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South America, Venezuela, Angel Falls, Estrella Fugaz

Angel Falls, Estrella Fugaz*. A team of three climbers from Salt Lake City (Will Hair, Jose Pereyra and Scott Lazar) made the first free ascent of the 3,000-foot wall that creates Angel Falls on Auyan Tepui in Southern Venezuela. The route, Estrella Fugaz (5.11+ J4), contained 14 pitches of vertical jungle climbing and nine pitches of rock climbing on vertical to overhanging sandstone. The team completed the climb on December 26 after 10 days on the wall.

A support team of four climbers (Pedro Luis, Alejandro Gonzáles, Luis Mesa and Ramón Blanco) from Caracas, Venezuela and a Canadian photographer (Mark Coslett) assisted the climbers on the expedition. Ramón Blanco was on an expedition that did the second ascent of the wall in 1976.

The entire team met in Caracas on December 15 and set out the next morning on an 18-hour bus ride to La Paragua. From there we hired a plane to fly to Ucaima, a resort town 90 kilometers north of Angel Falls. In Ucaima we hired two Indian canoes to take us to the Falls. The two- day river trip was decadent.

Angel Falls is located deep in Canyon de Diablo on Auyan Tepui. From our canoes in a turn of the river, we looked ahead and Angel Falls came into view. We stared in silence at the El Capsized orange wall with a massive river running off it.

We chose a line through a huge open book dihedral that would take us to a ledge about 700 feet up the wall. From there we planned to pick a line leading directly up over the tiered roofs to the giant terrace below the headwall. Above the jungle the plan was to free the Japanese aid line that follows a crack system diagonally up right across the wall.

The first few pitches of jungle climbing were like playing in a giant tree fort: huge branches and vines hung down out of a thick wall of moss that clung to the vertical rock. We were gripped at first, but in a jungle world of J1 to J5, we were to find out that it was all Jl. While Will, Jose and I were up thrashing through the vertical jungle, the support team started the miserable task of hauling a thousand pounds of gear up the wall. At the end of each day the lead team picked out the most direct line down the wall and fixed lines. On the way down we hacked a path through the foliage so bags could be hauled up. But the hauling was grim. On almost every pitch, a second fixed line had to be dropped so someone could jug next to the haul line and “help” the haul bag negotiate the myriad of downward pointing branches, stems and roots that constantly snagged the bags.

The Venezuelan support team worked tirelessly, but some of the bags were heavier than they were. On the second day Will volunteered to help haul while Jose and I pushed the lead further up the wall. In the words of Luis, Will hauled “like a demon,” violently lurching his entire 180 pounds against the two bolt anchor he drilled at the top of the first 300-foot haul line.

During day two, the support team worked frantically trying to move camp from the base onto the wall. “Once we get off the ground, nobody is going to stop us,” said Pedro, who was in charge of logistics on the trip. Up on the wall, Jose and I were in full jungle warfare. The huge open book ended up to be rotten, so we headed up a line just to the left of it. Jose led up througha dripping chimney system and traversed out onto a face capped with a hanging jungle. Above that I got to lead a stellar 50-meter vertical dry rock face that went at 5.10. The rock was beautiful and just this glimpse got us psyched for the headwall. Above that pitch I ran into an eight- foot roof, where I let Jose take over. At first he saw no way around it, and we feared that our entire “free” ascent might be in jeopardy. Then Jose tunneled his way behind a thick layer of hanging moss—our introduction to J3.

The next pitch took us to the ledge 700 feet up the wall. It was steep jungle climbing with long runouts between solid anchors. About mid-way up I reached my arm into the moss up to my shoulder, looking for something to grab onto, and felt a strange tingling sensation. I pulled out my arm and found it covered with hundreds of half-inch long biting red ants. Runout and unable to let go with the other hand, I was forced to jab my arm repeatedly into the moss to knock them off. By the time Jose seconded the pitch, they were pissed!

The jungle got thinner and thinner. On the third day Will and Jose led up the last 700 feet of mixed rock and vegetation that would take us to the huge terrace below the headwall. The plant life here was a mere vestige of the lush fortress of branches and vines hanging out of a thick blanket of moss that we found on the first section of the route. Jose performed two more tunneling feats to make it out a series of tiered roofs. But at the end of the day they still had not reached the terrace.

On day four Will and I led up, trying to finish the direct line, while Jose went hiking through the jungle on a solo mission, trying to find a foot path that we could use to carry all of the gear up to the terrace. About mid-day I lead up what looked like the last pitch before the terrace. It started off with a remarkably good hand crack on dry rock. From there I climbed out around a slimy arête below a steep headwall with clumps of bromeliad plants between sections of wet rock. I carved the mud out of one #3 TCU slot and started up the first pitch of J4. I pawed my way up the unprotected wall pulling at tufts of plants that pulled out like clumps of wet hair on your dog in the spring time.

Jungle climbing was fantastic—kind of like ice climbing on acid. But after five continuous days in the jungle we were psyched to reach the clean rock of the upper headwall. The next two days we spent portaging all of our gear to a palace-like cave we found just below the headwall.

Under the 150-foot overhanging roof of the cave we let our rain-soaked bodies dry out and picked out a line on the headwall. The Japanese aid line follows the main weakness on the wall, a right-facing dihedral up to a large roof. From the roof, the line goes right and then follows a dihedral system diagonally up and right to the summit. Rather than trying to free that line, we decided to attempt a new line directly up the nose of the headwall to a large obvious open book halfway up the wall. From camp, Jose spotted horizontal edges on the blank left side of the open book and we determined that we would be able to continue from the top of the open book over a series of roofs to the summit.

To reach the headwall from the cave, we still had 400 feet of jungle climbing and three pitches of slab climbing. The rock quality that we encountered on the headwall was superb. Between the horizontal edges, we found many discontinuous crack systems that we laced up with gear. The seven pitches up the headwall went at moderate grades (5.10 to 5.11+) and did not require the placement of a single bolt. Two bolts were placed at each belay to facilitate rappelling and to prepare the route for future ascents. At the end of a long day we made it to within a couple of hundred feet of the summit.

In addition to free climbing the wall, the goal of the expedition was to get the entire team of eight people to the summit, so we fixed ropes up the entire headwall from the cave. On December 26 we broke camp early and headed up the wall. While the rest of the team jugged up behind, Will and I led the last couple of pitches, which held the crux of the entire headwall. Pitch five (5.11+ J3) led up a steep 100-foot arête capped by a small roof and a hanging jungle.

The top of the tepui is covered with a labyrinth of towers, tunnels and caves. It took the whole team, working in pairs of two, a couple of hours to find the way to the summit from the top of the last pitch on the headwall. After a grand celebration on the summit, we spent the night and went on a journey the next day to find the source of the Falls. With the unexpected aid of a helicopter that flew us from the cave to the river, we made it back to Caracas just in time for New Year’s Eve.

Scott Lazar, unaffiliated

*This climb was supported by a Mugs Stump award.