On a cliff with Josh Morris

Josh Morris, who through his company, Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures (CMRCA) has transformed and grown the rock climbing community in the Northern Thailand.

By | Mon 1 Jun 2015

Let’s get something straight: Josh Morris is much more than a climber. But for him, climbing is where it all began, the catalyst that would lead to much, much more.

When we first meet, I have to force him to don his sunglasses, I just couldn’t recognise him from his pictures online. He laughs, retrieves them from his bag, and the image fits. This is the founder of Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures (CMRCA), an organisation that has transformed Chiang Mai into a climbing destination sought out by adventurers from all over the world.

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“To be honest, I don’t remember too much about my first climb,” Josh admits, “But, it was with my brother, Dan. He’s a hero and mentor to me. I just remember being psyched and scared at the same time, excited to be on the rope but also exposed, and I remember I was able to climb pretty well, and I really fell in love with climbing from that point on.”

Now 39, Josh was already in his later years of highschool in Salt Lake City Utah, a late age to be entering into the climbing world for most climbers, but Josh started training at facilities with world class climbers. He made it his mission to learn techniques from the best.

“Climbing is unique in that it requires a tremendous amount of mental focus, mindfulness and also physical ability, and it has this ability to throw challenge and difficulty right in my face. It really forces me to deal with my innermost self.”

Rock climbing obviously has its physical challenges, but many climbers struggle immensely with the mental aspects as well. “Often in climbing when I get into the zone and am able to be totally present I forget about the protection points and even climb past them not realising I am already there. To me, this is the most addictive part of climbing. It so clearly teaches me every time that if I don’t focus too much on where I have been and let go of attachment to the outcome, I will ultimately have success.“

Josh followed his own advice and let go of all attachment to his home when he moved to Thailand in 1999, a decision that would change his life forever.

He wasted no time, and threw himself into Thai lessons enthusiastically. As his knowledge of Thai culture and language increased, so did his love of Chiang Mai, and then, a waitress named Kat.

“I took her climbing on one of our first dates. I put her on a 6a+ route,” (a widely used French system to scale climb difficulty starting at 1 and ending at 9b+, the current max difficulty)“She didn’t fall, and displayed really natural technique. She had never climbed before that day.” They formed an incredibly tight bond, and have since welcomed their lovely daughter Kamine, their first child.

He spent the weeks teaching English and the weekends climbing with Kat. Eventually, he caught the eye of the future owner of The Peak, who was in the process of building Chiang Mai’s first climbing wall in the Night Bazaar.

Seeing Josh’s enthusiasm for the sport and his willingness to train others, the owner brought him on as a manager.

The Peak gave Josh full time access to the climbing community and it wasn’t long before Josh and other climbers set their sights on the surrounding mountains, and began to set off on what Josh calls “bolting trips,” excursions forging permanent climbing routes around Chiang Mai, in particular, a secluded,ragged tower of limestone south of the city known as Crazy Horse Buttress.

As Josh began to gain more and more experience guiding and working with people, his attitude towards the sport began to shift. He suddenly felt out of place in a position that had changed to translating and selling tickets to guided tours. He began to have visions of an outdoor community that was much more than climbing—he saw a community that grew together, educated each other, and progressed towards something bigger than an adrenaline rush. His vision ultimately began to drift from The Peak, and they respectably parted ways.

Later, after a brief stint in the US saving money and climbing competitively, Josh and Kat found themselves back in Chiang Mai scratching out quite possibly the most endearing business plan ever, on a napkin, copied from businessplans.com.

In 2002, Josh and Kat’s brave napkin plan manifested into a real business, and Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures was born.

The Crag

Crazy Horse Buttress is a blackened limestone conglomeration protruding from a dry nest of bamboo around 40 kms southwest of Chiang Mai. It’s an oppressively hot day and Josh and Kat have kindly offered me a personalised tour of the rock, and as we pull in, the eroded stone likeness of a horse peers down at us from the ridge above, the heat encasing it in a blurry aura.

We park our car at the base of the crag and emerge into the stifling heat, extracting our gear from the trunk. University students mill around the parking lot, rummaging through their bags, adjusting the straps of their climbing harnesses and filling up water bottles.

The group had travelled from Yew Chung International School Shanghai, one of the many international schools from all over the world that tour through Crazy Horse for CMRCA’s take on a climbing tour; a wholesome mixture of climbing, caving, geography, geology, cultural immersion and team building promoting wellness and mindfulness through a variety of experiences designed by Josh and the CMRCA team. Dispersed amongst the crowd are CMRCA guides in green Dri-Fit shirts rounding up students and answering questions.

“These are our guys,” Josh remarks admiringly. “Some of them have been with us since the beginning. We’ve got a great team.”

Crazy Horse was initially developed in 1998 and had only a handful of routes, but today boasts around 200 routes with something for all skill levels. The bolting trips that began with Josh and his friends expanded to elaborate expeditions carried out by CMRCA members and funded by crowd sourcing.
Today, due to the effort and passion of the local climbing community, Crazy Horse is regarded as one of the most user friendly and safest crags in the world.

With that notoriety comes international attention, and Crazy Horse sees more than its share of guided tours and independent climbers. The community around Crazy Horse, however, is determined to make Crazy Horse an operation conscious of its natural environment and the local community. The result has become a model to the international climbing community on how to treat a climbing destination with respect and to eliminate the risk of becoming a jungle gym surrounded by smoothie factories and guest houses. The land has become an educational institution of sorts, an example of how to interact with an ecosystem while preserving it and how to intersect with the local community in a positive way.

