Team: Mark Synnott, Greg Child, Jared Ogden
When: November 2006
Where: Pakaraima Mountain, Guyana
Other Media: a film was made about this expedition called Legends of the Lost World, airing on Rush HD
My dream of climbing a tepui began more than15 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 two page opening spread of the Prow on Mt. Roraima, one of the Amazon’s most iconic tepuis. It also happened to be the legendary peak at the center of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic tale, The Lost World. My young imagination had been captured, and I told myself that no matter what, one day I’d climb a tepui.
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 from 1000 to 3000 feet high and in some places extend horizontally for miles. Scientists say that the quartzite which forms these magnificent mountains is billions of years old and represents the oldest stone in existence on planet earth. These giant walls have also 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.
I finally realized my dream of climbing a Tepui in 2003, when I made the first ascent of the Scorpion Wall on the Prow of Mt. Roraima with Jared Ogden. This expedition was sponsored by a grant from the Expeditions Council and we made a film for NGTV called Climb to the Lost World. While most of the best tepuis lie in Venezuela, Roraima actually sits on what they call the triple point – kind of like our four corners – where Guyana, Venezuela and Brazil share a common border.
Climbers have been visiting and climbing in tepui country since the early 1970s, but over the past 35 years only a handful of ascents have been completed, and essentially every one of them has been done illegally, without permits. One of the unique things about our expedition in 2003 was that we got permission and a permit to climb Mt. Roraima from the government of Guyana.
Honestly, I never thought I would return to Mt. Roraima, but in 2006 I put together a plan for The North Face to lead another expedition into this remote and magical part of the world. For the simple reason that is impossible to get permission to climb any of the tepuis located in Venezuela, I found myself leading an expedition, once again, with the goal of establishing a first ascent on Mt. Roraima.
The closest village to Mt. Roraima is called Wyaleng. Home to about 40 Amerindians, Wyaleng sits on a small plateau at the lip of a 300 foot waterfall. Some people say it is the single most beautiful spot in the country of Guyana. Due to its incredibly remote location (it is a two day walk from the nearest village with an airstrip) the people of Wyaleng live an existence that is not a lot different from how the Amerindians must have lived hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. Up until our visit, the village had no electricity, running water, or communications with the outside world. Their homes consist of thatch roofed huts without walls or floors. They survive by growing a tuber called Cassava, which they supplement with meat they get from hunting with bow and arrows.
Over the course of the expedition in 2003, I became close with several of the villagers, but sadly, after we left there was essentially no way for me to keep in touch with them. When it was decided that we would use Wyaleng as a base of operations for the 2006 expedition, I worked with the North Face, a company called Global Giving and the Guyanese Ministry of Amerindian affairs to develop a humanitarian project that would become an integral part of the expedition. After a reconnaissance trip in April, 2006 and several meetings with the Ministry of Amerindian affairs we decided that the one thing this village needed more than anything else was electricity. With a source of power, the Amerindians could for the first time establish radio communications with the outside world, thus enabling them to call for support in the event of a medical emergency.
To get to the village of Wyaleng involved flying in a small fixed wing plane to the village of Imbamadai, and then from there we took a helicopter for the 40 mile flight to Wyaleng. Needless to say it’s a big deal in one of these villages when a giant mechanical bird suddenly appears out of the sky. In this case it was a heartfelt reunion as I was greeted by several of my friends from the previous expedition, like the village chief named Harris.
We spent the next two days in Wyaleng installing the solar panels in the local school, a one room wooden building that sits on stilts in the middle of the village. On the second day we had a big meeting with everyone in the village, and I got up, and with the help of a translator, explained the objectives of our expedition: namely to climb a first ascent on Mt. Roraima.
We left Wyaleng on the morning of November 11 with about 20 Amerindian porters helping to carry our food and equipment. We were all excited about the prospects of a fifty mile trek through virgin rainforest. The very first night, as we were setting up camp by the side of a river, there was a big commotion and someone started yelling, “SNAKE, SNAKE, SNAKE.” I ran about fifty yards down the trail and found a group of Amerindians pointing at a Fer de Lance, one of the most deadly snakes in the Amazon. One bite and you are looking at almost certain death, especially as we were seriously in the middle of nowhere. Bruce Means, a scientist who accompanied our expedition decided he would try to catch it. We tried to talk him out of it, and I think his comment was something to the effect of “I don’t tell you how to climb mountains, you don’t tell me how to catch snakes.”
