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The Tree of Life

José Luis Pereyra, bearded, wearing a coarse poncho, stands beside the Merced River. Equal parts prophetic shaman and mathematician, extreme athlete and major slacker, he pushes his bare feet into the granular beach, takes a breath, and begins to read aloud. What follows is his description of his epic attempt on Autana Tepui, which took place several months before.

He speaks of plagues of insects, days of torrential rains, and an aborted effort due to snooping park guards, imminent starvation, and prolonged suffering. A small group of Camp IV vagabonds surrounds him. They hang on his words, hanging on them, as if clinging to a monstrous flank of granite. The narrative ends with José’s words, “To be continued...,” and a lingering pause seems to suggest an invitation for fresh recruits. My mind nervously begins to calculate the insect bites and the days of waterlogged existence trapped within the overwhelming jungle. I scan the others for any hint of enthusiasm towards the return expedition and I discern mainly stony countenances. Although the invite intrigues me, my flight instinct is stronger, and I decide, “Thanks but no thanks.” As José said, “Out of the infinite possibilities, some are offered, some are taken.”

Did I take the offer or was I Jedi mind-tricked? It is mid-March 2002—five months after José’s discourse alongside the Merced—nine of us are bound for the depths of the Orinocan jungle. The roster includes six all-star Venezuelan jungle-rats, Britain’s unassuming gnarl couple, John and Anne Arran, and one skinny jokester from Philly (that would be me). We are cruising upriver in Lucho’s bongo, a massive dugout canoe with a roaring 50-horsepower motor strapped to its rear. The left riverbank forms Colombia’s border and Hernando jokes that a healthy Yank like me can fetch a few hundred bucks from the rebel army or, at the minimum, a carton of smokes. A mixture of exhaust, “monte” fumes, and Coca-Cola produces an intoxicating sense of wonderment.

Not only the pulsating jungle, but also my decision to become a member of José’s Autana Tepui continuum amazes me. A week ago, I was in Henry’s Caracas apartment, the headquarters of “Los Tepuyeros,” stating that I was content with the last three months’ adventures in South America, and I intended to fly home early. They knew, although I did not mention it, that hideous bug attacks and unrelenting rainstorms flooded my mind, due in large part to José’s harrowing firsthand accounts. My vision of unabated suffering went like this: mix equal parts wasps, horse flies, and mosquitoes, slowly blend in an ocean of rain, then combine with a hyperactive imagination. Yield: two dozen nightmares.

Henry, laughing, offered me a brownie and opened a coffee-table book to a two-page spread of Autana. He reassured me with, “Tranquilo pana, es super impresionante.” Impressive is right. It is Devil’s Tower jacked on steroids meets Jurassic Park. José considered the 2,000-foot southwest face to be Venezuela’s “greatest remaining challenge,” and he once thought it impossible to climb in his lifetime. Even though I was afraid of the experience, insecure of the unknown, I was captivated, slowly drawn into their Tepuyero vortex. José sealed the deal when he poignantly told me, “Timmy we have a million wild horses inside, sometimes barely contained ...there is no better outlet than climbing.” Sometimes I feel José knows me better than I do. After 10 days in Venezuela’s chaotic capital city, gathering food and equipment and assembling the remainder of our team, we left civilization in our wake. The improbable had occurred.

Lucho guns the engine, and the bongo goes into spawning mode. Employing a mixture of bravado and skill, he motors up the crux rapid, a series of boulders hungry for a bite of the hull or prop. Above the drop, we reload our portaged supplies and as I push the boat from the shore, one of my two-dollar flip-flops blows out. The fluted limestone I am standing on deeply gouges my sole and the blood flows as I belly flop over the gunwale. The grotesque flapper resembles a thick scoop of gouda cheese covered in raspberry sauce. Visions of jungle gangrene spreading up my leg—necessitating amputation—cause a wave of nausea to swamp me. A pertinent phrase from José’s story echoes in my brain, “The jungle is ruthless with the weak.”

Andre, the un-official expedition medic, finishes squeezing out “nigua” larvae from beneath the skin on the back of his hand, unwelcome guests he picked up a few weeks ago on Angel Falls. He wipes his fingers on his shorts, grabs my foot, and performs minor surgery using nail clippers and alcohol. A skilled physician is indispensable on these journeys. Swaying in a hammock beneath the bongo’s thatched roof, my injury and heartbeat throb in unison, emulating the ancient rhythms between man and his environment. I watch the water slip by, wondering if my trip is over.

