Roraima Quest: deep in the Amazon jungle of Guyana Leo Houlding and team will be sharing their adventure in real time, right here.
Leo’s expeditions are never dull – inspiring audiences around the world for as long as we can remember, with mind blowing locations and hardcore adventure right at the center of every story. Not forgetting the fact that with Leo, there’s always plenty of laughs along the way too.
Watch the expedition team’s diary unfold as they explore the heights of the Lost World…
6th – 7th November 2019
The team – (l-r) Wilson Cutbirth, Waldo Etherington, Leo Houlding, Anna Taylor, Matt Pycroft, Dan Howard – photo Coldhouse Collective & BerghausAfter leaving from various locations earlier this week, the full team safely reached Guyana – Leo Houlding, Anna Taylor, Waldo Etherington, Wilson Cutbirth, Matt Pycroft and Dan Howard.
The first two days in country were mostly spent “faffing”, an essential process before heading into the jungle. Bags were repacked ready for each stage of the mission. The logistics are incredibly complex, with a lot of the equipment being packed into haul bags ready to throw out of a plane and parachuted to the base of the wall.
The rest of the kit (including an essential special delivery of local rum) was made ready to take to Philippi. Leo will then distribute it to a series of porters to be walked the 50 miles through the jungle. Some of the team spent the first evening at the airport meeting the pilots and beginning to prepare for the drop, which should happen today.
After more faffing, the team had a lot of work to do, strapping the drop loads together, and then rigging the parachutes to the bags. It took a while, as it all had to be done precisely and perfectly.
Leo and Waldo have spent hours/days/weeks developing all of the systems. Even the parachutes were custom made and packed for the job. Early on in her first expedition, Anna’s passion and enthusiasm for all of the details is evident. She seems to be unphased by what they’re all about to do, while simultaneously accepting that it’s going to be difficult for everyone and, for her, a massive learning curve.
Anna is not the only person experiencing something very new. During his briefing with Leo, the pilot of the aircraft (that will drop the kit) listened to the full plan and smiled:
“I’ve flown through these jungles all my life. I’ve flown passengers all over, and have had soldiers jump out of my plane. But, this is new stuff for me.”
The Bag Drop
The drop worked!
A high pressure morning with no margin for error. Flying around the jungle for the first time was sensational, but the mountain was surrounded by cloud. The pilot told us that the weather wasn’t quite good enough to drop at our intended site, and we were low on fuel and it actually looked like the drop might be off completely. But, Leo spotted a lower site, and we whipped the plane around to see if it was feasible. Experience played out, and the first load was dumped out of the plane. The parachutes are rigged in a very specific way so that the bags hit the floor before the parachutes get snagged in the trees, so they took a little longer to deploy than usual which made for a pretty tense moment as we waited for the chute to pressurise. But, after about 5 seconds we saw the canopy fill, and the lads went wild.
Minutes later we touched down in Phillipai and met our porters and guides, distributed kit and spent a night in a hammock camp at the airstrip. Now, as we write this, we’re moments away from shouldering our packs and taking our first steps into the rainforest.
Because of weight limits, Anna and Dan travelled in a separate plane with the porter loads, and the rest of us met them in Phillipai.
The journey begins for real now!
8th – 10th November
We’ve spent the last two days in the jungle, and have made good progress. We set off in the morning of the 9th of November, shouldered our loads and took our first steps into the jungle. Because this part of the rainforest is so close to the Phillipai, the trails are good and it was fairly easy going to start with. Heavy packs and high humidity, but the weather is stable and conditions are fine for walking.
Half way through the first day we stopped for lunch at a river bend, and the full team went in for a swim, clothes and all. You get so wet with sweat and humidity that it makes little difference, and actually gives you a chance to freshen up your clothes as well as keep cool for the next section of the walk. The afternoon was much the same, but the trail definitely thinned a little and the local guides had some machete hacking to do.
We arrived at our first camp early in the day. We’re moving at a quick pace and spirits are high. Hammocks were slung and the locals built a bench and seats for us in a matter of minutes. The team spent the evening hanging out, chatting about the next stage of the process and generally taking it all in.
