Easter long weekend. An opportunity to get out of town and head to Crazy Horse Buttress – a limestone crag outside of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand offering 100+ single- and multi-pitch sport climbs in the 5b to 8a range. After making a mad post-work dash to the airport we ended up sitting on the plane parked on the tarmac for two hours, missed our domestic connection by a country-mile and spent the night at an airport hotel in Bangkok. Late night. Early start the next morning for our rescheduled flight to Chiang Mai. Tired. Grumpy. The guy on the plane next to us snored like a freight train the whole flight. More grumpy.
Early next morning we met our guides from The Peak Adventure. Our lead guide, June, and his assistant, Tom, were Chiang Mai locals that had been climbing for 10 and 6 years respectively. We were in two minds about going with guides or climbing independently but opted for a guide in the end for the local knowledge and convenience and because I outweighed my climbing partner by around 30kg+. She did a top rope course at a climbing gym in Hong Kong and when I dropped by at the end of the course the instructor took one look at me and said “you can’t belay him” – an opinion seconded by a friend who owns the gym where we boulder who said we would have to set up some kind of ground anchor if she was going to safely belay me whilst I was lead climbing. A quick flick through Freedom of the Hills yielded no simple solution and some internet research came up with some suspect sounding alternatives to a conventional ground anchor such as having the belayer anchor themselves to a backpack filled with rocks or wearing a scuba diving weight belt. In the end, we didn’t think this trip was the time and place to test these theories so going with guides it would be (since Easter we’ve had the time to go to an climbing gym and it turns out she can belay me on a top rope just fine). When we met Jume and Tom it was clear that we weren’t going to have any problems with belaying. Tom looked like he could hold his own in the front row of any rugby scrum going round (and had played junior rugby in Thailand.). If I took a lead fall he probably wouldn’t notice. In fact, we now had the opposite problem. The bolts would probably rip before he would budge.
Crazy Horse Buttress is named after a prominent rock feature in the shape of a horse’s head (or as a friend suggested, Totoro from the Japanese animation, My Neighbor Totoro). The feature itself offers multi-pitch climbing around about the 6b – 7a range although we settled for more pedestrian single-pitch objectives. Crazy Horse was far bigger than any crag I had been to before – if there were many other people there we certainly didn’t see them as we moved between the various walls that make up the crag during the day. We began our trip at the “Furnace Wall”. First impressions were that it was going to be a long day as we were tired from our disrupted trip to Chiang Mai and every climb looked like it had a bulge or overhanging section that would be testing when least needed. After confirming with Jume that we understood each other’s climbing calls we were off – “tension, “slack” and “lowering” became “tension-kap”, “slack-kap” and “lowering-kap” (“kap” being a polite Thai suffix). I had previously thought jugs were the creation of climbing gyms – giant holds not frequently observed in the real world as they weren’t a prominent feature of any crag I had been too before. Not so on these first climbs. There were jugs and finger pockets galore offering some very doable overhanging climbs for intermediate climbers. Things were looking up. June and Tom obviously knew the routes very well and did a great job of selecting routes to match our ability and energy levels.
Going late in the dry season it was always going to be hot. It was, to use the technical expression favoured by some Canadian friends, “balls hot”. The various walls at Crazy Horse Buttress have different aspects which meant that by moving areas throughout the day it was possible to spend the day climbing in the shade. Still, you didn’t have to climb for long before it looked like you’d just gotten out of the shower. Plastic water bottles left in the shade would soon have the temperature of bath water. We churned though the water. I had some reluctance to bomb water after I did a 50km hiking event with a good friend in Hong Kong – he ended up having a seizure when we were on the bus home after the event, went within a whisker of dying, and spent 5 days in intensive care due to water intoxication. It was a very unpleasant experience and I had been reluctant to drink large volumes of water since. That wasn’t an issue here – we were clearly losing a ton of fluid.
Crazy Horse Buttress is not for entomophobes. It is bug city. Black ones, red ones, flying ones, crawling ones. Everywhere. There is a bug that sounds like a loud buzz saw although apparently that was some kind of cicada. When you jammed your hand into a crack or finger pocket you were half expecting to have to recall it in sudden and acute pain from having been bitten by something. No such misfortune. We developed a good system with the guides who would quickly confirm that a particular bug was “not angry”.
As with any great holiday it was over all too soon. So many climbs to choose from. The highlights been the first chimney I had seen or climbed outside of a climbing gym. 13 routes over 2 days with the trip ending with a return trip to the chimney one last time. By this point I was exhausted and had to climb it any way I could, which was anything but elegant and involved shuffling my back up the side of the chimney whilst feet were bridged on the other side, leaving part of my shirt on the wall in the process, and earning a wide smile from June and a “nice technique” quip. Crazy Horse Buttress was one of those wonderful places that before you even leave you think to yourself “I will definitely be back” and other options of your to-do list suddenly drop a slot as a return trip goes to the top of the rankings.