Climbing in Northern Thailand

by TC Changed Dec/2011
This article has been read 10,878 times

Mention Thailand to any climber and they'll think of emerald seas, white sand beaches and soaring limestone karsts. But there's more to climbing in Thailand than the southern beaches, much more.

Tucked away in Northern Thailand in the lush Mae On Valley near Chiang Mai sits Crazy Horse Buttress. Nestled amongst the very tip-toes of the Himalayan foothills, the crag's golden orange and black-streaked limestone rises out of the jungle providing an area of excellent and varied climbing.

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+Super-classic route: Blood Love and Steel (6c), 193 kb
Super-classic route: Blood Love and Steel (6c)
TC Changed, Apr 2011
© CMRCA

The first routes at Crazy Horse were bolted by Karisak (Tom) Boonthip in 1998. Development was then taken up by the local rock climbing shop Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures (CMRCA). One of the unique aspects of the crag's 200 climbs is the wide range of climbing styles available. The best routes of the area draw on lines ranging from chimney stem-fests, technical slabs and iconic steep Thai limestone.

While the area has climbing evenly dispersed through the grades from French 4 to 8a+, it will truly delight and challenge the intermediate climber. Many of the area's super classics lie in the 6a-6c range. The crag is made up of 15 or so separate cliffs, between 15 and 90 meters tall, with between 4 - 30 climbs at each. Each area is defined by its own distinct style. The Furnace area has classic pocketed orange limestone, while just around the corner the Junkyard has crack climbs up bomber dark grey limestone.

+Local climbing community at the crag clean-up, 208 kb
Local climbing community at the crag clean-up
TC Changed, Apr 2011
© CMRCA

+The last clip, 132 kb
The last clip
© TC Changed
Crazy Horse offers its own brand of adventure sport climbing in one particular area, which is unlike any other climbing location in the world (that I know of). This comes in the form of the Anxiety State Crisis Cave. The cave is over 100 meters high, home to dripping stalactites, tufa formations and wild climbing. Multiple entrances to the cave make for reasonably easy access and lots of light. There are currently 3 routes (and with plenty more potential) which take on the cave roof system direct. For the steady-headed lead climber the wild exposure offered by horizontal climbing on stalactites with nothing below you but air and a clean drop of 90 meters to the cave floor can offer the ultimate thrill. Or leave you a gibbering wreck. The climbs are either 2 or 3 pitches. All offer the added spice of the consequence of a leader or second fall leaving the climber unable to regain the rock. (Prusiks are highly recommended) The original line of Anxiety State Crisis (7a,7a) goes straight up through the horizontal roof of the cave, while the newest addition of Sun Seeker (6c,6b+) shares the same half of pitch one with Anxiety State but then breaks away to take a hanging traverse of a giant fin before heading up and out into the sunlight. For those looking for the ultimate exposure fix, look no further than Space Manoeuvres (6c,7b,7b) which takes a direct line up a 300ft arete, starting in the gloom of the cave and finishing on the top of the crag.

Crazy Horse Buttress is a relatively new crag in terms of the development of Thailand as a climbing destination. Though inland crags have yet to show any signs of suffering the same corrosion problems of coastal crags, Crazy Horse has been developed with safety and longevity of routes as a primary focus. Bolting takes place under a strict procedure, which includes a mandatory standard of titanium or marine grade stainless steel glue in bolts, secured with Hilti RE 500 Resin (the red stuff). The anchors are a mixture of fixed carabiner lower-offs and twin rings. The local bolting standard mandates that each climb is top-roped by a minimum of three climbers before bolting, to ensure bolts are positioned for optimum clipping and protecting the climber from both features and ledges while falling. Once finished, the route is then entered into an active crag database (possibly the only one in Asia). Thanks to the database, each route's bolter, bolt type, age, resin type and other details are always available for easy access and monitoring. The end goal of all this is to create a climbing experience where you can confidently put safety out of mind and just concentrate on your climbing.

There is no better embodiment of the crag's ethics than Loung Anan. In the 10 years since development began at Crazy Horse, this local red truck driver has become the unofficial steward of the crag. Refusing extra payment, Loung ("uncle") spends his day developing and maintaining the crag's access trails, hand rails, and gravel belay terraces - which wouldn't be out of place in a Japanese Zen garden. Loung Anan's stewardship inspires respectful use and combined with the efforts of many has helped to make Crazy Horse Buttress one of the most mindfully developed crags around.

