Team: Mark Synnott, Jared Ogden, Jon Catto When: March-April 2003 Where: Pakaraima Mountains, Guyana Sponsor: National Geographic Expeditions Council
“How the hell are we gonna get up this?” I say to Jared, as we gaze up a chimney completely coated in mud, slime and sopping wet beards of moss. “No idea,” replies Jared, shaking his head, “but it isn’t going to be pretty.” I peel back a sheet of moss, hoping to find a crack, but the crumbly, waterlogged sandstone breaks away in my hand like clay. The only possible piece of protection is a bromeliad sticking out of the wall 30 feet overhead — and it’s nothing to get too fired up about. We’ve already sniffed out every possible alternative to this nightmare pitch. The grim reality is that this is the line of least resistance. We either scrap our way up it, or go home.
Trying my best to ignore the huge drop below our feet, I grab a handful of vines and give them a good yank. They appear to be solid, so I start batmanning up like I’ve seen done in the movies. It goes well for about ten feet, when suddenly the vines blow. I hit the tiny ledge where I started a second later. Made of little more than vegetation, it springs under my weight, causing me to tip over backwards. I’m just about to take a career ending plunge, when Jared grabs me by the back of the harness. “Jesus, dude,” he exclaims, “that was too close.”
Jared’s attempt to lead the dreaded pitch is equally futile. The fact is, we’re totally out of our element here in the Amazon jungle of Guyana. Thankfully, though, we’re not alone. For the past thirty minutes, our Amerindian guides have been kicking back, thoroughly enjoying the show. But when they realize that Jared and I have been completely denied, the strongest of the crew, a 40 year old named Edward, offers to have a go.
Showing a lizard-like intuition for how to move across steep, poorly bonded vegetation, Edward scratches his way up to a small stance thirty feet above us. He slings the bromeliad, then contemplates the next section: 20 feet of slightly overhanging dirt headwall. He must have done this before, because with little hesitation, he snakes his arms into the dirt, feeling beneath the surface for roots to pull on. Soon, I can barely stand to watch as Edward dangles from dirt arm jams, his feet flailing. Every few moves he looks down at us with eyes the size of tea saucers. And I can’t help but wonder: who’s more terrified, him or me? After all, the static line tied to his harness leads directly to my belay device. My anchor consists of little more than a prayer and a few small twigs.
———————————————————————————————————— My dream of climbing a tepui began more than ten years ago when I came across an article in the May 1989 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The story, entitled “Venezuela’s Islands in Time,” captured my imagination with its photos of huge, virgin rock walls soaring above a remote, mysterious jungle. Tepuis, I learned, are the remnants of a sandstone plateau that once covered an area of roughly 200,000 square miles in the heart of the Amazon. Over millions of years, erosion wore down this plateau and left about 100 table-topped rock spires sticking out of the jungle. The sheer cliffs ringing them range in size from 1000-3000 feet high and extend in some places for miles at a stretch. These giant walls have isolated the plant and animal life on the tepui summits from the surrounding jungle. For scientists, the summits of these formations represent a treasure-house where countless new species have been discovered. For climbers, the tepuis represent some of the biggest — yet least explored — rock walls on the planet.
The challenge was how to take an idea and turn it something I could actually grab onto. The crux usually seems to revolve around money. Since I don’t have much to spare, my first order of business is always to find a sponsor. While chatting with a friend at National Geographic Television, a plan was hatched. What if I were to climb a tepui with scientists who could study the vertical cliff environment? Many scientists, traveling by helicopter, have studied the tepui summits, but no one had ever studied the plant and animal life of the actual cliffs themselves.
People liked the idea, and in 2001 I received a grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council, to climb and study a tepui in Venezuela called Auyuan — home of Angel Falls, the world’s biggest waterfall. My research revealed that the overhanging El Cap-sized wall next to the falls is the single biggest piece of rock in the Amazon. So of course, I wanted to climb it.
The grant was contingent upon receiving a permit from the Venezuelan government, and as I soon found out, these are hardly, if ever, given out. Simply put, the Venezuelan’s don’t want to see the tepuis overrun by climbers. You can sneak in and climb them (as some people have), but you might as well forget about trying to get permission. The Ministry of the Environment, however, left the door slightly open by saying that on rare occasions, they did make exceptions for expeditions with an important scientific mission. Jesus Rivas, the Venezuelan biologist I recruited for the team, was confident that we would find new species of flora and fauna on the tepui walls. He prepared a detailed scientific proposal, but the ministry was unwilling to make a commitment one way or the other. It certainly didn’t help matters that the country was on the verge of civil war. By February of 2003, we had already postponed the trip twice, and it looked like we’d have to do so once again.
