Bold climbing up to E7 on a first
free ascent of a 25 pitch big wall sounds more than
enough to be getting on with. But then there was the
jungle and the ants as big as cockroaches, and cockroaches
the size of rats, and worms burrowing into your feet.
John Arran describes living the high life in the land
of the Yanomami.
Picture the scene. Deep in the
South American jungle, the huge Orinoco river carves
an azure swathe through impenetrable and endless green.
A small dug out boat casts off from the riverbank, its
cargo of climbers and equipment sheltered from the sun's
dangerous heat under a thatch of leaves. Spin forward
through two days of blissful ease, punctuated by occasional
dips in the warm clear waters as the boat navigates
up progressively smaller rivers until a shallow rapid
prevents further progress. Imagine here the tiny fishing
village of Seguerra, all ten families of it, where the
lives of the local people appear to have changed little
Now look out across the roof of the jungle at a vast
monolith, apparently erupting from within the heart
of the forest and believed by the native Piaroa to be
the stump of the felled tree of life; the tree from
which the entire universe was born. Notice the tower's
flat top and its steep rocky flanks, and feel your eyes
drawn to the unclimbed South west Face, where the clean
yellow rock rises steep and unbroken throughout its
full 700m height. Welcome to Cerro Autana, a finer climbing
objective it would be hard to imagine on the surface
of our shrinking world.
Day Four My
mind was focused on a distant hold which remained stubbornly
out of range, even if I could find a way to stay in
balance on the overhanging wall to reach for it. I looked
down to my left, where an offset wire was valiantly
gripping the edge of a flared crack, I looked down further,
past a brass micro to a Quadcam l hoped might hold.
I tried not to look any further, to the 200m of air
beneath. If I was wrong, I'd soon be plunging through
the first 30m of it.
`Watch me!" I shouted to Anne on the belay and, twisting
a foot high inside of me I extended across the bulge,
one hand gripping a sloping side edge while the other
reached optimistically above, I wasn't sure I really
should be doing this, but I'd been on the pitch for
nearly two hours already, had passed some of the boldest
onsight climbing I could remember, and was becoming
fanatical about not letting it beat me now. Besides,
it's really scary lowering off bad gear. So I twisted
more, extended further and groped urgently until two
fingers chanced upon a tiny edge. Decision time. Fingers
pulled, body contoured to the shape of the bulge, limbs
extended and finally the hold arrived, allowing me to
plug a good cam into the slot by its side. I fell off
straight afterwards, exhausted and defeated, but strangely
happy that I'd made it past that move, which at first
sight had seemed impossible and still remained unreasonable.
After a practice session and a good rest I was able
to head/redpoint the pitch, though even with a vast
supply of motivation the 8a climbing at the top took
everything I had left after four days on the wall. My
tips were thin, feet aching and muscles sore, which
was unfortunate because above us loomed a huge roof
and if I was to have any chance on it at all I would
need to recover pretty quickly on our ledge that night.
It had all been José's fault. He'd enlisted us as replacements
after Leo Houlding had retired hurt from Patagonia.
We had been kicking around Caracas after backing off
another big wall, when who should arrive in town but
my old friend José Pereyra, returning to Venezuela on
one of his frequent jungle jaunts from his home in Salt
Lake City. It was spooky not having seen him for fifteen
years since he and I were in the US together, and more
so when one of the first things he asked was whether
we wanted to come with them to Autana big wall climbing?
We'd heard about Autana from locals André and Ivan.
who we'd already been on a wall with. We knew the team
had tried it last year and had spent nine days bushwhacking
and hauling loads through the dense jungle just to get
to the bottom. We knew they'd spent fifteen days getting
only 400m up and that they'd had to flee in a hurry
when the 'authorities' had got to hear there were people
climbing the tower without seeking an official permit,
which apparently would never have been granted anyway.
We'd heard about the worms that burrow into the skin
between your toes and lay eggs. about ants the size
of cockroaches and cockroaches the size of rats. We
were warned about the humidity and about the almost
daily rains, that once your clothes got wet they could
take weeks to dry. We knew all this, so when the question
was asked, Anne and I looked at each other, realised
there had never been a choice to make, and replied:
"We'd love to."
José's idea was that an aid team including himself
and US speed waller Timmy O'Neill would press ahead,
pushing the aid line higher and fixing ropes as they
went. Anne and I would follow free climbing all the
aid pitches, which sounded unlikely to me but José was
confident. "It'll go free for sure," he said, "and other
than Leo you're the only one I know who could do it.
I chose not to ponder that his memory of my climbing
was fifteen years out of date, and accepted the compliment.
