Trip ReportHospital Break Out V 5.12+R A2+
The Hospital Break-Out – An Epic Climbing Odyssey Through the Gran Sabana, Venezuela.
“Don’t talk to anyone, don’t let anyone know that you’re foreign and try not to be seen by anyone; bad people live here”.
These are the first things I hear from Alfredo Zubillaga (Venezuela) as I wake up in Caracas, Venezuela.
After I wipe the sleep from my eyes I realise that Cory Nauman (USA) and I are alone. We’re locked in a house covered with burglar bars and there is a heavy-duty lock and chain keeping anyone from getting in.
Cory turns to me and says “So this is what it’s like to be in the most dangerous city in the world.”
Caracas has one of the highest recorded murder rates in the world. The city is set within a U-shaped valley surrounded by jungle covered mountains. The ghettos and slums encircle the gigantic sky scrapers of Venezuela’s capital.
We spend three days cooped up and hidden for our own protection. We pass the time by checking and rechecking equipment, its various uses and deciding what we can ditch in an attempt to lighten the load. Our plan is to create a new route on an unclimbed face on the southern side of the Upuigma Tepui, which lies in the Canaima National Park which borders with Brazil and Guiana. Only
teams led by the late Kurt Albert and John Arran have climbed her steep overhanging cliffs.
Lugging two crates of beer and all our equipment we enjoy a ten hour “party ride” to the city of Ciudad Bolivar. Once there, we will charter a Cessna aircraft which transports us into the heart of la Gran Sabana.
To say that we are relieved to flee the cage which imprisoned us in Caracas is an understatement. Excitement is high as we cruise east; beer is flowing, music is pumping and we banter back and forth about the arduous adventure ahead.
In the morning we jump into our tiny six person aircraft and begin the journey south to a land literally lost in time. We watch enthralled as the landscape changes from concrete smog filled cities to vast open grass plateaus and pristine jungles with flowing river systems. The occasional plantation and Indian village comes into sight and we are struck by what a truly magical and magnificent place this is.
As we soar through a massive cloud, a Tepui (a large table top mountain or mesa exclusive to the Guiana Highlands) comes into view. Almost in unison we shout out in awe at these spectacular and unique living Eden’s! Waterfalls cascade down the sheer walls and feed the jungles below. Tepuis
are an astounding two billion years old and were once connected to the super continent of Pangaea.
We fly for an hour and a half and land in the native Pemon Indian village of Yunek. We stand there, mesmerised by the towering band of compact sandstone cliffs which make up the impressive Akcopan Tepui. There is enough rock to keep a population of climbers satisfied for a life time. If it weren’t for the complicated logistics of finding food and water, this might have become a climbing destination.
The entire village runs to greet us. Curious children look at us with huge staring eyes as they hide behind their parents. The villagers of Yunek are shy but warm and welcoming. Alfredo meets with the village chief, Leonardo, and enquires about hiring two porters for the two day hike to a base camp below the wall. A price of twenty five US dollars per porter per day is agreed upon and we venture off to explore the jungle before the daily storms move in.
This time we’re greeted by a swarm of blood thirsty sand flies named “pori pori” by the Pemon Indians. Luckily for everyone else Cory receives the brunt of the thirsty swarm.
The next morning, we are awoken by an orchestra of different sounds and colours and pack up for the approach to the base camp, two kilometres from the wall. The approach is deceptive – while it looks extremely close, it is, in fact, around sixteen kilometres away in distance and has an estimated talus of three and a half thousand vertical feet in height.
This leg of the journey is steep and extremely difficult passing through slick vertical grasslands and jungle. We are all bombarded by “pori pori” until the Tepui unleashes its daily deluge of water.
We are extremely thankful for the rain as it allows a much needed respite from the sandflies. Our gratitude, however, is short lived as we feel our packs get heavier and the ground gets more waterlogged.
