South America, Guyana, Roraima, The Scorpion Wall

Publication Year: 2004.

Roraima, The Scorpion Wall. My dream of climbing a tepui began more than 10 years ago. An article in National Geographic captured my imagination, with its photos of huge virgin rock walls soaring above a remote, mysterious jungle. Tepuis, I learned, are the remnants of a sandstone plateau that once covered an area of roughly 200,000 square miles in the heart of the Amazon. Over millions of years erosion wore down this plateau and left about 100 table-topped rock formations sticking out of the jungle. The cliffs ringing them range from 1,000' to 3,000' high and extend in some places for miles. Tepuis represent some of the biggest, yet least explored, rock walls on the planet.

In 2001 I received a grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council to lead a botanist and a biologist up a tepui wall to search for new species. While many people had studied the tops of tepuis, no one had investigated the walls themselves. We originally planned to do the trip in Venezuela, but found it impossible to get a permit from the government. We decided instead to climb and study a tepui called Roraima, which sits where Guyana, Venezuela, and Brazil meet. The president of Guyana personally invited us to approach and climb Roraima from the Guyanese side.

Our plan was to document the expedition for National Geographic Television, and at the last minute a host of people jumped on board: correspondent Mareya Mayor, scientists Bruce Means and Jesus Rivas, producer Peter Getzels, and his assistant Charlotte Mangin. Peter decided that this “A Team” would head down to Guyana first to pioneer a 50-mile trek across the jungle to the base of the wall. Then they would cut a heli pad so Jared Ogden, cameraman John Catto, and I could fly in.

Jared, John, and I arrived about a week after the A Team in 2003. We met the Guyana Defense Force and flew in with the country’s only working helicopter to meet the others. After a two-day search above the jungle, we finally found them. It took nearly five days to cover the final mile of jungle to the wall. We often found ourselves climbing vertical walls covered in mud and poorly-rooted vegetation. The section of Roraima we wanted to climb is called the Prow, an overhanging 1,300- 1,500' buttress on the north side. It had been climbed once, in 1971 by a British team made up of Mo Anthoine, Hamish MacInnes, Don Whillans, and Joe Brown.

We reached the base of the wall on March 29 under blue skies and immediately set to work. We chose a line a hundred yards or so to the left of the British Route. Our plan was to establish a free route. We fixed the first two pitches, to a hanging garden, then brought Jesus Rivas up, so he could collect his scientific samples. The A Team then left, and Jared, John, and I committed to the wall. We spent the next four nights in portaledges. Every pitch was overhanging, and most of the climbing was in the 5.10-5.11 range, with two pitches of 5.11+. We placed six bolts, at belays. We climbed everything free until the very top of the wall, where we ran into more steep vegetation. In pouring rain we pulled on a few pieces of gear. The route was too overhanging to rappel, so we called for a helicopter pick-up when we reached the summit. The Scorpion Wall (9 pitches, VI 5.11+ AO) was one of my all-time best adventures.

Mark Synnott, AAC