into the Lost World
My stomach turned over as the six seater aeroplane
skimmed the top of the summit plateau then plummeted
down the 1000m drop. I suppose it was as good a way
as any to check out a new route.
The plan had been simple - to climb a new free route
up the main amphitheatre of Angel Fails - at over 1000m
the highest freefall waterfall in the world and Venezuela's
top tourist attraction. Our method of access to the
Falls confirmed the quality and seriousness of our objective.
Inspired by an Eric Jones and Leo Dickinson base jumping
film we'd got an expedition together to examine the
vertical and overhanging face in more detail.
On top of the second pitch on the Angel Falls, a damp
and delicate E6 6a, Andre turned to face us looking
uncharacteristically pale and worried. His jumaring
had just come to an unexpected end with the fixed rope
sheath snapping, sending our new Venezuelan friend down
into the void attached to just a few strands of rope
core. Luckily an 8mm haul line happened to be fixed
on the same pitch so he could transfer the jumars onto
it. We’d already worn through two of our ropes,
such was the terminally abrasive nature of the rock
and it was another setback we could ill afford. We
were learning about the jungle, aid climbing techniques
and general survival on a big wall – but were
we learning fast enough?
I would wake up every morning with renewed hope in this
spectacular but unforgiving environment, and by nightfall
I would be in a state of terror from the day's events,
knowing that the 'Deribos Arias' (loose rubble wedged
in a 45? overhanging crux crack) was still to come.
'Deribos Arias' comes from the topo of the first and
only aid ascent by a Spanish team 12 years previously.
But now, on day five we realised that the tattered ropes
would soon make retreat impossible – increasingly
our ropes were in short sections or longer ones with
knots in the middle to bypass worn bits. Either way
we may not have been able to ab far enough in one go.
We concluded that our lightweight approach was wrong,
so after freeing 10 pitches and reaching a height of
400m we escaped sad but relieved in equal measures.
Faced with-the prospect of returning home to a grey
U K empty handed, we decided to meet up with José
Pereyra, an old friend of John's who had been unable
to come with us. Fifteen years ago in the States they
had climbed some of the hardest routes together and
shared a love of maths and the theory of relativity!
But back in Caracas, would they still get on?
Apparently so. In between stretching our minds with
his book The Homeless Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics,
José offered the ideal solution to our mid-trip
crisis. Leo (Houlding) was injured, so couldn't join
his latest adventure - a trip to Cerro Autana tepui,
so would we like to go? It felt like piggy backing on
someone else's adventure but who would complain? We
jumped at the chance.
It was time to get up to speed with our fellow expedition
members: Hernando, part of last year's attempt on the
Tepui, demonstrated his marine expertise on his boat
moored off an idyllic sandbank island in Los Roques,
a fairytale Caribbean archipelago off the Venezuelan
coast; the musical and very loud big-waller Timmy O'Neill
entertained with a constant stream of rap music and
Spanish lessons; Andre and Ivan, our Angel Falls partners,
racked and re-racked the aid gear, water bottles and
other paraphernalia under the guidance of 'father José'.
How could we fall?
The tepuis are flat-topped mountain formations with
sheer walls, nestled in one of the least explored regions
of our planet. The distinctive formations are sandstone
massifs formed some 300 million years ago and came into
being by the erosion of the surrounding lands. These
mountains have been popularised in several novels, the
most widely known being The Lost World by Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle which describes the ascent to a plateau
inhabited by prehistoric plants and dinosaurs. They
are composed of some of the oldest known rocks in the
world, laid down in Precambrian times, before life appeared
One of the most famous tepuis of all is Cerro Autana,
the fabled felled remains of the tree of life. Access
is by overnight bus, truck and a two day journey in
a dug-out boat. Dark, languorous channels cutting through
the jungle led to shallower riverbeds composed of brilliant
red jasper-coloured rocks east of the Venezuelan-Columbian
border. Here, deep in the South American jungle, rights
of passage are guarded by the indigenous, 4-5ft tall
The elders in the 10-family Indian village, Segera
were to decide if we could go to Autana, and without
Lucho, our local Indian contact's help we could have
gone no further. The villagers eyed us, intrigued for
a while to see how we behaved amongst their children
and animals. Other foreigners had turned out to be gold
prospectors burning the forest and disrupting their
villages. Luckily they allowed us to visit Autana. We
Autana’s summit, partially obscured by mist,
is dark and forbidding, and its vertical flanks are
decorated by waterfalls, falling like delicate threads
of gossamer for thousands of feet to the forest below.
