We head to Crazy Horse Buttress, a rock climbing and caving area outside of Chiang Mai, with equal parts excitement and trepidation.

After being introduced to our guides, Gee and Bus, we split  into two groups. Outfitted with our climbing gear, our team sets out hiking to a set of limestone walls and cliffs where the guides teach us to belay and climb. We spend the next few hours channeling our inner mountain goats as we take turns tenaciously tackling the climbs.

Time flies by with surprising speed as it seems lunch comes  too soon. Our arms and feet agonizingly sore, we return to the point where we first arrived, and ravenously devour our meals.

We then trade in our climbing shoes for safety lines and belay devices and prepare to repel. It is a bit of a hike to the first drop, and the drop itself is not very intimidating at a mere 5 meters. One by one, we repel down the rope and wait for the others.

Soon it is time for the next rope, this time a staggering 50 meter drop into a large cave. I go first, descending into the yawning maw that is the cave. When I reach the bottom, I detach myself from the device and am ushered to the back of the chamber where I will be safe from falling rocks. Realizing I would have a considerable amount of time before the entire group would manage to repel, I decide to occupy myself by precariously stacking rocks into towers and taking pictures of those repelling.

It is amazing what some - myself particularly - will do for just some slight entertainment.

Together once more on the floor of the cave, we hike back to the parking lot to conclude our day.  Heading to a campsite nearby, we pair up and pitch our tents. The rest of the evening is filled with food, card games, yoga, team building exercises, a lesson in Thai given by the guides, and a bonfire.

Everyone is sweaty and exhausted from a long day of climbing and repelling, but none of us dare use the somewhat suspect shower at the campsite.

Gathered around the bonfire, the guides treat us to an interesting Thai snack. We ball sticky rice around the ends of bamboo sticks, and roll the rice in butter, sugar, salt, and coconut cream. The resulting creation is then roasted over the fire, much like a marshmallow, producing an extremely delicious treat.


We sing and play games around the fire but as the night drags on, and our number dwindles as people retire to their tents. The morning yields much excitement, as we prepare for a day of caving.

Once more split into two groups, we head to "the tourist cave" while the other group goes to the caves at Crazy Horse. A spectacular sight can be seen from the tourist cave. Jungle and towns intertwine throughout the valley, while mountains loom in the distance.

Turning from the panorama, there is a staircase leading to the entrance. Gee tells us that it is good luck to count the steps, yet we each come away with a slightly different number. The inside of the cave is both beautiful and saddening. Long ago, stupas, shrines, and statues had been placed within its chambers, and the walls are covered with writing. The impact left by years of human presence in the cave is abundantly clear. Thousands of hands have caused the walls to become dead and barren. Nothing shines in this subterranean space, save for the golden statues, and a single sparkling pillar that would have long ago lost its brilliance had it not been guarded by railings.

We do not spend much more time in the small corpse of what was once a beautiful cavern. Instead, we leave for the main event to be found at Crazy Horse. Gear equipped, we hike to the gate of the vast cavern that we are to explore. A sign at the entrance bids us a friendly, and not at all intimidating, welcome to the 'Anxiety State Crisis' cave.

A short way into the entrance of the cave is a rock shelf that overlooks a dizzying drop into the cave we had abseiled into the day before. On the other end of the shelf is another drop, but this time into darkness. Provided the option between a free hanging, and a rock repel, I elect to travel down with my feet on the stone wall. First inside, and having only a small source of light, it is hard for me to comprehend the immense volume of the chamber. With everyone inside the cave, we quickly eat our lunch and begin our advance to the heart of the cavern. Headlamps ablaze, we can just barely see the limestone walls that surround us. Where the last cave was small and tainted, this cavern is vast and vibrant. The walls, ceiling, and floor are all littered with dazzling white formations of calcified rock. Every corner we turn reveals a new stalactites and stalagmites more spectacular than the last.

At the bottom of one of the largest chambers, we cross paths with the other group, headed out of the cave.

We traverse up and down slippery slopes, wade though subterranean waters, and walk among gargantuan spiders to reach the cave's end.

To our delight, this is just where the real spelunking begins. Gee leads us through narrow passages and tight squeezes that would be dreaded by anyone who is even slightly claustrophobic. The air grows hotter as we descend and our journey is largely without incident. Inside these minuscule passages far from the surface, we are shocked to find multiple crude drawings of Buddha on the walls.

It is here we find the greatest and most simple challenge of the cave, squeezing through a single narrow crack, not more than a few inches wide. Things go smoothly as the first few of our group make it through with relatively little difficulty, but that changes as it becomes Quinn's turn. Halfway through the crack, she becomes stuck and begins to panic. Together we assuage her fears, and with a fair amount of time, and a large amount of effort, she gets through. I am the final person to attempt the squeeze, and am considerably nervous since I'm a bit larger than Quinn. Unsurprisingly, I too become wedged in place, unable to fit through the small crack. I refuse to give up and manage to squeak through with a good amount of time and effort. With the hardest part over, we return to where we first repelled into the cave, and one by one climb back up to the shelf. Once again overlooking the gaping pit that we repelled into previously, we zip line across the expanse, and free repel all the way down.

Finally gathered again at the bottom of the well lit chamber, we walk out the exit and onto the next adventure.

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Author Mark Cossette Posted

Program Southeast Asia Departure Spring 2017