“The last thing you want in a beautiful wilderness area is to suddenly have all of this infrastructure, because it changes it. That’s why we don’t operate a guest house or anything, we just operate guiding. We buy food locally. When we need to stay out here we stay in different places. We want everyone to have a say.”

Kat checks my gear, making sure I have the essentials for the climb. We pack a couple of backpacks, hydrate, and set off.

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The Cave

Not far from the trail entrance we arrive at the opening of a cave and break for a few drinks of water. Josh stands at the mouth and looks out over the trees.

“All of this used to be an ancient coral reef,” he explains, tracing the horizon with his hand, “over millions of years you have all of this organic material that gets compacted, and that’s what eventually creates limestone.” He turns around to the inside of the cave and places a hand on the side of the cave wall. “So, I like to tell kids that they’re standing on millions of dead bodies,” he laughs. “The stalactites from the cave ceiling and stalagmites from the floor, those are all the result of tiny amounts of moisture seeping through the porous rock.” Josh points to a large stalactite emitting form the cave ceiling, “this one took thousands, hundreds of thousands of years, but this one here,” he says gesturing to a tiny finger of stone poking out of the rock besides a cluster of large stalactites, “that one could be only as old as you are.”

From the cave entrance led a wide tunnel, and from there was a brief climb to a rock shelf overlooking an immense chamber. A cool breeze flowed through the moist air.

“Feel that? That’s the cave breathing,” Josh explained. “You get these great movements of air from the warm air entering the cave and rising up through the openings in the top, and vice versa.”

A powerful stream of sunlight burst through a large hole in the cave ceiling, illuminating a chasm of beautiful rock formations fading from grey to turquoise and dark purple, the ceiling decorated with ancient clusters of hanging stalactites glimmering like natural chandeliers in the sunlight. Opposite our vantage point, a green shirted CMRCA member perched on a jagged hanging curtain of stone, a brightly coloured set of ropes ran from the rock shelf where we stood across the dark expanse to the climber.

“That’s Taw, our head guide. He’s going to help us get across and repel down. This is great, we don’t usually get to do this but we have it all set up for the university, Taw will be set up here helping every kid get over and down.”
Fastening myself to the taut rope, I have only to trust the equipment and Josh’s certainty that I’ve been hooked up correctly. My feet leave the earth and I glide smoothly on the steel pulleys through the dark, cool void of the cave, the chasm extending nearly 20 metres below me, and before I have enough time to freak out, Taw is clipping me onto a new rope to descend to the cave floor with Kat attentively belaying from below.

The Furnace

“Straighten your arms out!” Josh yells from the bottom of the cliff face. “If you bend your arms you’re using just your biceps, you’ll get tired real quick!”

I am dangling from the edge of The Furnace, a section of the Crazy Horse Buttress with a rather appropriate nickname due to its reputation of becoming incredibly hot in the sun. I’ve just blown my arms out trying out a new clamping technique that Josh showed me at the bottom of the cliff, and I’m barely hanging on as gravity tries relentlessly to cause me to lose my grip.

I let out a scream of frustration that echoes through the ravine, met by Josh and Kat’s laughter at the bottom. To them this is all good fun, and their laughter calms me down. I exhale, my breath blowing puffs of chalky dust from the rock face. I plant my feet, let my weight fall onto my legs, and let my arms straighten out locking at the elbows.

“There you go!” Josh exclaims encouragingly. “Always have good footing first. If you don’t have good footing you’re not going anywhere. This is the hardest part. Once you get past it it’s all beautiful holds from there!”
“You’ve got this!” Kat yells from below.

Power flows back into my arms. With my feet firmly planted, I have only to elongate my body enough to reach with my left hand while balancing on my right foot and make the stretch to a beautiful hold and get out of this mess. I go for it, my fingertips just grazing the intended hold, and I fall, my weight snapping the rope tight as Josh belays from below. I let my body hang limp in the harness, my head drops back, my arms throbbing and the sun beating down on me, I swing side to side beside the cliff face, a pendulum of failure.

“You had it man, your form was great,” Josh says from below. “That’s the hardest part. It takes some people months to do this one. Don’t worry about it.”

After a brief rest, I give it another go. Cramping the tiny holds that Josh prepped me for and making the leap beyond the tiny rock shelf into a beautiful array of holds that I ascend with ease to the top. “Comin’ down!” I yell, and victoriously repel into the dry golden nettles, a sweaty, smelly, smiley, mess.

Crazy Horse had definitely delivered. After hours of climbing and caving I had experienced hardly any of what the crag had to offer, but for today, my arms swollen and stomach in desperate need of some lunch, that was enough.

After packing up Kat, Josh and I descended from the furnace back into the lot, following a cleared path through the jungle.

“Look at that!” Josh points out to Kat, both of them twirling around and peering back at the cliff face, “that cave is totally exposed now.”

The uncharted cave, a dark black eye peering at us from the side of the crag, was now made visible due to decaying bamboo that had previously cloaked the entrance, the result of a widespread flowering and death of the giant grass that occurs at infrequent intervals.

“I had totally forgotten about it,” remarks Josh.“That’s going to be a great cave.”

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Header photo by Josh Morris.