Deep within the sultry bamboo forests of the Mae On Valley, northern Thailand, looms an outcrop of golden-hued, blackstreaked limestone. Beneath it in the cool shade, you’ll likely find a man — Loong Nan, 53 — hammering away at bamboo huts, painting trail signs, or sweeping paths. This industrious Thai is the busdriving, trail-building, hut-constructing “guardian” of Crazy Horse Buttress. His tireless work ethic has prompted some to joke, “If everyone were like Loong Nan, communism could’ve worked.”
Crazy Horse Buttress rises above rice paddies 25 miles from the culturally vibrant city Chiang Mai. Named for its principal formation’s striking resemblance to an equine head, Crazy Horse comprises a cluster of 15 quiet cliffs first climbed in 1998 and now boasting 97 single-pitch and 15 multi-pitch routes. Spanning 5.6 to 5.13c, the climbs tackle everything from technical slabs, to overhanging tufas, to multi-chambered, stalactite-dripping caves — not to mention the wealth of untapped rock.
However, the cliff’s true essence lies in the tight-knit community of locals and foreigners who’ve developed it. With an emphasis on social and ecological sustainability, the motley Crazy Horse crew has endeavored to keep this a quality destination for the long haul. In fact, many climbers now hold up Crazy Horse as a case study on how climbing tourism can positively affect a foreign community. Turns out, one of the most important factors is for the locals to come to love climbing, too.
WELCOME TO CRAZY HORSE In the dirt parking lot below the crag, open-air bamboo huts shade climbers relaxing on mats and chatting, monkeys swinging in the trees above. Bamboo handrails line the trails, and hand-painted signs point the way to the 15 cliffs, each with its specific style. To find solitude, you might head off to tug pockets at the Buddha Buttress or the new Jai Wall; or for social climbing, there’s the Anthill, Crazy Horse’s slightly overhanging, superlative hard-person’s cliff. Meanwhile, the Air Con Wall, a short, pocketed power cliff named for the cool breeze that blows from a neighboring cave, offers respite from the heat.
As a Coloradan vacationing here for three weeks in 2008, I found Chiang Mai’s lush forest and humid air a soothing escape. Not so soothing — at least to my ego — was the climbing. After days watching my traveling companion, Colorado pro climber Jonathan Siegrist, tear up the crag, I was still adjusting to Crazy Horse’s pumpy, 3-d style. My learning curve was painfully steep, but I consoled myself on the slabby, more technical cliffs.
My pumped arms also gave me ample time to wander the trail network, looking for monkeys and noticing the developers’ attention to detail. Take the bamboo planks used to keep ropes out of the fine, grey dirt below the routes. Much of this is the work of Loong Nan, who once built an arching bamboo trellis to mark the Crazy Horse entrance only later to add a matching exit after dreaming he was trapped at the crag.
Morris continues to give other locals the same opportunities, so they might better their lives. The average Thai with a bachelor’s degree earns 7,000 baht ($210) per month. For a first-year employee, regardless of their educational background, CMRCA offers up to 8,000 baht per month, with most employees seeing a yearly 10 percent salary increase. Morris also encourages his employees to earn relevant, opportunity creating certifications, such as Wilderness Advanced First Aid from the Wilderness Medical Associates. He currently employs eight full-time and two part-time guides, all Thai men ages 22 to 29, most of whom came to CMRCA as interns without climbing experience. Now, “They’re psyched and they’re willing to train hard,” says Morris. Which is good, since Morris requires his guides be fit enough to climb 25 pitches in a day, in addition to their ropework and teaching skills.
Morris’ efforts truly have borne fruit. “The difference [between Tonsai and Crazy Horse],” Siegrist says, “is that at the end of the day in Tonsai, you’ll find most Thai guides drinking and hanging out, while the CMRCA guides in Chiang Mai are pulling down at the climbing wall, setting boulder problems, reading climbing magazines, and gripping Grip Masters.”
DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS While taking five beneath Crazy Horse one afternoon, I paused to absorb the ambiance. Multilingual conversations between climbers and guides mixed with the breeze and the buzz of insects. As I drifted into sleep, through half-open eyes I saw Loong Nan stride through the dirt parking lot holding a dead snake in each hand. Later that day, halfway up a climb, I heard dogs barking, birds squawking, and someone yelling. From my vantage point, I glimpsed Loong Nan chasing a crag dog, one of Crazy Horse’s many free-roaming chickens hanging from its mouth.
Life and climbing at Crazy Horse have their rhythm, enlivened by quirky characters, grounded by community, and enriched by Thai culture. While the climbing alone is worth the trip, it’s the people and atmosphere you remember.
As the new global climbing frontiers shift toward other remote areas such as Ethiopia, South Africa, Madagascar, and Peru, “we have to be responsible ambassadors for the climbing community,” Siegrist says. The Crazy Horse crag, says Siegrist, can serve as a positive and enduring model.
Of course, stewardship sometimes means sacrifice. Siegrist recounts an incident at the Anthill. Here, a Buddhist monk makes his home below the cliff, spending his days meditating in one of Crazy Horse’s caves. One day, climbers noticed a flower tied around the first bolt of a five-star route that started at the mouth of his cave.
“We understood it as a way of asking for our respect,” Siegrist says. “Since that day, we crossed the route off our list.”
Marisa Aragón Ware, a writer and artist based in Boulder, Colorado, embarks this February on a research vessel sailing around the Carribean.
Suradet Kongsingh Chiang Mai 411 (Ooan) romps up the 125-foot Ruam Jai (5.10b), Heart Wall, Crazy Horse Buttress.
Chiang Mai 411
Climbing: A 70-meter rope is ideal. Crazy Horse divides into 15 cliffs, most dispersed enough to offer seclusion. The newest, the 18-route Jai (“heart” in Thai) Wall, is undergoing significant development, with the goal of adding another 15 climbs. Morris sees room for at least another 120 routes throughout Crazy Horse, with great potential for 5.14s.
Crazy Horse also houses an unknown number of massive, multi-chambered caves — great escapes from the heat. Routes that require a headlamp, even midday, have become more common as new caves are discovered. Still, overall Crazy Horse’s climbs tend toward moderate, and at any grade up to 5.12 you’ll find plenty of routes well worth your time. Also, keep your eyes out for Black and Diamond, the two charming crag dogs.
Getting There: Fly into Chiang Mai International Airport (airport code CNX). China Air offers direct flights from Taiwan to CNX for about $1,000.
Accommodations: Camping at Crazy Horse is discouraged, but Chiang Mai has plenty of great options ranging from $5 to $30 per night. A few favorites are The Golden Fern, Same Same Guesthouse, and Nuan Pranee House.
Season: November through January.
Guidebook: A Guide to Rock Climbing in Northern Thailand, by Josh Morris and Khaetthaleeya Uppakham ($24.95; sharpendbooks.com, 2004); second edition due September 2010.
Not-to-Miss Routes: •Fire in the Mind (5.10b): Bountiful jugs up an exposed, golden headwall. •Magic Drop (5.10d): One of Crazy Horse’s first routes, this technical and consistent climb ascends an aesthetic, under-vertical black slab. •Flushed (5.11a): This super-long, engaging climb leads to a sustained, no-holds chimney. •Blood, Love and Steel (5.11b): This rope-stretching slab morphs into a slightly overhanging jugfest. •Tree Surgeon (5.11b): Pumpy, steep, and extremely fun on tufa pinches. •Intensify (5.12b): A thuggish start launches you into an endless, pumpy grey wall. •Space Maneuvers (5.12b): Three very exposed pitches out an immense limestone cave, leaving 300 feet of darkness under your butt — unreal!