Climb to the Stone Age—Venezuela
THE WAY I CAME TO ORGANIZE a journey to the upper Orinoco—crossing the Casiquiare Canal, continuing up narrowing tributaries and finally hacking overland through an untracked and uninhabited jungle to a granite spire which rises more than 2000 vertical feet over the most removed fastness of the Amazon Basin—had its roots 16 years earlier on the slopes of Mount Everest. I was then a member of the American Bicentennial Expedition. One day on the Lhotse Face, while assisting the CBS film crew, it occurred to me that they were doing the same thing I was: climbing the mountain. But there was one difference: they were being paid for it.
Back in California, I called the film’s director, Mike Hoover, and told him I wanted to get into the film business. “All you need are good ideas,” he said. I had these. In fact, I had a file in my cabinet labeled “Good Ideas.” In it were notes from Baron Alexander von Humboldt’s Travels in the Americas, published in 1802, in which he described in the upper Orinoco mountains with vertical sides and flat tops. These quartzite mesetas, or tepuis, were the inspiration for Conan Doyle’s Lost World. I told Hoover it would make an interesting film to climb one. I started serious research, and a six-month flurry of letters led to the National Geographic photographer, Robert Madden, who had been commissioned to photograph the southern sector of Venezuela’s Amazonas Territory. “There’s one peak the Indians call Aratitiyope. It’s like a shark’s fin, or like a needle when viewed on end,” he said. “It’s by itself in the most remote part of the region, and it looks different from the others, a different kind of rock.” He gave me the approximate coordinates. On a geologic map of the Guayana Shield I found the region blank white other than the cryptic notation: “Area of Reported Granitic Domes.”
I wrote a proposal. Hoover sent it to ABC and soon I was in Caracas organizing the expedition. There I found a French expatriate who had been hired twenty years earlier to survey the region. He had seen Aratitiyope from the air. He knew the area as well as any non-Indian on earth. He said it would take a couple of months just to get there.
With a limited budget and time, we opted to climb a tepui called Autana that had the advantage of being on the edge of the known world. Our trip was successful, the film launched me on a career, but Aratitiyope was still there. Then came the report in the mid 1980s that the same French surveyor had led Jean-Marc Boivin to the mountain and Boivin and his team had climbed it. Later, in an interview in Mountain, Boivin said that of all his climbs and adventures—and his was an extraordinary list—nothing had equaled the ascent of Aratitiyope.
And so, last year when John Wilcox told me he needed one more film to complete an adventure series for ESPN, I dusted off the Aratitiyope proposal. Once again I had the green light for the Lost World. I soon found a young Venezuelan, Kike Amal, who had been with Boivin. I needed two colorful Americans and so I took on Todd Skinner and Paul Piana. I needed a beautiful French woman climber and called Monique Dalmasso; she asked if there were many mosquitoes. I said, “Of course not,” and she signed on. For film crew, I got Mike Graber, veteran of our Autana climb, Paul Sharp and the accomplished Swiss climber and sound recordist, Marie Hiroz. Four climbers, four camera crew, including me as producer and director.
In Caracas, we chartered a DC3 older than I am (and I’m not too young) and flew to the jungle mission of Esmeralda on the upper Orinoco, under the shadow of the great tepui, Marahuaca. We hired porters from two tribes: the more Westernized Yekuana and the wild Yanomami. We were warned not to take too many Yanomami as we were going to an uninhabited region certain to be bountiful of fish and wild animals. The Yanomami might at any time drop their loads and head off through the jungle after game.
Even drawing from the two tribes, however, we could not retain enough porters. We had anticipated this and exercising “Plan B,” we took off in the DC3 and flew south one hour to Aratitiyope, where we parachuted food and climbing gear into the base of the peak and then returned to Esmeralda.
We hired four bongos, the long, narrow dugouts favored on the Orinoco and started downstream to gain entry to the remarkable Casiquiare Canal—a natural waterway connecting the rivers Orinoco and Amazon—then up-river on the Siapa and its tributaries. Eight days later, this brought us to an uninhabited region where the nearest Yanomami villages were over 80 airmiles away, villages only recently discovered by anthropologists. This was a journey, as Conrad wrote, that was “like traveling back to the beginning of time.”
Kike had been on many jungle expeditions. He had never seen an area as wild as the greater Aratitiyope. Each night for our dinner we took caiman of record size; they were delicious. Every day we saw the elusive and angelic tonina, the fresh-water dolphin of the Amazon. There were turtles, anacondas, toucans, monkeys, macaws. Even the Yanomami were impressed.
We were also impressed with the Yanomami. Watching them in the evenings hunt for our daily fare was like watching a wild animal stalk its game. It was a sight that made you tingle. On the journey to Aratitiyope, our head porter—a quick and perceptive man whose Spanish was excellent as a result of working as an informant for anthropologists, invited us to spend the evening in a remote and traditional Yanomami village. This was a chance to step back in time into the
Stone Age and look into the mirror of an age that as human beings we all shared in some ancestral past.