My tepui dreams were spiraling down the drain, so I got out the maps and had a close look at the area. The Pacaraima Mountains, which contain the tepuis, span an area that covers portions of not just Venezuela, but Guyana and Brazil as well. That’s when I recalled the British team that climbed a tepui called Roraima back in the early 70s. Hamish MacInnes wrote a well known account of the successful ascent, called Climb to the Lost World. Roraima, I discovered, lies directly on the common border shared by Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil. In fact, there’s a via-ferrate on the Venezuelan side, which leads to the summit and the so-called Triple Point where the three countries meet. The Venezuelans weren’t about to let me put up a route on their side of the formation, but perhaps, I thought, the Guyanese might be willing to deal.
The internet is an amazing tool. Within 24 hours, I had my proposal in front of the President of Guyana. He convened a cabinet meeting to discuss the trip, and the Minister of Tourism made an impassioned plea for our permit to be granted immediately. Guyana has long been overshadowed by its bigger, more powerful neighbors, and this trip represented the chance to give their tourism industry some badly needed publicity. After years of dealing with Venezuelan red tape, I found myself, within 48 hours of asking, with an official permit to climb Roraima from the Guyanese side.
Mad scrambling to completely reinvent the trip ensued. The producer with whom I’d been working got transferred to a different show, and I found myself in the hands of a new guy named Peter Getzels. Peter quickly brought on board three new people besides himself: his assistant Charlotte Mangin, biologist Bruce Means, and Mareya Mayor – correspondent of NGTV’s new show called Ultimate Explorer. Almost immediately, Peter came up with a new plan. Mareya would lead an advanced team to a base camp near the mountain. They would cut a heli pad, then Jared and I would fly in from the capital. “This way,” he said, “you and Jared can save your strength for the wall.” More importantly, it would give him a chance to develop Mareya’s character.
I wasn’t happy with this new plan at all, because it meant that I’d miss the long and adventurous trek through the jungle. And flying around in Guyana’s only working chopper sounded pretty sketchy. In fact, I would be sitting at home for a week while the “A Team” laid the foundation for the expedition. This didn’t seem right, considering that I had been working on this project for years, while these others had only recently become involved. Peter and I discussed the issue at length, and I quickly realized that he wasn’t taking no for an answer. And since NGTV was contributing a large sum, it was really his call to make.
The “B Team,” consisting of myself, Jared Ogden, and cameraman Jon Catto, got stuck in Georgetown for four days. We had been waiting for the A-team to call in their GPS coordinates on their sat phone. When that crackly call finally came through, the news was not good: the A team had forgotten their GPS. All they could tell us was that they were located approximately three miles northeast of the Prow — “near a waterfall.”
The flight into Roraima with the Guyana Defense Force took about two hours. We flew right above the jungle beneath a thick blanket of clouds. When we finally arrived in the valley below the east face of Roraima, we couldn’t see the peak at all through the clouds, but we knew where it was from the dozens of immense waterfalls that poured down a steep, vegetated cliff band. The local Amerindians have long held the belief that no white man can ever see Roraima cloud free, and so far this was bearing out. We flew around the cirque for more than an hour, but there was no sign of the other group.
That night we stayed in the closest village, called Wyaline, which sits perched on the lip of a 500-foot cliff. The mood in the village was festive because the locals are not accustomed to white guys dropping out of the sky in crazy flying machines. Surrounded by the 50 or so inhabitants of Wyaline, Jared, Jon and I discussed our options. Tomorrow we would try to find the A team, but no one was holding out much hope. We laughed about the fact that they were near a waterfall. We had flown by hundreds of waterfalls — they were literally everywhere.
The next morning we set off early. We had decided that if we couldn’t find the other group during this second flight, we’d rap out of the chopper into the canopy and go for the climb on our own. The sun was poking through the clouds, lighting up patches of the jungle with dazzling shafts of light. The visibility was better than the day before, but this only made our prospects even more depressing. Looking out the window of the chopper I could see green waves of jungle spreading out from us in every direction. The ground was rugged and dotted with waterfalls pouring over sparkling green cliffs. We were about to wave our pilot, Major Mike Charles, off the search, when he spotted a small speck of blue below us. Straining my eyes, I suddenly saw tiny people jumping up and down at the edge of an emerald green pool…below a waterfall.