The going gets tough. Our Indian porters, Ricardo and Ammelio (with a height of no more than five feet), show no sign of any discomfort whilst carrying their heavy traditional weaved baskets. They are hardy men and with each waterlogged
step, we develop a deep respect for their ability to endure the tough terrain as if it were a walk in the park. We eventually settle down on a semi flat boulder which can accommodate a three man tent.
Over the following days we hike loads to the base Kurt Albert’s route, El Nido del Tirik Tirik (14 pitches, graded F7b) which Alfredo completed a year earlier. From our advance base camp we venture into territory which no other human being has ever entered.
We use our machetes to cut a trail through virgin jungle in order to survey which wall and line we are going to tackle. In the end, we decide on the largest wall with the most obvious line and a large white streak running down most of the face. It is strangely satisfying knowing that no other human being has been on this section of this exotic mountain.
We spend two days route finding and trail cutting until the comforting jungle sounds are shattered with Cory’s screams echoing through the jungle. We are informed that Cory has been bitten by a mysterious animal and I race to get the first aid kit to him.
He has two distinctive puncture wounds on his ankle and we assume that he has been bitten by a snake. This is extremely worrying as a very high percentage of snakes in the Venezuelan jungle are highly venomous and we have no idea which snake has bitten him.
It only starts to hit home how remote we truly are. We are, at the very least, a seven day hike from the nearest hospital and the possibility of one of
our team members dying in the next few hours is becoming a reality with each passing second. I have read accounts of people being bitten in this section of the jungle and dying four hours later. As we are so isolated, our only option is to wait, monitoring Cory’s condition to see how he will react to the venom. We have no choice but to assess his condition through the night and then facilitate a rescue to the nearest hospital in the morning.
Day breaks and to our relief Cory is still alive, but the bite does not come without consequence. His foot is twice the normal size and is charcoal black in colour. We initiate a rescue and leave our big wall gear and most of our equipment, taking only the essentials to speed the rescue process.
Cory can thankfully hobble using his walking poles but, as we retrace our steps through the steep terrain, the poison begins to thin Cory’s blood and blood starts seeping through every available orifice, including the bite holes from the hungry sand flies.
With our friend in a complete state, Alfredo and I have no choice but to take the “piss” out of him for being soft and bleeding so much – such is the climber’s way: no sympathy for the vulnerable.
We arrive at the jungle camp late at night and try making Cory as comfortable as possible, encouraging him to eat, drink, wash and sleep.
The second morning of the rescue dawns and we are shocked to see that both of Cory’s feet are now in the same condition – charcoal black and swollen double in size. A direct result of an infection spreading through his body from the bite wounds and the fact that he has been over compensating on his healthy foot. Fortunately, the terrain is flat and we arrive back at the village of Yunek late in the afternoon.
The villagers are surprised to see us and they all gather to see what the cause could be. One look at Cory and the village elder, the wisest individual in the village, is summoned. The village elder begins to cry and tells Cory that they would pray for him. I can’t stop myself from laughing out loud because of how bluntly she put it; Alfredo immediately stopped me so that I didn’t offend them! Having lost so many loved ones to venomous snakes and creatures in the jungle, the Indians understand the severity of the snakebite and mourning and praying follows.
Leonardo has a radio and tries to establish contact with a radio station in Santa Elena. Miraculously, a Cessna plane passing over a neighbouring valley hears the distress call and immediately heads for the remote jungle village. Amazingly within three hours of arriving in Yunek we land in the town of Santa Elena which is located on the border of Brazil.
An ambulance is waiting for us as and immediately after we touchdown, Cory is rushed to the local hospital. The hospital staff are fantastic and give the “American Gringo” five star treatment with the meagre supplies they have. But after three days Cory has had enough of the poor sanitisation we take for granted in the western world and, even though he is more than ready to leave, the hospital refuses to release him and he is watched closely by the hospital security.
