Wedged in a dark, narrow cavern several dozen meters (I think?) Below ground with just enough room to rotate my head from one side to the other, choking on thick dusty air permeated with bat poop and flies, I continued to crawl, dragging my belly and knees forward one small movement at a time all the while thinking to myself:
“This is awesome”
In June 2021 I was fortunate to join several of my CMRCA colleagues and the budding “Chiang Mai Caving Club” on one of their surveying expeditions in Takkatan Cave (ถ้ำตั๊กแตน) in Hang Dong District, Chiang Mai. For most of the Chiang Mai Climbing Club members this was a fairly unexceptional caving trip, in and out in one afternoon, no need to use any rope access techniques, and only visiting areas of the cave they had previously explored. However, for me this would be my first time exploring beyond some of the larger, more open caverns in Takkatan cave, and my first time experiencing the thrill of being in extraordinarily confined spaces for hours at a time. While this trip ended up being one of my last adventurous outings during my tenure at Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures, my experience in Takkatan cave actually does a pretty good job at summarising my time with this organisation. There were many firsts during my three and half years with CMRCA, and a lot of those firsts involved stepping boldly into unknowns with limited experience, uncertainty about what lay ahead, and a healthy dose of anxiety and excitement.
I really had no idea where my time with CMRCA would take me, and at first I actually had very different plans for how I thought things would turn out. I had been living and teaching English in Thailand for about three years, and was getting to the point that many expats get to after grinding away on the teaching English as a second language circuit.
“Where is this going? What am I doing with my life? Should I go home and go back to school? How much longer do I want to keep doing this?”
These were the questions going through my mind, and as I considered whether or not I should leave behind the comfortable but ultimately unfulfilling life I had made for myself in Thailand, a unique opportunity presented itself. I had been rock climbing in Chiang Mai for about two years at this point, and during that time had become acquainted with several CMRCA staff members who I would see at Crazy Horse almost every weekend either with tourists on guiding trips, or with groups of kids on climbing and caving outings. I poked and prodded, asking around how I could get involved with these guys who always seemed to be having a great time teaching others to do something that I loved: climbing! One thing led to the next and I was given the opportunity to start doing some training with CMRCA so that I could help them out as a freelance instructor on some of their outings.
What started out as a side gig to my teaching became something that I considered could be a new path to me. “Maybe I should become a climbing guide!”, I thought. The idea of telling my friends back home that I was living as a climbing guide in Thailand seemed pretty cool, and so I enrolled in the next SPI (single pitch instructor) and WFR (Wilderness Advanced First Aid) courses offered through CMRCA, and got myself positioned to become a climbing guide.
“Finally, I’ve got a little bit of direction in life”,
I thought and I can milk this cool new skill set for the next few years and see where it takes me. At least that was the plan until sometime in late December, 2019 before I was set to start full-time as an apprentice climbing instructor I was offered an alternative. There was a need for more native English speaking staff to join the small Group Programs team at CMRCA as the number of outdoor education programs with mostly international schools around Asia and the United States was growing. At this point, I was aware of this side of the business as I had freelanced on several camps already, but I had not considered what it would be like to work “behind the scenes” and support in putting the trips together. This would mean spending more time in the office, and less time out in the field, and would be a total 180 from my original plan to pursue becoming a climbing guide. I considered the options, and although I had been excited to see where guiding could take me, I recognised that there was likely more long term growth potential with the administrative role, and would likely lead to more opportunities down the road.
Despite my initial hesitation to take an “office job”, I quickly realised that I had made the right choice as the outdoor education industry was opened up to me and I discovered just how much I enjoyed this type of work. While I did spend much of my time in the office, in the process of planning, designing, and delivering outdoor education programs I was awarded lots of opportunities to travel around Thailand, get out into the field, and explore plenty of adventurous places. Furthermore, the office work presented a whole host of new adventures as I learned more and more about business, leadership, and was given more opportunities to lead and take on more responsibility within the organisation.
While the work at CMRCA was exciting, it was almost never easy. Whether it was learning a new rope system, adopting a new business process, or managing an outdoor education camp with 100+ international students there was never any shortage of challenges.
Depending on your perspective, one of the advantages of working with a small and dynamic outdoor education firm / climbing gym / outdoor equipment distributor / technical services provider is that there is at least a lot of variety in the problems you face! One of the important lessons I learned early on in my career is that work, life, and anything worth pursuing for that matter is really just a series of problems that need to be solved. The trick is not to avoid or eliminate problems from your life, but rather to place yourself in a position to be working on problems that you have a desire to solve. As with any business, working with CMRCA presented a lot of problems, but I can honestly say that more often than not I was excited and eager to be given the responsibility to tackle those problems while seeking new and sustainable solutions.
Stuck in a dark hole deep underground in Takkatan Cave, uncertain of where I was going, I was grateful to be with people I trust and for the trust they put in me.
I was a little scared, a little excited, but confident it was all going to work out. Working with CMRCA has given me so much, and awarded me with so many wonderful memories, skills, and opportunities that I’m not sure I would have gotten had I not been a part of the CMRCA family. While this sort of environment might not sound appealing to everyone, with the support of my colleagues and a skilled team at my side I learned to thrive off of challenging situations and revel in the opportunities they present. When things that once seemed frightening become the norm, then real growth has occurred, and it’s time to find the next challenge, the next route to send, or the next cave to explore.
Thank you to everyone at CMRCA who pushed me, comforted me, supported me, grew alongside me, and above all made my experience in the CMRCA family one of the most truly valuable experiences of my life this far.