Kyle Dempster offer this thrilling report on his trip to Venezuela with partner Mike Libecki. Kyle and Mike encountered innumerable obstacles while abroad, but came home from their holiday break having completed a new route on a 2000ft wall. Read on for their exciting tale! This trip was made possible by a Mountain Fellowship Grant, an award given annually by the AAC.
A terrorist embargo on all travelers to Venezuela was the message Libecki relayed. “Two seventy pound bags, each, that’s all we get!” I instantly thought of that Dylan song, “Times are certainly a changin’.” We removed the weapons that only rock climbing terror suspects would have in their possession. The portaledge, some Cliff bars and other food items, and some of the rack would have to stay behind. Anyhow, the gear Libecki had left on his attempt at the wall four years prior would suffice… or so we thought.
Hugging our mothers, fathers, daughters, and other enduring supporters, we departed our homes in Salt Lake City on December 28th. Leaving with a fresh foot of snow on the ground and fully clad in shorts and flip-flops, our anticipation for equatorial climate, was mocked by other travelers at Salt Lake International. The slight apprehension regarding a new climbing partner and nervous feelings based from my longstanding respect and admiration for Libecki, were extinguished as we boarded the plane and simultaneously passed out, I was about to awake in a Venezuelan dream.
What a nightmare! Hot, humid, dirty, and crowded was the scene when we awoke at the airport in Caracas. Your typical South American metropolis, especially considering the countries oily hands and slimy political figures.
Fast forward. Three days after leaving Utah Libecki, our Spanish-speaking pilot, and myself are being taxied out to the runway. After reciting the Rosary, our pilot gunned the chartered Cessna, we rumbled into the sky, and my stomach dropped. The view from the sky was magnificent. Meandering rivers and streams that snaked their way through the heavily forested jungle, thousand foot waterfalls that seemingly dropped from nowhere, miles of rolling grasslands whose silica content glistened in the intense equatorial sunshine, and stunningly broad red and black sandstone plateaus. I pictured Mesozoic creatures like the Brachiosaurus eating leaves from the high canopy, herds of raptors racing across the open grassland in pursuit of their next meal, the daunting T-rex stalking his next victim, and Archaeopteryx’s flying along side our soaring Cessna. The Gran Sabana was truly a dinosaur’s world.
Our plane circled around the village of Yune-ken and from the window I watched as its residents emerged from their homes and gathered in curiosity. Consisting of ten or so grass roofed, mud walled homes, no electricity, and a population of around forty, Yune-ken contributed well to the prehistoric atmosphere. As intently as the villagers eyes observed the two foreigners that had just been dropped off with 300 pounds of stuff, my eyes were fixated on their beautiful land, pristine culture, and innocent existence. I had a million questions, but as I have discovered on many travels, the language barrier would limit yet again. Leonardo, Yune-ken’s chief, received the gifts that our family and friends back home in Utah had donated. The soccer balls, clothing, school supplies, and especially the Juicy Fruit were all accepted with smiles, oohs, and ahhs.
Our time frame in Venezuela restricted us from extensively exploring their culture and in less than two hours of arriving Libecki, myself, and our hired porters were hiking the four miles to our first camp at the edge of the jungle. With very few options for making money and no local opportunities for employment, I wondered what percent of the villagers yearly income would come from the 50, 000 Bolivar ($25 US) we gave each porter. Shaking hands, exchanging smiles, and relaying that in “dos semanas” (two weeks) we would need their help again, the porters, some wearing rubber boots and some barefoot, headed back to their lives in Yune-ken.
The next day we hiked for two miles through the jungle paralleling the Acopon Massif. While walking, I listened to Libecki describe the village of Yune-ken on his trip four years prior. Noting the drastic differences and the fact that instead of machete-ing our way through the jungle we were walking on a relatively well-defined trail, that was “conveniently” marked with candy rappers, I remembered that song, “Times are certainly a changin’”. Later in the day we found ourselves fixing the initial jungle pitches that were necessary to get to the base of the wall. The five pitches of roped-jungle-madness consisted of slippery footholds, slimy tree braches, numerous spiders, THICK vegetation, and heavily scraped limbs. But eventually, we conquered and arrived at the base of the wall.
A bolt! Fifteen feet off the ground and only eight inches away from a bomber cam placement. The gear, ropes, and portaledge that Libecki had left four years prior… gone. The rumors that we had heard back in Yune-ken of European climbers in the area were true. They came, they bolted, they pillaged, and when they were done, they left their rappers. “Times are a changin’”. This newly discovered information had us both questioning. Did they summit? Is this a sport climb? Where are we? What the hell? Not to mention we didn’t have a portaledge or the extra ropes that we would come to find out were absolutely mandatory. We repelled back down the jungle lines, walked the two miles back to camp, and concluded that time will be the only answer to our questions/ concerns.
