theFreeClimber homepage
view photos
commissions, exhibitions, prints ...
read published work
climbing coaching by experts
slideshows and talks
legal expert opinion
how to contact us
other useful sites
read client feedback
what's new at
go to thefreeclimber homepage Visit our sponsor's site Visit our sponsor's site
Journey 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.

photo: Anne Arran

Angel Falls from a 6-seater plane

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.

photo: Arran Collection

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 on earth.

photo: John Arran

Seconding a technical F8a pitch

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 Piaroa Indians.

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 were psyched.

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 World book;

"It is no doubt a curious formation," said I “but I am not geologist enough to say that it is wonderful."
"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."

photo: John Arran

Anne hanging out at the Guacamaya Cave

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 way underfoot.

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.

photo: Henry Gonzales

John leading the top of the offwidth roof crack pitch

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 no climbing.

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?

photo: John Arran

"We danced for two hours to keep warm"
Hernando, Jose, Timmy, Andre and Anne on the tepui summit

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.

photo: John Arran

"we descended to the most beautiful cave I have ever seen"

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 bivi bags.

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 light.

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 magazine.