Ilu Tepuy is a sandstone ‘tepui’ 2,700 metres high in the Gran Sabana of Venezuela north west of Roraima. (On the left in the panorama.) Scharlie, my wife, and I climbed it on 23 November 1981. We knew about it from Douglas Branch, an Englishman resident in Caracas. He had been to the mountain twice. Although I had been to the Gran Sabana a number of times, this was the first time I had seen the mountain clearly. It has the classic table-mountain form, but is much smaller than Roraima or Kukenan. which Steve had climbed in 1971 with Ramon Blanco, Hans Schwarzer and Ambrosia Perez.
Ilú–Tramen_Massif_and_Karaurín-tepui (Source: commons.wikimedia.org Author: Mgiganteus1)
We contracted a Taurepan guide, José Luis Martinez, in the village of Uroy Uaray on the main Sta. Helena road and set off due east towhttp://taurepan%20roraimaards the mountain. We arrived in Uonori-Pa, a small settlement at the base of the mountain, named after a prominent white mark in the form of a heron on the hillside below the tepuy. Here Cecilio Acosta joined us. Climbing the west side of the mountain we reached the base of the rock wall guarding the summit of the mountain but because of the rain, we failed to climb the west face.
We climbed Roraima, went back to Caracas for a rest, and returned three weeks later. This time we cut a path along the base of the rock wall to the pass between Ilu Tepuy and Karauren. It took us four days and we established a camp with our small tent on the pass. The two guides returned to Uonori-Pa.
We had calculated the ascent from here to the top would take at least two days and planned to open out a path the first day, and then go up with the ropes,the second day to climb the upper wall. However, the weather that first morning was fine and we decided to try to reach the top in a day. After a difficult ascent through thick vegetation, we reached the rock wall at 2.30 pm. We changed footwear and tackled the upper wall. Just to the right of a prominent roof on the south ridge of the mountain, there are a series of steep black slabs. It was there we climbed. They are very steep for the first 100 metres and we climbed on faint ripple marks and there was no protection. After this the angle relented, and we reached the top at about 5pm.
23/11/81, Monday We have climbed to the pass and are camped below the rock wall. It is wild and windy and thick with mist and we have had to weight the tent down with rocks against the prevailing wind. We chose a rocky place to camp but the ground was still soggy so we broke off sack-fulls of twiggy branches with succulent leaves and covered them with long leathery leaves. This resulted in the most comfortable bed we have had so far. If the weather stays fair, we are full of hope for reaching the summit, maybe tomorrow! We collected water for cooking from bromeliads. Cut heather-like succulents to make bed on rock. Difficult to stop roof of tent touching flysheet. Good dry night, woke to beautiful dawn.
24/11/81 Tuesday About 5 p.m. but almost too dark to see. We woke at dawn as the sky paled behind Kerauren and made its long outline black and sharp. The wind was still strong enough to throw you off balance so we stayed warm in the tent till the sun rose then packed the sacks with ropes and boots, cameras, raisins and warm clothes. I was wearing two shirts, pullover and anorak and it was so cold I kept them on most of the day. The first stretch from camp was unexpectedly steep and vegetated – crunching and slashing up to the armpits in wet bromeliad. As Steve said it was like climbing a compost heap.
At the top of the steep section, there were two possibilities – a steep, overhanging vegetated grove, or a delicate traverse left on tiny rounded edges. Without runners, the only way down would be in controlled fall/slide. Pulling down the overhanging vegetation and mud revealed a good flat ledge about a foot long and two inches deep. However, most of the good handholds were now lying in a great sodden mass at the bottom of the pitch. I tried to move left but the Spanish fell boots I was wearing, not very delicate at best but now caked in mud and goo, slipped off the tiny ripples without a handhold it was too risky. So back to the groove. I grabbed the remaining vegetation and whipped my left foot into the only hold and pushed my right foot as high as possible in the vegetated mass on the right wall of the groove. Miraculously I stayed on and moved up the groove to tree roots where I could belay Scharlie. A series of rock steps led to the plateau of the first step. We crossed this to the left of centre, through a rock arch leaving markers every few metres. I cut succulents and Scharlie built cairns to help us find our way back.
We climbed 60 fit or so before it levelled to another plateau. This pattern was repeated three times with the addition of two tree filled gullies where we walked like monkeys on branches only to plunge ignominiously down into the slimy growth below. The third plateau was much drier and sandy and we picked out a possible camping place with a view to moving up the next day if we needed more time on the face. The fourth vegetated slope led us to the first step of the rock wall. We had kept to the crest of the ridge all the way and climbed a further 40 ft on rock and vegetated holds. A ramp left and a hard move up a wall brought us to the top of a pillar with a narrow chasm (about 2 ft 6 in wide) between us and a steep section of wall.