Moments later he was holding the thing in his hand showing us the deadly venom dripping out of its fangs. Needless to say we were well paranoid about where we stepped after that.
All told the trek to the base of the mountain took about five days and it was one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done. We got to see first hand how the Amazon jungle looks in its natural state, which stood in stark contrast to what we had seen in places like Imbamadai, which has been all but destroyed by mining. It was also amazing to spend time with the Amerindians and to watch them fish and hunt, just like their ancestors have done for generations in this same forest.
If I was given two words to describe the trek through the jungle I would say wet and muddy. We often were up to our ankles in mud and once you are covered in the stuff there was essentially no way to clean it off. The jungle is no place for someone who likes to be clean.
We established our base camp right below the Prow and although the ground was covered in mud and bromeliads, and it was practically impossible to walk around, it was one of the most stunningly beautiful base camps I’ve ever seen. Off to the west we could gaze into Venezuela where countless more tepuis rose from the jungle like giant prehistoric battleships. Massive waterfalls poured from their tops and in between was a mind boggling expanse of untouched, pristine jungle. To the east we could gaze for hundreds of miles into Guyana where more tepuis rose from the never ending jungle canopy. When we’d wake up in the morning there was often a blanket of white fluffy cloud covering the jungle, with only the tops of the tepuis sticking out. These were some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever laid eyes upon.
We set to work immediately on the climb, and without going into too many details suffice it to say it was not an easy route. We struggled desperately to get past the bottom section of the wall where the jungle crept about 200 feet up. Climbing vertical rock covered in vegetation is extremely difficult and scary. After a couple days we had 400 feet of rope strung up to a nice ledge below an overhang. On November 20th we hauled our bags and portaledge up to this beautiful perch and established a hanging bivouac.
It took us another three days to climb the remaining 1000 feet of the wall. Every pitch was radically overhanging and we couldn’t help but wonder how we would get back down. Most of the route was done free and it was some of the best climbing I’ve ever done, anywhere. Overhanging tiger striped orange quartzite stretched for hundreds of feet over our heads and there always seemed to be a perfect handhold right where you needed it.
The final day of the climb was a total adventure, and we didn’t know if we would make it right until the last moment. Unfortunately, the final pitch was very overhanging and blank, and what we thought would take about two hours ended up taking Jared 7 ½ hours to lead. When he finally called down that the rope was fixed, it was getting dark, and Greg and I looked at each other knowing that things were getting serious. The big problem is that Jared had climbed right in between two waterfalls, but the rope he had fixed for me was going straight through the path of one of the falls. I started up with my ascenders, thinking I could just go fast and get through it, but about ten feet into it the water started pummeling me so hard that I was literally starting to drown. I couldn’t breath and water was pouring down inside my clothing. I was scared and more than a little miserable. Greg literally saved my ass by swinging out from the wall and pulling me out of the waterfall. A few minutes later he, Jared and I were arm in arm at the top, relieved to be done with the climbing, but worried still about how to get down.
By a strange coincidence we summitted on Thanksgiving day, and as we were rappelling down this crazy overhanging wall in the pitch black mist, I thought about my wife and three children sitting by the fire eating pumpkin pie and relishing in the after glow of a hearty Thanksgiving meal. Let’s just say there was a sharp pang of homesickness at that moment.
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that we made a film about this expedition for a company called Rush HD. We were accompanied by the producer Angus Yates and two cameramen, Rob Raker and Scott Simper. Raker actually came up the wall with us and captured tons of great footage of the climb as it unfolded. The film should be coming out some time this spring so stay tuned on thenorthface.com for info. I can’t wait to see it myself.
As leader of the 2006 Amazon Tepui expedition the only thing left to say is a THANK YOU to The North Face for once again supporting us so we could pursue a dream.