Anna is adapting to jungle life extremely well, and very quickly. She has a quiet, stoic approach to everything, and just gets on with whatever is thrown at her. The river crossings are trees strategically felled to crest a bridge. They’re mossy, slippery and some have serious consequence if you were to stumble. Anna walks across them like they’re nothing, with no nonsense, as if she’s been doing it for years. The temperature, humidity, and general war of attrition that is expedition life doesn’t seem to be affecting her, but the entire team will be put to the rest as this next week progresses.
Edward, one of the local porters who helped on a few previous expeditions here tells us that as we get closer, the weather will deteriorate. The mist will roll in regularly, and we have been told to expect rain frequently. He’s incredibly knowledgeable, and Leo turns to him regularly when he’s making plans for the coming days, as well as the entire expedition. Edward has expressed a serious interest in coming up the wall with us, and his passion and enthusiasm are obvious, and genuine. Time will tell.
Roraima Quest – Leo, along with Edward and locals.
Today (10th November) was much the same, but the jungle we walked through was evidently older, thicker and lesser trod. The trees are getting bigger, and the path is littered with fallen trees, roots, stumps and the creek and river crossings are much more frequent, and often serious. At the end of the day we walked through a tiny settlement that is the family home for one of the porters. They shared some kasava juice, bread and cooked chillis with us which we exchanged for some of our day food, and Leo bought a leg of wild hog and kasava bread for us all to share.
It’s been a brilliant introduction to the jungle for those that haven’t experienced it before, and a real reminder of why we travel to these places for those that have. We’re consciously avoiding becoming complacent though, as were expecting the terrain to get steeper and denser, and the weather to get much worse.
Today was another jungle bashing day. We left in good time this morning, and the full team are starting to have their systems nailed. The conditions have been perfect, we couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to this harsh environment. When the rain arrives and things get wet our systems will be really put to the test.
Our third day of trekking through the rainforest and the scenery is changing again. The terrain is becoming steeper and we had a our first few tastes of ascent as well as a number of further sketchy river crossings and log . At high pass we caught our first glimpse of Roraima. It’s often shrouded in cloud, but it put on a show for a little while before becoming enveloped once again and disappearing. We took it as a good omen that it showed its face so early on in our trip.
The last part of today’s journey involved a steep incline in blazing hot sunshine to reach Wai Ling (why-long phonetically. Please google) village. This took its toll on all of us, and for the first time we really felt like this environment is starting to up the ante. But we were well rewarded, as the village sits atop a plateau only a hundred meters from one of the most sensational, wild waterfalls we’ve ever seen. The team scrambled down to peer over the edge, which was no way feat in itself, and cooled down and washed in the river further upstream. We’re spending the night here tonight, before two long across the next plateau.
As the miles go by we feel like we’re drawing closer to the mountain, but we’re all hyper aware that we still have so far to go. May the weather gods continue to be kind, We’ve barely even begun.
Part IV – “Jungle bashing”
12th – 15th November
After over a week of trekking and almost 100km of jungle bashing we’ve arrived at basecamp. The final day was a real slog of almost constant uphill. The team felt the change in terrain, and everyone was really feeling the steep ascent and the humidity.
We are all super relieved when en route we stopped, abandoned our packs and left the trail to go and find the parachute loads.
The team collecting and collating the drop loads
Four of the Amerindian locals have spent over 20 days in the jungle cutting the trail. They saw us drop our bags and guided us directly to it. All the parachutes landed their loads without breakage but not quite without incident. One of the haul bags landed in a pond just off to the side of the open scar we were aiming for, and got fully submerged in the water. As luck wouldn’t have it, this was the haul bag that had our generator in it, which we desperately need to be able to film and send out the pictures and video you’re all seeing. Once up to camp, one of the hardier guides, Henry, spent the evening cleaning and drying the generator out before it spluttered into life. He ended the ordeal by asking if we could now charge the head torch Leo had sent for him in advance. We were very happy to oblige.
