Jimmy Angel, 22, stared hard into the driving mist and gunned the El Rio Caroni, a single-engine prop plane he’d bought used for $5,000. The Caroni bucked in the updrafts rising along the tepui’s 3,000-foot sandstone walls, but Angel held her steady.
“There she is!” hollered J.R. McCraken, riding shotgun next to Angel. “Put ’er down there!”
Angel landed the Caroni atop the tepui, a rock spike in the remote jungles of Venezuela.
The tepui, one of some 100 towers known as the “House of Gods” to the native people, the Pemon, burst like a dragon’s molar from the verdant jungle floor of the Amazon Basin. This particular tepui had been fingered by McCraken, an Alaskan gold digger smitten by tales of gold nuggets as big as your fist. According to lore, the tepui summits were strewn with riches there for the taking.
McCraken wasn’t the first, nor would he be the last, to seek the gold. In the mid-1500s, Spanish conquistadors plundered their way up the Amazon in search of a mythical city of gold, El Dorado. Half a century later the English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh also cast about for gold and diamonds. He found none and returned to England where his tales of towers so high they reached heaven sounded so fantastic that no one believed him. When he returned to Venezuela a second time and again came home empty-handed, Queen Elizabeth had him beheaded.
Nearly 400 years later, in 1922, McCraken met Angel in a Panamanian bar. Impressed by the bush pilot’s credentials—Angel had flown in Charles Lindberg’s Flying Circus—McCraken hired Angel to deposit him atop a tepui.
Guided by his miner’s compass, McCraken navigated the Caroni through dense clouds to the tepui where the Pemon had said he would find gold. After Angel had eased his plane down, the two hopped onto the rocky plateau to find a streambed glittering with gold. McCraken and Angel loaded the booty onto the plane, and, with darkness threatening, took off.
The overloaded Caroni plunged 2,000 feet. Angel fought the controls. “Hotdamn!” shrieked McCraken as he hugged a sack of gold. “We’re goners!”
Angel’s arms were fit to burst, but he finally leveled out the plane and pointed it toward civilization.
Back in Panama City, Angel and McCraken divvied up the loot and vowed to immediately return to the tepui, but McCraken got jungle fever and died. Angel, who had simply steered through clouds per McCraken’s constant instruction, couldn’t figure which of the 100-odd tepuis he had landed on, and spent the next 32 years trying to retrace the flight. He never again found that tepui, but did discover a 3,200-foot waterfall (Angel Falls) that today is famous as being the world’s tallest. Angel died in a plane crash in 1956 still looking for the gold.
Climbers, like fortune hunters, have long been fascinated by the tepuis and their mysterious summits, said to be the home of meat-eating plants, frogs that neither hop nor swim, and exotic flora that laps moisture from the air. In fact, the tepuis’ isolated summits host 7,000 endemic species, some of which are believed to be exclusive to single peaks. In 1884, Sir Everard im Thun clawed his way up a vegetated ramp to the summit of Mount Roraima, at 8,900 feet the highest of the tepuis and the home of pterodactyls, according to Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional book, The Lost World.
In 1967, British stalwarts Hamish MacInnes, Joe Brown, Don Whillans and Mo Anthoine blazed Roraima’s first technical line, a slime-fest replete with spiders, snakes and rot. The rain-soaked summit hosted neither a lost world of dinosaurs nor any boullion, but legions of stone gargoyles, the losers of the war between good and evil, according to the Pemon, sentenced to eternity, frozen in time. The mini-towers were shockingly solid and clean, virtually unlimited in number, and up to 30 feet high. The Precambrian statues are noted by geologists as the oldest exposed rock formations on Earth and are found on almost every tepui summit. Boulderers’ gold!
This February, photographer Jorge Visser accompanied filmmakers Josh and Brett Lowell, and climbers Chris Sharma and Lev Pinter, five Venezuelan climbers and guides and porters, to the tepuis of Venezuela. Arriving in the Caracas airport, they bussed for 19 hours, caught a Jeep to another plane, then slogged for two days through dense forest to their chosen tepui, where easy rope work landed them on top. “We were stunned by how out-of-the-ordinary everything looked,” says Visser. “The trees were straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. It felt like we shouldn’t be there.”
Ten days camped on the summit netted around 100 problems on “super super solid sandstone that’s harder and cleaner than desert sandstone,” says Sharma. “It’s a magical place. We just walked around amazed. I didn’t know rock could form like that. We climbed problem after problem, and only had to brush the holds with our hands. We’d get these white-out rains and fog,” says Sharma, “but 30 minutes after clearing the rock was totally dry.”
It’s about time someone struck it rich up there.
The tepuis are in the Guiana highlands in Canaima National Park, in southeast Venezuela near the borders of Brazil and Guyana. Because of the park’s unique geology, flora and fauna, it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tourist and wall climbers typically visit Auyan Tepui, home to Angel Falls, and Mount Roraima, the largest tepui and one of the few on which you can hike to the summit.
Due to the area’s delicate ecosystem, travel to the other tepuis is discouraged. Access to some tepuis may be restricted, and you won’t know until you arrive. Even then, the park rangers may tell you that you need permission from the Pemon, who will then tell you you need permisson from the rangers.
For the open tepuis, you need a permit and guide (about $25/day). Porters are also recommended; hiring them helps the local economies.
GETTING THERE »
Fly to Caracas, Venezuela (about $950 round trip), then travel to the village of Canaima, where you can hire a guide.
The tepuis have species of plants and animals found nowhere else on earth. Help protect them by minimizing your impact. Don’t boulder over the flora, watch your step and pack out your trash.