Thursday, March 1, 2012

Kids With Guns

Venezuela, February 2012

 Amuri Tepui in the moonlight. All photos Copyrighted material- please don't steal

As it is with many expeditions, the most exciting and dangerous moments on this trip had nothing to do with climbing. So it was, late one particular night. Four of us we’re crammed into the back of a Jeep, while our drunken, mad German tour guide was driving the wrong way down the sidewalk of a busy street in Ciudad Bolivar.

“Vee hav to go back to ze licka store!” 

We hastily located our seat belts. We had been at the liquor store only a half an hour ago. Our German tour guide, who I’ll call Hans, had gone into the store and bought 4 beers. By the time he left the store he had already consumed 2 of them. He had cracked his first of the day at around 9am.

 “Ah fack! Now my wife iz calling me. She is angry, I sink. I vill hav to get some viskey. Viskey makes me… aggressive. My wife… she duz not like zis.”

Venezuela seems to be devoid of any driving laws, resulting in absolute mayhem during all hours. The cost of gasoline is about 5 cents a gallon which adds to the havoc. This night was no exception, and the honking of the passing cars sounded like one never-ending horn. In between stops at the liquor store we had gone to the cemetery and waited while Hans stumbled around, drink in hand, looking for his mother-in-law’s late husband’s grave, so that he could change the flowers. All we had wanted was a quick trip to the grocery store. Back in the jeep, we watched in horror as Hans directed the car into oncoming traffic. Suggesting to Hans that we turn around prompted some incoherent response and a wave of the hand. We were committed.

This started as a climbing trip, so rewind about 30 days, and we were loading our gear into a Cessna 207 in the Ciudad Bolivar airport. George Ullrich (UK), Siebe Vanhee (BE), Sam Farnsworth (UK), and I had met up in Caracas on the 25th of January. After escaping the “murder capitol of the world” un-stabbed and un-mugged, we were ready to head deep into the jungle.  Off a tip we got from Jungle bigwall master John Arran, our goal was to check out the insanely steep Amuri Tepui- the main wall of which remained unclimbed.  In our two Cessnas (we had too much gear for one plane) we flew from the chaos of Ciudad Bolivar two hours south to the small, incredibly remote village of Yunek. Populated by 100 or so Pemon indians, this community has gotten accustomed to seeing rock climbers fly in and land on their tiny, grass runway. Upon exiting the plane, we were met by a deep silence not often found in the modern world- just a soft, late afternoon breeze, as rays of sun spilled from behind Acopan Tepui.   

We pictured being greeted by great hulking natives, ready to carry massive loads, while we sauntered across the savannah with comfy daypacks. It turns out that the tallest person in the tribe was no more than 5’ foot 3”. We would be doing some heavy lifting. Within an hour, we had 5 keen porters and a guide set to embark with us on the journey the next morning.

As the crow flies, Amuri Tepui is only 13 miles from Yunek, (according to our Google Earth research) but it would take us the next three full days across wide-open savannah and dark jungle to get to the wall. The porters, with machetes and fishing rods in hand, seemed happy to go on the adventure, and were fishing every night. The machete we brought, half as a joke, turned out to be invaluable for the trip. On the jungle approach, we would hack a notch into a tree every 50 feet or so, so we could find our way back without the guide. When we finally made it to the wall, we had to chop a trail through a dense swath of jungle not yet traveled by man, to reach our desired section of rock. The machete is incredibly effective in jungle travel and makes you feel really cool.

Machete session

 The porters left us with our food, and full arsenal of big wall gear. We had 4 weeks to climb a new route on the wildest piece of rock any of us had ever seen. Standing at the base, looking up and out feels like you are in the trough of a 1600’ breaking wave- moments before being engulfed in its barrel.  The centerpiece, rocketing off the top of the wall, is a waterfall (Salto Tuyuren), which gracefully plummets before crashing into the ground some 300 feet from the base of the wall. 

We chose to attempt a line up the very middle of the wall, taking on the steepest rock, and several massive roofs. We of course, were hoping to free climb everything. The climbing was quite tricky from the start. The first pitch had us using triple ropes, nailing birdbeaks, and stacking knifeblades- it went free at 5.11. Three days of climbing later, we committed to the wall. The level of comfort we experienced while on the cliff made it hard to believe we were on an expedition- The temperature was almost always perfect, and we felt not a drop of rain due to the steepness of the wall. After 5 days on the wall we were about halfway up, having free climbed everything. The hardest pitch being an incredible 5.13a traverse that Siebe redpointed. Most of the climbing was easier than 5.12a, with a few HERO 5.10/5.11 pitches thrown in. EVERY single pitch was overhung. The following 3 days though, we made almost zero progress. The even steeper rock looming overhead, and limited food and water forced us to set aside our free climbing goals, so we could focus all our energy on getting to the top.

Angry birds
Hello friend...

With morale low amongst the team, George pulled through a blank aid lead, with ten hook placements in a row. Our pace sped back up to a mind bending 2- 3 pitches a day, and we were aimed for the summit- every foot of progress bringing us closer to the waterfall.  A few more days of aid climbing whippers, George ripping off the tip of his pinky, and me run-out, screaming like a girl on what was probably 5.10+  had us poised for the cumbre. With our last pack of cookies, and only a few liters of water to our names, we topped out in the dying light of the 18th of February. We didn’t spend too long on the top, because we were being dive-bombed by a pterodactyl (it may have just been a massive bat). The next day we rapped the route, concluding our 12th day on the wall.

Yay I'm so happy
George has resilient fingers 

After a crippling hike back to Yunek, we thought the ordeal was over. But now, back to the jeep and our misadventure with the drunk German, we narrowly made it back to the liquor store. Hans, belligerent as a badger continued rambling.

“I don’t like viskey. Vis this… I am getting too drunk. I like vine. Vis vine I… I am opening a new flower… zis I sink iz much nicer.”

Two hours later, we were still alive and back at the campground. The ordeal was now over.

Kids With Guns- 5.13a, A3, 21 Pitches, took us a total of 15 climbing days to complete. We placed 6 bolts; four were for belays, and two as protection bolts. The route will almost certainly go free. We are not sure of the height of the wall, but it is in the neighborhood of 450m-500m. Our best estimate is that the wall overhangs a little over 300 feet, making our route one of the steepest in the world. I could not have picked three finer gentlemen to share this grand adventure with.

Note- The name we have given our route bears no relevance to us being young, or having big muscles, but rather to a song we had stuck in our heads for the duration of the trip.


  1. Awesome, Mason!
    Makes me want to check out Venezuela as well. Really proud effort.


  2. Nice work homies!!! That looks like a fuggin adventure and some... Super psyched for ya.


  3. Kick Ass!!!!

    Looks like you found what you were looking for!

  4. Mason this is a great story, thanks for sharing. I love how you picked up "amongst" from the Brits. My only comment is that the photos in this post are ENORMOUSLY too small. Especially George's fingers.

  5. super cool!congrats. how did you manage to rap the route so fast?

    1. Thanks to all for the kind words. Ben, after summiting we only did about three rappels, and then zipped down our fixed ropes to the portaledges. The next day we jugged up to the highpoint and continued rappelling, reaching the ground (quite hungry) in the afternoon.

    2. thanks for the info.. good job again, also on the writing. cheers

  6. Just awesome. Your funny writing downplays the epicness of that climb.

  7. very, very beautiful place... congratulations all for climbing!!

  8. Excellent writing Mason. Hans... what a nut. Thanks for sharing the story.

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