Climbing Venezuela’s Acopan Tepui with Mikey Schaefer, Kate Rutherford, Brittany Griffith and Jonathan Thesenga
Jonathan Thesenga has been everywhere. A great climber, traveler and storyteller, his hit list is adorned with some of the best out-there adventures and destination discoveries of the last decade. Morocco, Mali, the Czech Republic and the storied Stolby trips come to mind immediately. So when he expressed interest in exploring some new routing options on the iconic tepui formations of Venezuela I was eager to see the adventure happen. With his new bride, Brittany Griffith, and friends and fellow ambassadors Mikey Schaefer and Kate Rutherford rounding out the dream team, a successful ascent was undoubtedly lurking amongst a sea of laughter and good times. Today’s trip report comes from Jonathan himself, complimented by images from Mikey Schaefer. Mix a Gatorita, sit back and picture yourself there. ["Questing upward!" Brittany Griffith maximizing her reach on another spicy pitch. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
On February 7th, Brittany Griffith and I flew from the homogenized world of Salt Lake City to the rough and tumble world of Caracas, Venezuela where we met up with Mikey Schaefer and Kate Rutherford who had flown up directly from a month-long mission in Patagonia. They stashed their entire alpine kit at our great friends Kami and Jose’s house (no need for ice tools and DAS parkas where we were headed!). Our objective was to fly into the Gran Sabana in the heart of the country’s rainforest jungle and climb a new free route on Acopan Tepui, one of the stunning sandstone tepuis that tower above the rainforest and savannah.
We caught a flight out the next day to Ciudad Bolivar, where we then hired two Cessnas to fly us and all our gear into the jungle to the village of Yunek (a huge thanks to our main man Jochen from Gekko Tours in Ciudad Bolivar for all his help getting the flights lined up). For us four it was our first time venturing into the rainforest and we couldn’t take our eyes off the endless green canopy far below. The same could not be said of our pilot, who quickly became bored with looking out at the green nothingness, pulled out his newspaper and, to our amazement, began intently reading the paper while flying.
As the flight continued, we would catch glimpses of tepuis and small ribbons of blue river coursing through the greenscape. No towns, no roads—just beautifully pristine jungle as far as we could see for more than two hours. We had asked our pilot to do a fly-by of Acopan before landing so that we could scope the wall, which he did—without telling us when we were actually flying by it (he was still busy reading the sports section of the paper). “Wait, whoa, check it out… that’s it, that’s it!” I yelled over the drone of the Cessna’s engine and we all dove to the windows, getting an all-too fleeting up-close glimpse of Acopan. The pilot folded his newspaper and landed us smoothly on the dirt airstrip in Yunek, a small 30-family community deep and isolated in the Gran Sabana (their sole forms of personal transportation are canoes on the Karuay River, more than an hour’s walk away, and one bicycle).
[A rare moment with the pilots full attention. Mikey and team on the Cessna. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
[A welcoming invite with many hands making light work on the landing strip in Yunek. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
[From a climber's perspective, an endless view of endless possibilities. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
Everyone from the village came out to greet us with smiles, handshakes and even fresh pineapple (we gave them, as our friend John Arran, a trad-master tepui-climbing veteran of five or six trips from the UK, had suggested, chocolate, two soccer balls and photos of the villagers from one of John’s previous trips). Kate, who speaks the best Spanish of us four, introduced us and explained why we were there. The villagers knew the drill and within 30 minutes of us unloading our bags from the plane they began helping us carry our 400 pounds of kit up to Acopan. The east face of Acopan dominated the scenery as we walked with our heavy loads—its stunning 1000-1300 foot face peppered with a mix of overhanging orange walls and lower-angled jungle-covered black rock, plus two waterfalls surged out of the middle of the wall, freefalling out of sight into the forest. Totally amazing.
After a two-hour walk uphill we reached an idyllic basecamp spot in the shade just off a small meadow next to a small creek. Nearby, the east face of Acopan towered over the rainforest canopy. A better basecamp, none of us could think of—absolutely perfect. The next day, armed with a couple of machetes, we carried loads through the jungle to the base of Acopan, looking for “our line.” As it turns out, it’s just about impossible to see the wall through the jungle’s dense double canopy, so after much stumbling about, Mikey and Brittany climbed up a tree in effort to get above the canopy and at least get an idea of where the hell we were in relation to the wall. It didn’t really help, so we continued thrashing and trudging along the base of the wall through the hot, dusty and dry jungle (the villagers said it was the driest dry season in 15 years) until stumbling upon one of the waterfalls. We immediately dumped the packs, stripped down and bathed in the cold, refreshing water. Again, absolutely paradise. To the left of the waterfall was clean, overhanging orange wall—that was it, that was our line.
[Jonathan scouting potential lines from a far. A wise move considering the jungle canopy shrouded any closer vantage on the approach in. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
[The Acopon Tepui stands proudly over the visually stunning dichotomy of jungle and savannah. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
[Once fully committed to the wall, the luxury of returning to this pool at the wall's base was a motivating factor for the team. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
[This waterfall provided clean drinking water and reprieve from the heat for Brittany and team. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
The next day we began the climb. Our plan was to free climb and fix ropes up to what looked like a small pillar on the left arête of the face, the only visible ledge of any kind in the wall’s 1100-foot length. From there we would haul up the portaledges and bivy gear and continue free climbing and fixing before a final push for the summit. We had a bolt kit with a hand drill, but we had a strong desire to establish the free climb with no lead bolts. Recent routes established by European climbers on Acopan were beautiful looking and hard, but bolt intensive, requiring power drills to equip. We hoped to keep the bolt kit in the bag and follow the natural line of the wall.
