As modern times descend on Venezuela’s Pemon people, a team of altruistic climbers ascends one of the legendary faces in their midst—and learns how one can’t forestall the other.
Through fluttering eyelids I’m watching the Spanish equivalent of A Christmas Carol in a dive hotel across the street from the airport in Venezuela’s Ciudad Bolivar. Above me, a shabby portrait of Jennifer Lopez adorns the cracked but otherwise barren off-white wall. After a rough 11-hour drive from Caracas in our Venezuelan friend Jose Miranda’s 1964 Land Rover, three tired Americans—Jeremy Collins, James Q Martin and myself—are just about to siesta when Jose receives a call informing him that 43 Venezuelan soldiers are being held captive by a small group of indigenous tribesmen in a nearby village. Sleep will clearly have to wait.
Tensions are on the rise in southeast Venezuela, where indigenous peoples and environmentalists are clashing with mining companies and governments bent on exploiting some of the richest gold deposits in Latin America. They would also build towns and tourist hotels throughout La Gran Sabana, a primordial land constellated with some of the oldest geologic formations on Earth—the tabular plateaus known as tepuis. Characteristic of the Guiana Highlands sandwiched between the Orinoco River to the north and the Amazon River in the south, these preternatural mesas have attracted many, including explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, who searched among them for the legendary golden city of El Dorado, and writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who set his novel The Lost World here. The region’s indigenous Pemon people have a more intimate relationship with the tepuis: they believe them home to mawari—spirits of the dead.
With much-needed slumber postponed, we wade through the fuzzy details of the hostage situation and how it might affect our second expedition to explore and climb the sheer 500-metre walls of Acopán-tepui, near the remote Pemon village of Yunek in Parque Nacional Canaima. At roughly 30,000 km2 (about the size of Maryland) Canaima is the world’s sixth largest national park, 65 per cent of which is occupied by tepuis; in addition to comprising unique geological and biological environments laced by waterfalls (including Angel Falls, world’s highest at 1,002 metres) the tepuis’ sheer cliffs are rife with majestic climbing opportunities. For this mission, Jose has again left his farm and family in Caracas, a hard choice for the affectionate 37 year-old. The previous year, Jose, Jeremy and myself had been turned back in an attempt to establish a new route on Acopán. This time around, with the addition of 38 year-old pro photographer James (most call him “Q”) we’re determined to be successful.
With few roads connecting towns in this remote park, most in-and-out transport is on foot, by canoe or, as we’re hoping, via light plane to airstrips built by Capuchin missions (a Catholic religious order). However, we soon learn that all air travel into La Gran Sabana has been halted in the wake of the uprising. Now what? It takes several days to find the right official to bribe, but U.S. $3,000 eventually gets the four of us and our equipment into a small Cessna. Two hours after the unnerving exchange we land in Yunek.
Chief Leonardo and his wife greet us with open arms. They remember our names from last year and quickly gesture us over to where they’ve kept the solar panels and batteries we’d brought them, somewhat faded but still in working order.
Through the generous support of Goal Zero, a Utah-based innovator of portable solar power products, on this trip we’re able to supply the village with another 2,500 watts of battery storage plus an additional 60 watts of sunlight-sucking panels; among other things, this sustainable set-up is now used to power lights and the village CB radio.
“This system is important to us in many ways,” states Leonardo during an hour-long Spanish ramble, with Jose doing a wonderful job of translation. “The developed world is creeping in from every direction, we cannot hide. That’s why it’s vital for all of us in Yunek to see that we can have the fundamentals of a modern people, but maintain our traditions. This helps keep us empowered without having to leave the village for the needless austerity of city life, and keeps the children out of the mines… or worse.”
We’re brought pineapples and bananas as we discuss not only our climbing objective, but Jeremy Collins’s art ideas. Climbing isn’t our only goal; we want to share with the Pemon something most tourists wouldn’t—art. To that end we’ve brought several life-sized, black-and-white portraits of villagers that Jeremy and I had photographed the previous year, coloured paint, and wheat flour for paste, all for use on a mural project in the school. The artwork is the brainchild of Jeremy, 35, an industrious husband, father and celebrated illustrator from Kansas City, Missouri. The community is ecstatic.