We roped up and Scharlie belayed to a block while Steve led. He was stuck for some time in a steep, overhanging vegetated grove, 8 ft from the top, under a large vegetated overhang. He peeled most of this away and, grabbing the remaining vegetation, with a final flurry of kicking and slithering he pulled himself up.
From here we scrambled through more bromeliads to the top of the first step and a rock platform 200 yards metres and half a mile long. We had to step across a chasm 50 ft deep which caused my heart to miss a beat! The mist was swirling around us now and the weird black shapes of rock like a maze about us. We cut the succulent flat plants that grow there and used them as markers every few yards. Keeping to the left edge as much as possible, we hoped that the mist would lift so that we could at least spot a possible route.
Suddenly we came to the end of the plateau. At the same time the mist lifted and we saw in front of us a rock castle a 100ft high standing like a watch tower to the main rock wall. We ate our second packet of raisins and waited with some excitement for the mist to clear further. It did and we could see the ridge and the overhanging roof we had seen from below. There definitely seemed to be a possible route to the right of the roof.
The time, by the sun, was between 2 and 3 pm, but the sky was clear and without talking about it we decided to have a go. We could at least leave a fixed rope and return the next day. We crossed the narrow ridge from the watch tower and changed into our boots and dry socks at the bottom of the wall. The rock wall seemed steep but the area to the right of the prominent roof we had seen from way below was a series of steep, black slabs. Realising there was a chance of getting up to the top and that it was best to take advantage of the good weather, we geared up quickly and we began climbing in the middle of the wall at an obvious niche.
First Pitch 70’ 4c There was no belay point and Steve was moving quickly and made a false start moving diagonally right. He tried traversing left but found it no better and finally went straight up to a flake. A wall led to a ridge and a good chock-stone belay.
Second Pitch 120’ 5a A few feet left of the belay we climbed a crack line to a small pinnacle. Steve fixed a runner in the crack and moved up to a ledge. He first tried directly up slabs to a two foot square block surmounting a loose flake. Unfortunately the holds ran out and he had to reverse back past the loose block. So he traversed right, pulling the runner out as he went. Steep wrinkled slabs trended up to the right and working a way up these proved the key to the route. He traversed back left along a ledge to protect my ascent and found a block pinnacle belay at the bottom of a steep chimney. The rock was rounded, lichen covered and loose. I found it hard.
Third Pitch 100’ 4a/b He climbed the chimney direct, bridging between the two sides on small wrinkles. There was a good chock-stone at half height, the only runner on the whole route, and reached blocks at the top. While climbing, two eagles soared around us, one in the pass and the other directly above me.
We stayed roped but found that the next pitch was only a short easy wall a, gently sloping gully and another short wall which gained the top! The climb had taken us about two hours. Quickly we took off our sacks. The sky was clear and the sun warm and we could see across the savannah in Venezuela and out over the jungle and the River Masaruni in Guyana.
We left the gear on a slab and walked over to the chimney of the direct route. A deep chasm (100’ deep) snaked across the plateau to plunge into a vertical chute of the chimney we had seen from afar. The sides were smooth and vertical and the back of the chimney was steep, muddy and covered in green lichen. The mouth was 100 ft. wide and strewn with great boulders – not the crack line we’d thought we could climb when attempting the west face. We couldn’t see how vertical it was further down but felt we had chosen the better route in climbing from the pass.
The plateau was virtually flat and devoid of vegetation being composed of smooth black slabs of sandstone with small pools of rainwater reflecting the sky. The widest extent faces, about 1,000 metres , due west and therefore the mountain appears widest from the from Uray Uray. From the south, up the ridge we had climbed, the plateau was much narrower, only about 200 metres. We couldn’t decide on the highest point as it always seemed higher wherever we weren’t standing so we built several small cairns! We took photos and went to the Guyanan side and looked down into the jungle of the Mazaruni River. It was now about 4:30 pm. It was tempting to stay, but we had to get down before dark to the tent.