As soon as Charles saw the landing zone, he became visibly nervous. “We may drop a bit as we come in,” he told us, hovering over the small opening in the canopy. “This is normal, PLEASE, do not panic.” Through the window I could see the blades whipping within inches of the limbs of 150-foot tall old growth tk trees. Spray from the waterfall doused the helicopter as Charles hovered down to within a few feet of the ground. We tossed out our bags and jumped into the jungle. Suddenly, the helicopter was gone and we were shaking hands with the A team, none of whom I had ever met before. Mareya, hair flying in the wind from the falls, exclaimed, “You boys sure know how to make an entrance.” Needless to say, it made for great television.
The rest of the group had spent the past week hacking a trail across 50 miles of pristine, unexplored jungle. Everyone’s clothes were caked in mud, and their eyes had that glassy, worn out look of someone who’s endured an intense trial. Their camp hidden back in the trees could have easily been mistaken for a small village. Accompanying them were 45 joggers — Amerindian porters who were carrying the loads in homemade baskets called warishis. Peter quickly informed me of a major impending catastrophe: there was at most two days of food left in camp. Somehow, 800 pounds of food had been left behind in Georgetown. As I stepped into camp, I noticed several of the joggers packing up to leave.
The expedition was imploding before my eyes. After years of working to make this trip happen, I wasn’t about to watch it fail. I scrambled out to a clearing and put a sat phone call through to the outfitter. Luckily, my phone was working much better than the A-team’s, and I was able to arrange for Charles to fly in the much needed food.
That night we had a meeting with our two head Guyanese guides, Frank Singh, and Rafael Downes. They were able to convince most of the joggers that food was on its way, but several weren’t willing to take our word on it, and they left. The line cutters were headed up by Rafael, a tall, sinewy bushmen who quickly made it clear that he was the boss. I wasn’t about to challenge him. He looked like he could easily rip my head off without the slightest effort. Raf and his crew had already advanced the trail up to a ridge at 5000 feet elevation where he proposed we establish our base camp. The next morning we set off shortly after sunrise. We forded a raging river directly below the falls, then struggled up a crude trail through jungle that became increasingly thick and chaotic as we gained elevation.
When we arrived on the ridge that afternoon, Bruce Means was already there. He had found a small clearing with a view of Roraima’s east face. Until this moment, no one on the expedition had even caught a glimpse of the mountain which is almost always hidden in a dense cloak of rain coulds. Peering through a window in the canopy, we could clearly see Roraima rising above the jungle like a colossal, orange-streaked battleship. Immense waterfalls poured from the lip, falling 1500 feet to the jungle below. On the north end of the formation rose the Prow, an overhanging buttress where the east and west faces meet. Since the British ascent in 1971, the wall had been attempted a couple times, but no one else had succeeded in even reaching the base.
Jared and I scoped the wall with binoculars and several things became immediately apparent. For starters, it was radically overhanging, perhaps more so than any other cliff we had ever seen. And there were no obvious crack systems. Another serious problem was the section of ridge between us and the base. On either side of it, towering vegetated walls stretched east and west into Guyana and Venezuela, respectively. In spots the ridge was vertical, covered in vegetation, and less than three feet wide.
The next morning Jared, Jon and I set out from base camp with Rafael and his three most reliable line cutters: Edward, Franklin and Harris. It had been decided, after long debate, that the A team would rest in camp while we pushed the trail ahead to the base of the cliff. Edward led us along an imperceptible trail marked by “kaypins” (cut marks on old tree trunks) that eventually funneled us into a nearly vertical, mud-coated water groove. We tied a rope around Edward’s waist and sent him up. When he reached a sturdy root, he fastened the rope so the rest of us could Bat Man up. In several places we were forced to climb what Rafael referred to as “tacouba” — dead trees that had fallen against the wall. Edward led the way by hacking steps into the trunks with his razor sharp machete.
———————————————————————————————————– By late afternoon, the five of us sit holding our breath as Edward clings desperately to the dirt headwall. Frantically kicking his feet into the dirt, he suddenly burrows head first into the back of a four-foot cornice of turf and matted vines. Soon he disappears entirely into the slope, and the silence is abruptly broken by a triumphant scream that echoed across the rain forest.
