Sunday, May 27, 2012

British climbers scale Venezuela's Autana Tepuy

By Russell Maddicks

A British expedition led by UK climber Leo Houlding has made the first successful ascent of the east face of Venezuela's Cerro Autana - a remote, flat-topped tepuy mountain in the Amazonas region that is considered sacred by the local Piaroa people. 
The higher 700m South West Face of Autana was climbed by Jose Pereyra and John Arran in 2002
The 2012 team was sponsored by Berghaus and made up of British climbers Houlding and Jason Pickles, US speed climber Sean "Stanley" Leary, award-winning climber and filmmaker Alastair Lee, and local climbers Yupi Rangel and Alejandro Lamus. 
They scaled Cerro Autana's east face between 28 January and 5 February 2012 and named their route The Yopo Wall (400m, E6 6b, A1).
A spectacular high-definition movie of the expedition shot by Lee will be released as a movie and DVD in August 2012, including: footage of a ceremony with a Piaroa shaman involving psychotropic "yopo" snuff to bless the venture; extreme trekking through the forest, the arduous climb; and the five nights the team spent in the magnificent caves that cut right through the centre of the mountain. 
This is quite a remarkable feat and something many other climbers have tried and failed to do in the past, mainly because it is illegal to climb Venezuela's tepuis. 
Houlding and his team not only had to battle blood-sucking insects and other rainforest perils before they climbed Autana's sheer walls, they also had to sneak in all their climbing and filming equipment and pay a considerable sum of money to a local Piaroa group to allow them the privilege of being the first up the east face.
They chose this route because it is remote from the other Piaroa communities in the area and offered less chance of the climbers being discovered by the authorities and the expedition being stopped. 
That payment - reportedly some $10,000 - has angered local climbers, who say that by paying so much to the Piaroa, Houlding's well-sponsored foreign team have put the mountain out of reach for others.
Adolfo Madinabeita, a pioneer in Venezuela of tepuy clmbing, claims that when he approached the same Piaroa group in February 2012 to climb Autana they told him they would not allow him access to the mountain for less than $20,000, making the total cost of any expedition just too expensive for him to undertake.
The spat has generated so much heat in local climbing circles in Venezuela that Houlding has released an open letter explaining why his team took the decision to pay such a large sum to climb Autana. 

Letter from Leo Houlding to Adolfo Madinabeitia 
Dear Adolfo,
We are very sorry to hear that the Piaroa Indian community asked for such an expensive fee and that you were again unable to climb Autana.
As I told you at the Mendi film festival in Vitoria in December, when they asked us for $10,000 we too almost changed our plans to climb Acopan or Amuri where the local Pemon Indians are more accommodating to climbers and trips are cheaper. However as you said to me over dinner if they were to open a trail, provide boat transfers, accommodation and food in the village, equipment portering services, guiding and general expedition support then it is not only a fee for permission it is a total cost for all services.  As you are somebody for whom I have great respect, I am also sorry that you are so upset that you have felt it necessary to attack our expedition publicly without contacting our mutual Venezuelan friend Yupi or myself first to find out the facts.
Please allow me to present to you some more information about our expedition.
As you know climbing all Tepuis is illegal in Venezuela. After Yupi climbed Salto Angels last year with a Brazilian team they were arrested and much of their gear was confiscated.
Autana is recognised and protected as a national monument further increasing the illegality of climbing it and increasing the chance of getting caught.
Climbing Autana is further complicated by it's geographical location in the State of Amazonas close to the Columbian border.
Columbian FARC and ELN have been found hiding in Amazonas. Oil and gas pipe lines have been blown up and massive arms shipments have been discovered.
Combined with the illicit smuggling of cheap Venezuelan petrol to Columbia and Columbian Cocaine to Venezuela, the state of Amazonas has a heavy and visible military presence with many road blocks and general increased security checks everywhere.  This greatly complicates getting to Autana with big wall climbing gear, especially for Gringos as all the military officers know climbing Autana is not allowed.
Obtaining official permission to climb Autana is impossible. Obtaining the local Piaroa Indians permission and support is complicated, expensive and not guaranteed, as you know from your unsuccessful attempt 3 years ago.
Unpaid fees from an unsuccessful Russian expedition in 2007 greatly exaggerated an already fragile situation.
The Piaroa are suspicous of outsiders and not interested in allowing people to climb their sacred peak.
At the beginning of December Venezuelan climbers Yupi and Alejo went to meet the community taking gifts of food, medicine and tools and explained to them our intentions.
They set up a small cinema with a laptop computer and showed the whole village our film The Asgard Project, which the Indians loved.
They told them we wanted to climb only for adventure, about our link with Jose Luis Pereyra who they remembered and that we wanted to make a film like the one they had just seen.
They made friends with the villagers and their leader, Juan Pablo and convinced them that we could be trusted.
The community decided they would be willing help but said it would be difficult, complicated, risky for them and expensive for us.
They would not agree to let us climb the west face as we wanted because it could be seen by the other communities. (especially head torches at night)
If they found out we were there we would have to pay all 6 communities the same fee.
However the East face cannot be seen by any communities they would allow us to climb there as long as we promised to keep our presence secret until we had left. 
They knew climbing Autana is illegal and that they would be breaking the law. Government officials and military checks would have to avoided or bribed.
We would have to smuggle all of our equipment and supplies in at least a week before we arrived. We would then travel as tourists. 
They would transport it at night via secret river ports, open a trail and porter all our gear to the East face in secret.
They made a list of all the things they wanted in exchange for their support. The list included tools, agricultural seed, medicine and other goods to be equally distributed to every family in the small community.
The cash equivalent came to US$10,000 and they wanted it all in advance. They were not open to any negotiations.

