The Tower of Pure Souls
Deep in the Amazonian jungle, Mount Roraima is an adventure throw back with deadly snakes, bird-eating spiders and ants as long as match sticks. That's precisely why they had to climb it.
Troy Henry kicked off his borrowed jungle boot, two sizes too big.“Der be sometin’ in me boot, man!” our Guyanese friend shouted in his Caribbean-English. “It gone bit me!”
Troy, one of our porters and a great favorite, with his broad, ceaseless grin, had just arrived on a table-sized vegetated ledge on the great northern prow of Mount Roraima, overlooking the endless Amazon rainforest.
From his empty boot scuttled a giant, hairy tarantula, fangs bared, in attack stance. With the calm of those who spend their lives in the jungle, Troy chuckled and launched the spider into the air, from three pitches up. Hours earlier he and his Uncle Edward had donned climbing harnesses for the first time.
Under our friend Waldo Etherington’s expert tuition, Troy and Edward had undergone a crash course in big-wall techniques and safety and were commencing the first Guyanese ascent of their country’s highest and most iconic mountain: the huge flat-top tepui on the tri-point border between Guyana, Venezuela and Brazil.
Our six-strong team of climbers—Waldo, Anna Taylor, Wilson Cutbirth and I, accompanied by the photographers and filmmakers Matt Pycroft and Dan Howard—had arrived in Guyana’s ramshackle capital, Georgetown, a few weeks earlier on our mission to hack through miles of uncharted jungle to reach and free climb Roraima’s prow.
Waldo and I had met in Guyana five years before, while filming a Discovery Channel TV show, “Lost Worlds.” He was chief rigger and I was the presenter, and we hit it off immediately. He had exceptional rigging skills, gained over many seasons working on scientific projects in the high canopy of the world’s rainforests, along with a clear mischievous streak. We had begun discussing the prow back then.
Waldo introduced me to his Arizonan friend Wilson, a quiet, extremely competent character, one of those people who gets really good at anything he turns his hand to, most recently rock climbing. We had climbed together in Yosemite and the Bugaboos in the past, but in the last year he had progressed dramatically from a 5.12 all-arounder to leading 5.14 trad on the basalt crags around Flagstaff.
Anna is a young climber who lives five minutes down the road from me in the Lake District, U.K. She had no expedition or big-wall experience, but, having seen her cool-headed leads on hard, bold trad on our local crags—she had headpointed a dozen routes of E7 (5.13 X) and above last summer alone—I knew she was cut from the right cloth and would savor the opportunity to join such a mission.
Guarded on all sides by steep cliffs, the summit plateau of Mount Roraima covers an area of 20 square miles, reaching an altitude of 9,220 feet. Most of the mountain lies in Venezuela and, from that western approach, is readily accessible by road and a long but popular tourist trail following a weakness through the cliffs to the summit.
By contrast, the Guyana flanks of the mountain are extremely remote and difficult to access. The great northern prow is virtually cut off from the rest of the peak by a precipitous chasm and the labyrinthine terrain of the summit.
On November 8 of last year we chartered a Skytruck, an aircraft with a large tailgate door, and flew from Georgetown deep into the sparsely inhabited interior to airdrop our supplies near Roraima.
“Five-minute call!” I yelled over the roar of the Skytruck’s twin turbine engines.
We put on our harnesses, clipped into the lines we’d rigged throughout the fuselage, inserted our earplugs and donned our goggles in preparation to open the tailgate above the drop zone.
The pressure dropped; cold air rushed in as the hydraulic hinges cranked the door open. The GPS unit showed we were fast approaching our target, but the mountain was completely obscured by cloud.
“We’re too close, we’re too close, aborting drop run!” the captain called over the intercom above the pulsing wail of the terrain-proximity alarm. He banked the plane left, away from the trees on the steep flanks of the mountain. I wasn’t going to argue, even if the entire expedition depended upon the aerial delivery of our cargo into the forest below the prow.
As we arced away from Roraima, I spotted a small clearing in the trees, a bit lower down the slope than our original target. I tapped the pilot on the shoulder, pointed to the new spot and received a nod.