A climb is still a climb. When you're in the moves you might not at first notice the difference to any other rock climb or area. But look for the tell-tale signs, pull back the curtains and lift up the rugs, and rather than finding hidden piles of rubbish, you'll find that Crazy Horse is part of something much bigger and better. Built with responsible tourism in mind, Crazy Horse allows you to travel as a climber while learning about and contributing to the area you're visiting. Every small action helps feed back to support the local community. Whether it's a hot Thai lunch from the village restaurant, or the local guides getting training and qualifications to go work and compete abroad as climbers, or a crag clean-up day attended by locals, expats, and travellers alike, Crazy Horse represents a model for sustainable climbing tourism that is being noticed in Asia and throughout the world.

+First pitch on Anxiety State Crisis (7a), 120 kb
First pitch on Anxiety State Crisis (7a)
TC Changed, Apr 2011
© CMRCA
Recommended Routes

Multi-pitch grades are given for each individual pitch

Ding Dong- 5 - Main Buttress
Fire in the Mind- 6a - The Furnace
Ruam Jai(Community) - 6a+,6a - Heart Wall
Into the Sun- 6a,6a+ - Main Buttress
Reindeer Request- 6a+ Main Buttress
Magic Drop- 6b - Main Buttress
Flushed- 6b+ - The Ant Hill
Dangerous Joy- 6b+ - Main Buttress
Dee Jai Ti Dai Gued(It's Great To Be Alive) - 6b+ - Heart Wall
Blood, Love and Steel - 6c - Main Buttress (Best Route at the Crag?)
Song of Stone- 6c - The Junkyard
All Quiet on the Eastern Front- 7a - Gate Keeper Buttress
Headhunters- 6c,7a+,7a - Main Buttress
Anxiety State Crisis- 7a+ - Anxiety State Crisis Cave
Balance of Power- 7a+ - The Furnace
Intensify- 7b - The Ant Hill
Bleachin'- 7b+ - The Ant Hill
Wild Ride on a Crazy Horse- 8a+ - Main Buttress

Photo Gallery: Crazy Horse Buttress

+Kat climbing Intensify (7b), 130 kb
Kat climbing Intensify (7b)
TC Changed, Apr 2011
© CMRCA
+The crazy horse's head, 99 kb
The crazy horse's head
TC Changed, Apr 2011
© CMRCA
+Jonathan Siegrist making A Wild Ride... (8a+) look way too easy, 92 kb
Jonathan Siegrist making A Wild Ride... (8a+) look way too easy
TC Changed, Apr 2011
© CMRCA
+A knee bar providing Kat with a tiny bit of respite on the Tree Surgeon, 134 kb
A knee bar providing Kat with a tiny bit of respite on the Tree Surgeon
© TC Changed

Logistics

When do I go? Climbing at Crazy Horse is possible all year round. In the hot season you'll definitely find the shaded climbs and make use of the cool air in the caves. However, the cool season (between November and March) is the most popular time to visit.

How do I get there? There are no international flights from Europe to Chiang Mai. To come direct would mean a connecting flight, bus or train from Bangkok airport (BKK). ThaiAir - have the largest number of flights, while Air Asia is usually the most price competitive.

This is a great guide to explaining rail-line layouts and carrige classes vs cost. For Buses a good bet is to shop around for a VIP bus direct to Chiang Mai which takes around 10 hours over night. They are usually very comfortable with blankets, air-con and TVs. For around 500 baht (£10) the are often the best compromise between speed, price and comfort. However, there are numerous scams so it's best to book through a reputable guest house or tour agency for peace of mind or check a travel guidebook. NB: It's the opposite to the UK, Buses are nearly always faster than the trains.

Most climbers visiting Thailand will include a trip to the south and Phra Nang peninsula, flights are also available from Phuket and Krabi direct to Chiang Mai. www.domesticflightsthailand.com For trains a mini-bus ride from Krabi will take you to Surat Thani where trains go to Chiang Mai (with a change in Bangkok)

Where do I stay? The South East corner of the Old City of Chiang Mai is the most convenient area with plenty of guest houses. Julie's Guest house is one of the more popular and a lonely planet recommendation so always busy but has cheap rooms, good food and friendly vibe. T.K. guest house is just round the corner, for slightly more money you get a bit more comfort and peace if you want to relax. More up-market still are Pha Thai guesthouse and Tamarind Village for those with the budget. The best bet is to pick somewhere within the moat and the old city as this gives easy walking access to the heart of Chiang Mai. For the adventurous and those looking for a cultural experience, Home-stays can be found close to the crag.

