Friday, 11 March 2016

Lost World: Seventeen days on the face of Roraima

 Whillans and Brown....carry on up the jungle.

Currently showing on BBC2 in the UK is an adventure programme which the makers advertise thus...

Adventurer and naturalist Steve Backshall embarks on one of the most dramatic and dangerous expeditions ever filmed by a BBC crew. His mission is to explore Venezuela's tepuis - ancient, sheer-sided mountains, lost worlds cut off from the jungle below.

With an elite team of rock climbers, Steve attempts the first ascent of an unclimbed wall on a remote tepui to search for wildlife on the summit. But nobody could have predicted what would happen, nor the kinds of decisions they'd be forced to make. A white-knuckle ride from the start, the team encounter river rapids and hazardous wildlife, and survive a close shave with a rickety biplane. Yet nothing can prepare them for their climb to the island in the sky. ( Extreme Mountain Challenge)

However,the following article recalls a remarkably similar adventure from over 40 years ago when a crack team which included Joe Brown, Don Whillans, Hamish McInnes and Mo Anthoine took on a climb inspired by Arthur Conan Doyles' 'The Lost World' novel in the Brazilian/Venezuela rain forest.

"Mo Anthoine and Joe Brown tell in their own words of their climb to the Lost World. Together with Hamish Maclnnes. They arrived home on November 21st — Mike Thompson had returned home with an injured foot early on while Don Whillans — always a glutton for punishment — continued down to Patagonia for more thrills.'

The cliff dominates everything. There's a sort of ridge that runs up to the Face with a big drop on either side. Roraima is a two-tiered job and you by-pass the bottom tier by going up the ridge. We climbed the top tier. I've got a newspaper cutting from one of the previous expeditions and you'd think it was the most bloody desperate climb in the world just to get to the foot of it. You walk for three days through flat forest, not bad going. Then the vegetation changes as you go up the ridge. There are jellyish icicles of nasty grey slime hanging on all the trees. Eventually you reach Eldorado Swamp, that’s a height gain of about 2000‘and there we had Camp 7. It  was named by the botanists, for 'them it was Eldorado, for us, well we were up to our calves in mud and stuff. It as the first you could see the Face itself and the left-hand skyline is Brazil and the right Venezuela.

Anyway, from Eldorado Swamp the ridge gets steeper and it's about a 1000 feet, and about one and a quarter hours to the foot of the Face. It's only technically scrambling but we put fixed ropes on parts to stop having to get hold of nasty plants. We'd been told there would be no nasties on the Face but above Eldorado Swamp I caught five snakes! And these are tarantulas. We'd not seen them before and they suddenly started leaping around. They'll get up on their back legs, you know, when they're in an attacking mood, and jump at you. I was collecting them in polythene bags but Don was throwing my bloody collection away. Spiders, you can usually see them because they're so big, but scorpions are things I didn't like. They were what worried me most.

Mo and Mike arrived first and receed the thing up. It's metamorphosed sandstone — quartzite actually — and very, very hard. It's horizontally bedded so you get hardly any vertical cracks and the horizontal ones are shallow. It's desperate to drill. We had a bolt gun but even then the bolts wouldn't go in, just poof — they turned round and came out. Bloody hopeless! Hamish couldn't understand it. Anyway, Mo started off and did about 130 feet in two hours and Mike and I jumared up to him and I started the next pitch. There were lots of little holds with vegetation in and everyone I cleaned out had a scorpion under the vegetation and this slowed things down. You had to look into each hand-hold before using it. If there was a scorpion you just belted it with a peg hammer. The tension got me very fed up. Next day I used 12 drills trying to put in one bolt but we got to the Cabbage Patch, a sort of long ledge six inches wide where you get onto it, but widening to six or seven feet.It was covered in plants like huge leeks and full of water with mosquito larvae in that wriggled around. But we had to drink it and they stopped wriggling when you boiled the water.

Next day Hamish led off with Don. Eventually I was leading and when I was getting onto a big ledge I reached up and there was a really big fist-sized tarantula. I jumped off on to my last peg, got me hammer out and jumped back, splat, So we called it Tarantula Terrace. We had a camp under a roof here where we slung hammocks from pegs. Then the cliff, steepened with bare sections and overhangs and this Africa Flake thing. There was bolting for 50 feet and then some really exciting pegging for 200 feet. (Joe: "I found the whole lot bloody exciting! All expanding flakes and loose rock and horrible tie-offs. It was incredibly overhanging. You started off on jumars and swung thirty feet out, with three stances in etrier. It was really gripping I thought. To give you some idea, for the first 900 feet you never got a drop of water on you and it rained three inches every day. You'd be climbing away completely engrossed and you would hear the brrrrrrr, it would be rain beating on the forest below and you and you would be looking out to these fantastic waterfalls pouring down everywhere and the water wasn’t anywhere near you.But after we got around Africa Flake and the big right angle roofs,you were absolutely bloody soaked and really cold all was gruelling.

