The first free ascent of the main Angel Falls wall, Venezuela.
In December 2004, after receiving a letter from John Arran inviting me to climb the concave wall of Angel Falls, I grabbed the telephone and began making the contacts necessary to organize a complicated expedition. I had attempted this wall twice before with John and his wife, Anne, but without success, due to logistical errors. This time it would be different, as we were perfectly aware of what lay ahead of us.
In Venezuela, big-wall climbing is not popular. No more than five climbers here are dedicated to the big-wall discipline. However, Angel Falls has become a national symbol for Venezuelans. In school we learned how important the world’s highest waterfall was to our country; our largest denomination bills are stamped with the image. For years I had dreamed of completing the climb.
Angel Falls lies in a region without any services, and even the most minute logistics of an expedition must be carefully thought out. All the necessary gear and supplies must be obtained before leaving Bolivar City, the last place where shopping can be done.
Culturally, Venezuelans aren’t so punctual, and the famous saying about arriving a half-hour late for appointments is true. This complicates expedition logistics, but with patience all will be resolved.
John and Anne arrived March 10 and began finalizing logistics.
The following day, the rest of the team—Miles Gibson, Ben Heason, and Alex Klenov—met at my
small apartment on Caracas’ east side. With five climbers and nine haul bags packed with ropes and gear inside, it literally was difficult to walk through the small space. At the market we left people in shock with the huge quantity of food we bought—almost $2,000 worth. This is a fortune for the majority of people in Venezuela.
After the 10-hour bus journey to Bolivar City, we met our final team member, Alfredo Rangel, who lives in the Gran Sabana region. Alfredo is an expert on the tepuis, the flat-topped mountains of the region, and furthermore is an excellent expedition chef. We had to charter flights into the Kamarata region, where Angel Falls is located. The logistics of traveling in small planes (the only option) is a crucial step in the planning process—the weight and size of the luggage is critical. We used three airplanes to transport the entire team and all our gear.
The route from Bolivar City to Kamarata flies over Angel Falls, and this was the first time the majority of the team had observed our objective from the air. The magnitude of the place left a lasting impression. Fifteen minutes later we landed in the Kamarata Valley, home to an indigenous community of approximately 5,000 people belonging to the Kamaracoto ethnic group. Pemon is their language, but the majority of them also speak Spanish. These people played an important role in this expedition because they knew every centimeter of the region.
We contacted Santos, one of the community leaders, to help organize our approach, which would begin with a three-day journey downriver in a curiara, a boat the locals carve from a huge tree only found deep in the jungle. It was the end of summer and the river was low, so we would need the local knowledge and manpower to make it through. This route is incredibly beautiful, running along jungles and green savannahs and through dark red water that gives the place a mysterious feeling.
We took advantage of the journey to begin organizing all the logistics of the climb. Our first mishap happened while pushing the canoe through a shallow section of the river. A small crocodile appeared, and Ben, the only one of us with a phobia of these animals, almost stepped on its head in his bare feet. He was back in the boat in less than a second, yelling, “Crocodile! Crocodile!” It was a surprise, as one normally doesn’t see crocodiles in this region.
After two nights of camping on the river’s shore, we reached Isla Raton (Rat Island), the last point where the curiara can travel. That same day we began carrying loads toward base camp, two hours away. La Cueva de Los Españoles (Spanish Cave) is a huge, leaning block that provides refuge for three tents. It’s not very comfortable, but from there it is just 20 minutes to the base of the wall. The following days were filled with work. Since we were not using porters, we carried all the gear ourselves.
The intensity of the climb became clear right away. Several days of heavy rain had swollen the waterfall, making the outlook bleak for the first two pitches, now wet and extremely slippery. Ben and Miles encountered many difficulties climbing the first 200 meters. Meanwhile, the rest of the team carried all the food and gear to the base of the climb. Ironically, considering the wet early pitches and the enormous waterfall nearby, one of the most complicated aspects of this climb is that not a single drop of water is available on the upper wall. We decided to carry 300 liters. Once all the gear was at the base, we immediately began hauling. Every night, John, as expedition leader, would organize logistics for the following day, and the work was shared evenly. For every two days of climbing, we each did three days of carries.
It took five days to fix the first 300 meters of the route. Alfredo kept us well supplied with food, of which his morning bread was the most appreciated. Once the entire team was on the wall, we organized on three distinct levels, 100 meters apart, and communicated by radio.
