Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mount Roraima, Venezuela





















Deep within the heart of Venezuela's dark and mysterious jungle lie islands; not islands that have coconut laden palm trees swaying in the warm summer breeze or crystaline blue water lapping backwards and forwards onto white sandy beaches, but isolated islands of sandstone forgotten by time.

To the Pemon, the indigenous people of the region known as the Gran Sabana, these flat-topped mountains or mesas are called tepuis. Most of these tepuis are remote and are almost permanently shrouded in mist and clouds, even during the dry season. Thunderstorms are frequent and torrential downpours are a way of life. Some of the tepuis have swamp-like surfaces while others have been washed by rainfall to almost sheer sandstone.

Geologists have conducted chronological-dating tests on molten rock that has thrust its way up between layers of sandstone after these ancient plateaus were formed. The dates they came up with were astounding: The sandstone is estimated to be at least 1.8 billion years old. It is because of the tepuis isolation and old age that have made them special. Each tepuis flora and fauna has been found to be unique. Many species of lichen, moss, orchids and insects are found nowhere else and have adapted themselves to their harsh environments on the mountaintops.

Although Mount Roraima (2,772m) is the most famous Tepui, there are several others that are of special interest. Salto Angel, or Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world, exits from the summit of Auyan-tepui (2,460m) a 435 square mile heart shaped table mountain in the southeastern Gran Sabana. In October 1937 an American bush pilot, Jimmie Angel, landed his plane, the El Rio Caroni, on the summit while in search of the lost river of gold. Angel had flow over the Tepui in 1933 and into Devil's Canyon and discovered what he called "a mile high waterfall," later to be named after him. At first, Angel's Auyan-tepui landing appeared to be perfect, but the wheels broke through the sod and sank into the mud bringing the airplane to an abrupt halt with a broken fuel line and the airplane's nose buried in the mud. With the plane hopelessly mired in her muddy landing spot the landing party started the long march from the mountain to the village of Kamarata in the valley below.

To the south of Puerto Ayacucho, a city on the outskirts of the Orinoco jungle near Colombia, is Cerro Autana. This is a sacred mountain of the Piaroa Indians who believe it is the trunk of the tree bearing the fruits and seeds of the land. This Tepui is only 1220m high but has a labyrinth of caves near the summit which at certain times of the year, the sun's rays shine in on one side of the mountain and out the other. Nearby is Cerro Pintado or the Painted Mountain, which has the largest petroglyphs in Venezuela, including a fifty metre snake that is said to represent the Orinoco River.

Even further to the south in the remote Amazonas region is the Sierra de la Neblina (Mountains of the Mists). This range is so remote that the highest mountain, Pico da Neblina (3014m), was not discovered until 1953 and then it was another twelve years (1965) before it received its first ascent. Another fascinating tepui is Cerro Sarisarinama with huge sink-holes on its forested summit. These perfectly circular sinkholes or "simas" vary in size with the largest being 350 metres deep by 350 metres in diameter. To the Ye'kuana Indians who live nearby the name of this tepui comes from the sound (Sari….Sari….) made by the Evil Spirit who lives atop the mountain when he eats human beings.



Mount Roraima was made famous in 1912 when Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle wrote his fictional novel entitled The Lost World. It describes the ascent of a Roraima-like mountain by an exploratory party in search of prehistoric plants and dinosaurs that were believed to live isolated and unchanged for millions of years on the mountains summit. Conan-Doyle was inspired by the British botanist Everard Im Thurn who on December 18, 1884 with Harry Perkins, was the first to reach the summit of Mount Roraima. Im Thurn and Perkins were not the first Europeans to see Mount Roraima, that goes to Robert Schomburgk, a German born explorer and scientist who explored the region for Britains's Royal Geographical Society in 1838. When Im Thurn returned to Europe to present lectures on his expedition, Conan-Doyle attended one of his shows and was fascinated by the account, allowing his fervent imagination to wander.