The horror stories of last year's nine day trek through
the jungle to find the base unnerved me slightly but
on first sight I felt a similar sentiment with The Lost
"It is no doubt a curious formation," said
I “but I am not geologist enough to say that it
"Wonderful!" he repeated. "It is unique.
It is incredible.”
Reported horrors included two inch ants, snakes, eye
licking mosquitoes, spiders and rat sized cockroaches.
Stopping for a rest was perilous as particularly curious
and hungry ants ran up your trouser legs and mozzies
descended in droves. Seeing small black and yellow frogs
and watching a troop of monkeys in the canopy made the
jungle experience a tad more pleasant. As José
pointed out: "many good climbers are not able to
cope with the jungle and choose to go home."
Following machete strikes through the undergrowth with
massive haul bags was tough. We were to travel the 'path',
only trodden once, searching for machete strikes in
the vegetation. Lurching upward in the humidity we became
hotter and hotter, discovering that cotton clothing
was a bad idea, the GPS didn't work, and 100% DEET was
a lifesaver. Eventually we reached the base and emerged
into the light again. We'd coped with the jungle and
only thought about going home once. The cliff panned
out above, the lower reaches covered in green moss giving
way to stunning orange, grey and pink walls. The climbing
plan was that José and Ivan would press ahead,
pushing the aid line higher and fixing ropes as they
went. John and I would follow, free climbing all the
aid pitches. José was certainly more confident
than us. "It'll go free for sure," he said,
"and other than Leo, John, you're the only one
I know who could do it."
John despatched this moss ridden wall fairly easily
at E5 6a with some careful plant-pulling on the more
vegetated sections. José enjoyed watching, perhaps
sensing success, or was it his natural curiosity to
see someone with little tepui experience suffering?
I headed over leftwards along a ledge, trying to be
as much at one with the wall on my right as possible
and ignoring the holes where soil and plants had given
This was wasp hell belay. The bastards would creep
in any hole they could find in clothing or helmet and
I got stung several times whilst screaming at John to
hurry up. After trying several tactics to ignore them
and be brave I was finally following a fine E4 pitch
on solid rock surrounded by a cloud of wasps –
was I hard enough for this shit? Thankfully, as we began
to rise higher above the canopy their menace abated
and we were joined by a group of agile friends –
the lizards. These awesome reptilian climbers would
leap over the rock and swallow the wasps whole, instantly
terminating their incessant buzzing.
We decided to call it a day early and descended to
base camp after a radio call from José to collect
some water. We wallahed water from the cliff face using
jungle leaves; by creating a leaf channel it was possible
to collect 25 litres for the others to pull up. This
was lucky as most of the rest of the team was ensconced
smoking in the lower base camp, and no water would mean
The next day, after another three superb pitches with
their own little challenges including one of E6 on superb
pink/orange rock we reached the 'executive suite' ledge.
This beautiful pillar had only one drawback mice with
a taste for any food left around. Andre brought us up
some more food and water, but this was the last time
we would not be doing the hauling ourselves so we paid
careful attention to the techniques involved, and notched
up some more jungle wall techniques of jungle leaf poo
disposal and washing in a moisturiser lid to conserve
water. Now only three pitches lay between us and the
aid team, which seemed to suggest that free climbing
was much quicker.
Day four. I looked up at John staring down, past a
brass micro to a Quadcarn that might hold. The others
had aided a different line. "Watch me!" he
shouted, twisting a foot high inside and extending across
the bulge, one hand tenuously holding a sloping side
edge while the other reached optimistically above. Shit,
I thought, he's on for a 30m fall if the gear holds.
