Leading British adventurer Leo Houlding has just returned from a successful expedition to the depths of the Amazonian jungle in Venezuela. Houlding, along with his close knit team of climbers and local fixers, and expedition film maker Alastair Lee, took on the complex and ambitious journey to make a first ascent on Cerro Autana (1400m), one of the Amazon’s most remote and sacred mountains. The expedition was supported by Berghaus.
Leo Houlding was joined on the expedition by fellow Berghaus athletes Jason Pickles, Stanley Leary and Alastair Lee, along with local adventurers Yupi Rangel and Alejandro Lamus, and David Reeves, who works closely with Lee on his filmmaking projects.
Cerro Autana is a spectacular quartzite-sandstone tepuy (table-top mountain) situated deep in the jungle in the state of Amazonas in eastern Venezuela. The local Piaroa Indians revere it as the stump of the tree of life, from which all life grew. Due to its sacred status and close proximity to the porous Colombian border, access to Autana is prohibited and extremely difficult to secure on both a national and local level.
The starting point for the expedition was the frontier town of Puerto Ayacucho, easily reached from Caracas (Venezuelan capital) by car or plane. From there, the team made their way to the Piaroa community of Ceguera via an eight hour boat ride up the Rio Orinoco and tributary Rio Autana. After seeking a blessing from the local Shaman and partaking in a memorable Yopo ceremony, they began a four day trek through virgin jungle to establish a trail and base camp below the rarely visited east face of Autana.
Jason Pickles comments: “Just reaching this virgin face was a huge adventure in itself.”
The jungle provided a constant challenge for the uninitiated team.100% humidity, 35-degree heat and torrential downpours combined with mosquitos, a plethora of flies and a dozen different species of ants, made for an irritating backdrop against the more serious menace of tarantulas, scorpions and deadly snakes. From their hammock base camp, the team made a dangerous and complex approach to the mountain through dense jungle.
Once they reached the base of the wall that was their main objective, the adventure took on another aspect entirely. The initial climbing involved as much vegetation as rock race and was slow going. As the rock quality improved, Houlding, Pickles and Leary climbed above the roof of the jungle and into the incredible and very rarely visited Autana Caves (Cuevo Autana), the highest elevated cave system in the world.
A cave equal in scale and grandeur to a cathedral proved to be the finest wall camp imaginable with fresh running water, firewood, plenty of flat ground and a truly celestial view over an uninterrupted jungle wilderness stretching for as far as the eye could see.
Above the cave the wall became incredibly steep. A tenuous line of corners, chimneys and hanging walls led for five pitches through giant ceilings with surprising ease, until a final six meter horizontal roof forced a few moves of aid to reach the top of the wall. A couple of hundred metres more vertical jungle of a very different nature to that at the base eventually led the entire team to the elusive summit. The team rappelled the line of the climb, leaving only their rappel stations behind.
Leo Houlding comments: “It really was a journey into a lost world. There were so many unknowns and hazards, once in a lifetime experiences and unforgettable moments. If it were not for their extremely inaccessible location, the Autana Caves would surely be known as one of the wonders of the world and the top of Cerro Autana was an amazing place.
“Tepuy climbing transpired to be everything we hoped for, everything that we had feared, and a whole lot more. It was an adventure that none of us will forget. Indiana Jones would have been proud.”
Sean ‘Stanley’ Leary adds: “Our voyage to the Tree of Life was a real boy’s own adventure. Truly dismal suffering would be punctuated by moments of absolute beauty or hilarious camaraderie as we pushed through the challenges of the jungle and then the climb itself.”
A film about the expedition is now in production and will be released later in 2012. Directed and produced by Alastair Lee, ‘Autana – first ascent in the lost world’ will tell the story of the expedition and include footage of some of the very rarely seen locations that the team visited.
Alastair Lee comments: “The remote tropical location made for some brilliant filming conditions, and each place we visited was like a tailor made film set.”
For more information about the film and to watch a trailer visit the Posing Productions website.