Aratitiyope: Into the Venezuelan Amazon

16 02 2011

The following is a high-resolution and free version of our film:

Aratitiyope: Into the Venezuelan Amazon

I want to thank Alex Hemingway and Neal Ficker for their tireless and truly amazing editing work.  It was a pleasure and an honor working with both of them on this project.  I also want to thank Matt Othmer, my partner in crime for many years of climbing adventures.  Of course, I have to give a shout out to Daniel and Eric from Rio and Gandul and Ivan from Caracas, these are truly amazing friends.

Below I have included an email I wrote upon arriving home from the expedition back in 2008.

Dear Family & Friends,

As I arrived back in Colorado last week, I want to provide a recap of our recent adventures in the Venezuelan Amazon to all those who are interested.  After over 2 months in Venezuela, it is nice to be home again.  Venezuela is quite the fascinating country in both positive and negative regards.  It is a place I hope to return to at some point in my travels, and not just because it costs $0.70 to fill up a tank of gas.

The following will provide a summarized version of our expedition.

As many of you know, in December, my climbing partner and fellow East Coast raised, hip-hop loving, Portuguese speaking, big wall climber, Matt Othmer, and I set out to make the first ascent of the East Face of Cerro Aratitiyope in the deepest part of the Venezuelan Amazon.  Facing complex logistics, wildly remote indigenous tribes, untouched jungle, heavily FARC influenced areas, Venezuelan military zones, and Caracas (sketch- central), we knew right away that it would be an adventure, even before the climbing began.  We could not have made an attempt at such a daunting objective without the generous support of our friends and family.  We are both so very appreciative of the support we received and the friends we have.  It would surely have been impossible without you!

Upon arriving in Caracas, we met up with the most friendly climbing community I could imagine.  They took us in like brothers and made sure we got all our expedition planning and organizing done safely.  Our Brazilian team members arrived late, after a number of delays, postponing our travel date to Puerto Ayacucho.  Sergio, the oldest and most experienced member of our team, experienced terrible back pains due to a slipped disk, and had to return to Brazil the next day.  The four remaining team members (Matt, two Brazilians (Daniel & Eric), and myself) jumped on a bus packed to the brim and blasting salsa at all hours.  We arrived in Puerto Ayacucho, the gateway to the Venezuelan Amazon, the next morning.

Our boat journey began on the Orinoco River in Puerto Ayacucho.  We were lucky to have a great indigenous boat driver, Flaco.  The river was beautiful.  Storks, river otter, river dolphin, macaws, turtles, and monkeys were some of the animals we watched, although the infinite stretch of the Amazon rainforest on the river bank was a more reliable view.  Each night, we found a place to camp in the jungle, or a friendly community to stay with.  We slept in hammocks every night, we fished mostly catching piranha, and cooked on grills made of twigs over camp fires.  The jungle was almost fully pristine, with no obvious displays of deforestation.  Venezuela’s Amazon is by far the best preserved of any other country.  The insects are also preserved quite well in the jungle, and we got our share of exposure to flies, termites, mosquitoes, ants, and bees.

After a week on the boat we arrived in Tama-Tama, a small town built by Christian Missionaries.  They were kicked out by Chavez last year, although they had been there for the last 50.  Tama-Tama also holds a small military outpost.  Our papers for the Venezuelan Military were rejected, and suddenly we found ourselves stuck in Tama-Tama, and our expedition in jeopardy.  The pori-pori black flys were the worst we had yet encountered.  Four days later, new papers arrived in a boat from Ayacuco, and we were on our way down the Casiquiare Canal.  The Casiquiare is the only naturally occurring canal in the world that takes water from one river system (the Orinoco) and gives it to a completely different river system (the Amazon).  A couple more days down the river and we had entered into Yanomami territory.

The Yanomamis were only first made contact with in the late 1960’s and are some of the most famous indigenous tribes in the world, mostly due to a number of scandals involving anthropologists.  They have many fascinating practices, including the use of Yopo, a powerful hallucinogenic blown up the nose of a Shaman, and the practice of eating the cremated ashes of deceased family members in a platano soup.  Upon our arrival in the village of the tribal chief, one curious Yanomami slipped on the edge of our boat and cut his leg, pouring blood everywhere.  Instantly, the mood of the Yanomamis switched from curiosity to trauma.  A women sobbed uncontrollably, I worried that the Yanomamis would take this bad luck as an omen and our relations with them would be skewed from the first moment.  Fortunately, Daniel, one of our Brazilians, was a medical student and quickly cleaned up the cut and bandaged the wound, calming the villagers and preserving our good relations with the tribe.

We left the village with six Yanomami guides.  We hired them to help us get through the jungle safely, catch supplemental food, and carry some of our loads.  Another three days of difficult navigation on ever smaller tributaries and our dugout-bongo boat could go no further.  We were still 25 km from the peak by way the bird flys.  We geared up and began hacking our way through the jungle.  The Yanomamis, from thousands of years of adapting methods to finding protein in the jungle, were fascinating to watch hunt.  We watched as they hunted birds with their 6 foot long arrows, killed a tortoise, and sacked bee hives.  Our progress was slow and word came that the river had decreased 6 feet in 2 days due to the lack of rain.  Our retreat by boat was now questionable.  After much discussion, we agreed to abandon all hopes of the summit of Aratitiyope to avoid being stranded in the jungle with a boat but no water.  It was a heart breaking decision, but it was not a tough one to make.  Tricky maneuvering of our 40 foot long, 4 foot wide bongo boat got us back to bigger rivers.

We then visited a smaller granite dome, Piedra de Culimacare, that lay closer to the river.  We made a first ascent on the steepest side of the dome, and then brought our beloved boat driver, Flaco, up the back side so he could get his first aerial view of the jungle canopy.  Two weeks later we were back in Puerto Ayacucho.  I came down with a terrible fever, what I thought to be malaria, but some simple (and free) tests came back negative for Malaria.  The fever could have been a mild strain of Dengue or just a terrible case of the flu.  I soon recovered, and once again, we were in motion.

Matt and I scrounged together what funds we could and were soon off on another epic 24 hour bus ride to the Gran Sabana, near Angel Falls.  We hoped we could reach the wall of Acopan Tepui which we heard would offer a more forgivable approach.  After logging 5 meals in a day, a couple beers, and a night in a real bed, we were ready for another expedition.  We hired a 4 seat propeller plane to fly us to a remote indigenous village at the base of Acopan Tepui, a massive sandstone table mountain.  We made a successful, although bumpy landing on the overgrown dirt runway and were greeted by the chief of the village.  After very friendly negotiations with the Pemon indigenous people, more hacking through the jungle, a very close encounter with a Fer-de-lance (pit viper), and five long days on the wall itself, we reached the top of our new route, “Perdidos en Venezuela” (Lost in Venezuela) 5.11 C2+ V ~1,500 ft.  We struggled through high winds, scorpion infested cracks, loose rock, a sheared rope, and unexpected falls (even while being interviewed by satellite phone with National Geographic Radio).  The climb turned out to be of the highest quality and a highly treasured experience.  At the top of the wall, the ancient Amazonian sandstone had weathered into wild, soaring shapes preventing easy travel on the summit.  The only way down was back the way we came.  We rappelled the steep wall with no major problems.  That night, sleeping in a hammock in the jungle had a new feeling of luxury.  We had finally climbed a new “big wall” route in the Amazon, we named it “Perdidos en Venezuela” in Spanish, to most accurately depict our adventure.

Cheers, and happy trails!

–Asa Firestone

March 2008




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