When we first met Juan Pablo and Alberto in Puerto Ayacucho out of respect for their Piaroa beliefs we undertook a Yopo ceremony with their Shaman to seek blessing and spiritual permission to climb their sacred Tepuy. 
It was an extremely powerful, terrifying and amazing hallucinogenic experience, more memorable than any of the climbing on our route, The Yopo wall. The Shaman was happy our intentions were pure and our new Indian friends were more trusting and close to us following the ceremony and our journey it their beliefs.

The Piaroa are a fascinating culture of tolerance, peace and fairness. 
We taught Alberto how to jummar and brought him 200m up the wall to camp with us in the amazing Cuveo Autana.
The first Piaroa ever to climb to the sacred cave. (the others went by helicopter or astral projection).

We did have some problems with communication, planning and their portering.
They only carried small loads and would arrive on the wrong day or take things to the wrong place.
On the way out we had to two loads ourselves as most the Indians would not come back as they had heard a Jaguar in the area of which they are terrified.
However we left on very good terms with the whole village turning out to see us off and warm, respectful friendships established.

We knew you were planning to go right after us. Yupi even mentioned he may go with you.
I thought the Indians would probably charge you much less than us as we had already done so much work establishing good relations with them.
We had already paid them to open a trail, they had tested the secret access plan and you were only 2 people compared to our 7. 
However I think that they felt that it was too difficult and risky for them to help two foreigners they don't know or trust. 
Your accusation that we paid extra to stop them allowing you access is ridiculous and offensive.
This can only be explained by your frustration at us succeeding where you did not and some personal resentment towards sponsored climbers and high production value adventure film?

In all the Piaroa community provided our expedition with about 100 man-days of work including six 10 hours boat journeys and many 20+ hour days.
They were an essential part of the joy and success of our adventure and in retrospect I think what we paid reflected the effort and risk they invested.
We are not concerned with a price per meter as you suggest. For us Autana, Tepuys and expeditions are about more than just rock climbing.

Nobody is allowed to climb Autana. Not Sponsored Gringo's, Middle class Venezuelan's or Spanish legend's.
We have not established an unreasonable price closing Autana to local climbers as you suggest.
It was already closed to everyone. There is no fair price. It is illegal. Climbers are not welcome and nobody climbs there.
That is why Acopan is so popular and Autana has only been climbed 3 times ever and not for 10 years.
We have opened the dialog for negotiations and have shown the Piaroa that some outsiders are honest and trust worthy.
It is for the Piaroa community to decide who they will help and what it will cost, not the Venezuelan climbers, not me and not you.

Better than to accuse and argue about what is a fair bribe to pay somebody to break the law on your behalf is to try to change these pointless laws for every bodies benefit.
There is some progress in Caracas and the Venezuelan climbing community with the support of people like you, me and Desnivel perhaps we can encourage the Venezuelan government to review it's stance on Tepuy climbing? Then fair prices can be established for fair, legitimate work not the illegal smuggling of outsiders into sacred, off limits areas.

We drilled no holes in Autana and left nothing but our rappel stations.
We respected the Piaroa traditions and helped them to buy medicine and tools to the benefit of their poor community.
We have done no harm to anybody and will hopefully bring entertainment and inspiration to many with our film - Autana.
We feel completely comfortable ethically and morally with our actions.

Congratulations on your new route on Acopan and good luck with your future expeditions.

From the Yopo Wall, Autana team.

Leo Houlding
Sean Leary
Jason Pickles
Alejandro Lamus
Yupi Rangel 
Alastair Lee
Dave Reeves

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