Once at basecamp, we got the main mess area rigged quickly in case of rain, built our hammock camp off to the south side and then used one of the parachutes to build a tipi style area to store all of the equipment. We ate a meal as a team of 21. Six climbing team, the porters, the guides and the trail builders. It would be our last night as a full unit before ten guys left the next morning, leaving us with five Amerindians as our vertical-terrain porters.
As this is written, Leo, Waldo, Wilson and Edward are debating the best way to get our mass of equipment up the vertical jungle slime and to the base of the wall proper.
Part V – Roraima’s face in all its glory
16th – 18th November
Today (18th) was a real day of days. We planned to wake up early and watch the sunrise from the penthouse hill behind our camp, but the rain began at around midnight and torrential rain fell all night, and into the morning. We ate breakfast and drank coffee with the sense that the wet season had come a little early, and this might be it for the rest of our expedition.
The first part of the day was spent packing loads, and teaching the local Amerindians how to use harnesses and prep ascending kit. Ten of the porters have now left us and headed home, and we remain as a team of eleven. Six climbers and five porters/guides.
Yesterday, Waldo and Wilson pre-rigged 300 meters of the slime forest that separates us from the prow of Mount Roraima, and today we went up there as a full team. It is something else completely. Within minutes we were soaking wet. We may as well have been swimming. By the time we got up the first few fixed lines we were coated with mud and slime, but everyone took it in their stride and it felt like a real mission. To be honest, the whole team thought it was brilliant, and it was one of our favourite days so far, even though it was likely the hardest.
Leo doing some very hardcore gardening high up in the slime forest.
Our intention at this stage is to ferry all of our equipment to the top of the vertical slime forest, across the El Dorado swamp above, and through a bromeliad laden hill to the base of the prow. The slime forest and the hill above are like something from another world. We’ve all been blown away by the place, and it’s very difficult to describe just how muddy, slimy and ancient the place is. It took us five hours to reach the top, with Leo breaking trail with Anna, Waldo and Wilson keeping the porters safe and Matt and Dan jumping between to get everything filmed and photographed.
The place is wild, but getting up close to Roraima was something else entirely. We could see the face in all its glory, and the rain stopped for just long enough to glance up and spend time assessing where we might go in terms of picking a line. Due to the weather, waterfalls are flowing from the summit left right and centre, and standing underneath Roraima it becomes apparent just how steep it really is.
The next few days will be spent ferrying loads up through the slime forest so that we can establish an advanced basecamp. We’ve embraced the slime and the mud, but we could do without the rain. We’ve got our fingers crossed that this isn’t the wet season come early. We’ll see.
The prow in all its glory. Little figures hulking loads in the foreground.
Part VI – “Welcome to basecamp”
After a rest day, we spent the 21st hiking and climbing up through the slime forest and across the swamp with our kit as a team. Arrived to advanced base camp just before dark, and the parachute we’d rigged was leaking, and some of the kit was wet. Waldo and Anna spent a while rebuilding things as Leo and Wilson covered the last 200m of slime forest to the base of the prow and start of the rock. The lads came back down and helped with the rerig, and rebuilt using a giant tarp that was left here from a previous expedition.
The 22nd was a day of two halves. We spent the morning finishing off advanced base camp and making the best we could of the boggy ridgeline. In the end we agreed that whilst it would do if it had to, it’s not an ideal staging post and the call was made to build a hanging wall camp with portaledges at the base of the prow on a good set of rocky ledges. The full team went up to the base and got the first bits of our wall camp fixed.
Yesterday we all moved up to the wall camp at the base of the prow which is precarious but miraculously remains dry. No more jungle and mud except for the 200m slog up steep, thick terrain to ferry loads from advanced base camp.
Having considered our options we have decided to attempt the prow direct sharing the same start as the 1973 British route. The prow is so steep higher up that even though it was raining Leo and Wilson were able to begin free climbing the first extremely vegetated and dirty pitches sheltered from the rain. It was slow going on loose rock but now the route has begun with the boys making it to the cabbage (bromeliad) patch and reporting cleaner rock ahead.
Waldo and Anna made a crucial water supply on the dripping wet, westerly side of the prow using a tarp to catch the drips. Impressively our wall camp is now stocked with 70 litres of water and food for 2 weeks.