In one well needed, exercise filled day, we managed to shuttle all of our stuff up to the base of the wall, establish camp, and climb the first pitch. Mike gave me the honor of getting us started into the vertical word and I graciously accepted. A beautiful 5.10+ finger/ hand crack out a medium sized roof got things going. Above the roof the pitch finished with 100 feet of easier ground. Gaining height above the jungle canopy and plugging killer hand jams I fell in love with Venezuelan sandstone. It was getting dark so I motored out the last bit of pitch, fixed the lines, and repelled to the ground. It was a great day but little did I know the excitement was yet to come. That evening after applying hot sauce to my delicious Mountain House dinner I turned on my head-lamp to see if I had attained the proper amount and out of the corner of my eye noticed a small black scorpion swinging his battle axe and sprinting toward my skin exposed thigh. “Kill it,” shouted Mike! Already one step ahead of Mike’s instinct, I retaliated against the arachnid’s death threats with the bottom of my flip-flop. Not until later did Leonardo explain in Spanish that “escorpion = muerte” or that scorpion = death.
The next two days of fixing lines involved more close encounters with various arachnids and a better example of the rock quality that we would deal with for the remainder of the cliff (i.e. shit). Contrast to the above-mentioned Venezuelan spice was the disappointing randomly placed bolts to the left of the natural line that Libecki and I were following. It seemed like for ever pitch that we climbed, the sport climbers would veer left up impressively steep face climbing, drill a two bolt sub-anchor, and then cut back right to the natural line where Libecki had drilled anchors four years prior. Interesting to say the least.
After four pitches we entered new terrain, in that both Libecki and myself had not been there, however, it was not virgin. Bolts were spaced in the most random of places with fresh rock dust and even chalk guiding the sport climbers chosen path. Our psych was blown. The hopes to climb a first ascent on Venezuelan earth were diminished largely due to the whack ethics of the recent exploits of the previous party. The looted gear presented another issue. The extreme steepness of the wall made it mandatory for us to leave fixed ropes on many of the pitches and since we only had been able to bring five with us we would have to figure something else out.
Back in Yune-ken we had spotted a villager carrying around a butchered chunk of rope. Not knowing what other items they possibly had in their possession we agreed to walk down and investigate. After some disturbing Spang-lish that only an American would be proud of we were lead on walk, by one of the villagers, to another mud walled hut a mile or so from town. Some discussion followed and the owner of the home eventually emerged with several sections of rope and Libecki’s portaledge! While psych never fully returned to climb the wall the sections of rope lent to us by the villagers allowed us to continue upward and so we agreed to forge onward.
Fueled by our curiosity of the mysterious world that awaited us on the top of the cliff, we managed to climb the remaining nine pitches in five days. Some 5.11 free climbing coupled with A2 moves on frighteningly horrific rock was the norm. Anytime we could avoid the bolted madness we did but subsequently we found ourselves following, with the exception of the last two pitches, the European’s line. The jungle experience and a new climbing partner were the highlights on my Venezuelan foray. Blue and gray tarantulas hid in cracks adding a new excitement to cam placements that I had not experienced. Beautiful green and yellow parakeets awoke us in the mornings with songs of love. Evidence of living dinosaurs came from the mysterious screaming from the jungle canopy a thousand feet bellow. Spectacular plants with completely exposed root systems that grew straight out the rock aroused oddity. And the beautiful several thousand foot waterfalls that streamed down the panorama in most directions were awe-inspiring.
The summit was not at all what we had expected. Two thousand feet closer to the already intense sunshine, the top was a blackened, boulder-strewn world with intricate flowers hiding in various cracks and crevices. Standing in the sun, the feeling down in Yune-ken was like you were standing next to an oven, standing at the top of the Acopon Massif and three thousand feet further out on the equatorial bulge it felt like you had opened the door and put your head inside. We hung out for an hour, took in the magnificent sights, and repelled back toward our families in Utah.
Going on a trip with Mike Libecki is a privileged experience for anyone and the opportunity to climb with him in Venezuela was a superb learning experience that I will never forget. His positive philosophy and dominating love for life are both inspiring and encouraging. His stories, simply put, are insane. They are unique, true firsts that clarify the ability that are instilled in each of us. “The Time is Now” mentality on which he operates is appropriate considering the ever-changing nature of the earth and our lives on this opportunity presenting modern world. Even more than I enjoy listening to his philosophies and stories of adventure, I am graciously thankful for Libecki’s curiosity and respect for certain climbing experiences that have drastically affected my life. Thank you my friend.
As a University of Utah student my ability to participate on this Venezuelan adventure would not have been possible without the gracious funding from the American Alpine Club’s Mountaineering Fellowship Grant. Thanks to everyone at the Club, especially the old dogs, for all your generous contributions directed at enhancing the sport and safety of climbing. Thank you also for recognizing the restricting nature that travel expenses have on holding back younger climbers and creating grants to break those barriers. Thanks also to the selection committee for seeing the value in my Venezuelan adventure with Mike Libecki and awarding me the Fall 2006 Mountaineering Fellowship Grant from the REI Challenge Fund.