The Epic of All Epics

The mother of all epics: a new route in a land lost in time.

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This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 198 (December 2011).

Shane Houbart fully racked for pitch 12 (C2+).
Shane Houbart fully racked for pitch 12 (C2+).

I had been in Caracas, Venezuela, for less than three hours when Alfredo turned to Cory and me, and said: “Don’t talk to anyone, don’t let anyone know that you’re foreign, and try not to be seen by anyone. Bad people live here.” Alfredo, from Caracas, is an experienced climber. In 2011 we climbed Lost Arrow Spire, Half Dome and the Salathé Wall in Yosemite. Cory Nauman, the third member of our team, is another climbing friend; together we’d tackled Muir Wall that same season.

I had flown in from Australia, and Cory from America, only to find ourselves in the middle of one of Caracas’s roughest ghettos. We were staying in the home of Amelio, a friend of Alfredo’s. His house was covered with burglar bars and the imposing front gate was locked up with a heavy-duty chain.

Set within a U-shaped valley of jungle-covered mountains, Caracas has one of the highest murder rates in the world. We spent three days locked up in the slums while Alfredo sorted out the logistics of getting us to one of the most remote parts of Venezuela—La Gran Sabana, located in the south of the country.

Cory and I were effectively prisoners of both Alfredo and Amelio. We passed the time checking our equipment, and discussing what to ditch to lighten the load. Our hope was to establish a new route on an unclimbed face on the southern side of the Upuigma Tepui. Tepuis are tabletop mountains with sheer sandstone flanks—some 2,000 feet tall—that rise dramatically above the rainforest in the Canaima National Park on the Venezuelan side of the border with Brazil and Guiana. The Upuigma Tepui was first climbed by John Arran, Ivan Calderon and Steve Backshall in 2007, and the team found several unknown species of plants and animals on the top.

Toward the end of the second day, Cory screamed in pain. I ran over to him. Only at that moment did the remoteness of our location truly sink in. The nearest hospital was at least a seven-day hike away, and prior to our trip, I had read accounts of people being bitten in this section of the jungle and dying four hours later.

The tepuis are incredibly remote and unexplored. Simply reaching the base of any tepui is an adventure in itself. For the price of 10 cams, Alfredo’s friend Freddy drove us the 10 hours to Ciudad Bolivar. From there we chartered a tiny Cessna aircraft. As we flew toward the Gran Sabana, the landscape changed from concrete cities to open grassland plateaus followed by thick jungles with raging rivers. We spotted only the occasional plantation and Indian village.

After a two-hour flight, the plane dropped through a massive cloud and the towering bands of sandstone big walls came into view. We landed in the Pemon Indian village of Yunek and from there launched our adventure on foot.

Packed and loaded, we set off early in the morning, first negotiating two river systems using dugout canoes. By day two, we had reached a steep and difficult leg of the journey, passing through slick vertical grasslands and jungle. We were incessantly bombarded by bloodthirsty sandflies until the daily deluge drove them off. We eventually settled down for the night on a semi flat boulder that accommodated a three-man tent.

Over the following days we established an advance base camp under the route El Nido del Tirik Tirik (5.12b, 14 pitches), done by Kurt Albert, Ivan Calderon, Helmut Gargitter and Bernd Arnold in 2008. Alfredo had climbed it two years earlier.

From here we ventured into new territory using our machetes to cut a trail through the dense jungle beneath the largest section of Upigma. We had spied an obvious large white streak with cracks and ledges that ran down most of the face, and were determined to find a way to reach its base. We spent two days hacking through the jungle to reach the white streak.

Toward the end of the second day, Cory screamed in pain. I ran over to him.

Only at that moment did the remoteness of our location truly sink in. The nearest hospital was at least a seven-day hike away, and prior to our trip, I had read accounts of people being bitten in this section of the jungle and dying four hours later. Our only option was to wait and see how Cory would react to the venom, assess his condition through the night and then facilitate a rescue to the nearest hospital in the morning.

At daybreak we were relieved that Cory was still alive, but his foot had swollen to twice its normal size and was charcoal black. We left our advanced base camp, abandoning all our big-wall gear and most of our equipment.

Cory could hobble using his walking poles, but the strenuousness of navigating the steep terrain circulated the poison through his system.  Suddenly, blood started seeping out of all his orifices including the bite marks from his encounter with the sandflies.

With our friend in a bad way, Alfredo and I had no choice but to make fun of him. Such is the climber’s way: No sympathy for the vulnerable! (Cruel as this may sound, our ribbing helped to keep Cory’s spirits up).