After two days in the bongo piloting the Rio Orinoco, the Sipapo tributary, and finishing on the Rio Autana, we disembark at Coño Manteco Seguera. The village’s children, wild-eyed and barefoot, rush to meet our group. Strangers are a spectacle, especially white ones, and the two Brits are particularly pasty. The adults also descend to extend a warm welcome to those returning from last year. For Henry and José, this is their fourth visit to Seguera, and they recognize the village chieftain. They give him gifts of food, batteries, and clothing. We hang our hammocks, complete with bug netting, under a massive open-sided churuata and set up the dinner kitchen. Andre notes the low level of the river, and Crispin adds that the local Piaroas are experiencing drought conditions. Due to the lack of rainfall, the clouds of bugs experienced last season are, by comparison, nonexistent. Nonetheless, I am clothed head to toe, complete with a bit of bug juice, while the locals relax in shorts and tank tops. The childhood game “Which one doesn’t belong” comes to mind.

In the morning, the team ferries across the river to the trailhead. I have decided to remain in Seguera a couple of days to allow my foot more time to heal. The others begin the arduous tasks of humping loads, establishing base camp and ultimately ABC at the base of the wall. They curse my absence as I lounge in my hammock, reading an elementary school book titled, El Rey de Katoran. At nine o’clock every evening the village’s generator goes silent, the locals go back to their huts, and complete darkness descends. I close my bug net and fall asleep listening to the musical vibrations of the jungle and the river.

My foot has healed surprisingly fast, and I pack my things as my Piaroran guide Juan Pablo readies a small canoe. He is a cheerful boy of 15 and can speak enough Spanish to enable simple conversation, which mainly consists of him repeating whatever I say. “Asi es,” or “It is what it is,” becomes his instant favorite. We paddle across the river in the early morning mist and pull into the mouth of a narrow creek. I feel like an intrepid anthropologist in search of a lost race more than a climbing bum from Philly. Although it is important not to forget your roots, it is as vital to allow them to keep searching for deeper meaning.

Each of us hoists a heavy pack, and Juan Pablo leads the way with an occasional swing of his machete. The jungle is not as thick and impenetrable as I had imagined. It is more open, filled with light and continual jungle harmonies. José had told the story of the 11 days it had taken them to reach the base of the wall during last year’s attempt. They even named each camp along the way in honor of the day’s most voracious insect.

Lucho, who runs a guide service in this area, thankfully established a new direct trail to the wall. Instead of multiple days hacking and thrashing through the jungle, it is now a mere five-hour hike. I cannot help but feel that I am drinking from the Lite-beer variety of the jungle experience, as it is far less grueling. Juan Pablo loses the faint trail at times but quickly regains it after locating a freshly chopped branch. The trees overhead obscure the wall, and a powerful desire to join the campaign draws me closer. I am three days behind and wonder what progress the team has accomplished.

Base camp is deserted. The only sounds are bird chatter and Juan Pablo picking through a pile of cans and small packets. The Piaroa diet is simple, mostly fish and ground palm nuts, with the occasional wild bird or turtle thrown in for variety. He shoots me a smile and snatches an apple-flavored breakfast bar. Blue tarps stretched tight shelter the hammocks from the daily afternoon deluges. Blue barrels protect the food from the humidity and furtive marauders. Every other color is a shade of green or brown, except for Autana. The white soaring walls are like a canvas containing bold brushstrokes of salmon pink, purple, and orange. In Piaroa and Guahibo mythology, Autana is the remains of the tree of life, which connected the earth with the sky and fed the entire universe with its fruits. They believe this tree to be the birthplace of humanity.

Eventually Henry and several others come walking into base camp. They have just delivered the remainder of the wall food and stockpiled 50 liters of water at the base. They inform me that José and Crispin have jumared the fixed lines to the top of pitch nine, last year’s highpoint, and have already added two new pitches. The Arrans are below them, in the midst of their audacious plan to free climb the wall. Andre goes into an animated account of John’s ballsy, gritstone-style lead of the first pitch, “No pro, dude, it was amazing, and if he fell, broken legs for sure.” Andre would know, as he is the Tepuyero authority on broken legs and heinous evacuations.

During a 1998 attempt of Acopan Tepui with José, Scott Lazar fell 60 feet and fractured both legs, including a horrible compound of his right tib-fib. Andre carried him out, on his back, for five hours. He then ran 30 kilometers, returned in a helicopter, and essentially ensured that Lazar would not lose his badly infected leg.