Im Thurn climbed Mount Roraima from the southeast by what is now called the Im Thurn route, the only easy way to the summit. His expedition had to fight their way through hundreds of miles of wild rivers and jungles, confronting dangerous animals and savage Indians. Eventually he was within striking distance of the summit:

Up to this part of the slope our ascent had been fairly easy. We have now reached a spot where one long climb will take us to the level summit, and we shall behold that which has never been observed since the beginning of the world. Although we can't say that the entire world has been waiting to see what our eyes will now behold, at least quite a few people have been anxious to know. We shall see that which the few white or copper-coloured people who have viewed the mountain declared would remain unknown as long as the world existed. We shall know what is Roraima.

After Im Thurn and Perkins, other British scientific expeditions arrived to collect and classify the strange flora and fauna found on the mountain: F.V. McConnell and J.J. Quelch in 1894 and 1898, three expeditions of the Boundary Commission in 1900, 1905 and 1910, Koch Grumberg in 1911, C. Clementi in 1916 and G.H. Tate of the New York Museum of Natural History in 1917. Four more expeditions visited the mountain in the next sixty years and then the noted Venezuelan naturalist/explorer Charles Brewer-Carias became interested in the tepuis. Brewer-Carias made repeated scientific journeys into the tepuis discovering and collecting many new species.

Mount Roraima has been studied by botanists, zoologists, geologists, herpetologists, orchidologists, ecologists, limnologists, entomologists, edaphologists and many more whose names don't mean much to mountaineers but are important to science. It is their information that sparks others interests in these bizzare formations.

Mount Roraima is the most popular of all of the tepuis mountains located in South America. The tepuis mountains sit on the border of Guyana, Brazil, and Venezuela and are a popular destination for explorers, mountain climbers, and adventure seekers. Mount Roraima is located wholly inside the Canaima National Park in south eastern Venezuela. The mountain has attracted visitors for decades because of its beauty, remoteness, and climbability.

As with most of the tepuis mountains, Mount Roraima is not part of a chain of mountains and just rises on its own from the jungle floor. The mountain itself is made mostly of sandstone and is recognizable as a tepuis mountain because of the trademark table-top plateau at the top. This make-up allows for the diverseness of environment between what you would find at the base and what you would find on the plateau at the top. The rocky slopes keep the two areas separate and over the course of thousands of years (or more) two entirely different ecosystems have developed. In fact, to this day new species of plants and animals are occasional discovered on Mount Roraima and the other tepuis mountains. Though it is large, Mount Roraima is not the largest of the tepuis mountains, that distinction belongs to Auyantepui which is also home to the world famous Angel Falls. It is however the tallest of Venezuela’s tepuis mountains with the peak reaching a height of over 9,200 feet.

There are few roads in the vicinity of Mount Roraima and most traveling is done by small plane, hiking through the jungle, or canoe. This remoteness is also one of the reasons that the area is sought after by explorers and adventuresome people, the land is virtually unspoiled because of a lack of general tourist visitation. Most activity in the area requires the hiring of a local guide from a nearby Pemon Indian village. There is road access from the outside world to the local Indian village of Paraitepui, but the vast majority of the time this road requires four wheel drive to be successfully traveled.

Mount Roraima is one of the easier to climb of all the tepuis mountains with some gentle slopes and ramps up to the plateau. Though the trails are popular with hikers and well marked, use of a guide is still recommended because it is very easy to get lost up top when the plateau is reached. The topside of Mount Roraima has very few well marked trails, as the flatness of the terrain has led hikers over the years to hike off in many directions instead of along established trails. Another factor in making the plateau hard to navigate is the almost constant cloud cover that hangs across the top. Though it sits on the border of Guyana and Brazil, most of the climbing of Mount Roraima is done from the Venezuela side on a stair stepped trail referred to as “La Rampa”. This trail to the top is the only trail that does not require rock climbing equipment and technical experience. The standard trip is a 5 day excursion that includes one day at the beginning to get from the In dian village of Paraitepui and one day at the end to return to the Indian village. Longer trips can explore the more northern and remote areas of Mount Roraima’s plateau.

With its unique vistas and relative ease when it comes to climbing difficulty, Mount Roraima remains a popular destination for hikers and mountain climbers alike. A trip to Mount Roraima is unlike any hiking or climbing trip anywhere else in the world.

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