“Holy s—t!” says Jared, as we high five each other. “That’s got to be the sickest pitch I’ve ever seen.” We follow Edwards lead with difficulty. By the time the last man is up, all of the good vines and hummocks are stripped from the wall. Several more loads, plus the A team, will ultimately have to come up this same way. Our solution is a system of ladders constructed with small lengths of wood and the Guyanese static line. The ladders work perfectly, but the joggers still aren’t satisfied. Raf pulls me aside and says, with a heavy Caribbean accent: “Marko, we need white rope.” Somehow, these guys have figured out that we have real kernmantle rope back in camp. I look at the other joggers and they smile and sing out in unison: “white rope, white rope.”
That night, back in base camp, we retire to our hammocks with a Nalgene bottle of scotch. It rains so hard that small rivers course the mud beneath us. Strung beneath a sturdy tarp, snug and secure in our sleeping bags, we pass around the bottle, letting the magic of the jungle, and the alcohol, seep into our veins.
Early the next morning, we set off with packs containing white rope, our climbing and camping gear, plus a bit of food. We don’t realize it at the time, but it’ll be the last we ever set eyes on base camp. After fixing some strands of the precious white rope on the steepest sections, we move onto the crest of an impossibly narrow ridge. Thousand-foot drop-offs yawn on either side of us, so everyone is extra vigilant in testing the plant material. As we work our way upwards, Harris, Edward and Franklin hack at the thick jungle with their machetes, in an attempt to create, at least temporarily, the semblance of a trail. It’s obvious that this is the only possible route the British could have used, but apart from the occasional kaypin, time has erased any sign of their passage.
When night falls, we search for a place to string our hammocks. We’re now in the jungle alpine zone at 6500 feet, and the only trees we can find are scrawny, wind stunted, and barely strong enough to keep us a few inches off the ground. Everyone is extremely dehydrated from a hard day of bushwhacking. We only carried enough water for the day, assuming we’d find some kind of stream wherever we bivouacked. By headlamp, I stagger through the bush, poking my head into every nook and cranny I can find (Jesus later told me this is a great way to get bit by a Fer de Lance, a deadly poisonous snake, endemic to the area). Everything is saturated with water, yet there is no drinkable liquid to be found anywhere.
Actually, this isn’t quite true — the bromeliad’s that blanket the ground are chock full of water. I dump one into my bottle and then illuminate the contents with my headlamp. The water is thick, soupy, and teeming with millions of tiny worms. “Who’s got the water filter?” asks Jared. Jon and I look at each other and realize that we’ve left this important item back in camp. The best we can come up with is Jon’s dirty handkerchief, but even after filtering it through the cloth several times, there are still thousands of worms in the water. This is when I suddenly pull forth one of the few kernels of knowledge I’ve retained from school. “If these were parasitic worms, wouldn’t there have to be some kind of host organism in this environment?” I ask, hopefully.
“There don’t seem to be too many large animals around,” replies Jared, so I cross my fingers and take a big swig of the worm water. Jared and Jon do the same, and we follow it up with a meal of cold Guyanese corned beef, straight out of the can.
Shortly after we crawl into our hammocks, a violent thunderstorm bursts out of the sky. A hard rain pounds against our flimsy fly sheets. The wind blows so hard that my hammock rocks back and forth as if I was aboard a ship, lashing me with rain each time I swing out from under my tarp. I wake up after a fitful night to Rafael yelling: “Get up you guys. You’ve got to see this sunrise.” It’s bitterly cold as I slip my feet into wet, muddy boots and hobble out of the troll forest. The storm has broken, and the two-mile-long eastern escarpment of Roraima is glowing deep red, as if illuminated from within like a jack-o-lantern. Titanic waterfalls pour from the rim, free falling into dark, mysterios chasms. Clouds swirl above the dense green jungle, billowing around us and periodically cutting off all visibility. It’s easy to see and feel why this peak is regarded as a place of magic by the local Indians, who call it “the mother of all waters.”
The last 400 vertical feet to the base of the wall involves some of the hardest going that I’ve ever experienced. The jungle is tilted at a consistent 60-70 degrees and covered in a thick layer dead wood. At first, I try climbing on top, but my arms and legs keep continuously break through the mat into jungle crevasses that grind my shins and forearms to the bone. This hateful section teaches me about Murphy’s Law of the Jungle: if you need a vine to be solid, it’ll be rotten; and if you need a vine to be rotten, it’ll be solid.