I turned on the GPS locating beacons on each of the four drop loads, inciting 120-decibel shrieks and flashing strobe lights. On the next pass, Waldo and I launched the first load, two haulbags, strapped together for a total of 250 pounds. As we hung onto our leashes out the back of the plane, seconds seemed to stretch for long minutes, until at last, with an explosion of bright white, the parachute pressurized and floated into the trees below, close to the clearing.
“Hell, yes!” Waldo shouted, raising a high five.
Guyana, or “land of many waters,” harbors around 58,000 square miles of rainforest covering 76 percent of the country, over two-thirds of which is old-growth forest, home to 1,263 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles, and 6,409 identified species of trees and plants, creating one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. The interior is almost devoid of roads, with the many rivers creating the main transportation routes. A well-managed network of airstrips with frequent light aircraft flights services the remote communities scattered through the vast tropical rainforest.
The great prow of Roraima rises above the lowland rainforest for 8,000 feet, half of that extremely steep, with the final 2,000 feet an overhanging cliff of bullet-hard quartzite some 2 billion years old, making Roraima one of the oldest exposed geological formations on earth. This geography creates its own weather systems and climate. The area below the cliff is an astoundingly wet and humid place, a slime forest of contorted, stunted trees, home to bizarre botanical and zoological wonders including bird-eating spiders, scorpions whose sting can make a person vomit blood, and lethal venomous snakes. Local legend has it that only those of pure soul will ever see the summit of Mount Roraima.
I first became aware of Roraima as a 10-year-old boy. My climbing mentor, Malcolm “Pike” Cundy, was a friend of Mo Anthoine, who in 1973 was part of a large Anglo-Guyanese expedition, supported by the BBC and The Observer newspaper. Led by Hamish MacInnes, an all-star team with the top British climbers Joe Brown and Don Whillans had traveled through the jungle across Guyana and made the first ascent of the prow, aid climbing most of it. Pike had an old VHS copy of the film on the expedition.
The protagonists’ closing remarks were:
“All the creepy crawlies, the vegetation, the weather was really atrocious; all these things make it into a very serious route indeed.”—Hamish MacInnes.
“I’d say that it was the ultimate in masochism, that climb.”—Joe Brown.
“I’d have sooner descaled a boiler in Sheffield.”—Mo Anthoine.
With an expedition plagued by logistical problems, illness, continual rain, mud and a plethora of hostile jungle creatures, the film paints a picture of great suffering and misery, but it is also the epitome of swashbuckling adventure. Perversely, it also inspired me three decades later to organize my own expedition to Roraima. Over those years I’ve gained a wealth of vertical experience, having been privileged to share a rope and learn from some of the greatest climbers of the time. I’ve been on dozens of expeditions and led trips to some of the most remote and challenging faces on earth.
The logistical planning of an expedition—having precisely what you need, where and when you need it—is the key to its success. That sounds simple, but is far from it. Good planning does not guarantee a safe and successful mission, but poor planning almost assures danger and defeat.
In the almost half-century since 1973, there have been only a handful of expeditions to the prow and even fewer ascents. The second ascent wasn’t until 2003, when Mark Synnott (USA) led a three-man climbing team as part of a bigger National Geographic scientific expedition up a line a little east of the 1973 route, approaching and exiting by helicopter. Mark returned overland in 2006 and climbed another impressive route farther along the wall. In 2010, on his second attempt, with access and exit by helicopter, the Brazilian climber Eliseu Frechou led a small team up a route much farther along the East Face. Later, in 2010, Stefan Glowacz also made two expeditions, resulting in the first free ascent of Roraima and a big-budget Red Bull movie.
The Akawaio community of Phillipai has the nearest air strip to Roraima, 30 miles to the east as the crow flies. The dense rainforest and lie of the land result in an approach trek of exactly 60 miles, at least a week through such terrain. To do that with sufficient equipment and supplies for a team of eight to free a 2,000-foot, extremely overhanging big wall and survive in a harsh jungle environment without resupply for 30 days would require either an absurd amount of load ferrying, a small army of porters, a helicopter or a more creative idea.