That evening, after a few beers, Alfredo and I decided to conduct our first ever hospital breakout. We survey the security guard’s movements, noting which ones are friendly and relaxed. To get Cory out, we have to bypass two security gates and three guards.
A disguise is organised to hide Cory’s distinguishing features: fresh clothes, sun glasses, a large hat and then strict instructions to stay twenty meters behind me whilst I dealt with the guards and created diversions. I tell him to “walk like you own the place and don’t stop for anything”.
Alfredo has a taxi waiting and as we casually walk towards it, the doctors notice that Cory is outside and begin to follow us. We make a run for it and I stupidly yell at Cory to pull the drip out of his arm. Blood sprays everywhere. We dive into the taxi
and speed off while trying to stop the blood spurting out of Cory’s arm. Finally under control, all we have to do is watch out for the corrupt army and police who have certainly been informed of Cory’s sudden disappearance.
The operation is conducted with a level of precision a military general would be proud of.
We lay low while waiting for the heat to die down and then arrange the funds necessary to get Cory to an American hospital and to get Alfredo and myself back to the jungle to salvage our abandoned gear.
After celebrating our accomplished mission, we depart for the jungle for the hard work to really begin, one member down. Alfredo and I retrace our steps back to our advanced base camp and finish cutting our path to the wall.
We are on a tight time scale because of all of the time lost and finished cutting our path to the wall we intend to climb. The wall is over four hundred metres high and is the largest overhanging wall I have ever laid eyes on.
After two more days of hiking loads we finally get on the wall to begin our climb. We are weighed down with eighty litres of water, twenty kilograms of food, equipment and more climbing gear then I can ever imagine carrying. The first haul isn’t as bad as we thought it would be, taking into account that we have a combined weight of over 150 kilograms in two haul bags and a portaledge. Not to mention the fact that we are hauling up a largely overgrown slab.
We ease ourselves into the complexities of the route finding in the first three pitches. After the third pitch, the true overhanging characteristic of the rock becomes apparent and it is glorious. The forth pitch is a beautiful lay back pitch with a small technical roof of dirty hand jams.
The climbing is adventurous to say the least. I’m tried and tested to my limits as this is my first new route and it’s in the middle of the South American jungle. The sense of being alive overwhelms me as we climb up the overhanging puzzle. Aesthetic climbing pushes my senses with big moves and good holds. Some of the run out sections grip me to the core as I concentrate on my breathing and not griping the rock too tightly.
The climbing gets better and more solid with every upward inch we gain. Cracks system link up with horizontal breaks, providing well protected climbing with occasional sections of no protection for up to twenty five feet. Never before have I “heel hooked” so much on an entire climb to conserve energy and save my forearms from the “pump”.
The grades stay within the 5.10 range with a few 5.11 pitches which Alfredo and I largely onsight. The rock is generally solid with a few loose sections here and there. I start to gather a real appreciation for the pioneers of the late 1960’s when they began navigating the vertical world of the big walls of Yosemite in the USA.
The climbing is more mentally and physically draining than anything I have experienced in my life. Alfredo handles the pressure like a world heavy weight climbing champion. I have never seen someone grin so effortlessly whilst “cruxing out” on a run out 5.12+ pitch which was by far the most beautiful of all the pitches.
For the first three nights Alfredo and I sleep on the portaledge, finding small ledges to cook on as we watch the setting sun and appreciate the beautiful view and stunning bird life. It rains every day and we don’t get touched by a single drop as the large overhang protects us. There is never a dull moment as the view and nature are so rich in life and character. We watch weather systems move in and out, with the heavy clouds releasing their load of water exactly above the jungle.
Inquisitive humming birds fly around us curious, never having seen a human being before. Swallows play and fly parallel with the walls, narrowly pulling away from impact at the very last second. Wild colourful jungle parrots swarm around us full of vibrant sounds and chatter interested in our presence.