Perhaps he was returning an act of kindness granted to him in 1994. It was on Kukenam Tepui, in the midst of a first ascent, that Andre fell 50 feet after dislodging a boulder. He destroyed his knee and compound fractured his ankle. His partner, Sebastian, piggybacked him to safety for three hours, marathoned 40 kilometers, and returned with a helicopter. Both Scott and Andre have permanent hardware in their legs. José’s words flash through my head, “The jungle teaches with blood and steel.” That night Henry radios the upper team and discovers that Crispin is ill. Over the last two days he has been getting progressively weaker and is now unable to eat. Henry thinks it may be hepatitis. The frogs are indifferent and serenade us to sleep. In the morning I jumar up to replace Crispin, as his illness has become too debilitating. As he descends, I think about the possibility of contracting his sickness. When I see his fatigued yellow eyes and down-turned mouth, I reach out for his daisy chain and clip him into our shared anchor. We exchange goodbyes and a hand shake and I watch him slowly disappear into the jungle canopy. That same day Lucho and Crispin hike out to the bongo and motor downriver as quickly as possible to Puerto Ayacucho. The following morning Crispin takes a flight back to Caracas, where a hospital visit confirms hep. A. He spends three days in treatment and the next year recovering. Lucho’s trip also ends prematurely, due to his selfless decision to transport his ill friend back to civilization.

Before continuing up the fixed lines, I vigorously rub my hands on the abrasive wall to “sterilize” them, as water weighs a precious eight pounds per gallon, and anyway, who brings soap on a big wall? Hernando and Andre are busy below hauling water and food in order to re-supply the Arrans and stock up Autana Spire. I tow a haul bag, with enough rations and water for two for the next five days. The rock looks ideal, and the climbing connects various sizes of cracks with well-featured face. John has freed eight pitches so far, all on-sight, and seems to be unstoppable. As I approach the anchor, I hear a few subtle grunts above and look up as John, “la Maquina” (“the machine”), proudly completes his first required red-point, a 5.13 with a 100-foot fall potential.

The distinct British tendency to risk life and limb in pursuit of a pure ascent intrigues me. For example, their grading system incorporates not only a route’s technical and strength requirements, but also the likelihood of a hospital/morgue visit. It must be something about living on an island with such a finite amount of climbing. Whatever the reasons, they generally have nerves of steel, and they perform well under extreme duress. In fact, John is so tranquil I offer to check for a pulse as I jug past.

José is peacefully napping when I reach him. I finish the haul and insert myself in one of two small caves that are like eyes peering out into the void. Two hammocks hang in front of them, like eyelids. On the floor of the cave, enormous prehistoric cockroaches scurry my way, freaking me out. They have lived here for millennia without encountering humans, and my guess is they will be around long after humankind disappears entirely. Our vantage point provides incredible views of the Orinocan jungle stretching out to the horizon, a vast carpet of green life that some describe as the earths’ verdant lungs.

We are about half way up the formation. A fixed line snakes above, suspended about 10 feet from the wall. Amazingly clean rock that overhangs at least 50 feet in the last 500 protects us from the daily thunderstorms. José prepares the rack as I slip into my climbing shoes before launching onto my first lead into the untouched, the unknown. The team has been making slow but steady progress using siege-style tactics. On lead, I fully experience the texture and hardness of the sandstone. In places, calcium precipitate covers the wall, and quartz crystals emerge. The vegetation also takes on new meaning. At the end of the pitch, I drill a two-bolt anchor, and as I adjust my position, I inadvertently poke a spike from a “wall cabbage” into my ear. Luckily, it miss my eardrum.

The plants’ shallow roots grip well on the dry, steep wall, but only a few meters away things are wet and about to get funky. John jumars up from below and swings into the lead. He tension traverses to the left, then face climbs across soaking rock, placing natural pro in excavated cracks and pockets. This is the end of the steep primo rock and the beginning of the lower angle “Welcome to the Jungle” fun and games. John places a natural anchor and brings me over. The next 50 feet is running with water and as I maneuver up, I peel off layers of vegetation to reveal horizontal cracks. I free and aid slowly, placing marginal cams. Thunderclaps rip the clouds open, releasing torrential rain. We rappel back to the dry Cave Bivy, where José and Anne are having a transcendental discussion about quantum mechanics and the afterlife.