". There's a pitch higher up
will probably be 8a, then the one above may be 8a+,
after that it could get hard." I wasn't sure if he was
winding me up, so I nodded, smiled and kept a nervous
silence. As it happened, he wasn't.
It was not until we were straining under mighty loads,
struggling to follow the overgrown trail, that the details
started emerging: "There was one pitch I was on for
hours. I got real scared and decided I needed a bolt,
but the rock was super hard and I was only on a small
ledge and the bolt didn't go in right and ended up sticking
out about two inches and bent over. I had to lower off
it in the dark and climb past it the next day. There's
a pitch higher up will probably be 8a, then the one
above may be 8a+, after that it could get hard." I wasn't
sure if he was winding me up, so I nodded, smiled and
kept a nervous silence. As it happened, he wasn't.
Day Nine One
of the rites of passage on Autana is that you must accept
the inevitability of failure, you must come to realise
that in spite of your best endeavours it has beaten
you. Only then will it let you pass. We know this now,
after spending two days straining, smearing, palming,
slapping, falling, swearing and failing on 40 feet of
excruciatingly thin technical bridging. Too tired to
argue with it any more and resigned to allowing the
wall a point of aid, it finally allowed us to climb
it yesterday on the third day of asking, to an awkward
mixture of relief, elation and extreme fatigue.
"John!" A shout from two pitches above where the route
had led the aid team onto a wet and vegetated wall.
'Yeah?" "You should come up and look. We can't find
a way through. We may have to go down." "Just give me
half an hour and I'll be with you."
The aid team had already retreated down a short vegetable
pitch, pulled back across a wet aid traverse, and were
gearing up to have a last look at an unlikely steep
line above, which to my eyes could lead only to the
terrain of ultimate doom. Water, vegetation, hardly
any gear and no prospect of change for two hundred metres
had combined to thwart further progress. Naturally they
had tried, but the slabby wall was too wet, too steep
and too dangerous to stand on let alone climb. Except
to my eyes the original way would be the only way, so
back we went for another look. Now each one of us had
conceded defeat, and in return the gods of Autana smiled
on us. When we arrived back at the highpoint next day
the rock had almost dried out, the smears now had friction
and the difficulties proved surprisingly short lived,
Swinging leads we gradually gained momentum, relishing
the change of angle and the exit from the drainage shower
that had blighted the previous two pitches. Five pitches
and another 200m of climbing took us to within hoping
distance of the top, and smiles were the order of the
night when we abseiled in the dark down to our hammock
and cave lodgings.
It would have been impossible without Lucho. A main
man in the local town of Puerto Ayacucho, he's one of
those people who knows everybody and is known by everybody.
He's also one of the very few outsiders to speak the
language of the Yanomami tribe - a hunter gatherer people
of around 20,000 who until the early 1980s had had virtually
no contact with the outside world. Lucho has become
the main point of contact for documentary film makers
and researchers. Watching him guide our boat upriver,
waving and chatting to people in every passing boat
or settlement, was a real education in diplomacy. Were
it not for him it's unlikely the Seguerra villagers
would have let us near the wall, But Lucho was coming
with us and even though he wasn't a climber he was to
jumar the 700m to the top.
He guided us through the jungle, sniffing out vague
clues as to where the trail once went, keeping a sense
of direction when visibility was down to ten metres
of dense thicket, and finding drinkable water in the
most unlikely of places. He did at least wear shoes
to protect against the sharp rocks, branches and creatures
that lurked in the undergrowth, which is more than can
be said for the local villager also walking with us.
Still, that made it easier for him to shin up the occasional
tree to get a better view, which he did with a speed
and grace few climbers could match. It was a shame that
Lucho didn't make it to the top. He went up a few pitches
by way of practice while we were still climbing above,
but then Ivan became steadily weaker and more sick.
Lucho escorted him out to the nearest town and Ivan
took the first flight to Caracas. He would spend three
days on a drip and next year recovering from hepatitis.
It made the wasp stings, ant-bites and Anne's wormy
foot seem trivial by comparison.
Day Five Roof
crack day. José had sneaked a look as he jugged up past
it, thirty feet or so out from the wall. "The first
few moves are gonna be super hard," he reported, "but
after you turn the lip there's a crack all the way,
and it's really not all that steep."
Sure, it was only 15º or so
overhanging, and yes, it had a crack all the way up,
but the crack was eight inches wide!
I wanted to believe him but I should have known his
tactics by now. On the approach he'd said how he was
looking forward to watching me lead the first pitch,
as he'd so much enjoyed leading it himself last year.