Over the next four nights we camp in blow hole caves and sleep on the most amazing ledge I have ever had the pleasure of biving on. Storms roll past
and the mountain thunders around us while we climb through dense cloud, making route finding even more eventful.
Most of the climbing is free with the exception of pitch eleven and twelve. Pitch eleven being a tenuous A2+ pitch with two tension traverses followed by pitch twelve, C2+ with mandatory technical free climbing of 5.11-.
Whilst hauling on the eleventh pitch, Alfredo’s sling and rope protector cut straight through! Luckily he has backed everything up correctly and doesn’t end up losing the haul bag or, more importantly, his life. I can only laugh at him while I finish cleaning the pitch - Alfredo has a blasé look on his face. Once the weight of the haul bag is off him we both giggle at how lucky he was. Then, while jugging on our fixed lines of the final pitches, my rope nearly cuts through thanks to the very sharp rock. Needless to say, we both make a mental note to remember extra rope protectors next time!
On the eighth day, we climb through interesting grooves with ancient rock formations. On pitch
thirteen I take my first and the only fall on the route because I become complacent with the solidity of the rock. I make a dynamic lunge to a hold that I didn’t test, hear a loud snap and see the rock fly into my helmet with a loud thud. Almost immediately my foot peels off and I see the wall rush in front of my face. Everything slows down whilst I’m in midair and I realise that I have only one piece of protection in just above the belay. I fall thirty feet, passing Alfredo and narrowly missing the ledge that he is belaying on!
After my heart rate eases I recompose myself of my narrow escape and finish the pitch. This time testing every hold as I progress upwards.
We pass the last overhang and hit thick jungle with no more eventful climbing. We decide not to “bush wack” to the summit as it’s hard to gauge how much further it is to the top. The vegetation looks thick and our rations are running low. Food supplies, clothes, gear and strangely enough even our mobile sim cards were stolen by the Indians the night before we left, while we were asleep.
That night perched on our ledge we celebrate our grade V 5.12+ A2+ (14 pitches, 520m) route with a bottle of rum and we name the route “The Hospital Breakout”.
The next morning, we rappel back to the ground reversing the route. Only two of the rappels are difficult as a result of the overhangs but overall we have few complications. Only seven hand drilled bolts are placed to protect run out sections of climbing and to facilitate rappels that will take us back to the ground.
Storms are still in full force and once we hit the ground, we no longer have the protection of the overhangs. We get drenched.
In eight years of military service in the British Royal Marines I have never experienced such horrific rain. Alfredo and I decide that, to save time, we will hike everything back to our advanced base camp in one load, which weighs well over thirty kilograms each. With the extra weight it takes us an hour and a half to cover a kilometre in the heavy downpour. The steep terrain becomes treacherously slippery and loose. The ground gives way and I slip eight meters down a steep slope, my momentum (and further injury) luckily being stopped by a tree.
Our progress back to our advanced base camp is stopped when the seemingly timid stream where we fill our water bottles, is now a raging waterfall fifty meters wide. We spend a night completely soaked and close to hypothermia. The next morning we wake up to clear blue skies and find that if we had camped thirty metres to our left we would have spent the night dry! Next time I will look a little bit harder before giving up and settling down for the night.
We eventually decide that we are far to run down and have far too much equipment for both of us to carry. Out of respect to the mountain we are reluctant to leave equipment or burn any rubbish to lighten the load, we organise the gear into four manageable loads, carrying two of the loads with us. It is a very strenuous day as we make the 36km trek back to the village of Yunek in a single push.
We arrive in Yunek feeling equal amounts of fatigue and elation. A team of porters are assembled to gather our remaining gear for the following day. To pass the time, Alfredo and I hire a dugout canoe and chill out on the river. We decide to take our newly acquired canoe for a jaunt in the white rapids and it turns out to be great fun.
We charter a Cessna aircraft back to Santa Elena and leave.
Author: Shane Houbart Contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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