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Gaining Respect For The Power Of The Rocks

By December 2, 2011August 1st, 2018No Comments

Below is an article published by the NY Times in which Josh Morris (GDI’s International Program Director) is featured in. Congrats Josh on making it Big Time! Enjoy!

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND — Locals know the Crazy Horse Buttress in this mountainous region of northwest Thailand for the monks who dwell here and the decent bat hunting. Foreigners increasingly know it as one of the best places for rock climbing in the country.

Noppadon Uppakham, a k a Taw, right, sets up an approach on the Crazy Horse Buttress.

Like many places in Asia, Thailand is gradually transforming itself into a destination for climbing as enthusiasts move beyond the traditional mainstays of Colorado and California. The East’s dynamic economies and relatively low costs are luring Western workers who make Asia their home and tourists who seek adventure. Both groups are bringing their passion for the sport with them.

Satisfying the demand are people like Taw, a 28-year-old Thai who is one of the area’s most experienced rock-climbing guides. Taw, whose full name is Noppadon Uppakham, got his start by climbing coconut trees as a child. For much of the past decade, he has been working to develop rock-climbing routes in Thailand, China and the Philippines.

I arranged to meet him for a day of climbing. Soft-spoken and slight of build, Taw picked me up from the airport and we stopped briefly by his shop downtown to get fitted for some equipment, including a harness, shoes and a helmet. During the 45-minute drive toward the surrounding hills, I learned a lot, about Taw and about climbing — I’m an utter novice; this was my first climb. One gruesome anecdote in particular stuck in my mind.

About two years ago, Taw was leading a caving expedition. In the darkness of a cavern, he made out the body of a young man in a pool of blood. A 26-year-old American had fallen to his death a day earlier, after climbing solo without harnesses or ropes. There wasn’t any question about what had happened: The man had set up a digital camera to capture his stunt on video. Five minutes after his fall, he briefly awoke. “No one could hear his screams,” Taw said.

Serious climbers swear that with the right equipment, partners and training the risks of such calamities can be minimized.

Ted Rinquest, a 44-year-old American, moved here eight years ago. Now retired from software engineering, he frequents Crazy Horse four or five times a week, where I saw him explaining his method. I later ran into him at the climbing shop, where he said he had never had an injury more serious than a twisted ankle. “I push as hard as I can,” he said. “Injuries that do happen are largely climber error.”

Some advice is common sense. “If I shout ‘rocks,’ don’t look up,” Taw said at one point. Other guidance is less intuitive. It took me several tries to perfect the double-eight follow-through knot that was tied to my waist and kept me suspended 50 meters, about 165 feet, above the rocky surface later that day as I prepared to rappel downward in a state of extreme fear.

Fear does not seem to be an issue for some expert climbers. Alex Honnold, a 26-year-old Californian, for example, possesses the skill, strength and guts that have allowed him, with no equipment other than a chalk bag and his shoes, to climb some of Yosemite National Park’s most austere granite walls, soaring hundreds of meters straight upward with cracks hardly wide enough for a finger tip to ease him along. This year his feats put him on the cover of National Geographic and he was profiled in a segment on “60 Minutes .”

Another American, Dean Potter, 39, does much the same thing. But after his free solo climbs, he jumps wearing a winged suit that resembles a flying squirrel and parachutes to safety. One of his most harrowing climbs was 2,000 meters up a mountain in Switzerland, followed by a three-minute glide.

For most climbers, though, the action includes much less risk and the goals are much more humble.

As Taw reached adulthood, his parents were divorced and he had no money. He joined the army at 17 for two years and saved some cash. He began university to study sports education but found himself skipping classes and dropped out.

His life took a major turn when he met Josh Morris, a native of Salt Lake City. Mr. Morris had moved to Chiang Mai in 1999 to teach English. He began dating Taw’s sister, Khaetthaleeya Uppakham, a rising star in the Thai climbing scene who competed internationally. In 2002, the couple established Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures , which offers climbing and caving expeditions and classes for individuals and groups.

It wasn’t long before Taw, who had little experience, joined the outfit. Now he’s the head instructor at the school, which employs 20 people. “Climbing has taught me a lot,” he said. “It’s taught me English. It’s taught me to trust equipment. It’s taught me to trust people.”

Mr. Morris initially had hoped to attract more Thais to the sport. But the expense of the sport means it is largely the domain of the upper middle class and beyond the means of many.

Meanwhile, business appears to be booming among the legions of foreigners who live here or pass through on vacations. Gaston Schmitz, 30, moved here more than three years ago and works for a nongovernmental organization. Climbing in his native Netherlands was limited to a wall at the gym, but now he’s a regular at Crazy Horse. “I don’t ever want to go back to plastic,” he said.

Bram Whillock, 28, has been jaunting around the world’s premier rock-climbing locations. He spent time this year in Yangshuo, China, where he had concerns about safety at the climbing sites, and in Kalymnos, Greece, where he said there was little to do except climb and go to the beach.

He prefers Chiang Mai, population about a million, with its numerous temples and active nightlife. “There’s a life here outside of climbing,” he said.

Nearly two years ago, Denali Barron, originally from Colorado, joined the climbing school in Chiang Mai to foster programs with student groups. For her, climbing is a means of gaining confidence, and she equates that initial step over the edge with big changes in life, like starting a new job or living with a family while studying abroad.

My first big step with Taw was a 22-meter climb up and down a vertical wall of rock. It was challenging, but more so psychologically than physically. I was new to the equipment and maintain a healthy fear of heights.

At lunchtime, Taw brought me spicy chicken from a local restaurant and explained how we would be spending the rest of the day: Rappelling down a dark 50-meter shaft into the Anxiety State Crisis Cave, as it is known here. This was where Taw discovered the body of the fallen climber two years ago.

I stood at the top of the precipice harnessed up. Taw explained that he wouldn’t be able to see me after the first few meters and warned that the rock surface would disappear for the last 10 meters, causing me to dangle in the darkness during the final descent.

My palms burst into a cold sweat and I briefly thought I would politely decline the adventure. But I remembered Taw’s words. You have to trust the equipment. You have to trust other people.

I took the plunge. Five minutes later, I found myself at the bottom of the cave thrilled that I hadn’t missed the chance.

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