Finally, I decide to pull up my hood and go subterranean. I claw my way under the surface of dead wood into a tight, dark crawl space that is undoubtedly the home of many a scary creature. I’ve now completely lost Jared and Jon and I really don’t know where I’m going, as I claw at the dirt in front of my face. There must be something wrong with me, because I find myself actually enjoying this transformation into mole man — there is something so bizarre and unusual about what I’m doing that I can’t help but take perverse pleasure in it. After an hour of desperate, sweaty groveling, I emerge from the slope directly beneath a sky-scraper of rock.
When I touch the wall for the first time I instantly recognize it as quartzite — some of the best stone in the world for rock climbing. Long sections of the wall are consistently overhanging and devoid of vegetation. Below me, an uninterrupted jungle wilderness stretches for as far as I can see. No clear cuts, villages or towns mar the view. No planes fly overhead. The only sound is the ever present roar of the nearby waterfalls. It’s intensely hot, so I tip over a bromeliad and take a glug of cold, refreshing worm soup.
The ledges at the base of the cliff are covered in fine powdery dust, a sign of just how overhanging the wall is. A few small snakes with cobra-like heads slip into cracks in the wall when they realize that we’re here to stay. We pound in a couple pitons and hang two portaledges. As evening turns to night, we sit with our backs against the wall, gazing across a blanket of clouds that has boiled up from the jungle, hovering just below our camp. The tops of a couple other tepuis are the only thing sticking above the vertiginous sea of white, and I’m hit with the happy realization that a long time dream is coming true.
Jared takes the first lead in the morning, tackling a vague crack system a few hundred feet to the left of the British Route. The wall is gently but consistently overhung, and stratified into horizontal layers which reminds me of the Gunks’ Yellow Wall. The horizontals are spaced anywhere from five to fifteen feet apart, and each one seems to offer Jared not just a perfect hold, but a great place for protection as well. In contrast to some of the other big cliffs Jared and I have climbed together, we’ve agreed from the start that this one should be a free climb.
Jared makes the first pitch look easy, so I’m shocked when he brings me up and I find myself climbing solid 5.11 with no rests and long run outs between tied-off knifeblades. His belay is situated directly beneath an eight-foot roof. I try to on-sight it, but I end up hang dogging, clearing loose rocks, and working a few sequences. At the lip of the roof I encounter the crux. From a foot swinging dangle, I heel hook and make a long reach to a small crimp. Higher, I pull through a hand crack splitting another small roof, and finally I establish an anchor of pins and cams on a veg covered ledge. We could carry on, and give the pitch an A0 rating, but I decide to lower off and pull the rope. On my next try, I fire it, gunning full tilt, high above the jungle. When Jared joins me at the belay after handily squashing my pitch on his first try, he gives me a high five and says we can call it solid 5.11+.
Just as darkness falls, we slide down two free hanging ropes back to camp. The next morning, the A-Team shows up, shaking their heads about the trail we’ve established. “That was out of hand, you guys,” says Mareya, as she throws down her pack. In the morning, we give Jesus a quick lesson in rope jugging, then he, Jared, Jon and I head up to explore an area that Jon has dubbed, the Hanging Garden of Babylon. An intricate system of ledges covered in thick vegetation stretch for hundreds of feet below an imposing headwall. Thousands of parakeets call the place home, and the air is filled with constant chirping. Though unaccustomed to seeing people, the birds are not afraid of us. They land on nearby bushes and stare at us for minutes at a time.
We rig some ropes into a particularly promising area and Jesus attacks the vegetated ledges like a wolf in a chicken coop. Just as I have dreamed of climbing this wall for years, Jesus, a well respected biologist, has long dreamed of studying this unique environment. Soon he has a ziploc baggie filled with critters: scorpions, tarantulas, beetles, roaches and worms. Jesus hands me the bag and I give it a quick shake, hoping to start a battle royale. But to my intense disappointment, the creepy crawlies completely ignore each other.
When we arrive back in camp that night, we’re greeted with incredibly good news: Edward and Franklin have found a spring less than an hour’s hike from camp. From now on their sole job will be to keep us stocked with water. In the evenings they often hang out with us in camp before heading back down to their own bivouac in the troll forest. As bushmen who have spent their lives in the rain forest beneath the canopy, the view from 7000 feet gives them a unique perspective on their world. With his legs crossed and back against the wall, Edward points towards a barely visible plume of smoke rising from the jungle: “Phillipai,” he says, “home.”