An ingenious aerial-delivery system, designed and built by my friend Pete Swan, legendary parachute rigger, hung our equipment loads 180 feet below the parachutes, allowing them to penetrate the forest canopy and reach the ground before the parachutes tangled high in the trees.
Attached to each load was an even more ingenious locating device, designed and built by a nuclear-physicist friend, James Dickinson. That featured a GPS tracker, short-wave radio transponder, 100-lumen strobe light, and 120-decibel bleeper all wired to a battery capable of running the system for at least 10 days to facilitate finding our mission-critical supplies.
Our flight delivered a total of 1,000 pounds in four parachute loads. After the last drop, low on fuel, we made the final, 15-minute flight to the grass airstrip of Phillapai. Our outfitter, Ian Craddock, had twice traveled to Phillapai in the previous six months to secure the permission and support of the Akawaio community on whose land Mount Roraima lies. It had been arranged that a team of six workers would cut a trail to the point where the technical approach began, whereupon four of them would wait and try to locate our air-dropped loads. The two others would return to guide us in, along with another eight porters to carry the remaining gear and supplies.
Outside visitors are rare in Phillipai, a relatively large community of around 1,200 people, with no outside telecommunications since the VHF radio stopped functioning years ago, and a promised cell-phone tower is yet to materialize. There is no electricity, no lighting. Most of the Akawaio inhabitants live a subsistence farming life with very little monetary trade. Some travel to find harsh work in Guyana’s lucrative gold and diamond mines. What they grow is supplemented with hunter-gathering from the forest, small fish from the rivers, and bush meat often hunted using a traditional bow and arrow to take down beasts as large as a tapir, a cow-sized native herbivore. A large primary school lies adjacent to the grass airstrip, and the whole school poured onto the runway to welcome us. Amid some confusion, we were directed to an empty wooden-stilted house to meet the Taboche, or chief, and our team of porters.
Initially they were a little reserved and suspicious of the strange outsiders investing so much energy and such resources into a dangerous and seemingly pointless endeavor. I imagine they thought we could well be mining prospectors masquerading as climbers.
They were also unsure of our ability, explaining that the route to Roraima was long and treacherous. By showing a few videos of some of my previous expeditions, we managed to convince them we were genuine and knew what we were doing. After a gallon of Kasiri, the local home brew, which seemed to hit them much harder than us, we seemed to be on the same page.
The trek through the jungle was far more pleasant than anticipated. Loads were a manageable 50 pounds; the terrain was much flatter than expected; the weather was sunny and dry, the shade created a comfortable hiking temperature, and there were many streams in which to bathe. Crucially, mosquitoes and biting insects were minimal. Certainly there were plenty of ants, including the massive dinoponera, which can be as long as a matchstick, and the savage bullet ant, armed with the most potent venom in the insect kingdom, and spiders including a bird-eating spider as big as a side plate.
Though the myriad hostilities of jungle travel are well-known, less so is the sheer beauty and magic of time and travel in a rainforest. The colors, the smells, and most of all the sounds illuminate an environment bristling with life. Particularly at night, the cacophony of sound created by cicadas, grasshoppers, frogs, birds, bats and more is comparable in volume to loud music. Curious hummingbirds pause and hover to inspect the colors of your clothes. Hidden stick insects occasionally catch your eye and are gone, while giant moths and colorful butterflies flutter by, glistening in the half-light.
One of the highlights of the trip was the blooming friendship with our team of Akawaio helpers. Their first language is Akawaio, but they all spoke at least some Caribbean-English, enabling us to chat and joke. They were a jolly bunch, superb porters, ready to go at dawn and happy to carry 50 pounds each in their warashis: baskets woven from palm leaves and bark.
Edward spoke the best English and had portered on both of Mark Synnott’s expeditions. As the only local who had been to Roraima before, he became the head guide. We used whistles to initiate rest stops and starts, which always seemed to amuse them no end.
“Y’all movin’ like a train, you need to slow down and enjoy the walk!” Edward said when I asked him on day two if our pace was O.K.
