It was time to escape from a merciless Wisconsin winter. Late in March, with temperatures slightly above freezing in Madison, I drove with a group of six to the comparatively tropical climate of northern Arkansas. We had two goals: rock climbing and basking in warm sunshine.
We arrived at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, famous for its sweeping sandstone escarpments, on a chilly Thursday night. While setting up our tents, we met a climber from Nebraska (yes, they actually exist) who informed us that it was going to rain throughout the night and all of the following day. The sky beyond the hills pulsated with lightning's glow. We were off to a bad start.
The rainstorm came fast and heavy, but by morning, it had stopped. The Nebraskan happily explained that the forecast had been upgraded – dry weather was expected until afternoon. The overcast sky looked ready to open up at any moment, so, despite being sleep-deprived, we got going as quickly as possible.
One huge advantage of climbing at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch is the short approach. The North 40 wall, the crag we intended to climb, was only a ten-minute walk from our campsite, passing through a barren forest. Another thing the ranch has going for it is a high concentration of beginner-friendly bolted routes. Soon, Katie and I had put up three routes and were teaching the beginners how to tie in and belay. Other groups gathered near us and climbed as much as possible while it remained dry. At 3PM our luck ran out and it started to drizzle. The rain continued for the rest of the day, soaking the cliffs and turning the ground to pure mud.
The fifty or so climbers at the ranch gathered under a shelter to make dinner. Katie's friend Daniel drove out to meet us late in the night. Since Katie last saw him in Germany four years ago, he had opened a brewery in nearby Fayetteville. He showed up with several growlers, instantly making him the most popular person at the ranch. Daniel explained that winter had been brutal in northern Arkansas – school had been canceled twenty-eight times this year. Kids were already making up for lost time on Saturdays, and they would continue to attend classes well into summer.
On Saturday morning we ate breakfast under a clear sky, with temperatures approaching fifty. Because sunshine was already soaking the cliffs of the North 40, we decided to climb there again for the morning. Then, after eating lunch at our campsite, we walked to the Cliffs of Insanity, on the canyon's east side. Our first route was a classic called “Swamp Rat,” which was just entering the sunlight when we arrived. Soon it was in the seventies and I was covering myself with my jacket to avoid getting burned. We got in a few more climbs before heading back to camp at the end of a day of perfect weather. I no longer had any regrets of driving twenty hours to climb some rocks.
With a short day planned for Sunday, we headed to the North 40 yet again. There are so many bolted routes on that side of the canyon, you could climb there for weeks without getting bored. After putting up an easy route called “Spam,” I got another chance to climb “Sonny Jim,” a 5.11a I climbed last year. It was just as fun this time, and the fact that it was in the seventies again made it all the more fulfilling.
We left the ranch feeling tired from climbing, yet totally relaxed from getting so much sun. On the way home, we had lunch at the Ozark Cafe in Jasper. They have the greatest breaded fried mushrooms I have ever tasted. It's almost worth driving ten hours from Wisconsin just for that food.