Being organised and well prepared is critical up here. Resources are limited to what we have with us, and there’s no chance of a resupply on an expedition like this. Everything is catalogued and organised at camp, and Waldo is making sure we have enough water to last if the weather holds and we don’t have rain for a few days (next joke…).
Finally after 2 weeks of trekking and ferrying loads and months of planning we are in position to begin our big wall ascent. What an approach! Tomorrow we’ll be heading into some clean looking rock leading into some remarkably steep terrain and hopefully a decent ledge 150m up called Trantula Terrace.
The views are beyond spectacular and despite the daily rain we are making positive progress in this incredible environment.
Part VII – Working the ropes
25th – 27th November
It’s fair to say we’ve fully switched into big wall mode. We’re established in our portaledge camp at the base of the wall, and all eight of us have slotted into the lifestyle pretty easily. As wall camps go, it’s about as comfortable as it gets, a terrace of ledges the width of a pavement, totally dry, protected from the torrential downpours by the giant roofs and overhangs above. It’s a sweet hang but danger is present, there is a thousand foot drop into the misty forest below one slip away so we’re clipped to a safety line with a sling around our waists at all times.
We’ve been carrying on our jungle routine of rising with the sun and settling down with it too. The weather is often best at first light, and we’ve been met with golden sunrises to accompany hot coffee almost every morning. The mist generally rolls in throughout the day, and we get sporadic rain squalls interspersed with low hanging mist and partial cloud. Two nights in a row we’ve eaten our dinner by head-torch light as the sounds of the harsh weather storm their way in. We hear the thunder first, and then the wall camp is lit up momentarily by flashes of lightning penetrating the mist.
Amazingly despite the storms the rock on our chosen line is just dry enough to climb.
Leo pulling through the hard, steep section on pitch 5 after placing the bolt on lead.
In terms of climbing, Leo led up climbing free and on-sight from our last high point into pitch 3, which follows the 1973 British route. A long, loose, steep corner, it was littered with large blocks and chock full of moss, bromeliads and a fair few dangerous scorpions. Climbing this sort of pitch if it were a at a Lakeland crag would be a three star experience, but here it’s a fear inducer. With his belayer below, and his own ropes to think about, Leo doesn’t want to be knocking these microwave sized blocks off by accident. These pitches take a long time as you treat them like a vertical gardening and rockery project, all whilst hanging off small crimps in the mist and the wind after two weeks trekking through the jungle. A three star experience for very different reasons.
This pitch topped us out onto Tarantula Terrace. The name is not ironic, and just today Troy found a tarantula in his boot whilst watching Anna climb. More on that later. The pitch that leads out from Tarantula Terrace was originally a bolt ladder, climbed by Mo Antoine on the ‘73 expedition. Wilson pulled the stops out and quested on up Mo’s line on aid. The wall of pitch 4 is featured, but it’s hard, sustained climbing and would be difficult to on-sight (free climbing, without pulling on the gear you place without falling off). Wilson had a quick go on a top rope as a passing effort, but his role on this trip is primarily to push the rope higher up the wall with Leo, and the baton was passed to Anna. She spent the first session working the moves on top rope, over 150m above our camp, and 250m+ above the rain-forest below. The mist rolled in and rushed past for hours, like watching a week’s worth of weather whip past beneath you in super speed. Anna got most of the moves on the route worked out quickly, but there’s a crux low down on the pitch that took some time to get her head around. When it came time to try the route on lead the next day, Anna gave it three good goes but lobbed off the reachy crux move each time. After her first fall she came back down to Tarantula Terrace in a really good head-space. She said that taking a fall up here had broken the fear barrier. We’re a long way from civilization, and we’d be relying on emergency helicopter services in case of rescue, and they can only bail us out in certain weather circumstances. The consequences of an injury here do not bear thinking about (although Leo and Waldo have spent months putting together a complex casualty evacuation plan). With her fear of falling on the wall removed in this instance, Anna gave it two more goes but it just wasn’t to be. She’s mentioned that the strain of the trip has really started to take its toll. Motivation has wavered, and thoughts of home have started to creep in. However, Anna set off up the ropes this morning gritting her teeth and determined to get it done. She set off confidently, but couldn’t quite stick the move and had a fall yet again. Frustration was obviously setting in, but Anna calmed herself down and took a moment to try the sequence again on top rope. Altering the way she made the moves, Anna worked out a better way to get it done, and on her next attempt she cruised past the crux and made it to the first rest. Taking time to shake her arms out, Anna knew that it was far from over and there was every chance she’d slip off the harder moves above. But she kept her cool, and seemingly effortlessly topped out a few minutes later, wild with joy. Anna mentioned this morning, when she wasn’t sure if it was possible or not, that she really wanted to contribute to this ascent. She held her own on the arduous war of attrition that was the walk in, but wanted to make her mark on the wall and show that she is well placed to be here. Today she did just that, as one of the jewels in the crown of this world class wall goes free, setting us up to focus on the rest of the hard climbing above.