One night, as we camped by a little stream, our Akawaio friends all excitedly began digging up the roots of an undistinguished-looking tree. Acting collectively, without anybody taking charge, they collected a pile of the branch-like roots and pounded them with rocks to release a milky liquid. They carried the pulverized root mass a little way upstream and washed it in the water, pushing some under the banks and mixing it into pools. It became clear that the men were temporarily poisoning the stream, as small fish began to float to the surface. These were eagerly gathered, some with hastily woven leaf baskets, others more comically as the porters wrestled the slippery little fish by hand. Two men quickly constructed bows and arrows to shoot the rest of the surfacing fish. The group collected well over a hundred fish. Some were barbecued for immediate consumption, others steamed for the next day, and yet more smoked in leaves to preserve them.
The forest changed constantly as we slowly gained altitude and moved through wetter or drier, sunnier or shadier terrain. For the first couple of days we followed a well-trodden path past occasional small cleared and cultivated fields. On day three we hiked up the side of a 300-foot waterfall to the small community of Wylang, perched at the lip of the falls. From there on, signs of former passage decreased. Sometimes the trees were tall, with expanding trussed roots, and the forest floor was quite open. In other areas the trees were skinny, twisted and densely packed, and our crew had put in much machete work to clear a path. Over the many streams and waterlogged areas they had created bridges of varying types. Some were large trees cut down to create a proper bridge with a solid handrail over a small river, and others were networks of smaller saplings covering hundreds of feet of wet terrain, with wobbly poles stuck into the mud for balance. We would use the poles and flick them back to the next person almost as if in a fun park. By day five the crew had apparently become tired of making handrails, and we had to cross some seriously committing log walks with high-consequence falls.
Some of our Akawaio friends said they had never been in so deep. We crossed a pass, hiking uphill, feeling suddenly far more tired, and then descended into more sculpted terrain beneath a mountain of cloud that even now shrouded our goal. We arrived at a double-drop waterfall—two cascades flowing into a crystal-clear pool, dappled light reflecting off the spray, where legend has it diamonds can be found—and caught our first view of Roraima towering above.
Here we found the four crew who had cut the trail and waited for the airdrop. One was Troy, who said, “Yeah, man, we found all dem bags and got down your parachutes from da trees.”
On the seventh day we struggled uphill to a col by the foot of the great prow that would serve as our base camp. No sooner had we erected our hammocks with their built-in mosquito nets and rain flies and a communal area under a big tarp, and set up a gear room under a repurposed parachute, than the rain began. Amid the intensity of a tropical downpour, the Akawaio muttered that the wet season was arriving early.
Our first objective was to ferry our heavy gear to the start of the real climbing. Between base camp and the wall proper lay almost 3,000 feet of ascent. Immediately above base camp, we faced an almost vertical jungle. Waldo took the lead, squirming and scrabbling up roots and branches, plastered with mud, leaving a fixed rope in his wake.
A steep buttress covered in trees and vegetation offered only one line of ascent, directly up the edge of the ridge. We found a rotten old rope ladder, probably from the 2006 trip, but did not dare use the rungs.
After around 600 feet, the angle eased, and we entered an incredible, enigmatic forest of slime. Icicles of transparent ooze hung everywhere, and all surfaces were covered with six inches of soaking, squidgy slime. We then emerged into what the 1973 expedition had dubbed the Eldorado Swamp: ankle- to knee-deep viscous white mud. As another intense downpour commenced, we pushed through, feet deeply embedded, amusing farting sounds accompanying our steps.
Next came the giant bromeliad garden, filled with tank bromeliads capable of holding hundreds of liters of water, creating entire ecosystems for frogs and a host of aquatic insects. We could either balance on top of them as if they were stepping stones or tunnel under them, occasionally getting drenched as one tipped.
A final section of vertical bamboo-like undergrowth, which I burrowed up, brought us to the bare rock of the wall. At the base of the cliff lay a broken system of flat ledges only a few feet wide, protected from the elements by the great overhangs above, forming a kind of alcove.
