Leo Houlding: first ascent in ‘lost world’

Leading British adventurer and Berghaus athlete Leo Houlding has recently returned from a successful expedition to the depths of the Amazonian jungle in Venezuela.  Leo, along with his close knit team of climbers and local fixers, and expedition film maker Alastair Lee, took on a complex and ambitious journey to achieve a first ascent of the east face of Cerro Autana (1400m), one of the Amazon’s most remote and sacred mountains.  Leo was joined on the expedition by fellow climbers and Berghaus athletes Jason Pickles and Sean Leary, filmmakers Alastair Lee and David Reeves, and local adventurers Yupi Rangel and Alejandro Lamus.


Cerro Autana is a spectacular quartzite-sandstone tepuy (table-top mountain) situated deep in the jungle in the state of Amazonas in western Venezuela.  The local Piaroa Indians revere it as the stump of the tree of life, from which all life grew.  Due to its sacred status and close proximity to the porous Colombian border, access to Autana is prohibited and extremely difficult to secure on both a national and local level.

The starting point for the expedition was the frontier town of Puerto Ayacucho, easily reached from Caracas (Venezuelan capital) by car or plane.  From there, the team made their way to the Piaroa community of Ceguera via an eight hour boat ride up the Rio Orinoco and tributary Rio Autana.  After seeking a blessing from the local Shaman and participating in a memorable Yopo ceremony, they began a four day trek through virgin jungle to establish a trail and base camp below the rarely visited east face of Autana.

The jungle provided a constant challenge for the uninitiated team.  100% humidity, 35-degree heat and torrential downpours combined with mosquitos, a plethora of flies and a dozen different species of ants, made for an irritating backdrop against the more serious menace of tarantulas, scorpions and deadly snakes.  From their hammock base camp, the team made a dangerous and complex approach to the mountain through dense jungle.

Once they reached the base of the wall that was their main objective, the adventure took on another aspect entirely.  The initial climbing involved as much vegetation as rock race and was slow going.  As the rock quality improved, Houlding, Pickles and Leary climbed above the roof of the jungle and into the incredible and very rarely visited Autana Caves (Cuevo Autana), the highest elevated cave system in the world.

A cave equal in scale and grandeur to a cathedral proved to be the finest ‘wall camp’ imaginable with fresh running water, firewood, plenty of flat ground and a truly celestial view over an uninterrupted jungle wilderness stretching for as far as the eye could see.  Above the cave the wall became incredibly steep, but a sustained push from the team eventually took them to the elusive summit.

Leo said:

“It really was a journey into a lost world.  There were so many unknowns and hazards, once in a lifetime experiences and unforgettable moments.  If it were not for their extremely inaccessible location, the Autana Caves would surely be known as one of the wonders of the world and the top of Cerro Autana was an amazing place.

“Tepuy climbing transpired to be everything we hoped for, everything that we had feared, and a whole lot more.  It was an adventure that none of us will forget.  Indiana Jones would have been proud.”

A film about the expedition is now in production and will be released later in 2012.  Directed and produced by Alastair Lee, ‘Autana – first ascent in the lost world’ will tell the story of the expedition and include footage of some of the very rarely seen locations that the team visited.  For more information about the film visit www.posingproductions.com