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El Autana is a sandstone tepuy or butte about 400 miles south of Caracas in the Amazon Territory of Venezuela. The first ascent of the Autana was in 1974 by two English, Stephen Platt and David Nott, and two Venezuelans, Wilmer Perez la Riva and Carlos Reyes. We climbed the North Ridge, the left-hand sky-line in the photograph, in 1974. It took us three days and we bivouacked on the route. We abseiled down to the caves where we spent a further three nights, exploring the galleries and traversing around the mountain along the horizontal fault line at the height of the cave.
A cathedral sized cave pierces the mountain from side to side, so that light shines through about 400 ft from the top. Like all good jungle mountains, this too has its indian legend. At dusk, when the sun shines through the cave the Piaroa indians call it the ‘Eye of the Gods’.
First people to explore the cave
Charles Brewer Carias, David Nott and Robert Madden, a photographer from the National Geopgraphic, having landed on the summit by helicopter, were the first to explore the caves in September 1971. Cerro Autana is known as Wahari-Kuawi which means ‘sacred tree of the fruits of the world’. It is in two parts. A tower rising to 1,300 metres, with a lower tail stretching off to the south. The tower is a monolith of quartz and red sandstone with near vertical walls of up to 900 metres. It is situated 4º52’ north and 67º27’ west in an area of forested savanah bounded by the rivers Autana and Cuao, tributaries of the River Sipapo which flows into the Orinoco up stream from the Maipures rapids. It is about 100km south of Puerto Ayacucho, capital of the Amazon Territory of Venezuela.
First difficult pitch on the north ridge of the Autana
Weeks before we had flown round the mountain and had picked out a route – the North Ridge – from the consistently vertical walls of the crag. This 2,000 ft ridge rises in a series of three steps, which we hoped would provide bivouac sites.
We drove 80km south from Puerto Ayacucho to reach the river port of Samariapo along the road that skirts the unnavegable Atures Rapids, which divide the Upper and Lower Orinoco. The next morning we boarded the curiara, a large dug-out canoe. We spent a leisurely day in the canoe and another humping bags to base camp. Here the Makiritare cleared an opening in the forest and built a massive frame support for hammocks and tarpaulin in little more time than it takes to put up a tent. The base camp was still some way from the rock but was by the last stream, which we were glad of to wash off sweat and grime each night.
Up a groove to an overhanging jamming crack and a lovely thread. A horizontal crack line ran right to the prow of the ridge and the safety of a waiting tree, but the intervening 30ft were very steep. A tentative step, with the left hand firmly jammed, and I began to swing off, pushed out by the bulging wall. My right hand was fiddling about, trying to find a finger hold,but found nothing and so I retreated. Finally, I managed to find a finger hold and launched off before I had time to regret it. There was very little for the hands and I had to keep moving to avoid falling off. “My god, I should have pegged this”, I thought. “I’ll be penduluming about under the overhangs without prussiks in a minute!”
The holds gave out about five feet from the tree. I got a knee on the traverse line to hold myself in while I fumbled for a peg. I usually drop them at times like that but this one went in beautifully and after a welcome rest things suddenly went easily to the tree. There was no stance, so I moved on to the end of the rope, but still found no belay. The ridge above was steep and holdless and David wasn’t enthusiastic about coming up to the tree. Nobody else seemed keen so, with a back rope around the tree, I pendulumed back to the ledge. …
We spent three nights in the cave. While Wilmur made a detailed survey of the whole cave system with Carlos, David and I circumnavigated the whole mountain via the horizontal fault that ran around the mountain at the height of the caves.