The visit was also an occasion for a party. We wanted to show our Yanomami hosts our appreciation for their hospitality, but Kike warned us against disrupting their cultural balance with Western artifacts. Then we had an idea: we would cook them a meal they would never forget. The Yanomami responded, dressing in their finest feathers and body paint. The party was a big success: tuna casserole for 100.
That evening in the village was one I shall always treasure. I lay in my hammock trying hard not to sleep. I didn’t want to miss anything. For the Yanomami, night is simply an alternative of day. People are up all hours, tending fires, caring for children, chatting. About midnight, one fellow rose to give a speech to anyone who would listen. The village shaman injected through a long blowpipe up his nose the powerful hallucinogenic epene and was up all night chanting. In the predawn, a strange bird I had never heard called from the surrounding jungle. Then, at first light, like roosters crowing at dawn, the entire village—a hundred odd people still in their hammocks—started passing gas. In the middle of this cacophony of farting, from a nearby hammock, came another sound I had never heard, nor will ever forget: a man farting a song. A jolly song, morning reveille, time to get up.
Back on the river, the tributaries became too narrow and overgrown, so Kike climbed a tree to fix a bearing on Aratitiyope. We started overland. It was not easy. The jungle floor was a confusion of narrow watercourses, slick with moss. Kike and the Yekuana headman held the lead, carrying full loads while at the same time opening the trail with razor-sharp machetes. In another week, we arrived at the base of the mountain.
Not without incident. Monique had slipped and sprained an ankle. (Later we would learn it was broken.) Todd and Paul alternated carrying her piggyback. Our river journey and march had taken longer than anticipated. The Yekuana had used their last shotgun shells and the Yanomami their last arrows. We were down on food and needed the parachuted load.
We searched for two days and found nothing, absolutely nothing. Most of the climbing gear and much of the food was in the parachute. But we had anticipated this. Exercising Plan C, we decided to abandon our intentions on the broad, absolutely vertical east face. Dividing into two groups, Kike and the porters would continue the search for the parachute while Todd and Paul, accompanied by film crew Mike, Marie and me, taking such minimal food and gear as we had, would make a quick attempt on the French route.
The French had climbed the most ascetic and aesthetic line on the mountain, the steep, direct north ridge. It was an attractive consolation. Jungle rock, however, has two drawbacks. Most routes are vegetated, actually an understatement, and the rock, because of a lack of freezing and thawing, is monolithic, with few cracks. The first two days found us often deep in grungy chimneys, but Todd and Paul did manage to push onto the smooth comer of the true north ridge, stringing together several pitches of difficult face climbing on granite polished by eons of tropical rains.
Rain, however, was a problem, or I should say, lack of it. We were at the end of the dry season, and on day four we ran out of water. We had anticipated this probability, however, and exercising Plan D, we pulled from our packs lengths of surgical tubing to use as long straws to suck water from the central reservoirs of the many bromiliads clutching the steep rock. These bromiliad pools also harbored large colonies of aquatic insects that wiggled on the way down. To put a positive spin on things, it was easier to think of these refreshments as a kind of protein drink.
By day five, positive spin was becoming increasingly difficult. We were now out of food. Mike and Marie were protesting about heavy loads on few calories. I was becoming Fitzcarraldo-like in my demonic desire to finish the climb and the film. But Todd and Paul only grew calmer and more focused.
The crux, naturally, came just before the summit. The French route took a chimney around the right side of a huge summit caprock that was too slimy to climb. (If Skinner couldn’t climb it, how did Boivin?) We traversed to the left. With no supplies whatsoever in our kit, the cowboys climbed a flaring 5.12 chimney and continued into the night by dimming headlamp, hooking up blank A4 granite. They rappelled back to our bivouac ledge at two A.M., reporting that only one or two pitches remained to the summit.
There was rain, thunder and lightning that night. The next morning, peeking from under our single lightweight nylon sheet, Skinner looked out over the jungle canopy 2000 absolutely vertical feet below us, slapped his knee and in Wyomingese said to Piana, “Gawd damn, can you believe it? Another day and we’re still alive.”
“Ya know,” Paul replied. “We might just pull this off. Just barely … but just barely is more than enough.”
By ten A.M., we were on top, admiring a pair of scarlet macaws flashing yellow, blue and red over the green backdrop. We were out of everything: water, food, climbing gear, energy. But we had anticipated this possibility. Exercising Plan E—a logistical achievement of paramilitary complexity to impress even General Schwarzkopf—an hour later, a helicopter whisked us off the summit and the others from the base and flew us back to the mission, where the next day the DC3 carried us 900 miles, and across many centuries, back to Caracas.