Extreme Jungle Rock

Article by Anne Arran
Monday 5th January 2009

Dreamers, climbers and explorers have a unique common ground, an inner wilderness so rich and strange that no real place can ever contain it. This is a region of endless rock, of mist rising from thousand-metre towers, of rivers of gold. And we never stop searching for new visions there; at the top of remote cliffs, in the depths of distant rainforests, at the very edge of the map.    

Angel Falls, Venezeula

Standing at 979 metres, Angel Falls (or Kerepakupay Merú to the region's indigenous people) is the world’s highest free-drop waterfall. 

At the Bar Central in Panama City in 1933, American pilot Jimmie Crawford Angel met an old prospector, John McCracken, who said he’d discovered gold nuggets in a pool below a remote waterfall. He offered Angel $3,000 to fly him to their source: a “river of gold” somewhere deep within the Gran Sabana region of Venezuela.

Of the sublime cascade named in his honour 'Angel Falls', Jimmie Crawford later said,  “I saw a waterfall that almost made me lose control of the plane!"

It was too difficult to land in such terrain, but using his altimeter he estimated the drop to be nearly 1000 metres, much higher than any other in the world.

In the heart of the moon: night in the Venezeulan jungle

Angel was to return again in 1937, and with his wife Marie Angel, Gustavo Henry, and Henry's gardener;  they landed on top of the tepui. Jimmy's monoplane settled down into marshy ground and remained there for 33 years before being lifted out by a helicopter.

Angel Falls is a veritable magnet for tourists who can now take the stomach-wrenching swoop over its ancient rim in a 4-person Cessna. An alternative approach is to fly into Kavac or Canaima and make the approach by ‘bongo’ or river boat on the rio Churún in two to three days.

Ben Heason free climbing on the epic first ascent of 'Rainbow Jambaia'

The Falls’ Rainbow Jambaia took us 19 days to free climb and included  31 tasty pitches of gruelling climbing, nine being UK E7, and over half being E6 or above. The Anglo-American team of John Timo, David Nott, George Bogel and Paul Straub first climbed the mesa’s cliff in 1971, spending nine days fighting up steep rainforest and vegetated rock a few hundred meters right of the water. In the photograph above, Ben Heason climbs our steeper line - avoiding the water!

Cerro Autana

Cast your imagination out across the roof of the jungle towards a massive rock monolith, seemingly having erupted from within the heart of the forest. Autana is believed by native Piaroa indians to be the felled remains of the tree of life, from which the entire universe was born.

Notice the tower’s flat top and its steep rocky flanks, and feel your eyes drawn to the unclimbed South West face, where the clean yellow rock rises steep and unbroken throughout its full 700-metre height. Welcome to Cerro Autana. It would be hard to imagine finer climbing objective on the surface of our rapidly-shrinking world.

John Arran leads a hard layback pitch on day five on Cerro Autana: roof crack day.

Jose had sneaked a look as he jugged up past it, thirty feet or so out from the wall. “The first few moves are gonna be super-hard,” he reported, “but after you turn the lip there’s a crack all the way, and it’s really not all that steep.”

Rarely has any new tepui climb—aid or free—averaged more than 100 meters per day. They’re complicated and full of surprises; you need to be prepared for just about anything. Including mid-pitch cabbages.

Amuri Tepui

This remote jungle wall, John Arran remarked, “certainly has potential for the hardest and most overhanging big-wall free climbs on Earth.”

Top jungle night spots

Cerro Autana

Nobody could climb here without the respect of the local people: by including them as equal members in the team and - whenever possible - relying on their expertise and their previous knowledge of the area. Some years before, José-Luis had climbed an aid route directly up to the Autana Cave, a cathedral-sized cavern 500 metres above the floor, with huge arched entrances looking out from both sides of the tepui.

We were to spend a serene night in this surreal cavern, eating food left by a film crew many years earlier.  

The elements play a big role in success or failure in the jungle. One of my favourite moments on 'Rainbow Jambaia' was watching an incredible double rainbow form at 10.30 in the morning, spanning right across the Angel Falls amphitheatre.

Rainbow Jambaia: wall of water, colour and light

Angel falls in the morning from Camp 3 on 'Rainbow Jambaia'

Miles Gibson and Ben Heason sheltering from night-time runoff from the Angel Falls under a bivi shelter

Rivers are often hard to cross, and are an integral part of any jungle journey

Ivan Calderon, our Venezuelan friend and the world's most experienced tepui climber. Ivan has been crucial in liaising with the indigenous Indian communities on many of our jungle adventures.

Extreme Camping

A beautiful location on our 2008 new route Amurita (500m, E7 6b) Occasionally from the wall you can hear the sound of distant monkeys howling in the jungle.

Wild Animals

Suddenly Ben turns sharply and shouts ‘crocodile!’ as he deftly springs back into the boat. We then spy this magnificent leathery creature with its beady eyes on Ben and its nose just poking above the surface no more than a metre and a half away from where Ben’s foot was.


All images Anne or John Arran: www.thefreeclimber.com

Day 5 on Cerro Autana: copyright Henry Gonzales


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