Then we arrived at the base to find his first pitch
was actually 60m of assorted vines and twigs, poorly
attached but tied off as runners anyway, up a steep
and blank looking slab. I'd got away with it that time
because the slab turned out to be unusually dry and
climbable, albeit without much pro, and I'd had a thoroughly
enjoyable time on the perfect rock between his vines
at about E5 6a. This time I may not be so lucky.
Bridging higher, I pulled out from the corner on a
thin finger lock, seemingly wrong handed but allowing
me to twist and launch up for an edge high on the side
wall. So far so good. A powerful layback past the rounded
lip and good gear ensured these difficulties were purely
physical. Only then could l see into the crack above,
and only then did I appreciate the true horror of what
I had let myself in for. Sure, it was only 15º or so
overhanging, and yes, it had a crack all the way up,
but the crack was eight inches wide! l really wish the
next half-hour of comedy had been videoed, as l improvised
and sweated to gain more height than I was losing, all
the while feeling I would at any moment be unceremoniously
ejected. I found wires at the back but found it desperate
to clip them as both ropes wedged firmly between body
and rock. And l couldn't turn my head to see as my helmet
would only fit in the crack sideways. When the bits
of me I'd managed to keep in the crack finally emerged
to hang from a sloping shelf I was exhausted, both mentally
Unfortunately it still wasn't over, since after another
bulge the crack turned into a shallow square-cut recess,
maybe a foot across and six inches deep, and still overhanging.
The only way up it was a very strenuous layback, and
the only way to start that was a chest-ripping Gaston
move. Twenty feet of ferocious barn-door laybacking
later I was once again ready to accept failure as inevitable.
I'd shouted "watch me!" more times than I could remember
and quite frankly I was knackered. I probably would
have given up there and then but my last gear was some
way beneath me and I really hate falling, so I slapped
optimistically onward and upward, somehow managing to
stay attached until better holds arrived and I collapsed
onto a perfect bivvy ledge with a huge grin on my face.
Summit day. Above our bivvy there were now 300m of
fixed rope to the top. José and Timmy had topped
out, but in the process they'd aided the second
last pitch, and
after all we'd come through we were determined to see
it all climbed free. But it shouldn't be too hard,
assured us, now that it was clean. Yeah Right.
An eternity of jumaring and hauling later we finally
arrived at the foot of the pitch. now the only thing
standing between us and our ultimate goal. Arriving
at the same time was a huge black storm cloud, and rain
was already in the air. We'd had several storms in the
past few days and they seemed to be getting worse. The
start of the wet season was imminent but so far we'd
always managed to get away with it. I set off as fast
as possible, in the certain knowledge that rain would
soon stop play, and for once José was spot on; there
was the occasional 6a move but really the pitch was
just a 60m E3 which finished up a long and wide but
not terribly difficult crack. In my haste though I managed
to generate huge amounts of rope drag, which made sprinting
for the top all the more difficult, and as the spots
of rain got heavier I was glad the wall was still quite
steep. I heaved onto a tiny ledge at the top of the
pitch to be greeted by a huge clap of thunder and raindrops
the size of marbles. Tucking into the corner for shelter
I tried to bring Anne up, but the rain was so loud we
couldn't communicate. With the rope jammed, all I could
do was retreat from the cold rain and hold tightly onto
Minutes later a torrent of water exploded from the
back of the corner where I was sheltering, as though
someone had just opened a fire hydrant. I was belayed
so tight I could do nothing but brace myself and shiver.
Anne had quickly twigged the rope was stuck and transferred
onto the fixed line, but tied into my vertical river,
the same torrent Anne was now jugging up in, it all
seemed to take an age.
Hypothermia had seemed impossible in the jungle, but
I believed it now. Huddling together under a nylon sheet
on the summit was all that kept us safe as the thunderstorm
raged into the evening. It was too dark and dangerous
to find the Autana Cave, so we all spent a very unpleasant
night with few clothes and little or no shelter, warmed
only by the knowledge we'd achieved what we set out
to do, albeit by the narrowest margins possible at every
The Autana Cave is the biggest
elevated through-cave in the world
We found the cave the following day, three abseils
down. It is an astonishing feature. Passing clean through
Cerro Autana, with a huge arch at either end, the cathedral
sized cavern is said to be the biggest of its kind in
the world, providing a serene and surreal place to recover
from what felt like the biggest ordeal we had ever enjoyed.
This expedition was supported by the BMC/Sports
Council, HB Climbing, Boreal and Lyon Equipment, to
all of whom many thanks are due.
This article, by John Aran, first
appeared in the August 2002 issue of Climber magazine.