the latest film Horseshoe Hell,  an audience favorite in this year’s REEL ROCK Tour.

Although Berry and Earle, unlike Honnold, have never appeared on 60 Minutes, in reality, they are well known in the climbing world for being ace climbers with humble, unassuming demeanors. The two have quietly amassed an impressive resume of difficult speed climbs and free climbs of big-wall routes in Yosemite and elsewhere around the world.

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People letting loose and dancing at 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell. Photograph by Josh Beecher

So it went down, a talented underdog team faced off against the indefatigable Honnold. Berry and Earle, with the help of an unlikely mentor, managed to snag the team victory and set a new record for team score. Honnold, meanwhile, came away with a new record for individual points—something of a win-win for all, including the hundreds of quirky, wild, and ultimately drunk climbers in attendance.

We caught up with Berry, a 29-year-old ER nurse in Salt Lake City, Utah, to hear more about his experience with Horseshoe Hell.

What first drew you to compete in 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell?
I had always wanted to try it out, but the comp is held in September, when I was in school.  After graduating from nursing school, and having time before I began my job, I wanted to finally have a go at the comp. My good friends Chris Thomas and Hayden Kennedy had done the comp the year prior and said it was horrible. I like blue-collar suffering and my bone-crushing friend Mason Earle was stoked, so we made it happen.

How many feet of rock did you end up climbing during the event? Is that the most amount of rock you’ve ever climbed in a day?
I believe I ended up climbing over 7,000 feet of rock in total.  The closest to that I have ever come would be when I climbed El Capitan and Half Dome in a day, which is only about 5,000 feet in total. It was brutal. Mason was so worked that he started moaning on really easy routes. It was so funny. He gave it everything he had and I have so much respect for him and his climbing. After the comp was over, Mason and I went back to our cabin and passed out for four hours. I was deeply fatigued for two weeks after the comp.

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Timelapse of people climbing during the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell. Photograph by Lucas Marshall

Some people have criticized this competition for promoting unsafe climbing practices. What do you think of those critiques?
Climbing is about the freedom to practice it as we please.  Who are others to tell people how to live their lives and to conform to their safety standards?
Each climber and team at this event can be as safe as they want to be. This event is very similar to speed-climbing big walls.  You have to deicide on the amount of risk you are willing to take in order to move faster.

In the movie, in a state of utter fatigue, you casually mention that you’re never going to compete in 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell again. Have you changed your mind? Will you ever go back?
Hell no!