Volleys of Spanish and Spanglish ensue as we unveil the portraits. The children line up with big smiles and bare feet to see what the strangers have brought. In a place like Yunek, where the bureaucracy of need outweighs that of want, these portraits and art supplies are a sight to behold. Gifts from foreigners—mostly climbers—might yield the kids a soccer ball or perhaps some candy, but this material opens up another dimension in the conversation. When, eventually, the children paint for the first time alongside
Jeremy, the scene is electrifying; instant connection between two wildly diverse social linkages that grows stronger with each brush stroke—along with a laughter of pure joy, which seems to flow like a commodity in these free-spirited peoples.
Craftwork is nothing new for the Pemon, whose exemplary skills are evident not only in the fabrication of their palm-thatched clay huts, but in wayare (backpacks) and tipiti, a woven cylinder used to squeeze toxic prussic acid from the grated pulp of the yuca root. Thus purified, the yuca is then dried and ground into a granular substance used to make the crisp flatbread casabe burrero, a staple alongside pineapple, banana and fish.
Perhaps a hundred Pemon inhabit this small village, and though isolated—a two-three day canoe trip on Rio Karuay is the only non-air link to the nearest modern city—they are not shielded: like most indigenous peoples of Amazonia, the Pemon wear modern clothes, have a nominal understanding of life outside the village, and it’s not uncommon to see a two-way radio or a head-lamp. Yunek even has a modest PA system and an electric guitar the village employs for church service and entertainment. Most of these effects were obtained through trade for services with visitors like us (though I’d speculate the guitar was special order).
As is characteristic of indigenous cultures in Latin America, the Pemon mix their longstanding tribal beliefs with select Christian elements. The first Capuchin mission in the area was established in 1931, yet despite adopting Catholicism, the Pemon practice social traditions such as marriage of cousins in spite of church objections, and still believe in kanaima—the spirit of evil. All animals and plants, in fact, are believed to have souls; stones and rock are soulless, but nevertheless house bad spirits.
Picture grabbing vines for support, the air filled with the sound of birds, rustling leaves, raging waterfalls. Everything looks like a big snake, and flying ants sting your neck.
In Yunek, there’s legend of a giant bird called Tatik ta Tik that purportedly grabbed an elderly woman and flew off with her to Acopán. A battle ensued and the bravery summoned in attempting to save her now runs rich in the blood of descendants, in some measure helping buffer the tribe from the encroachment of western civilization. Fascinated with climbing, the villagers wonder, in a perhaps whimsical way, if evidence of their legends shrouds the craggy summit. One elder ventures that evil spirits were responsible for our previous misadventure, recommending we approach this year’s climb more spiritually. Eager to kindle a connection with the tepuis and create our own legend on Acopán, we indeed count our blessings in praise of the surroundings.
Viewed from the village, Acopán stands like a variegated fortress, streaked in vibrant orange, pink, white, green, brown and black. The serrated skyline traces a dozen clean, 300- to 600-metre walls separated by waterfalls and vegetated gullies. Acopán is but one of many tepuis in the vast Chimantá Massif. With elevations of up to 2,700 metres and a footprint of 1,400 km2, Chimantá is considered one of the most important sites of species endemism and biodiversity in the region.
To describe the landscape, I rely on pieces of what I’ve known to create something new—much like a dream. Imagine a karst desert landscape like the vast Castleton area outside of Moab, Utah, but instead of the desert southwest’s ubiquitous Wingate sandstone, a trifling 200 million years old, Chimantá’s sandstone towers comprise dense Precambrian rock of about 1.7 billion years in age; instead of vertical fractures, their cracks are mostly horizontal. Replace the dry washes and bare dirt of Moab’s surrounding flatlands with a mix of wide-open grassland, rivers of golden water, and dense vegetation… then remove all highways or roads. Now add thick jungle to the talus cones and picture yourself grabbing vines for support on the steeper sections. Fill the air with the sounds of myriad birds, rustling leaves and raging waterfalls. Make everything on the ground look like a big snake and have flying ants sting your neck.
Julio is the village guide and commonly helps organize and shuttle loads for climbers to camps below Acopán or other tepuis. After a half-day trek with Julio’s crew over water, through jungle, and across rolling sabana we settle into the idyllic ambience of camp, where the sound of buzzing insects and the wind rustling long grass is broken only by the metallic squawk of a bearded
bellbird. Our previous attempt at a new route on Acopán fell short in part because of a badly sprained ankle and broken finger, but also due to imprudence regarding the actual difficulty of our intended objective compounded with time restraints.
