Climbing the Furnace

A Day at Chiang Mai’s Famed Crazy Horse Crag

4 min read by Dmitri. Published in Essays, Stories.
…He screams; the lactic acid in his extremities is punishing his nervous system, he pushes back. There are only a few moves left. Before long he throws his arm towards the last piece of uneven limestone and clips his final anchor bolts. “Take!” — Maew tightens the rope and he lets go of the rock.

A wall of rock is towering above the jungle an hour’s drive east of Chiang Mai. It’s the rainy season; the air is humid and the sun is often behind clouds. The time is nearing noon.

I am greeted by a friendly black terrier at the parking area; it waves its tail frantically as I pet it for a good ten minutes and settles down to wait for the next set of guests. After some scouting, I load the camera with fresh film and cosy up under a straw gazebo to wait for Alan, an experienced guide and gym manager who agreed to help me photograph the climbers.

Once he arrives, we make our way up the path towards the crag area to meet Chris and Maew — the climbers. Excited to see the rolls of burning incense meant to ward off the pesky mosquitoes I notice a surprising amount of bees in the air. Seeing how their presence doesn’t seem to affect the others, I set the backpack down and prepare my harness, chalk bag, and a set of tight climbing shoes.

Alan helps me with the safety equipment and gives the instructions on how to strap myself to the bolts above.

The air is getting warmer.

I slowly ascend towards the rendezvous point. My confidence in my abilities begins to dwindle as I reach past the height I usually climb at the gym. My forearms hurt and the fingers stiffen. The sun is now out and beaming hard onto my back, I begin to submerge into my own sweat. I get into rest position and generously apply chalk onto profusely perspiring fingers before pushing myself way past my comfort zone towards the bolts which are to secure me to the wall.

At this point, I begin to appreciate the world of difference between the indoor climbing zen and the battle of exposed rock. The heat is insane. The bees are circling around my wet forehead. As it turns out, they love human sweat; I am their giant, roasting popsicle.

I ready the camera and take a few preliminary shots.

Below to my right, Chris begins his ascent of the intensely-graded set of small holds, named “Balance of Power” (5.12a).

Chris’ final move on the “Balance of Power” (5.12a) route.

To a non-climber, a route like this typically requires years of training and would make headlines back in the ‘70s.

The wall is a slight overhang so for the first few minutes I can only hear him grunt as he clings on to pockets the size of a fingertip while reaching across the surface towards the next measly hold. The sounds of snapping safety clips are getting closer; the camera is cocked and ready. I half-wonder whether my exposure will turn out correct in this type of harsh light and if the camera that’s fifty-two-years-old would suddenly crap out from heat, sweat, and dust.

The entire time of climber’s transit through my field of vision lasts less than a minute. As he passes me he screams; the lactic acid in his extremities is punishing his nervous system, he pushes back. There are only a few moves left. Before long he throws his arm towards the last piece of uneven limestone and clips his final anchor bolts. “Take!” — Maew tightens the rope and he lets go of the rock.

My vision blurs as the sweat pushes past my eyebrows and free-flows into the eyes. I pack the camera, gaze down past the floating butterflies and signal the crew that I’m ready to be lowered. I feel the sunburn forming on the top of my shaved head, face and neck.

Down below, Alan is ripping jokes and Maew is getting ready for her turn to ascend the wall. My water, melted chocolates, and warm sandwich taste delicious. I relax and let the bees have their fill of salty human juice.

A few minutes later Maew is climbing, then Alan, then Chris again.

I sit on the ground and consider the climbing culture and the idea of a vacation that involves sweat, strain, danger, collaboration, and discipline. Perhaps, it’s a lot to deal with. Still, as an adult I appreciate the need to replace the complexities and headaches of making a modern living with the enveloping task of progressing up a cliff. Even if just for a weekend.