Directly on the nose of the prow, with steep drops to either side, we created a sweet wall camp by hanging our four port-a-ledge tents. The luxury of a comfortable and dry staging post was a savior for our morale and pending trench foot.
Wilson and I were moving rocks to create a better ledge for the camp when he jumped back, shouting, “Holy shit!”
He had dislodged a large rock with his hands to reveal a coiled snake about four feet long, with triangular patterning and an arrow-shaped head.
“That’s definitely a viper!” An Arizona native, he knows venomous snakes.
It was likely a Labaria, the most deadly snake in the Amazon. Thankfully, it just hissed, sank back and slithered away, its reactions probably subdued by the cool temperatures at our altitude of 7,000 feet.
It took the best part of a week, with help from five of the porters, to establish and stock our hanging camp at the base of the wall.
Having worked with the Guyanese before on the Discovery job, I knew how quick to learn and physically capable they are, and suspected that among our crew of helpers, a few might be thrilled at the chance to become the first to climb their country’s tallest mountain, which on a rare clear day they could see from their village. I liked the idea of being able to share such an opportunity, and we had brought two extra complements of equipment, clothing and supplies.
I had explained the idea to our crew on the first day we met in their village, also making it clear that we would offer all the same safety precautions and gear that we had, but that ultimately climbing the wall was dangerous, and we couldn’t guarantee their safety.
“I wanna come up dat wall with y’all,” Edward declared. None of the others were at all keen at that point. Perhaps Edward’s exposure to Mark’s trips had given him a greater understanding of the processes we use to minimize the risk, or perhaps at age 58 he felt he would never get such a chance again.
At the waterfall where we met the line-cutting crew, Troy was quick to put himself forward with his Uncle Edward.
After studying the wall and establishing where the five existing routes went, we decided to attempt the true prow of the wall via the steepest, proudest line.
We would share the first four pitches of the 1973 British route, then where their route headed right and around the corner into vegetated chimneys and overgrown walls, we would break left, staying on the very edge of the prow up clean and constantly overhung rock. Barricaded by a series of giant horizontal roofs with no continuous lines of cracks or other visible features to follow, this face seemed unlikely to go free.
Wilson and I started up the ’73 route, a corner system leading to what the Brits had named Tarantula Terrace—where Troy was bitten by one.
We led and seconded onsight. The climbing was easier than it appeared, but with other challenges.
“Argh! I just uncovered a scorpions’ nest! There’s hundreds of them. Tiny see-through things. Are these the ones that make you puke blood?” Wilson yelled down after dispatching a microwave-oven-sized block.
I could only yell back, “Uh, I think so!”
Reaching blindly above our heads, we encountered bats, birds, more scorpions, centipedes, and dozens of spiders, though luckily avoided any more bites or stings.
Above Tarantula Terrace rose a vertical face of magnificent rose-pink, bullet-hard quartzite with few obvious features. Wilson aid-climbed the bolt ladder drilled by the Brits, occasionally replacing the rusty, dubious protection until a ledge system drew us left, away from the ’73 line.
While Wilson and I pushed on, our youngest and least experienced crew member, Anna, set to work finding a way to free climb the 60 feet of smooth but partially featured rock we had aided. Although new to wall climbing, expedition life and jungle living, and clearly finding the magnitude of Roraima alarming, she was in her element here: working the pitch on toprope, unlocking a sequence, dialing it, and figuring out the gear. She found a line of edges about 20 feet to the right of the bolt ladder, with a long crux move of around V7. With two tiny crimps and smears for feet, she had to hit the only positive slot in a horizontal break, just wide enough for three fingers, at full stretch. This proved to be the hardest single move of the entire route, before less difficult but sustained and high-quality climbing rejoined the aid line up to the belay.
Three bolts were added to the protection-free lower section of the pitch, and on her second session she went for the lead, then tried again the next day. She fell repeatedly from the crux, the damp clouds creating poor conditions. A physical and psychological battle ensued with plenty of cries of frustration.
From high above Wilson and I heard occasional shouts, then finally the joyous tones of success.
“Oh, my, that was a fight!” she said after the pitch, a 5.12+, three-star quality.
