In 2003 I read an article in Climbing Magazine that highlighted a program the AMGA had developed with rock climbing guides from Cuba. The Cuban guides interned with the industry leading Exum Mountain Guides in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for a summer to learn advanced guiding skills and techniques and then returned to Cuba to continue developing climbing there. When I saw the article I immediately started thinking about how we could do something similar in Thailand. Thailand was on the map for climbing due to the success of Rai Lay throughout the years. It was a popular sport climbing destination and also a stop after Himalayan expeditions. Visiting climbers would often leave their gear behind when they went home and while many international climbers came through, there was little focus on the development of standards and long term personal development potential for guides.
With no existing guiding standard, we set out to elevate the standard of climbing in Thailand, not just for guiding but also for traveling climbers and the many new climbers who would experience climbing for their first time in Thailand. I reached out to the AMGA in 2003 to discuss the idea of a similar program in Thailand. To be frank it wasn’t initially received with much enthusiasm so I started looking at other ways to develop the program. This led to discussions with the Colorado Mountain School in 2004. They were open to the idea of a climbing guide exchange program where we would host a guide from the USA to support the development of our guides and in turn we would ultimately send a guide to CMS to learn and grow with guides in the USA. We started working with our guides to get prepared for such a program which required upgrading our skills and certifications. This also included continuing to develop guiding skills, elevating climbing skills, working to improve English, and getting certified in Wilderness First Aid.
Over the next 5 years, we did just that. We set up a guide exchange program with Insight Adventures in Yangshuo, China where guides from CMRCA and guides from Insight could experience working in a different country and organization. This was an incredible first step to get our team ready for a more international approach. We worked closely with Simon Dilks of Insight Adventures to bring Wilderness Medical Associates (WMA) certification courses to Thailand. We first certified our entire team in Wilderness Advanced First Aid in 2009, later upgrading to Wilderness First Responder and since delivering countless courses to our team and others in the industry. In 2008 we started up conversations with CMS again and were ultimately able to host our first AMGA SPI course at Crazy Horse Buttress in Chiang Mai in November of 2010. Mark Hammond of CMS spent nearly two weeks with our team introducing us to the AMGA SPI (Single Pitch Instructor) program. It was an amazing experience and it set us on a path that would change the lives of all of our guides. Over the next few years, we hosted six SPI courses and six exams with CMS and AMGA climbing guides including IFMGA guide Joey Thompson and CMS Rock Guide Rainbow Weinstock. We also opened the courses beyond our own team to ensure that anyone in the region could have access to such a high level of training.
Throughout the process, guides Suradet Kongsigh (Ooan), Noppadon Uppakham (Taw) and Surachet Kongsingh (Add) all spent more than three months in the USA as part of the exchange program between CMRCA and CMS learning advanced guiding techniques and gaining exposure to climbing and caving in North America. Ooan went first in 2013, Taw in 2014 and Add in 2015. Since then they have each pursued these standards further and been able to help move things to the next level. Surachet (Add) Kongsingh recently became the first SE Asian AMGA Rock Guide in April of 2019 and his twin brother Suradet (Ooan) Kongsingh is not far behind with just one exam remaining. Add has also become the first SE Asian WEMT with WMA and is an instructor of first aid courses with WMA helping to elevate the standard of first response in Thailand and SE Asia. Noppadon (Taw) Uppakham is nearly finished with his pursuit of certification as a rope rescue instructor with Rescue3, an international rope rescue certification. Taw and Add both played a major role in the Thai Cave Rescue putting their skills and training to use during the rescue.
When Kat and I started CMRCA, we always wanted it to be a place where people could grow and develop a career in the outdoors. This was the root of our core values: Think Like A Family and Seek Growth & Development. If we thought like a family then we would always celebrate and support each other’s development and encourage each other to follow our dreams. We built our culture around the lessons of the mountains and have always encouraged everyone in our organization to put themselves out there in an uncertain space to ultimately learn. The Colorado Mountain School and AMGA development program along with WMA, Rescue3 and the CWA have provided a platform where guides could step out of their comfort zone and push their limits to ultimately improve their skills and provide high quality guiding. Today our entire guide team is certified in a number of the above certifications and each of the guides continues to pursue their passion through advanced training and experience in the outdoors.
When we began this practice more than 15 years ago, we never could have imagined just how far it would go. We have been inspired and impressed by the commitment of each member of our guide team as they have each taken further steps to continue their own growth and development continuing in ways we had never even considered. CMRCA remains committed to continue to create a culture of Seeking Growth and Development, developing a community of outdoor & rescue professionals operating at the highest international standards. As we have continued, what was once difficult has now become our standard allowing us to look ahead to the next challenge. It has been a progression, a steady movement to a more advanced state or place. We continue together on that progression as we climb mountains and explore caves and look ahead to continued developing standards and community well into the future.