The following morning, the Arrans descend to redpoint the crux 5.13b pitch, 40 feet of super-technical stemming and laybacking with a potential ledge fall. José and I jumar to the high point, and as I prepare for round two on my lead, John’s yell from below signals his success. The sun does not reach us until late in the day, and the waterfall dripping on my head chills me. I am sketched out, and as I weight a flared Alien it pops and I daisy-whip onto a lower piece. My finger smashes and my groin feels like I just ripped out most of pubic hair. At the end of the pitch, I peel large sections of plants and dirt off the wall like a sardine tin lid. They soar through the air, acting as Orinocan flying carpets.

At the end of my lead, I attempt in vain to gain a slimy, garden-filled ledge. José, a veteran of many tepui first ascents, yells up and tells me to take off my boots and socks in order to negotiate the traverse. Bugs wriggle between my toes and I know that by tooth or toenail, we are going to the top. I slam in a couple of bolts as José comes up. He grabs the rack and traverses to the left barefoot, aping his best jungle messiah. The setting is surreal, over 1,000 feet up on the side of an island in the sky, and there’s “Pepe” out there getting primitive. John joins us for another of his exemplary leads, and we complete five new pitches, a banner tepui day. Henry, Hernando, and Andre have committed to the wall as we only have a few pitches left to gain the top.

The rain is pouring so hard it feels like we are going to drown standing up. José and I huddle together under a tiny tarp a few feet below the remarkable summit mantle. Fortunately, I completed the final 5.4 slab and slammed in two bolts just before thunder tore open the sky and turned the place into water world. Lightening flashes around us, so close I wonder if it hit anyone below. Andre appears unscathed, followed in kind by the rest. John made the final move as the storm unleashed, completing 21 free pitches, in an impressively determined effort. Somehow, Henry and Anne brew up a pot of celebratory hot Nescafe. We cluster together, sharing body heat, drinking from a communal mug and from the experience of a lifetime.

The summit is level save for a small hill, which we bypass on our way to the East Face descent. The ground is spongy and covered with thousands of funnel shaped bromeliads and several types of carnivorous plants. It is dark; we are all soaked to the bone and the descent proves too elusive. We return to the flat, rock slabs near our top-out point and hastily erect a huge, semicircular stone windbreak. The clouds open, unveiling a brilliant full moon, and as José powers up the Manu Chao disc, Hernando begins to dance. We all follow his lead.

The next day we rappel the opposite side of the formation and fix five ropes to gain a broad, wooded ledge that leads to a setting so sublime it captures you. An ancient river has carved a series of colossal columns and channels that actually pierce the entire formation. Daylight permeates through several 100-foot tall, gaping mouths. Sun shines on the cave’s solitary tree, whose single-sided branches bend toward its touch. Henry regards it as Autana Tree, the tree within the Tree of Life.

We spend two days and nights within the cavern simply being. I sense that the wisdom and beauty discovered on this trip will resonate within me for the remainder of my life. After a meager breakfast on the second day, José and I recline on top of a flat angular boulder gazing up. The massive ceiling of the main chamber has astonishingly perfect, concentric circles that descend to a principal point, and to José’s words, “Tepuis are where it all began, this humanity chapter, the thirst for beauty, for intensity.” Serenity and sweat exude from every pore.

In January of 2003, José Luis Pereyra died from injuries sustained in a fall while climbing in Mexico. He was 40 years old. He enlightened us with his expressive hands and expansive mind. He was a funny, compassionate, philosopher who always lived in the moment. His spirit continues to climb tepuis and his words live on, “The fire rages, knowledge wins again.”

Summary of Statistics

Area: Venezuela, 400 miles south of Caracas.

Ascent: Autana Tepui, 2,400', 25 pitches. Aided and freed (5.11+ A2) by Hernando Arnal, Anne Arran, Ivan Calderon, Henry Gonzales, Tim O’Neill, José Pereyra, Xavier Potronco (2001), and Andre Vancampenhoud. Freed by John Arran (one pitch of 5.13b, two of 5.13a, two of mid- 5.12, most of the rest at 5.11). March, 2002.

A Note About the Author

Tim O’Neill, percussionist and comedian, climbs because it provides an engaging outlet for his attention-deficit affected mind and body. The focus, commitment, and athleticism required to ascend big walls, from Patagonia’s Torre Egger, to record-setting speed ascents of Yosemite’s walls, to jungle tepuis, nourish his soul. He dedicates the above story to José, “El Maestro.”