Meanwhile Wilson and I had continued up the steep prow, winding through giant roofs via a long traverse to discover perhaps the finest ledge I’ve ever encountered on any cliff anywhere. About 500 feet up the wall, Invisible Ledge was obscured from all angles, including from just a few feet below it. A perfectly flat ledge almost 30 feet long and three feet wide, it was a comfortable perch for our burgeoning eight-person wall team.
Waldo comes from a ropework-intensive tree-climbing background and enjoys what most rock climbers consider to be the grunt work of wall climbing as much as actual pitches. He revels in the rope management and hauling, and is by far the fastest jumarer I’ve ever seen, able to jug a 200-foot free-hanging line in 35 seconds. From Invisible Ledge, in about 10 loads, Waldo single-handedly hauled up at least 400 pounds of gear, food and water for our summit push.
On November 30, day 22 of the expedition, all eight of us finally left the ground and committed to the wall, bringing up our four port-a-ledges for five days on Invisible Ledge. Waldo kept a close eye on Edward and Troy, who had quickly mastered jumaring.
“Was that scary?” I asked Edward when he reached the ledge.
“Real bad!” He grinned.
On almost any other cliff, our efforts to free climb would’ve been thwarted by the frequent tropical downpours. But the incredible steepness of this particular wall, and its network of offset horizontal roofs, kept our section of rock unbelievably dry. There were occasional soaked sections, but by great fortune they were almost always moderate. Wilson and I continued upward, climbing onsight, swapping leads and seconding free until the 10th pitch, which looked like it would reach much lower-angled, easier-looking terrain.
I spent almost two hours on that pitch, hanging by my fingertips and fighting to find a way through the 120-foot vertical maze, with no continuous system to follow. I wove through hanging corners and hollow flakes between frequent horizontal breaks that generally took good gear, but became much more widely spaced. On three stepped roofs of increasing difficulty and decreasing rock quality I placed a wide array of uninspiring nuts and small cams behind loose flakes, utilizing the double-rope technique we are so fond of in the U.K. for all it was worth.
Painstakingly I progressed up sustained 5.12 territory, tagging up more gear when possible until literally two feet below the vegetated ramp that marked the end of the steep section of the prow, I reached a final small roof of terrifyingly loose blocks and soil-choked cracks. Succumbing, I fell onto a small wire I had just buried behind a wobbly flake above my head, and winced with fear, but it held. Hanging on the rope, I hastily arranged a few more pieces, cleaning away lichen, soil and loose stones with my nut tool. After 20 minutes of effort I uncovered a finger lock and reached a small stance on the lip of the roof.
Still situated on the prow, we struggled to ascertain how far we were from the top—could it be one long pitch or days away?
A couple of easier pitches higher, our line forced us around the corner onto the left side of the mountain, and we suddenly realized quite how sheltered we had been. In a single step, leaving the belay on pitch number 13, I moved from a dry, calm and relaxed position on the north-facing prow into the bedlam of a tempest on the exposed east face. Wind ripped across the face, driving rain horizontally into my eyes and mouth, exposing my body to hypothermic temperatures inexplicable just a few degrees from the equator. I stepped back, and we descended to the wall camp hoping for fairer conditions the next day.
After a stormy night and very late start, regaining the high point in less torrential but poor conditions, I stepped around the corner, opting to climb a beautifully sculpted wall reminiscent of my native gritstone, in a situation of epic exposure right on the arête instead of following a heavily overgrown line out left. Standing on a small ledge just above the belay, I placed a bolt in the blank face and committed to a tenuous sequence of sloping holds and balance moves, heading for a distant break. With the angle just under vertical, I wasn’t getting too pumped, but the moves were hard. I climbed past a scooped pocket that refused to take any gear, then moved higher to a shallow crack that reluctantly accepted a finger-sized cam on just two lobes, but gave me enough false sense of security to pluck up the courage to venture on.
By now at least 20 feet above the bolt, I committed to another delicate sequence to reach what looked like a good break.
“It’s getting serious up there,” Wilson said to Waldo, at the hanging belay below.
“I literally can’t watch,” said Waldo, retreating around the corner.
