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Find out more about the ascent of these two amazing mountains

by Tulio R. Soto

kindly contributed by the Latin American Aviation Historical Society (LAAHS). See their website for more:

There's an old aviation saying: "there are bold pilots and there are old pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots."

You have to have a great degree of daring in order to fly, in the first place. But also, you must have more than that in order to make it in Latin America. Flying conditions are primitive in many locations, radio aids non-existent or barely functional, weather changes suddenly, equipment is poorly maintained. And this is nowadays! Just imagine what it was like, during the first half of the 20th Century...

The subject of this document was born on 1 August, 1899 in Cedar Valley, near Springfield, Missouri and was named James Crawford Angel. He encompassed the thirst for adventure and unfulfilled dreams of many during his lifetime. He traveled through places that most people would not even dream of seeing. But we know about Jimmie Angel and his exploits, because he is credited with having discovered the world's highest waterfall, which was named after him: "El Salto Angel" in Spanish, or Angel Falls and which he accidentally discovered, or so, he claimed, in the Venezuelan interior in 1933 when he was looking for a fortune in gold . . . problem is, that there is enough evidence in Venezuela to indicate that many other explorers before Angel, had already been in that region, for example, the Venezuelan explorers Jose Berti, Morón, Lezama, Simon Moreno, General Salas, Cayetano Garcia . . . who during the time where "balata" (rubber) was being exploited in the region, worked in the slopes of the Auyantepui.

Capitan Felix Cardona Puig, on a letter dated 13 July 1965 to Guillermo Jose Schael, a columnist for "El Universal" newspaper in Venezuela, affirmed: "In 1927, Juan Mundo, his son and myself, explored the slopes of the Auyantepui for over three months, and attempted to climb it without success..." Cardona also stated that in 1936, while he was in the area, Jimmie Angel landed his airplane, accompanied by a Mr. Mitchmann, who was either the owner of the Flamingo or had paid for most of it. They were searching for an airplane from the Linea Aeropostal Venezolana, that had disappeared in the area of the Rio Cuyuni. Angel was looking for gold, and had interested Mitchmann. Since Cardona was familiar with the zone, he agreed to go with them to search for Jimmie's fabled river of gold. Of course, they could not find it.

Cardona claims that it was during one of those flights when he showed Jimmie the now famous waterfall, and Cardona shoot from the air, the first pictures of the waterfall ever shot. Mr. Mitchmann became aware of Angel's fantasies regarding the existence of gold, and suggested for Cardona to climb to the top of the mountain. When he returned, Cardona informed Mitchmann that there was no gold up there, and Mitchmann, upset, returned to Ciudad Bolivar, where he transfered his ownership of the airplane to an attorney. Eventually, Jimmie Angel found new partners, among them Gustavo Heny, who agreed to pay for repairs to the airplane as well as for an expedition to go looking for gold.

* The Region
The area where the Auyantepui is located, the Guayana Shield, is the oldest geological formation in Venezuela. The Gran Sabana, is dotted with strange mesas, the largest of which is called the Auyantepui; the area at the top of this geological formation covers 700 square kilometers (about 252 square miles). The area, so far removed from the rest of populated areas, so wild and full of mystery, was the set up for Arthur Conan Doyle's work of fiction, "The Lost World." It is from this mesa, where the river that forms Salto Angel, flows. The Salto, or falls, have been measured at 807 meters of height (2, 648 ft.). Nearby, the second longest free water drop in the world is also found at the Matawitepui, also known as the Mount Kukenan, measuring 610 meters (2,001 ft.) This mesa, the tallest of them all, reaches a height of 2, 810 meters (9, 133 ft.)

The region is still to this day, extremely isolated from the rest of Venezuela; and the isolation and the height of the mesas (tepuis) has allowed a very special eco-system to develop and many species of plants and animals are found there, species that have followed a different evolutionary path than similar species that can be found just a few miles away. The extreme heat of the day, gives way to temperatures that at night often fall below freezing. The village of Canaima, located at the North West corner of the Canaima National Park, is one of the jump-off points for visitors to this region, and it can only be reached by air. Tour operators have established several camps for visitors, who come for the standard four day visit to the region and the Salto Angel. Usually, tourists will fly over the falls, which are located about 30 miles (51 km) from Canaima, or stay longer and take an overland trip to the base of the falls, with the possibility of climbing the mesa, on foot. Many Venezuelan explorers have visited this region even before the Falls were "discovered" by Jimmie Angel; commercial explotation of balata (rubber) was undergoing even before Angel ever set foot in Venezuela.