We stumbled on at the pace of our wounded friend and camped halfway to Yunek. Upon waking up on the second morning of the rescue we were shocked to see that both of Cory’s feet were now black and swollen. Fortunately, from here the terrain was flat and within eight hours we arrived back at the village. By this time it was late in the afternoon and the sun was beginning to set.

Thankfully the village had a short-wave radio and miraculously a Cessna aircraft passing through a neighboring valley heard our distress call, turned around, and headed back to rescue our stricken friend. Within three hours of being in Yunek, amazingly, we were deplaning in the town of Santa Elena, located on the border of Brazil.

The pilot had radioed ahead and an ambulance was waiting for us. Immediately after touchdown, Cory was rushed to the local hospital. The staff was fantastic and gave the “American Gringo” five-star treatment despite their rather meager supplies. Cory needed regular anti-inflammatory injections and strong antibiotics to combat the infection and stem the swelling. As we had no idea which species of snake had bitten him, the hospital could not provide any anti-venom.

After three days in the infirmary, Cory, though appreciative of the attention, had had enough of the poor sanitation and wanted to leave. The hospital staff kept re-inserting the same needle into his vein, stale blood lined the IV tubes and it was frightening to see air bubbles in the hypodermics that were used to inject the antibiotics. Cory was dismayed to find that the hospital refused to release him. It turned out this was because they feared that if Cory, an American, died soon after leaving their hospital there would be repercussions. To this effect Cory was watched very closely by the hospital security.

That evening, after a few beers, Alfredo and I decided to stage a hospital breakout. We monitored the armed security guards’ movements throughout the next day and noted what time they changed their four-hour shifts. To spring Cory, we would have to bypass three guards and two security gates.

The first order of business was to disguise Cory, which involved fresh clothes, sunglasses and a large straw hat. It would then be my job to create a diversion by talking to the guards in fast English and pointing in the direction opposite to him. My advice to Cory was simple: “Don’t stop for anybody, and act like you own the place.”

That evening, after a few beers, Alfredo and I decided to stage a hospital breakout.

Cory and I made it past the first security gate and were doing our best to nonchalantly bypass the final guard at the second gate, where, just outside, Alfredo was waiting for us in a taxi. At this moment though, someone must have noticed Cory’s empty bed because suddenly an alarm rang out. Security instantly noticed the sombrero-wearing gentleman carrying his own I.V. drip and beelining for the exit. We ran the rest of the way, sprinting past the last astonished guard, dove into the taxi and sped away.

Rodriguez, a friend of Alfredo’s, kindly let us lie low in his house on the edge of Santa Elena while we waited for the heat to die down, and to arrange the funds necessary to get Cory to an American hospital and to get Alfredo and myself back to the jungle to salvage our equipment. After three days we put Cory on a plane to Miami for further medical treatment.

One member down, Alfredo and I departed once again for the jungle. We retraced our steps to our advanced base camp to find the Indians had stolen the luxury items from our food supplies, some clothes, and strangely enough, even our mobile SIM cards. We decided to push onto the wall anyway, now with only two weeks left in La Gran Sabana. Before even starting up the route, we still had to finish cutting the path. It took us two more days of hiking and cutting to finally stand next to the wall, which was easily 1,300 feet high—the largest overhang I had ever laid eyes on.

We finally eased into the complexities of route finding with 11 days left. It was glorious to be climbing rather than cutting trails and hiking, and after the third pitch, we verged into the overhanging terrain. We estimated that the entire route’s aspect was between 10 to 15 degrees overhanging. The fourth pitch was especially fun: a beautiful lieback with hand jams through a small roof. Big moves, good holds, and a few gripping runouts on impeccable red and white rock.

The climbing got better and more solid with every pitch. Crack systems linked into horizontal breaks, providing well-protected climbing with occasional runouts up to 25 feet.

Mostly, the climbing stayed within the 5.10 range with a few 5.11 pitches. The rock was generally solid with a few loose sections.

The climbing was very mentally and physically draining. I have been climbing for four years and I was at my limit. Lessons learned from the nine years I spent as a British Royal Marine helped me deal with fatigue and the constant mental stress of trying to onsight each new pitch. Alfredo handled the pressure like a heavyweight climbing champ. I’d never seen someone grin so effortlessly while “cruxing out” on a runout 5.12+ pitch.