Anna post lead! Physced.
Whilst all this was happening, Leo and Wilson were at the sharp end of our expedition, pushing the rope up higher. At the top of pitch 4 Leo decided to break away from the ‘73 route and trend left. From the ground we could see a series of roofs that we wanted to traverse, but weren’t sure if there would be a break underneath them, or if we’d need to go over them. Arriving at the top of pitch 4, it was obvious that the line would go above the roofs on a series of ledges. Leo set off with a full free climbing rack, and made his way across the traverse on good ledges. But the shelves quickly became thinner and sloppier, and the gear options disappeared. Arriving on a tiny foot-wide ledge on top of a giant roof high above the jungle floor, Leo shouted over to Wilson to send the drill over. Leo pulled across the top thin tag line and placed a bolt whilst precariously balanced in this wild position, reliant solely on the gear placements a long way away and risking a huge swing into the misty, bottomless abyss should he slip. Clipping the bolt with a sigh of relief, he continued to trend left above the roof. Making wild moves, heel hooking and cutting loose, he continued to traverse on-sight, climbing ground that has never been touched by human hands. Seeing a crack system above, Leo started upwards again, onto what looked like comparatively easier ground. But higher up, the wall became steeper and the holds were less positive, and it was a real fight to carry on the pitch on-sight. Thrutching through a thin flake, Leo arrived at what we’ve been calling Invisible Ledge. Waldo has been here before with a private client, and was able to take a photo looking down the face. It was this photo that turned Leo’s idea into a reality, and this ledge has always been an objective for the trip, assuming there was a line that would be climbable above and below. From the ground it’s indistinguishable, hence the name ‘Invisible Ledge’. But arriving there, Leo realised its better than we’d even hoped. It’s 3ft thick and about 30ft wide, a perfect staging post for our next wall camp. We’re a few days from setting it up, and our lower wall camp is an ace place to hangout and recuperate, so we’ll stay here as long as is feasible.
Meanwhile, between bouts of belaying Anna with his usual wild, infectious enthusiasm, Waldo has spent his time training Edward and Troy on the rope techniques they’ll need to make it to the top of the wall. They’ve taken to it incredibly quickly, and after a few practice sessions they spent today ascending three pitches of fixed rope up to Tarantula Terrace. Arriving at the top, Troy clipped into the fixed anchor then started frantically fidgeting with his boot complaining of a biting pain. He’d jumarred 150 meters on his second ever day of rope access with a tarantula in his boot that had bitten him twice. He seemed unphased, but Waldo, Anna and Dan couldn’t believe he was so calm and chilled. These Amerindian guys are remarkable, and the wild encounters we’re experiencing as a team are regular occurrences for them. With the ropes, big walling and portaledges an obvious exception.
The adventure continues…
Part VIII – ‘Ground school and demos’
28th – 29th November
The following is a piece of writing from Waldo, about teaching Troy and Edward, (the Amerindians who are attempting to join us en route to the summit) how to ascend and descend ropes safely.
Today I gave Troy and Edward their first proper lesson in rope safety and navigating ropes on a big wall. They’ve both seen and used some of the gear before, whilst helping us carry loads on the steeper sections of the approach. I would say getting up ropes covered in mud and slime and entwined with the trees is a solid introduction to jumaring and has given them a head start in the learning process.
