Lead Climbing at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch

My husband and I have a passion for rock climbing.  My father-in-law, Mufasa as I like to call him, is actually the one who got my husband and I hooked on climbing back in December of 2016.

Casey and I had completed a lead climbing certification course in May of 2018, to make sure we were climbing safely (read about learning to lead climb).  It had been over 6 months since we had been outdoor climbing, and we knew that taking a course would make us stronger and safer climbers.

So far the only place we have climbed outdoors had been Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Arkansas.  After our first trip to HCR, we knew we wanted to take a trip with Mufasa to share the experience.

Our climbing trip was planned for the end of June/beginning of July.  Mufasa drove down from Illinois that Friday and got the camp setup for us.  We left after I got off work on Friday, driving up to Arkansas from Louisiana and arriving at the campsite around midnight.  Rolling up to the camp area, dozens of goats were settled on the road.  My husband had to get out of the car to usher them along so we could park near the campsites.

I love that the ranch has free range goats and horses!  However, you have to be careful what you leave out around your campsite because the animals have been known to destroy a tent to get to something left inside. Also, we could not bring our dogs along for this trip.  The ranch has herding dogs that protect the sheep, so as a safety protocol no other dogs are allowed on the ranch.

Mufasa awoke when he heard our car pulling up next to the campsite.  The night air was just right and the sky was mostly clear.  We talked and caught up on life before settling down and calling it a night.

We were up with the sun the next morning.  We made breakfast burritos on our propane stove before heading to the North Forty area.  Mufasa tries to visit his climbing gym a couple times a week, but this would be Mufasa’s first time climbing outdoors.  We decided to review climbing methods with him on the Kindergarten Boulder.  This boulder is next to ‘Practice Rock’ and would be good for him to get a feel for the difference of indoor and outdoor climbing.

Morinventures Kindergarten Boulder HCR Arkansas
Mufasa climbing his first outdoor route on Kindergarten Boulder.

Casey and I took some time going over the difference in lead climbing and top roping with Mufasa.  We picked a easy, short route to demonstrate the lead climbing technique.  Then Mufasa top roped the route to get a feel for the difference of outdoor climbing.  As well, Casey and I went over setting up and cleaning an anchor with each other to ensure we were prepared.  Once we were all feeling confidant, we worked our way west on the North Forty canyon walls.

We used our guide book to check the rankings of the routes: Rock Climbing Horseshoe Canyon.  It lists 800+ rock climbing routes and boulder problems.  We bought this book at the outpost store in the bottom of the canyon.

Caitlyn Morin Rock Climbing HCR MorinventuresThe North Forty has a mainly shaded canyon wall, where most of the routes have a variation of chicken heads (for those of you not familiar with climbing terms, these are knobby, easy to grip holds for climbing).

There’s not much of a view on most these routes, as the trees block some of it.  The routes vary in height, the shortest being only 35 ft.

This is a great place to start climbing.  The routes range from 5.6 to 5.12+.

We took turns picking routes.  Casey, being the stronger climber, mostly lead the routes for us.  While Mufasa and I top roped most of them.  Casey and I could tell that we were out of shape for climbing!  The nice callouses we had built up last season were all gone, and our forearms were throbbing once getting to the anchors.

Morinventures Horseshoe Cayon Ranch Climbing Arkansas
Route: “Meck, Mecke, What’s the Difference?” 5.9+ (4 permadraws)

The above route, Meck, Mecke, What’s the Difference? was originally rated as a 5.10a, but in the book it’s listed as a 5.9+, which I assume is because the permadraws were added to it.  I tried to lead climb this route, and successfully made it to the second clip – only to have my upper body completely exhausted.  If I had been top roping I would have tried to push myself further – but with lead climbing, you have to use caution because of increased risk of falling.

Casey and Mufasa were both able to lead the route, but not without some challenge.  The top section begins to incline, with your back facing more towards the canyon floor.

I really enjoyed comparing our climbing styles.  After we would all finish climbing a route, we would discuss how we each found our own way to solve it.  Rock climbing is such a great workout, but it also allows you to strategize.  Climbing strengthens the body, but also the mind.  You have to have mental strength and clarity to succeed, but also grit to learn how to work through failure.  I have such love for this sport!