The next day the A team and all the joggers leave. For them, the expedition is ove, while for us, the best part is just beginning. Suddenly finding ourselves alone and with very few strings attached, we pack up our bags and haul our gear up to our first hanging camp. In the morning we awake to a thick mist. I can actually see the water droplets in the air, but the rock itself is somehow staying dry. Route finding is proving to be a huge challenge. Nothing is obvious, and the correct path often involves hand traversing on a horizontal until you find a likely looking series of holds. In this manner I soon find myself 40 feet to the right of camp, cranking 5.10 on rippled quartzite. After running out most of the rope I set up a technically challenging belay of pins, nuts and cams at a small stance. By the time I’ve plugged enough pieces to feel safe, most of the rack is tied up in the anchor. After I haul the bag and belay up Jared and Jon, I drill a bolt, our third so far.
Jared’s grabs the rack and traverses 15 feet on a horizontal. For the next twenty minutes, I feed out and take in the same three feet of rope. Jared is working out a crux and psyching up for a punch into the unknown. Each time he tries and fails to pull the move, he comes back down and plugs another piece into his last good horizontal. Soon he’s got himself a small belay. It’s so steep that he knows the fall is completely safe. “I’m going for it this time,” he yells. “Watch me good.” I feed out the same three feet and then three feet more. I’m braced for a big fall when the silence is suddenly pierced by a triumphant cry. The rope moves out slowly but steadily after this as Jared carefully picks his way up a full rope length of solid, overhanging 5.11+ climbing.
It rains hard our second night on the wall, and in the morning everything is damp and gloomy. Today, the rock is actually wet, but not so terribly bad that you couldn’t climb it if you had to. After drinking some coffee, the sky begins to brighten, so we pack up and haul everything to our high point. In the afternoon, I lead another full rope length of 5.11 up relentlessly steep, tiger-striped rock.
We camp at the top of my pitch that night. A few hours after dark, the clouds blow away, and we’re bathed in the silky light of a three-quarter moon. We’re excited because the top is clearly within striking distance and it appears the storm has spent itself. I fall asleep with a warm, happy feeling inside, but this quickly evaporates when I wake in the middle of the night to a hard rain drumming on the rain fly.
By morning, we’re wet, and it’s still coming down hard. The wall above is covered in dripping vegetation — we’ve reached the point where the clean rock merges into the jungle which pours over the rim. It looks awful, but on the other hand, the only way to get home is to climb it — there’s no denying that our route is so overhanging and traversing that it would be almost impossible to rappel.
At 10am, Jared emerges from his portaledge, and announces, “I am not araid.” It’s unclear whether the statement is meant to convince us, or himself. Following the line of least resistance, he works sideways across the wall, negotiating steep vegetated rock in the pouring rain. Jon and I secretly pray that his pitch will get us to the top, but it isn’t in the cards.
Jared was smart to stop where he did – the next section is a flaring, dirt packed, slime coated off-width. An ancient 1 ½” angle sticks out of the bottom of the crack, a sign that we’ve joined the British route. Looking around more carefully, I notice some extremely weathered strands of rope half embedded in the vegetation below our feet. It starts to rain harder than ever and a feeling of intense frustration starts to well up inside of me. “God damn it,” I yell, losing my cool. “This pitch is a f—kin piece of f–kin s–t.”
“Chill out, dude,” says Jared, hanging in his harness with the calm of a buddhist monk. “I’m happy to lead it if you want.” Jared and I have shared a lot of tense moments over the course of our partnership, and he always knows just how to reel me in. So I take a few deep breaths and let go of the feeling that the world exists solely to screw me over. It’s a good thing, because a moment later I dislodge a scorpion which lands on my bare ankle. Before it can decide whether to bite me, I give my leg a quick shake, sending him on a long flight.
After some wet thrutching up the crack, I swim up a vertical sheet of bromeliads and arrive in an amphitheater surrounded by smooth overhanging slime-covered walls. Visibility is all but nil, as I’m basically inside a cloud. As the rain splatters onto my helmet, I ask myself, ‘is this the end of the line?’ Just in front of me I notice a hole in the wall. As I move closer, I feel a breath of cold air on my skin. The tepuis are known for being honeycombed with caves, so I decide to have a look. If nothing else, perhaps I can find a dry place for us to spend the night.