Ground school. Talking through the kit and techniques. Troy on the left, Edward in the middle.
Despite their experience we started from scratch, by afternoon we had started training in basic rope manoeuvre. I love teaching people about ropes and climbing, teaching Troy and Edward was no exception; the moment their feet left the ground their faces lit up and I felt as if I was reliving my first time climbing up a rope with all the gear. Edward was up the rope first and with a technique that is hard to improve upon. Troy didn’t need any help as he connected his ascenders to the rope and began climbing, when I quizzed them on the names of all the kit, karabiners, Pivot belay device, ascenders, prussics they had remembered it all.
To be able to give these skills to others is a pleasure that will never grow old. For Troy and Edward I believe the whole idea of getting to the summit, as they have dreamed about, suddenly seemed possible and the reality of this is what lit up their faces. For the first time since meeting us they fully understood what it involves to follow us to the summit, and have started to realise that we’re all only half mad.
Part IX – “We’re not in panic mode yet!”
We are commencing the final push. We’re not in panic mode just yet, but we’re certainly aware of how little time we have left to reach the summit. At the time of writing (0700 on 30th Nov) we have 5 working days to hit the summit as a full team, with all of our kit, and hopefully a fully free-climbed new route below us.
Yesterday Waldo spent part of the day hauling bags by himself to Invisible Ledge in order to increase climbing time. More often than not the team would haul as one unit, but Waldo is a rare breed, and the combination of his strength, fitness and technical knowledge of rope systems allows him to do solo what many would need a partner to do effectively. He likely does it quicker too, and with much greater enthusiasm. “I don’t know why people don’t like hauling. It’s brilliant!” Anna stayed down at the wall camp to clip the loads onto the end of the line and guide them out, whilst also receiving the line again after the haul is complete.
Leo and Wilson having been slowly but steadily pushing the line directly through the steepest, most improbable part of the prow alternating leads. Wilson led a ling winding pitch, sporty at the start. A block the size of a big double breasted American refrigerator guards had to be negotiated before continuing into bumpy, steep terrain for the duration.
Then Leo was up, leading off what has been called The Anvil. At the end of Wilson’s pitch is a giant block that he had to nervously climb to reach a belay. From here, Leo led into the start of the pitch with a bold dyno boulder problem almost straight off the belay. No mean feat in this environment. This band of rock was extremely solid and remarkably dry. The climbing above looked like it would be hard and might require bolts, but as Leo moved into it he realised it was more featured than it appeared but now wet, slippery and loose. Leo managed the pitch onsight, topping out onto a small, flat topped tower before promptly being hammered by a heavy rain storm making for a soaked descent.
Leo doing what he does best.
From there, next day it was Wilson’s lead through good climbing on clean rock in an amazing corner. The pitch breaks left into steep, broken rock where the wall really starts to tip back. Route finding was difficult and a long process with a stinger move right at the end with a huge reach off a two finger pocket.
Once again our line winds its way through insanely overhanging terrain on devious corners and hanging slabs, around enormous horizontal roofs that serve to keep the wall dry yet we manage to circumnavigate these vicious free climbing obstacles with uncannily low angle climbing.
Our high point currently rests at the top of Leo’s last pitch which is hardest of the route. Beginning with a hard move off the belay, it moves into three stepped roofs on increasingly loose rock. Gear placements were frequent, but place in questionable rock which makes for nervous, careful, extremely testing climbing. Very sustained, the pitch was a real ordeal, requiring constant assessment of whether or not the rock he’s pulling on and placing gear into will hold. Using an immense amount of rack, Leo battled upwards for 90 minutes before getting shut down about 4ft from the easy ground, where the on-sight for the pitch, (and the entire route as Leo had either led or seconded everything on-sight to this point) ended in a loose, dirty horror show. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to ascend any further but after some time he committed to the next sequence and dived into the overhanging vegetation and, thank god, found good gear. A pitch to return to free climb properly at some point in the next few days.
Dan on invisible ledge.