To my horror, when I finally arrived at the break, it was sloping and full of slippery mud. It took all my resolve to remain calm enough to find a way out, eventually managing to hang a three-mil sling over a flake the size of a coin, on which I precariously hung and pulled up the drill to place a bolt. Disaster averted, I was forced to aid climb a water-soaked crack before I reached a small cave, and the ground above eased dramatically.
In gathering darkness we descended the now utterly wild 600 feet of free-hanging ropes to the ledge camp. Sliding down into the dense mist, unable to see anything at all was at once extremely disorienting and amazingly fun.
At the wall camp Anna had our usual freeze-dried dinner ready, while Matt and Dan merrily continued their ongoing struggle to keep delicate cameras functioning, lenses clean, batteries charged and terabytes of data backed up. Edward and Troy seemed to be having a whale of a time, constantly smiling and giggling. In the middle of the night, probably when one of them was trying to take a pee, we would hear fits of laughter coming from their tent before they would conduct a full-volume conversation in Akawaio, oblivious to having woken us all up at 3 a.m.
The next day Wilson led a soaking-wet offwidth and managed to sneak through another roof barrier via a hidden slab. I then traversed 50 feet under a final impenetrable roof to a stalagmite feature on which I was able to surmount the roof, reaching easy ground. The boys joined me, and we scrambled unroped up to the exotic if somewhat desolate summit plateau: bare rock, boggy ground, large shallow ponds and enchanting little gardens of unusual plants. The wind ripped across the summit, where there was nowhere to shelter or even pitch a tent. We searched for a while, heading a long way from the edge, feet soaked by drenched terrain until we found a reasonable camp spot. A violent rain squall ripped through and a dense fog descended.
“This is pretty gnarly. What should we do?” Waldo shouted over the wind.
I said, “Get the hell out of here!”
Finding our way back to the ropes in three-foot visibility was harrowing, the occasional clearing of the mist saving us from getting completely lost. By the time we reached the wall camp again, we looked like we’d just emerged from a fully clothed swim and were shivering violently.
The electrical storm continued all night and into the next day. Even our quite sheltered wall camp was now thoroughly soaked. In the safe haven of the port-a-ledges, with shelter, dry sleeping bags and functioning stoves, we were quite safe and relatively comfortable, but I was acutely aware that transferring so much stuff and so many people, most of whom had limited experience up such a distance of free-hanging ropes, with big lower-outs, knots to pass and other obstacles, would be time-consuming and could quickly become life-threatening in such conditions. The summit wasn’t much better, as I struggled to explain to the five who had now spent three nights in situ on the ledge. Reluctantly I informed them that it was too risky to make the big move up with so many people in such bad weather, and that we would have to wait it out.
Two days later, Waldo set off up the ropes with Edward, Troy, Anna, and Dan, who filmed.
Anna gasped as she swung out above massive exposure, calling out, “This is amazing! Look at that circular rainbow!” A Brocken Spectre formed around her shadow on the floating cloud below.
Under Waldo’s watchful eye, Troy and Edward ascended steadily up the wildly exposed ropes, literally jumping for joy and whooping to reach the table-top summit they’d seen all their lives. I had reclimbed both the pitches I’d failed to onsight, both Wilson and I leading or seconding the whole route free while the others mostly jumared. In a giant 600-foot haul, the bags hanging well over a hundred feet out in space from Invisible Ledge, we pulled up all the gear and finally regrouped on top at close to midnight on day 27, with the helicopter due to arrive at 8 a.m.
The eight of us celebrated with our last bottle of Guyana’s famous El Dorado rum. Apparently, Roraima felt we were of pure soul, allowing us to touch her summit? I’m not so sure, but I know that without our Akawaio friends we would never have made it to the base of the wall, and without our help they could never have reached the top.
Leo Houlding lives in the Lake District, U.K., with his wife and two children. He has climbed major first ascents on all seven continents. Last year he wrote for our Ascent edition about climbing the Spectre, in Antarctica, which his team reached by kite-skiing 1200 miles. A film on the Roraima expedition is to be released this fall.