We moved fast. We climbed down to the block belay at the top of the chimney and fixed an abseil, leaving a long tape. One long abseil of 150 ft. reached the chock-stone belay at the top of the first pitch and here we arranged a further abseil directly back to the niche at the start of the first pitch. We crossed the pinnacle and the plateau and arranged a third abseil at the top of the vegetated groove of the first step. From here, we slid and slipped back down the bromeliads, drenching ourselves with muddy water. The mist held off so we had no problem finding the way following our markers across the first rock plateau. We made it to the tent as the dark was closing in and had just time for a quick wash collecting water from bromeliads for supper. We made dinner and Ovaltine in the dark. It rained heavily in the night but we stayed cosy for once. It was much warmer than the previous night. Warm and comfortable, we listened with equanimity to the rain pattering on the tent.
We had been able to do the climb in the one day because of the perfect weather and because nothing had gone wrong. The route we had chosen, having prospected a route on the west face was a good way up and gave excellent VS climbing. The abseils went without a hitch and we had had perfect visibility to retrace our steps. More than two people in misty conditions might find it difficult to complete the ascent in one day from the camp on the pass. A higher camp could be made below the first step or on the plateau before the main wall.
When we came back after climbing Ilu Tepuy, Feliciano’s wife was making cachire, the alcoholic’s drink of the indian. This thick, pink liquid is made from Yuca and sweet potato, which provides the pink colour.
The Yuca is masticated by the women and then shredded together with the potato. This mess is then dropped into water boiling in a large pot over an open fire. The liquid is boiled down twice and then seved through the woven fanka, water sieved through the mass to achieve the correct consistency. Feliciano’s wife then took a large cascara or gourd and plugged the fine holes in its base with a sharp stick. The warm cachire was then transferred to these gourds and these were placed in the river to cool. Later, after Feliciano arrived, they began to drink the cachire, but said it was still sweet. It needs a couple of days to ferment in the ground before it is ready to drink.
We began to eat that night round the fire. There was a thick casabe soup, picante (insert) and casabe bread. It began to rain and we moved under the grass roof of the open hut. José Luis’ sister made a fire with dry twigs and the still smouldering logs from the fire outside were transferred under cover. We continued to eat and Feliciano arrived from the mountain after Cecilio had gone on alone to collect the things he and José Luis had left in the swamp camp. He took off the burden of climbing rope and casabe, carefully placed his shotgun in the rafters of the hut and produced from a pouch, a small bird he had shot with a “china” a catapault and threw it to the ground beside his wife.
It was now dark, and the only light was provided by the fire. Feliciano’s wife was breast feeding her baby son while Cecilio’s baby girl was curled up on a car seat cushion right next to the fire. José Luis’ sister took the small bird and began to pluck it. On the other side of the fire, talking and chatting quietly to José Luis, Feliciano’s sister-in-law was teaching his younger sister how to spin cotton. She took the bolls from a basket (Guayari) at her side. Teasing them in her fingers, the she united half-a-dozen into a flat mass which she then teased into a strand about three to four feet long. This she wound round her left fist. Taking a spinning top with her right hand, she unwound a strand of the spun cotton and united this to the unspun strand wound round her hand. Unwinding and pulling this strand out while at the same time twisting the top, the cotton was elongated and then spun rapidly back and forth by twisting the top between her fingers to form a thread.
Meanwhile, José Luis’ sister had finished plucking the bird and with a machete slit its breast open. She carefully took out the bladder, which she threw away, and cleaned the intestines with her thumb and forefinger. She then skewered the bird through its anus with a sharp stick and spread it to roast in front of the flames.
The two babies, Jeyel, Feliciano’s year old son, and Ramona’s daughter about two years old were sitting between their mothers’ outstretched legs.We could hear a loud, dry fluttering sound, like a plastic windmill and realised that the children were playing with live grasshoppers like we had seen on the way to Roraima. They were about four inches long, had green heads, wings and foreparts and red and black striped abdomens. The children held them by the heads and shook them to make them beat their wings, producing the dry, fluttering sound we had heard. Jeyel played at handing the larger of the grasshoppers to his mother, and then taking it back again. He occasionally popped the brightly striped abdomen into his mouth or pulled off a leg to chew. The game continued for half-an-hour while we ate until they stopped fluttering.
Notes on Kit
Choice of equipment and food is a matter of personal preference but some notes on what we found useful or forgot to take may be useful.
Since we had no car, we travelled as light as possible, carrying the climbing gear, tent and sleeping bags and food for two weeks in two relatively small rucksacks. This desire to travel light, governed most of our decisions. Firstly, how to camp. Ideally one would, in the lowest camps, sleep in hammocks with mosquito nets under a communal tarpaulin and have a tent for the high camp above the tree line. Since it rained most nights and it was imperative to sleep warm and dry before making an attempt on the upper wall, we decided to take a light two-man tent (Saunders GC2) and dispense with the luxury of hammocks in the lower camps. This plan worked but in retrospect it would have been worth taking hammocks and a tarpaulin since one of the indians could have carried the extra load without difficulty. Scharlie’s hollowfill sleeping bag dried much quicker than my old down bag but was more bulky. We had fitted long zips to both which proved useful.
