Leo Houlding's 'Lost World' adventure

03 April, 2012
Leo Houlding examining new Apex ice-axe

Life is full of contrasts for Leo Houlding. He called in at DMM the other day to update us on his recent jungle adventures in Venezuela and to collect some new kit for his next trip - this time to the icy vastness of Greenland.

Deep in the Amazon rain forest the team comprising of Leo Houlding, Jason Pickles, Stanley Leary, Alastair Lee, Yupi Rangel, Alejandro Lamus and David Reeves made the first ascent of The Yopo Wall E6 6b A1 (400 m) on the east Face of Cerro Autana - a spectacular tepui (table-top mountain) rising clear of the green canopy. We put a few questions to Leo to give us an insight into being a modern-day 'Indiana'.

Cerro Autana must have felt remote? "For sure. It's a pain to get there partly because it's way out in the jungle and partly because it's a Government restricted area. It required some cloak and dagger tactics along with some hefty bribes."

Originally you were hoping to climb on Autana's longer south-west face but had to switch to the steeper east face. Why was that? "The S.W. face - climbed by Jose Pereyra, John Arran and team in 2002 is the biggest wall but is visible from a handful of Indian communities. We had to keep an ultra-low profile so climbed on the less tall but steeper and less accessible east face which is overlooked by nothing but jungle for as far as the eye can see."

Being on the border the jungle provides cover for a lot of 'trading'? "Petrol is less than 2p a litre in Venezuela while in Colombia it's more than £1. The border is 1275 miles of mostly uninhabited jungle: this combined with the Colombian coca plantations, the simmering FARC civil war (whose guerrillas flee to regroup in Venezuela) and the big rivers that provide great arteries for heavy-weight contra ban trafficking, makes the Amazonas state of Venezuela a smugglers dream. There are lot's of military check points on the road and a general sense of martial law. So no surprise that there are also lots of dodgy people well versed in the whereabout's of secret ports and smuggling - though I think our climbing gear was an unusual delivery."

How long did it take and how did it work out logistically? "The trip was four weeks. We had to send all the climbing gear in advance with the smugglers so we went deep water soloing in the Caribbean. The approach was about a week including the river trip, mind bending shamanic Yopo ceremony and jungle trek to base camp. About nine days of climbing, five or six nights in the cave and a few days to get out. Not sure what happened to the other week?"

The cave system half-way up the face was a luxury camp by big wall standards? "The Autana caves were something else. I'm sure they'd be world famous if they weren't so inaccessible. The main cavern is like a cathedral. It was a much less brutal environment than base camp: cooler, way less bugs, fresh water, fire wood and a totally celestial view. Best wall camp ever."

How did free climbing the route and not leaving any fixed gear behind work out? "We left natural rap anchors and nothing else. The whole thing went free, onsight apart a few points of aid on the last pitch, a 20ft roof."

The insect life sounds terrifying if you don't like that sort of thing. What was the worst bug story from the trip? "There were loads of beasties. Tarantulas in the cooking area, scorpions in hammocks and snakes in the grass. But it was the small things that were really bothersome - endless swarms of flies, mosquitoes, ants and termites were a constant irritant. Bad ass stinging bees when leading were a particularly unhelpful threat."

Had you read The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before going? Did you take any books with you? "Yes, I read The Lost world a few years ago - it's a brilliant story, read it in a single sitting. Out there you really could imagine seeing a pterodactyl. We took books with us but my Second World War tome got eaten by termites."Alastair Lee

Al Lee filmed it. What extra effort was involved in making sure Al got his footage?
"Producing first class moving pictures adds masses and masses of hassle, expense, weight and time to everything. It becomes integral to the whole adventure. It's definitely worth it but it's hard work."

Who and when were the last people to stand on the top of Autana? "As far as I know it was Jose and John's crew back in 2002."

You're off on a trip next at the opposite extreme in terms of climate. I understand it's only training for somewhere even colder? "Greenland for some cold climate practice and to test out the gear. And then somewhere even colder later this year if it all hopefully comes together."

What do you prefer hot or cold conditions? "Depends. At the time it's often the other! Hard to say, they're both bad when they're extreme. Heat can drive you mad but you don't often feel like you might die with the heat. Cold and wind can really be terrifying and it can feel like you could actually die."

A film by Alastair Lee, Autana – First Ascent in the Lost World about the expedition will be released later in the year. You can watch a trailer for it here.