On one occasion, was leading towards what I thought was a stance, but it wasn't. I was soaked to the skin, the vegetation was desperate and the pegs really manky. There was only one hour of daylight left. I said, "We've got to go". Don and Hamish had jumared up behind with the bivvy gear and there was a bit of a panic. We went down as fast as we could and there was a real snarl up with the ropes. I was going hand over hand down thirteen ropes. It was a bunch six inches in diameter and I hadn't a clue what they were. Bloody chaos. Don was stanced in etrier and he had to pull Mo in. We abseiled in the dark. At that time I thought, "This is bloody crazy and we're finished". No-one disputed that. We went down to Camp 7 and rested for two or three days. Don and Hamish had a crack next and we watched from the bottom. You could shout up to the face and we jollied them on. Hamish was leading in his sugarcane-cutter's boots and they only got 15 feet above our high point when the weather was bad so they came down.

 Eventually Mo got to the start of the Green Tower, a nice ledge full of hundreds of fantastic huge insects. (Mo: "One looked like a JCB earth mover, all hooks and spikes and things...Then I led 30 to 40 feet up vegetation to our haven. At this ledge on top of the Green Tower we spent five nights, but the tent was only three feet wide and one side was hanging over the edge, but it was somewhere to work from and we felt a lot better. It's strange that on what must have been one of the wettest cliffs anywhere, you couldn't get any water. You had to do a swing round the corner on jumars with a poly bag to collect drips. Above this Joe tried his controlled descent. Only a few feet but I thought, "A peg's come out", but it hadn't. Joe said in a very calm voice, "I tried lay-backing up an etrier. I'm going to put a bolt in now". Then up an evil looking chimney to a tennis court — a really huge ledge and you could see the top 120 feet above.

We went back down the ropes to the camp. Don and Hamish had this squalid little bit of ledge and they didn't believe there was a big ledge above no they had this real miserable night under just a bit of awning. Hamish had a gaz stove for a pillow.

They're both seasoned gamesman those two, and they were trying to outwriggle each other. We were in hysterics. We persuaded them to lead a bit the next day but Don said, "Who do you think you are? You've led most of the way, so how about finishing it off?". Hamish agreed to do some. We got to a hard 40 foot pitch and Hamish got some krabs on a rope and hurled it across into a chimney and it stuck on a chockstone and he jumared up.

Then there was some steep vegetated stuff where Hamish  stood on Don's back to start and then I got the top pitch to do. I was worried and the rock got soft and the pegs were all duff. When I tried to get onto this pinnacle I pulled a ledge off and I didn't shout, "Below" until a second after it had landed on Hamish! It flattened him! (Joe: "Christ how d'yr get a really injured man down the Face? How d'yr get yourself down? Really gripping! It was mostly soil but Hamish was adamant there was a great big block in the middle. Quite a whoompf! The last part looked hard, but it was a piece of duff. Suddenly, poompf — and I pulled over the top and the sun came out. It had been raining for a month. Bloody amazing! The top was incredible. Just as good as you'd imagined it to be. Just flat, just bare rock.

Back a bit there were these ravines. Some were 150 feet deep at least, all eroded sandstone, water courses where the waterfalls start. It was a real maze. So we spent one and a half hours on the summit and came straight down. We left all the gear, all the fixed ropes from top to bottom. They'd frayed through and we left them. We'd spent 17 days on the Face, we thought it would be 4 and it was a lot harder than we thought. I've never been on an artificial climb that has been as continuous as that for so long. I've been on more difficult ones but they were much shorter, If you have something which is as hard as the hardest artificial climbs say in Derbyshire or Yorkshire, and put them one on top of the other and think back how long it took to climb Gordale Scar and Kilnsey Crag for the first time, well — that's why it took 17 days. I thought it was good going in fact. At one time we were all trying to psych out. I wished I could get stung by a scorpion, or get a spike through my foot and be sent home like Mike. We had this one drill left and if it broke then the climb would be finished and I was tempted to snap it.

"If it had been snow and ice it would have been interesting but it was just boring rock", that's a quote of Hamish's that is, but Hamish says he gets bored with rock climbing!

Footnote: Roraima, at 9219ft the highest point in the highlands where Guyana, Venezuela and Brazil meet, was first climbed in 1889— not of course by the same route as the recent expedition but by less steep but more jungly slopes on the opposite side. The ascent was made by Sir Everard im Thum, at that time the Government Agent for the N.W. District of the then colony of British Guiana, accompanied by Mr Henry lnnes Perkins. It was subsequently ascended by Mr F. V. McConnell in 1894 and 1898 and in 1916 there was a first ladies' ascent by Lady Clementi.

Mo Anthoine/Joe Brown in conversation with Chris Brasher:First published in Mountain Life Dec 1973