We continued climbing on the North Forty canyon wall until it was a little after noon.  Coming to the far west of the North Forty wall, we decided to break for lunch.  It was a short hike back to our campsite, where we enjoyed a quick lunch and deep conversation before heading over to the East Side Canyon.

East Side Cliffs HCR
Camping area near North Forty.  You can see the East Side Canyon walls off in the distance.

Getting to the east side canyon can be quite a hike from the camping ground.  You have to hike down and past the outpost, across the canyon floor, and uphill a ways until you reach the canyon wall.

east side climbing horseshoe canyon ranch arkansas

There are some signs posted along the way to note where you are.  Moving from the canyon floor into the trees we began looking for our desired section.  We wanted to check-out the Cliffs of Insanity routes.  These are usually around 5.6 to 5.8 in rank, so not as demonic as they sound.  Very nice for beginner to intermediate climbers.

The difference on this side of the canyon is the height and the exposure to the sun.  The East Side cliffs are home to the tallest route in HCR, Orange Crush.  It has 14 bolts to the anchor point. With the added height on these routes, also comes a stunning view!

Because we were climbing later in the afternoon, the sun had warmed the rock and they were pretty hot near the top sections that were exposed to the sun. It was especially bad on the raw parts of our hands.  I started by attempting to lead a route called The Man in Black.  

This is a sport route 65ft tall, and the height really got to me on this one.  The hand holds are a little deceptive, as well the route has many bulges in it.  Climbing over ledges while leading is a fear of mine, and for a good reason.  Lead climbing means climbing above your last clip in, and on a route with bulges means I could land awkwardly on the cliff.

I had attempted this route on my last trip here (which was probably over 6 months ago) and wasn’t able to get to the top.  I would say I get about the same height as the North Forty routes, and then my anxiety kicks-in at high gear.

Mufasa and Casey both climbed this route, and Mufasa also had some trouble with the height of this side of the canyon.   If you aren’t used to climbing such high routes, this side of the canyon can really test your endurance.

Having a full morning of climbing, we were starting to wear down. We climbed a couple other routes before hiking back to camp.

We had picked up some firewood from the outpost.  Even though it wasn’t cold, we decided a fire would be nice to have that evening while chatting and stargazing.  We had two new friends join us around the campfire as the sun set that evening.

The night sky was so clear that we were able to spot the Milky Way!  We had some great conversations around the campfire.  Eventually we called it a night.  We planned to go back to the North Forty in the morning to climb a section of the wall that we had not been on yesterday.

We went to a section just north, and a little east, of the Kindergarten Rock.

Mufasa top-roping.

This section of the North Forty wall is different from the sections we were climbing the previous day because the wall is mostly flat with some crimp edges until you get near the top, then some chicken holds appear (see image above for reference).

I had so much fun on these routes because they provided such a different challenge from the day before.  There was more strategy involved because of less foot and hand hold options.  As well as, the type of holds tested stability and balance.

Mufasa belaying me.  Using a giant crack in the canyon to climb.

There was a a trad route listed in the book that was a huge crack in the canyon wall, floor to sky.  We found that there was an anchor point really close to it’s starting point.  Mufasa lead climbed that route to setup the anchor point over the crack so we could try it (route pictured above).

Each of us, Casey, Mufasa, and myself, all had to find our way to use each side of the crack to move up the rock.  We took turns belaying each other to ensure we were properly rested in-between climbing and belaying.

Here’s me, climbing my hardest.

We worked in this section for several hours, until our arms were throbbing and hands could barely grip the rock.  I had gained some of my confidence back as a rock climber in this section.  I could feel my body remembering how to move my hands and feet, when to shift my weight and turn my hips to strategically balance my weight.

I think because this section of the canyon was fairly flat and straight up, I had less fear of falling or landing weird if I made a mistake.  This section felt more like the routes in a climbing gym, but a little more freedom to make the route your own.

We knew we each had about a 6 hour drive home so we wanted to leave HCR around noon.  We managed to get a good workout in before we went back to our campsite to pack up and head home.  We enjoyed a lite lunch with Mufasa and said our good-byes.  We agreed we needed to make another trip to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch soon.

I don’t think I could ever get tired of Horseshoe Canyon Ranch.  There are so many routes to challenge yourself on!  Plus the views and scenery are just beautiful and peaceful.

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Thanks for reading!


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