What's eating out like? Let's be honest. So there's climbing, so there's culture... really, the #1 thing to do in Chiang Mai is eat. Chiang Mai is a true melting pot (or Thai spicy salad?), influenced by Chinese, Laotian and Burmese culture, and supporting more than 10 distinct local ethnic groups. This means that just about every type of food is available and excellent. The weekend walking-street night markets are famous for their food courts where small stalls selling every imaginable and unimaginable food type are set up surrounding seating/eating plazas. The western food, although more expensive, is as good as you'll find back home....if not better. The local climbers restaurant is We's restaurant, just down the road from the climbing shop. It's a great place to hang out and meet other climbers, watch movies and just relax after climbing.

Where can I buy gear? The local climbing shop Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures stocks a variety of brands and is the official Thailand Distributor for Black Diamond, Innate, MadRock, and Sterling. The shops sells just about everything from hardware to webbing, aid gear to headlamps. If you've forgotten any small item or for a short stay, gear rental is also available.

What Gear do I need? No route requires more than 15 quick draws. A 60 meter rope will get you off every single pitch. While a 70 meter (or longer) allows for a few interesting link ups and often means abseils that have to be done in two pitches can done as one.

Guidebook? Sam Lightner Jr.'s guide Thailand: A climbing Guide has some basic info on a few of the areas. The most complete guide book is on sale at the local climbing shop A Guide to Rock Climbing in Northern Thailand, by Josh Morris and Khaetthaleeya Uppakham.


Getting to the crag? The crag is about a 30 minutes drive outside of the city. Motorbikes are available for rent all over the city. The standard is the infamous and iconic 100c Honda Dream which can be found for around 100 Baht for 24-hours. Fuel for a return trip costs somewhere between 60-100 Baht depending on how many people and ropes you're taking and how fast you drive. Petrol stations are everywhere throughout the city but can get a little sparser once you hit the open road. It's recommended to fill up before heading out. Another option if you can round up a small crew of climbers is to rent a pick up and pile in as many people as possible to share the cost which is usually between 1000-1500 Baht but much cheaper on fuel. There is also something superbly Thai about riding with big group of people in the back of a Hilux. The local climbing shop (CMRCA) also organises a daily Red Truck which will take you to the crag and back for 250 Baht and includes lunch and refillable water from a local restaurant.

Remember that the rules-of-the-road are more guidelines than actual rules in Thailand. The trip is not recommended for rookie motorcycle riders. It's not quite the law of the jungle that Asia is famous for but the only qualification you need for driving a vehicle is being able to afford it. Things can get erratic and the standard attire of safety shorts and flip-flops don't provide much protection in a spill and even a low speed accident can put a climbing holiday on hold.

What else is there apart from the climbing? Chiang Mai is the 'unofficial capital' of Northern Thailand and a lot of the region's history and Buddhist/Animist culture is still intact here. Chiang Mai city alone has over 300 Wats (temples) which range from giant and spectacular to tiny hidden sanctuaries tucked down side streets. There are the expected waterfalls, Thai massage and Thai Boxing (all worth a look). There are also hot springs near the crag which are great after a day of climbing. Chiang Mai is a hub for exploring the natural and cultural riches of northern Thailand. Day-trip out of the city on your rest days and you could end up doing some not-so-restful trekking, white-water rafting, zip-lining, caving, elephant riding and down-hill mounting biking. If you are planning a longer stay, Chiang Mai is also famous for its Thai cooking, Muay Thai, yoga, and massage schools.

Currencies cost? £1 will get you around 50 Thai Baht. Thailand has the interesting option of going super-local and doing things on a shoe string or living an expensive and lavish lifestyle. You can budget for either but 500 Baht a day isn't a bad compromise that will let you have a comfortable trip without cutting any corners.

TIP? Drop by the CMRCA shop in Chiang Mai. Staff can give directions, have a 'find-a-partner' board if you're travelling solo, topos for new routes/areas, lend out helmets for wild routes and just simply have a chat. Don't worry about having to buy something, the place runs as base for the local climbing community.

Bring enough supplies to last the day, nothing is worse than running out of water during a day of hot climbing. Or: Bring a reusable water bottle and fill up at the stations around the city... as well as at the crag...


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