After four hot, tricky and tedious days of overhanging bolt-free climbing, we finally reached the midway pillar. Finding our way through the steep lower pitches proved difficult—vertical cracks were rare and when they did appear they were chossy. The clean climbing was found navigating to and from the horizontal crack systems, which were impossible to see how good they were or if they were even cracks until you committed to the section and reached the break (now we understood why other teams had placed so many bolts on their routes!). Each night as we drank our rationed amount of tequila and Gatorade (aka, Gatoritas) we marveled at the climbing, the setting, the heat, the jungle, the bliss of rinsing off everyday in the waterfall—it was all amazing. Luckily the line had come together and on day five I hauled up the gear while Mikey, Brittany and Kate freed the lower pitches, including Brittany leading the first cruxy pitch of the route, a testy 5.12 pitch of overhanging stemming and finger locks. Above the bivy, the wall reared back even steeper, the rock harder and cleaner. We hadn’t placed any lead bolts yet, but the terrain above didn’t seem likely to go all-trad.
We settled into our portaledge homes and cracked open dinner: MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. (Yeah, MREs like the kind military personnel eat in the field.) The MREs were my idea as a way to save having to bring a stove and extra water. Mikey, Kate and Brittany weren’t too psyched on the idea of MREs for four nights (and honestly neither was I), but the MREs turned out to be surprisingly good (Mikey especially liked the “shelf stable” Italian Meat Sandwich with its stunning list of 72 ingredients and chemicals, while I favored the semi-nasty but semi-tasty beef raviolis).
[Kate Rutherford navigating horizontal fractures while redpointing a pitch low on the route. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
[Brittany Griffith finds a passage to the right of the "Dragon's Tail" – a vertical swath of jungle foliage identified from the ground and used as a point of reference up high on the route. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
[Kate belays Brittany for the redpoint on a heads up 5.12 lead. The luxurious pool beckoning from below. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
[Views so stunning they make one forget the discomforts of life on the wall. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
Our alarm clock in the morning was a ghostly, unnatural sound, one unlike any of us had ever heard. It was the howler monkeys far down below in the jungle (fighting, talking, having sexy time, who knew?). We never saw them and we never did figure out what the hell was going on down there. However, their disturbing howls and shrieks for 30 minutes every dawn and dusk added a unique time reference to our climbing days.
The third pitch off the pillar was Mikey’s lead and it would turn out to be the 5.12 crux of the route: a 30-meter wildly overhanging pitch of testy gear down low that led into a blank-looking bulge. Mikey figured it all out and redpointed it with Kate first try the following day, as Brittany and I continued questing above, leaving the sweet overhanging wall behind and launching into the vertical jungle pitches.
We had been warned about the jungle pitches and they definitely lived up to their billing: scary and slow climbing, requiring extensive cleaning (i.e., pulling bushes off the wall to locate handholds and gear placements). Seventy meters from the summit Brittany and I ran into a rancid 15-foot section of decomposing rock that I was forced to scratch and yard my way through, enjoying “J1” climbing (a rating system used by other parties to rate anything-goes jungle climbing). From there Kate took over and punched it for the top, scampering up the scary medley of bromeliads, moss, branches, leaves and choss in record time (“She grew up in the wilds of Alaska,” Mikey said during Kate’s final lead. “She’s a bushmaster… this stuff is fun for her!”).
Massive ferns, thorny bushes and a perilous maze of boulders greeted us on top, and we spent a couple hours exploring the wild summit plateau. We could’ve spent days hiking around the vast summit, however, with storm clouds forming out over the savannah, we begrudgingly said goodbye and began the rappels back to our portaledge camp. The next day we broke down camp and rapped the rest of the wall with the awkward haul bags and portaledges. Rather than leave cams behind, we placed five bolts during these rappels, with the last person off the belay rapping off a single bolt. The rock was as hard as granite and the hand drilling slow, making us especially thankful we hadn’t had to place any bolts for the climbing.
[Kate keeps an eye on the threatening weather as she and team explore the Tepui's summit. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
[JT ponders what kind of creatures might be living in such an epic cave on the Tepui's summit. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
[The team raps from the summit amidst dramatic cloud cover. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]
Back at our basecamp paradise that night (after one final rinse off in our beloved waterfall), we celebrated with the last of our tequila (we had brought 10 pounds of it from the States). As we satisfyingly sipped our Gatoritas, our thoughts drifted back to the climb—1100 feet, eight days of climbing, two pitches of 5.12, overhanging the whole way, insane summit plateau—and we decided to dub the route 10 Pounds Of Tequila.
To Jose and Kami (and their wonderful kids Paz and Kawok), to Jochen from Gekko Tours, to the Cessna pilot who brought us a case of beer on ice when he picked us up for the return flight, to the wonderful people of Yunek, to the crew back home at Patagonia: thank you, thank you, thank you for helping to make 10 Pounds Of Tequila a reality.
[A beautifal vantage of the Acopon Tepui. 10 Pounds Of Tequila quests up the cleanest white headwall on the right end of the aspect in view. Photo: Mikey Schaefer]