We took only the clothes we stood in, jeans and long sleeved cotton shirt, plus polar jackets for the nights. Since we could wash in streams and dry out quickly in the sun we didn’t miss having a change, except returning on the bus. However, an old pair of silk pyjamas to change into at night would have been lovely. For footwear, we went for maximum comfort since we had so far to walk. We walked over three hundred miles in the five weeks we spent in the Gran Sabana.
Scharlie chose trainers and I used Spanish Fell boots with canvas uppers. Both were fine. As regards climbing gear, we took two 9 mm ropes, rock boots, five big chocks, five wires, and four tapes. There was only one good nut placement on the route and we could have done with less gear. We dispensed with harness and used slings and figure-of-eight descenders for the abseils. All four tape slings were left on the abseil points.
In the lower camps, we made a fire to cook on and this also gave light and warmth. Essential equipment for making fire is a sharp machete, a file to sharpen the machete and dry matches. We used a stick lighter and had matches in a film container in case this got lost. We became adept at making a fire, even in wet conditions, by cutting away the damp outer part of logs and by so building the fire that wood could be dried above the hot burning centre. However, we never got as good as the Indians, who could get a fire going under an improvised palm leaf roof in a rainstorm.
We took a gaz stove and two canisters for the morning meal of porridge and for the high camps. By mainly using fires we used a canister a week. Our diet was limited, both by what we could carry, and what could be obtained in Caracas. Breakfast was invariably hot porridge, milk made from excellent creamy milk powder and brown sugar scraped from a block. Evening meals were made from packet soup with pasta or instant rice, plus sardines, tuna or corned beef. Additional luxuries were dates, raisins and boiled sweets and tea bags. The indians had casabe, their flat round bread made from Yuca, hot pepper sauce in a small bowl and sardines which we had given them. We shared our porridge and stews with them into which they dipped casabe.
After two or three weeks, we began to tire of the packet soup flavour of evening meals. But considering the limitations on weight, we ate well. We ate out of the pan and drank from the empty plastic date container. We had a penknife and a spoon each. These later were a continual source of tension since one was noticeably bigger than the other!
Water was no problem. There are many crystal-clear streams and rivers and we didn’t carry water with us. However, a light folding water container, like a small canvas bucket might have been useful, especially in the camp on the pass, where we had to collect water from bromeliads and filter it through a clean pair of knickers.
Staying such a long period in the same area with the same small group of people, we made close friends and on returning to their homes we were feasted. On arrival we would be given bananas then after an interlude fish soup, hot pepper sauce, casabe soup, small fish and casabe bread would be put in front of us. A communal bowl of cachire, the pink, alcoholic drink would then be passed around. These breaks in our monotonous diet naturally made all the difference. Although both José and Feliciano carried shotguns, they never managed to bag anything and they felt the lack of variety in their diet as well. After getting us to the pass, they went back to Unori-Pa to get more food.
Things usually taken on expeditionswhich we didn’t miss included a torch, mugs, a watch, binoculars, books. Things we omitted to take and did miss included iodine, bandages, band-aid, and a belt (with the loss in weight, trousers begin to fall down.) A mosquito net would also have been very useful, especially when sleeping at indian villages. Some areas were especially plagued by the “plaga”, sandflies during the day and mosquitos at night, although at different times the same areas might be free. We didn’t discover any real pattern except that a strong breeze kept the sandflies away and that the mosquitos were especially bad immediately after rain, or even during a rain-storm, if we were under cover.
Things we forgot to take and missed:
Medical kit: iodine, antiseptic cream, bandages, aspirins. Compass – although we didn’t get lost it would have helped in dense undergrowth. Belt – our trousers fell down. Mosquito net – despite heat we had to get inside sleeping bags to avoid getting bitten. Sun glasses. Notebook for Scharlie – she ran out of writing paper. Silk pyjamas!
Things we didn’t take but didn’t miss
Watch, torch, candle. Mugs, plates and food containers.
At first, we didn’t think of the mountain in a proprietary way. We were looking for a mountain, any mountain really, that had not been climbed. Ilu Tepuy seemed to offer the best chance since there was a way to its base. This didn’t mean there was a path necessarily, but that someone has been there. Knowing this, people would be prepared to go there again.