I squeeze inside, and when my eyes adjust to the darkness, I notice a tiny light shining from somewhere deep inside the cave. I grope my way along in the pitch black and soon find myself in a heel-butt chimney that leads towards the light. After 40 feet of climbing purely by feel, I arrive at a roof pierced by a narrow shaft of light. When I reach up and press the ceiling with my hand, it moves. ‘My god,’ I think, ‘it’s veg.’ After a few minutes of tearing at the dirt, I manage to excavate an opening just big enough to worm my way through. The next thing I know, I’m standing on a huge ledge just below the rim of the wall, having completely bypassed the unclimbable section. ‘Holy Shit,’ I exclaim, barely able to believe what has just happened.
I yell down to Jared to take me off and untie the rope, then I pull it up through the cave and toss it back down on the outside into the mist. Miraculously, I hit the belay on the first toss. Soon Jared, Jon and I are setting up the portaledges for what we pray will be our last night on the wall.
In the morning it is raining harder than ever, and the only thing that could possibly bring a smile to my lips is the fact that it’s Jared’s lead. The next pitch is a squeeze chimney, completely coated in mud and slime with a waterfall pouring down the back. It is hands down the most awful piece of climbing that I’ve ever seen. Jared doesn’t even bother to put on his rock shoes. Halfway up the pitch, a wall of vegetation to which he clings rips away and he takes a 15-footer directly onto a ledge. The falls tears up his jacket and bruises his elbow, but luckily he’s not seriously injured.
Finally, after several hours, he yells down that he’s off belay. Jon and I are expecting a joyous yell, and when it doesn’t come, we look at each other with raised eye brows. “Are you on top?” I yell, the rain peppering my face.
“No,” yells Jared, a moment later. “F—k!” This means I’ll have to lead another horrifying pitch of vegetation. Then suddenly, “Just kidding you guys…I’m on top!”
Half an hour later, the three of us exchange a hearty round of handshakes. The Scorpion Wall (VI 5.11d J0) has called on just about every trick in the book. It’s taken us six days to climb nine pitches. All together, we placed six bolts, all at belays. We freed every inch of the rock, but on the wet vegetation at the top, both Jared and I pulled on a few pieces.
We’re completely enshrouded in clouds, but it’s obvious that we’ve arrived into one of the most bizarre environments on earth. Pock marked with craters, mini canyons and gurgling streams, the summit plateau is a labyrinth of passageways, caves and sunken gardens that beckon for exploration.
But after three days of living in the pouring rain, our skin is pruned and all we want is to get whisked away by helicopter. We call a Venezuelan heli pilot named Raul on the sat phone and give him the GPS coordinates. He’ll pick us up, he says, as soon as the weather clears. This could be in a few hours, a few days, or even a few weeks. Suddenly, the commitment of our position really sinks in. Here we are, many days from the nearest outpost of civilization, with at most two days of food left. There’s a trail leading down to the Venezuela side, but a quick investigation reveals a bottomless rock crevasse which splits the tepui from one side to the other. Like it or not, we are essentially marooned on the tip of the Prow. We end up hanging our portaledges in a small canyon. As soon as we climb inside, it starts to rain again. Within half an hour, the canyon has transformed into a raging river which rises up to within inches of the bottom of our ledges.
Somehow, I end up getting my best night’s sleep in weeks, and when I open my eyes bright sunshine is burning down on my soggy rainfly. I poke my head out of the ledge and see puffy white clouds drifting across a deep blue sky. We quickly break down camp and run to the edge of the wall. The view literally takes my breath away. Every few hundred yards, a massive waterfall pours over the rim and in some places geysers of water burst from holes in the side of the cliff. Clouds churn upwards from the surrounding electric green jungle, creating a totally surreal backdrop to the vibrant streaks of color that paint the length of the wall. And here comes Raul skimming across the summit plateau.
Although I’m anxious to get home to my family, a big part of me is sad that my time in the Amazon is coming to an end. This trip has literally been a dream come true. And I never would have guessed that the jungle of Guyana would provide my all time best adventure. “Do you know of any other cliffs like this one?” I ask Raul, as we lift off.
“Oh yes,” he replies, in near perfect English. “There are many, many cliffs like this one, only bigger, and some never visited by climbers. Next time, you come to see me, and I’ll take you to —– (sorry!). It is magnificent.”
Raul, I’m suddenly realizing, is a very good friend to have. This article was originally published in Climbing Magazine issue #.The trip was sponsored by a grant from The National Geographic Expeditions Council and by The North Face.