Those last two pitches were much more sustained, with Leo and Wilson using a lot up upper body strength and energy to do what they do best. On-sight free climbing on a first ascent of this kind is a type of climbing exclusive to itself. It’s not as simple as reaching up for the next hold and pulling on it. Often, they’ll reach up and grab a hand hold, pull up on it, inspect what’s up there, lower down to full arm extension and take a second to think, pick a piece of gear, pull up again, place the gear, check it’s good, lower down to full extension again, plan the next sequence, reach up again and make the moves. Not to mention the tarantulas and scorpions that lurk in the cracks and crevices we reach blindly into! The amount of energy it takes to climb a pitch here is vast, and as they discussed this morning, the technical climbing grade that these pitches are given in no way reflects the difficulty of leading it all on-sight, ground up. Today they are eating breakfast and drinking coffee with tired arms and sore hands. But we’re not at the top yet, and we don’t have to he luxury of time to dawdle. Onward and upwards is the order of the day, and things will remain that way until all eight people are stood on the summit. To make matters slightly more complicated, we’re running a little low on food. We had to donate much more than we’d expected to the porters for their return journey, so for the last little while we’ve been on a rotation that sees us having half rations every other day. We’re on the right side of the calorie deficit, but we wouldn’t want to live like this for too much longer, especially after our long trek through the humid rain-forest where we all lost a fair amount of weight.
The commute to the sharp end of the ropes is now significant, and is a real energy sapper in itself. We intend to move our wall camp up to Invisible Ledge, around half way up the wall and move up there en-mass. Waldo has the added challenge of guiding Edward and Troy up there safely. Living up there will be a double edged sword. On one hand it’s the perfect staging post for finishing the route and getting the last few pitches done. On the other, living as a team of eight on that skinny ledge presents a whole wealth of difficulties including the amount of water we need, the safety concerns about having inexperienced team members in a full on big wall ledge camp, and of course the added cluster that is created by eight bodies living on a rocky ledge the size of a small, skinny hallway. In addition, our lower wall camp is almost always sheltered from the weather. We get a little bit of wind and occasionally the rain/mist drifts in, but largely it’s been incredibly comfortable. Invisible Ledge is more exposed, and is more regularly subjected to rain storms and water run off from above.
The clock is ticking, and whilst action is required, so is meticulous scheming and planning. The positioning of team members and the allocation of responsibilities is critical if we’re all to make it to the summit in time for the evening of the 4th November.
Part X – “The last push”
The last few days have been a whirlwind.
Just after our last update, we set up our camp on Invisible Ledge. A 3ft wide, 30ft long perfectly flat slab, Wilson described at as ‘the ledge a big wall climber would draw if they were to design the perfect hang out. Big enough to give you space to live, but small enough so that you don’t lose the exposure and feeling of being on the wall. We arrived in good weather, and had a great first night in the ledge. The weather went downhill from there, but that didn’t stop the team…
Leo and Wilson battled it out on the second half of the route largely as a duo, climbing almost the entire route on-sight. Anna’s pitch lower down was the first impasse that she thwarted, but higher up Leo was subjected to hard climbing on wet holds, and blew the on-sight of a steep, loose pitch less than 4ft from the belay.
Burt despite this brief setback, and that pitch technically not going free as Leo took a fall, Leo, Wilson and Waldo summited on the 2nd December, at around 1620. They had to clamber through more wet, vegetated rock after the main climbing had subsided, and arrived in pretty good weather conditions, given what we’ve been faced with since the rainy season started. They spent a little while on the summit, but the job was far from done. We needed to get the full team and all our kit to the top, and Leo was determined to get those last few moves dialed and the full route free climbed.
Invisible ledge glory shots
The 3rd December was a brutal day weather-wise, and Leo made the call that most of the team would stay at Invisible Ledge whilst he went up the ropes with Waldo and Wilson to haul a summit bag to the top that contained enough gear for the full team to survive the night, albeit uncomfortably, if we failed to haul the rest of our kit quickly when the time came. That day, Anna spent the day in camp on Invisible Ledge with Troy and Edward, as well as Matt the Dan. They spent the day hiding from the rain as best they could, but got caught out a few times and had to take cover in the portaledges. Leo, Waldo and Wilson gathered up soaking wet ropes, arriving back at the summit and rigged a camp as best they could. The summit is not an ideal hangout, but more on that shortly.