This year, with much of the hard route-finding work and a few bolts already established on lower pitches, time is on our side. Finally approaching the climb, we work our way up through a mix of ferns, grasses and thick vines on the first hundred metres of rock. Gnats chew on our flesh, and mist from a nearby waterfall causes goosebumps even though it’s 27˚C in the sun. Occasionally we encounter loose or sandy rock, but for the most part it’s hard as marble. Square-cut angles comprise the gauntlet of familiar hand and footholds, while sporadic vertical fractures offer solid jams. At one point, while leading, something thumb-sized buzzes my face and I think “Cool, a hummingbird!” Far from the delightful flutter of a nectarivorous bird, however, the horrible reality proves to be a monster-sized hornet. On edge, we navigate the vast labyrinth of horizontal fractures with sloth-like tenacity; with the occasional need for bolts, each pitch demands a multitude of specialized aid-climbing tactics to complete.
The climbing is exposed and overhung maybe 15 degrees. Bending my neck back at the top of pitch four—our previous highpoint—a precipitous ocean of pink and red sandstone looms upward for hundreds of metres, an occasional roof poking far enough out to keep the wall dry even during a deluge. One-third of the way up, we establish our porta-ledge camp and stock it with supplies for a week. Over the next five days we push upward through the terrain that shielded us from daily drizzles on the lower pitches. The stubborn, hard-to-protect lower wall gives way to gear-sucking horizontal cracks; pitch after pitch above our camp is a blessing from the gods.
The multi-roofed sixth pitch earns the name “Express land” and brings us over the hump. With the summit in sight the angle finally eases. The rock color changes to black and green, its texture more abrasive, the square-cut angles more rounded; gear, when available, is solid. On top it’s windy enough that I can almost relax into the gales as I might sit in a La-Z-Boy.
Suddenly the wind stops, the abrupt shift from screaming tempest to mild breeze makes my ears ring; an unmistakable shriek from the rare harpy eagle breaks the calm, an aural marker of this far-flung location atop an island of time. Mounds of wind-sculpted rock pepper the summit landscape, varying in height, but sharing a similar, otherworldly quality. Jose even thinks one looks like a dinosaur. We frolic about like children on a magical quest through the peculiar formations.
Vast jungles, plains and more tepuis stretch as far as the eye can see. From the summit I see a virgin Earth, a land seemingly untouched by our noisy, brightly lit society. Will it be the same next time we visit?
Our descent takes us into the darkness of night; a sky full of stars makes us feel tiny as we reverse our path through the vertiginous world. Three hundred metres of rappelling reinstalls us at the porta-ledge camp perched high above the jungle canopy, and though cramped with four smelly climbers packed into a space for two, it’s a welcome dwelling. We feast on the last of our wall rations—rum cake and sausage sticks—and, languishing after the torment of vertical existence, fade into some form of slumber, content and proud of the new route we christen “In Gold Blood” (V 5.12c A.0 for those keeping score).
Two flickering lights synchronize with the crackling of an electric guitar amp. Several days have passed since we packed up our camp and climbing gear and traded the jungle for more hospitable accommodations in Yunek and some “Pemonaritas” (pineapple and tequila). Alongside villagers, we spend our last hours in La Gran Sabana attending a solar-powered concert under the twinkling firmament. Leonardo and his four-man band strum, drum and sing in celebration of our successful adventure.
Many people forget, or never learn, that a key ingredient of life is to enjoy it. Not so the Pemon, whose simple and dignified existence has, together with our isolation from the “real” world, given us even more appreciation for the gift of life. The incredible climbing opportunities here have fueled our adventures and likely those of many to come, but the few months a year when the airstrip buzzes with visitors isn’t enough.
Though the recent hostage situation has been resolved, the Pemon’s land and way of life are still threatened by the encroachment of mines, the tension of inevitability pushing them in an industrialized direction. To our bewilderment, during our climb the village purchased mining equipment of its own; though modest in size, a gold-dredge sitting alongside a row of fuel barrels delivers a gross realization. We discuss with them the potential to grow the local economy through tourism.
Perhaps a Via Ferrata to Acopán’s summit, or bike trails across the vast rolling terrain of the Sabana? Our suggestions are lofty, perhaps not quite as easy to comprehend as gold. Nevertheless, they fall not on deaf ears, but simply those of a people aspiring to find their way to that universal among humankind: progress.