A knee wobble. Decision time. Phew, he's got the hold
and seems to be getting a piece in. He fell off straight
afterwards, exhausted and defeated. After aiding and
practicing and a good rest John managed to head/redpoint
this F8a pitch which was some of the most determined
climbing I'd seen.
After following about 15m I swung off, which was unfortunate
because one metre progress with a lot of rope out means
you drop down three metres on stretch and it was tricky
getting on again. After some time I made the top of
the pitch and then a short hop led to the next stance.
Above us now loomed a huge roof and I'd been tasked
with reaching its base.
At times on the wall I'd felt uncomfortable being the
inferior member of our climbing partnership so now was
the chance to take us from bunk bed ]edge to the base
of the huge off width roof. With loose rock, bird and
bat droppings to cope with I found on sight new routing
harder than expected, so had to be content with only
a short pitch up to the base of the roof. John on sighted
the roof pitch at E7 6b and I opted for the jumars so
as not to delay our progress and, well, I was wasted.
The pitch above was a magnificent fiendish fingertip
and peg scarred crack line, with technical bridging
that turned out to need slate like deviancies, like
the moves on Gin Palace or the Quarryman, to get the
better of it – fun. Then a cry came down: "John,
we're stuck, can you come up and help us?" John,
the ever thinning machine with ever thinning skin, left
to save the planet and focus on a different type of
toil vertical smooth greyness with cabbages. This requisitioning
by the aid team left me on a slim clean ledge having
a pleasant rest day whilst watching carpets of vegetation
sailing past. I questioned, as I had done mostly seconding,
why I was there and how helpful I could be. John had
already spent three days on just one pitch, and if the
Yosemite aid climbers were having trouble aiding higher
pitches, what hope would there be of it going free?
We were established in a Guacamaya cave a mere 300m
from the top. The team returned jubilant having made
considerable progress once the wet section had been
overcome, we were even able to listen to some tunes
over the radio from the base of the wall and made a
new rap accompaniment to celebrate the progress. In
the next two days the summit should be ours. John had
become more amenable to trying to free the pitches with
me again and we were buzzing with the prospect of success.
John shouted down 'safe'. There was only a short slab
between the top and us. Timmy and José had just
topped out and a huge storm descended. I had only climbed
a few metres when a waterfall blasted down on top of
me. To make things worse one of the ropes jammed. I
quickly abandoned the idea of climbing and transferred
onto the jumar line. First my hands went numb, and then
my wrists and I sensed the seriousness of the situation
we were now in. It was impossible to communicate with
John because of the noise of the water and passing the
knot in the rope with a sack wasn't going to plan. In
what felt like an eon I succeeded in overcoming the
knot. Unable to look up because of the force of the
water I tried to keep going before hypothermia set in.
Jumaring in a waterfall in your bra top is not a pleasant
experience. I was also conscious of Hernando and Henry
the photographer getting cold on the ledge below and
the skeletal John who must be shivering violently above.
Finally I reached the stance shaking and gasping for
breath and put my waterproof on.
We were now on the top of the Tepui and huddled under
the basher sheet, a lightweight waterproof nylon tarp.
After coffee we tried to find the way down to the three
pitch abseil to the cave that ran through the mountain.
Henri and José gave up the idea of this tricky
descent as the light faded to give way to a brilliant
full moon. Hernando suggested we build a wall, a brilliant
idea that provided some shelter and enabled us to keep
warm. We interspersed this by laying out clothes, money
and pretty much everything to dry on the curious three
foot high plants on top. The music went on and we danced
for about two hours to keep warm before retreating into
The next day we descended to the most beautiful cave
I have ever seen. Nestled in one of the passageways
were baby bats huddled together in the white crystalline
roof, The others found an old generator and some 10
year old dried food that a documentary film crew had
left along with stoves and plates. We stayed there recovering
for a day and marvelled at the red cathedral roof and
views out of either side of the cave in the early morning
The jungle was an incredibly exciting place to be and
as Arni said: 'I’ll be back.'
Thanks to HB, Petzl, Beal, Boreal and Terra Nova
for equipment and also the BMC for their support in
enabling us to reach the top of the lost world.
This article, by Anne Arran,
first appeared in the August 2002 issue of On The Edge