Wilson making light work of the invisible pitch straight out of bed on the Invisible ledge. Guarded by a huge American style refrigerator at the top, it’s a real headspace tester.
The 4th December was the big day. Anna set off to jumar to the summit first thing, closely followed by Edward and Troy who were being watched over by Waldo. Dan joined these four to document their journey to the summit. Anna has taken to this entire expedition lifestyle, skill set and mentality like a true pro, and lowered herself off Invisible Ledge with a huge grin on her face. Edward and Troy followed under Waldo’s careful eye. Slightly more nervous than Anna, but still in good spirits, their second long jump session was to be on a series of massively overhanging fixed lines on one of the proudest and most imposing big walls in the wall. But in true Amerindian style, they just got on with it with a stoic mentality and arrived at the summit alongside Waldo, joining Anna and Dan in beautiful light, just as the sun was starting to dip toward the horizon.
Whilst all of this was going on, Leo, Wilson and Matt packed up Invisible Ledge and prepared four haul bags, ready for one massive haul to the summit in a ‘oner’. After this, they spent some time photographing Wilson on one of the pitches near the ledge, before heading up to the upper section of the wall where Leo had unfinished business.
Leo spent a short time inspecting the pitch on a top rope before tying into the sharp end and dispatching it quickly. But the pitch did not go down without a fight, and he was giving it absolutely everything to get this done with less than 24 hours to go until our scheduled helicopter ride from the summit.
Arriving at the summit in the dying light, Leo, Waldo, Wilson and Matt spent a couple of hours hauling the bags from Invisible Ledge to the summit. Before the other three arrived, Waldo was at first hauling solo, then enlisted Dan before backup arrived at the end. Once the bags were at the top they needed another quick haul to the true summit before being ferried through the quagmire that is the summit of Mount Roraima, to our summit camp a few hundred meters away. This commute was done in the driving rain, with mist so thick, you couldn’t see more than 10ft in front of you. Arriving into camp we dumped the gear, and began unpacking the haul loads. The tents were set up already, but everything else was packed away. We ate freeze dried food as a team of eight, for the last time, and had chocolate mousse and a cup of coffee with a nip of rum as a summit reward. A job well done, and a night well enjoyed.
A rapid fire shot at the summit.
The following morning, we awoke to fog and haze. Not good for helicopter flying. But we received the news that the chopper would be with us momentarily, and frantically packing we uh-med and ah-ed about whether or not the helicopter cool realistically land in this weather. But almost as if by magic the clouds parted at the perfect moment to allow the bird to touch down. We grabbed a couple of photos of the climbers and Amerindians at the summit, before hopping aboard and flying away, high above the waterfalls, jungle and prow that we’ve schemed, dreamed of, waded and wandered through for what feels like a very long time.
During their close out interviews, each of the four original climbers commented without prompting that journeying through this landscape and up the wall with the Amerindians was a unique, profound joy. Troy and Edward are the first Amerindians to scale the prow of Mount Roraima, a mountain that is sacred to the people of Amazonian Guyana. For centuries their ancestors have told stories of the ‘Mother of the Great Waters’, and there they were, stood atop the summit with their new friends. Eight equals, sharing a journey through this sensational, unique environment.
The route is yet to receive a formal name or grade, but during his recent podcast interview Leo mentioned that the grades can be misleading on routes like this. Climbing E6 in the Lake District on a summers day is a different scene to on-sighting unclimbed, loose rock a two hour helicopter flight from the nearest city. What we do have, though, is a new free-climbed route up the prow of Mount Roraima. Leo’s aim is to summit, of course, but the dream is to climb these lines free. This is, as he mentioned this morning, the first time a route has gone fully free on one of these major expeditions. The magnitude of this cannot be overstated, and is a testament to his meticulous planning, leadership and talent as an adventurer and rock climber.
Roraima Expedition – completed – 4th November 2019.