Love hurts. Particularly when that love is rock climbing. By the end of Saturday, I was covered in bruises, scratches, and had a pocket full of bloody tissues. But, like any dysfunctional relationship, the more it pushed me away, the more determined I was to try to make it work.
Before my trip to Thailand, I’d never climbed outside. When I lived in DC, I went to an indoor climbing gym and quickly fell head over heels for the amazing athleticism the sport required. Unfortunately, I devoted very little time to attaining this athleticism because I spent most of my climbing sessions staring in awe at the people effortlessly crawling UPSIDE DOWN ACROSS THE CEILING. Wtf. Seriously. Like Spiderman.
In Chiang Mai, for 3,000 Baht, you can pay for a one-day course in outdoor rock climbing. Or you can find a nice Polish rock climber who is in such desperate need of a partner he will willingly take a beginner for free. It happened that I was lucky enough to come across just such a desperate Polish rock climber at a Couchsurfing meetup last week.
We headed out by motorbike for the 45-minute drive to Crazy Horse Buttress. The area is part of a mountain that looks like someone shaved off the greenery to reveal sheer tan and black cliffs. It’s named after a rock formation at the top that resembles a horse. But, after looking at it, I just referred to it as No Way in Hell l Can Climb That Buttress.
Tomek asked if I wanted to start off in the cave. I quickly agreed as that sounded amazing … and closer to the ground.
We walked through a narrow entryway that opened up into a huge cavern. Light filtered in beautifully from a few open spaces.
Tomek would lead climb – where you attach the rope as you go – and then secure it at the top, so I could climb after. Belaying for a lead climber is different than what I’d done at the gym. He gave me a quick lesson, but I could tell we were both a little nervous about my lack of experience.
The ropes at the gym are attached to a device that take some of the climber’s weight, but here almost all of my strength was required to hold him if he fell … and I didn’t exactly have a lot to spare.
He was about fifteen feet off the ground, when he turned to ask me something. Then he slipped. His full weight came down and sent me flying forward, swinging into the rock. For a moment, we were suspended in the air on either end of the rope.
My side was scraped, toe was bleeding, and we were both a little dazed.
He laughed a bit because I think he was relieved to find that even flying through the air, I wasn’t going to let him plummet to his death. I laughed at bit because I didn’t really have a better reaction for flying face first into a rock wall.
But I felt that was Nature’s way of clarifying where we stood. Neither of us was entirely sure I was ready to be there. It’s easy to feel like I’d accomplished something in a cushy, air-conditioned gym, but this was an entirely different experience.
We made it through our first few climbs without incident (aside from me realizing how much outdoor climbing involved willingly sticking my hand into dark spaces) and decided to move back to the mountain.
Tomek took me to a harder route and told me I might have difficulty finishing it. Of course, my figuratively bruised ego (and literally bruised side) decided I had something to prove after my pitiful belaying earlier.
He’d finished the route in less than ten minutes. At twenty minutes, I was still only halfway up, stuck at part that jutted away from the wall. I tried and fell. And fell. And fell. My knee throbbed as I kept accidentally slamming it into the rocks next to me. Finally, sheer frustration trumped my lack of strength and I pulled myself over the ledge. After all that, I’d managed to place myself about 10 inches further up the wall. And that’s how I continued up. Graceless with sweat running into my eyes.
I finally reached the top and actually paused to look around me. I’d cleared the tree line and for 180 degrees I had an unadulterated view of the blue-green mountains and fields unfolding around me. I had the feeling that I had conquered something. No, not conquered. That I’d been let in. That it said OK, you’ve given enough. You’re bruised and bloody and scared. You’ve earned the right to be here.
I hated the rocks for cutting me, for constantly rejecting me, and for making me put my hands in holes with spiders. But I was in love with the rocks for letting me be here and see this.
Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the spectacular view at the top because my fingers were otherwise occupied with a death-grip on the wall. While my relationship with climbing is getting serious, we’re still working on the trust portion of things …