Climbing consistently overhanging and poor rock creates a subtle yet ever-present tension. The English climbers were very comfortable with poorly protected and run-out pitches. The ethic was strict: our goal was an all-free ascent and to place no bolts for protection. (We used only two pitons on the route.) We would on sight whatever we could and redpoint what we couldn’t, sometimes leaving protection in place.
After three days on the wall, we found a huge ledge above the 11th pitch, where for the first time the entire team could reunite with all the gear. This was a very special night. We had a little party, with a great dinner and Peter Tosh and Bob Marley entertaining us. We were getting close to the most overhanging section of the route, baptized by the Spanish as the Derribos Arias (Demolition Zone) because of the awful rock quality. Alex, Ben, John, and Miles were in charge of figuring out this section, which had numerous pitches of E6 and E7. At least the totally overhanging wall facilitated hauling the bags to Camp 4, located at the beginning of a big roof exiting the wall, where the view was spectacular and the roof provided a respite from the wind and rain.
After 10 days on the wall, the team was working tightly together, each one doing his job solidly and professionally. Confidence reigned and we had totally bonded. All modesty had disappeared, and going to the bathroom had turned into a comedy. Whoever was taking care of his personal business would participate in conversations as if the bad smell was the only issue. Still, there was a lot of uncertainty because the route was so overhanging. Each night when those who had been working on the route returned, our first question was if they could see the top. The answer: two more pitches. This was how the next four days passed. The last section of the route was extremely technical; the rock was broken and the climbing was insecure, and on top of this we wanted to climb the route as cleanly as possible. We placed only five bolts on the route, used to anchor the bivouacs.
On the 11th day on the wall we arrived at Camp 5, our last bivy and the most comfortable: a ledge one meter wide and fifteen meters long, big enough to hold the entire team. Alfredo created a celestial sound with his flute, entertaining us as we were relaxing. The energy that exists in this place is indescribable, and in these moments it filled all of us. Still, after 12 nights of bivying without a sleeping bag, I was ready to get to the top. All that was left for food was Ramen, sardines, and water whose quality had degraded considerably. Physically, we all were eroding from the constant work. On the 13th day of living on the wall and the 18th day of climbing, Miles topped out at approximately 2 p.m. When he yelled, “I am at the top!” there were shouts of celebration and laughter from everyone. That night we had another small party, eating huge amounts of food and hydrating as best we could.
The 19th day was a general workday, cleaning the bivouac site and hauling all the loads toward the summit. By 5 p.m. we were all at the top with our gear. After so many years of training and thinking about this wall, this was a very special day for me, and part of my spirit could finally rest. We had a good fire that night, a cave for our bivouac, and even a visit from a coati.
The following morning we linked together all the ropes, totaling approximately 1,100 meters. We tied two huge haul bags to the end, lowered them, and then threw everything off the steep wall to the ground. The haul bags landed 100 meters out from the base of the route, demonstrating its angle.
We descended via an existing route a half hour’s walk away: 29 rappels on steep rock and 300 meters in vertical jungle. We then walked another hour back to base camp, where lots of food and two bottles of vodka awaited our celebration. The route is named Rainbow Jambaia in honor of the rainbows that formed every day in the waterfall’s mist and the initials of each expedition member’s name.
Area: Auyan Tepui, Gran Sabana, Venezuela
Route: Rainbow Jambaia (31 pitches, E7 6b): All-free ascent of the Angel Falls wall, following the general line of Ruta Directa (1,150m, VI 6b A4, Gálvez-Medinabeitía, 1990), with many variations and an independent finish for the final eight pitches; Anne and John Arran (U.K.), Ivan Calderón (Ven.), Miles Gibson (U.K.), Ben Heason (U.K.), Alex Klenov (Rus.), and Alfredo Rangel (Ven.), March 18-April 5, 2005.
A Note About the Author:
Ivan Javier Calderon Andrade was born in 1972 and started to climb at 16 at La Guarita, near his hometown of Caracas. He learned to climb big walls in Yosemite Valley and has since climbed many Venezuelan tepuis, including half a dozen first ascents, as well as other routes throughout the Andes. He works as guide and hopes to move soon to Monagas with his wife and four-year-old daughter to open a climbing school.