For the first three nights we slept on the portaledge, finding small ledges to cook on as we watched the setting sun and appreciated the beautiful view and stunning bird life. Inquisitive hummingbirds hovered around us. Swallows played and flew parallel with the walls, narrowly pulling away from impact at the very last second. Colorful jungle parrots chattered. Though it rained every day, not a single drop touched us under the large overhang.

From days four to eight we camped in caves and slept on flat ledges. Storms rolled past and the skies thundered while we climbed through dense clouds, making route-finding even more gripping.

Most of the climbing was free with the exception of pitch 11, a tenuous A2+ with two tension traverses, and pitch 12, C2+ with mandatory free climbing of 5.11-.

On the 11th pitch, Alfredo was hauling the bags when all of a sudden he found himself in freefall. Terrified, he finally came to an abrupt halt and looked up to see that the sling attached to the Pro-Traxion had been cut by a sharp edge. Luckily he had backed everything up correctly and didn’t end up losing the haul bag—or his life.

Rappelling the face took a full day and as soon as we hit the ground, we started to hike out in horrific rain.

On pitch 13, I deadpointed to a large hold that snapped off in my hand. My face did a good job of stopping the rock, but it connected with the bridge of my nose and the peak of my helmet, and I toppled backward. The wall whizzed by my bloodied nose as I fell, and I had plenty of time to remember that I only had one piece of protection, just above the belay. I fell 30 feet, passing an astonished Alfredo, and narrowly missing the belay ledge. It took a few moments to compose myself, this time consciously testing each hold as I progressed past Alfredo, who jokingly told me I was wasting his time playing games on the wall.

It was a relief to pass the last overhang and hit thick jungle on top of the tepui. Both of us were dirty and exhausted so we jointly decided not to bushwhack to the summit. The vegetation was hugely thick and our rations were running low. That night, perched on our ledge, we celebrated with a bottle of rum and jointly concluded that we should name the 14-pitch route The Hospital Breakout (V 5.12+ A2+, 14 pitches, 1,700 feet).

Rappelling the face took a full day and as soon as we hit the ground, we started to hike out in horrific rain. We tried to carry everything back to our advance base camp in one load; however, with the extra weight it took an hour and a half to cover a kilometer in the downpour. We were further thwarted to find that the timid stream where we had once filled our water bottles had now become a turbulent river 165 feet wide. We bivvied nearby, spending the night completely soaked and near hypothermic. We woke to blue skies and the sad sight of a dry shelter just 100 feet to our left.

We split all the gear into four manageable loads, taking two with us, and made the 22-mile trek back to the village of Yunek in a single push. At Yunek we hired porters to retrieve the last gear, leaving Alfredo and me time to hire a dugout canoe. We spent that day chilling out on the river.

The porters returned two days later, and we used the village’s short-wave radio to charter a Cessna aircraft back to Santa Elena. This was not the end of the story; as soon as we landed, I realized that my passport was missing despite having packed it in my bag the day before. We contacted the villagers by radio and the village chief informed us that it wasn’t there. We assumed that a neighboring village had stolen my passport while we were on the river.

I spent the next seven days agonizing over how I was going to get home, and dealing with crooked, lazy cops, but through persistence I managed to obtain the travel document that I needed. I eventually arrived in Caracas and the British Embassy was more than willing to help.

U.S. Marines get very touchy when a sweating, frantic young man with a dark complexion and a large unkempt beard hurtles toward them at a full dash. They deployed their emergency-response team and I suddenly found myself surrounded by 10 masked men with assault rifles pointed at my head.

The staff arranged an appointment for the following morning with the American Embassy to arrange an emergency visa to transfer through American airports to get me back to my current home in Australia. The traffic was hellish and, arriving at the airport late, I sprinted to make up time.

U.S. Marines get very touchy when a sweating, frantic young man with a dark complexion and a large unkempt beard hurtles toward them at a full dash. They deployed their emergency-response team and I suddenly found myself surrounded by 10 masked men with assault rifles pointed at my head. I was thrown to the floor, knees thrust into my neck, and handcuffed. Then I was taken into a room and interrogated. I apologized profusely and received my Washington-approved travel visa with two minutes to spare.

This, however, was not the end of my problems as I was delayed in the U.S. due to a numbering error on my temporary passport and visa. Added to that, two of my flights were delayed and the airline lost my bags.

For all the anguish that we went through, this trip was still the greatest adventure I have ever had. Against the odds and challenges, we put up a new route. Alfredo is dirtbagging around the U.S., and Cory is alive and climbing. To this day we still don’t know what bit him.

Shane Houbart is an ex British Royal Marine with four years of climbing experience in 11 countries. 

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