* Jimmie
Whether it was because of his father was authoritarian, or because Jimmie was unruly, fact is he ran away from home when he was 15, his father hot in his heels, in pursuit. It is not known whether or not, dad caught up with Jimmie. In 1915, Jimmie crossed into Canada, and joined the R.F.C. (Royal Flying Corps) and went to England, and later to France, where afterwards he claimed to have shot down five German airplanes plus three observation balloons and thus, becoming an ace. According to researchers specializing in WWI air combat, his victories numbered more likely as two or possibly three airplanes, and two balloons. Jimmie would continue, throughout his life, to portray himself as an ace.

This was not as bad as it sounds, since during the years after WWI, many pilots who performed stunts and "barnstormed" the USA and other countries, had to use one sort of gimmick or another, in order to bring the paying spectators to see them fly; you had to "make" a reputation to better sell yourself to the paying public.

Whatever the truth behind his aerial victories might be, Jimmie in fact, served in Europe and flew as a member of the R.F.C. His duties with the R.F.C. ended when he was discharged from service, while assigned to a unit in Capetown, South Africa. His friend Joel Ince who was also a pilot, accompanied Angel on a trip that took them to the then Siam (Thailand), Cambodia and the French Indochina (Viet-Nam), where they spent some time and then made it back to England. Once in London, Jimmie spent all the money he had, on women and booze while having a good time in the process. When money ran out, and economic reality set in, he signed a contract to fly in China, with the North China Goverment for Sun, who was a warlord in the province of Kansu. Sun was just one of many warlords operating in China, and should not be confused with Sun-Yat-Sen, an error that has been made in the past.

We find then Angel, not yet 20 years of age, and already commanding his "own" air force, while based at an airfield called Wei-Wei, straddling the ancient Marco Polo's silk route. Five World War I surplus airplanes were the full strength of the air force, but only two of the five, ever managed to get into the air. Regarding his airfield in Wei-Wei, Angel would later tell people that "it bordered the ends of the earth in three directions, and faced hell on the fourth," with the fourth direction being the Gobi, one of the most desolate regions on earth. While flying in China, Angel decided to go and look for something that would become a recurring theme during his life: Gold.

He went to Tibet, where he prospected for gold on the foothills of the Himalayas during 1920, accompanied by a Russian Jew, who was known just as "The Jew." Their sojourn looking for gold came to a short end, when bandits robbed them of all their belongings, forcing their return to Wei-Wei. Their return to Wei-Wei would prove to be unlucky for, because in October of 1920, a gang of mounted bandits completely destroyed the airfield and decapitated the Jew and many others there. Jimmie blamed himself for the Wei-Wei massacre, and feeling dejected and depressed over the incident, planned his return to the United States.

A few days before his date of departure, malaria struck him. He was transferred, by litter and boat, to the Rockefeller Clinic in Shanghai, where after a lengthy stay, he emerged as little more than skin and bones, and embittered with his life so far, but also determined to live life on his own terms.

He would rarely discuss his experiencies in China, and when queried about them, he would only say that he "flew for a warlord" or that he "dropped home-made bombs on desert bandits." The only thing from his China experiences that stayed with him for all of his life, was his trip to Tibet and the search for gold. Searching for gold would be Jimmie Angel's obsession, and would remain with him until his death in 1956, in Panama. During his barnstorming years, Angel would make sometimes vague references to what he called the "Gold of the Lamas." Venezuela would soon beckon, and always, always, the magic gold.

A semi-fabled personality, identified as John McCracken, an old prospector who Jimmie claimed, met at the "Bar Central", in Panama City in 1921 hired Jimmie, to take him to a stream, according to some versions, or to a river of gold, according to others. This river or stream of gold, depending on who told the story, was located on a mesa, in the Gran Sabana area of Venezuela. McCracken purportedly paid Jimmie $3,000 to take him to this secret location, which McCracken had supposedly discovered some time before, and at the same time made Jimmie to pledge never to reveal the location of the site, or to return to it alone, without McCracken.

McCracken told Jimmie about how he had found this plethora of gold nuggets in a pool that formed at the bottom of a waterfall that was shrouded in mist; and wondering how those nuggets had come to lay at the pool, wanted to explore the river from which the falls were born, the river located on top of this imposing mesa in the middle of the Venezuelan Jungle. McCracken had explored the site, and when his indian workers abandoned him, had to walk, swim and crawl his way out of the "Green Hell" that the jungle was, until managed to make it out to civilization, and eventually to Panama. He wanted to go back to find the river, the gold, and offered to hire Angel to fly him back to the wilderness, saving him a long and strenuous walk. He demanded one thing from Angel: a vow of secrecy, not to reveal to anyone, the location of the source of the gold that so much occupied his mind.

But McCracken was not relying entirely on Jimmie's vow of secrecy, and when they flew deep into the Venezuelan jungle, make Jimmie to follow a circuitous route, evidently with the aim of confusing him as to the precise location of the river of gold, eventually landing on the top of a mesa, besides a stream; the mesa was located on an un-mapped area of the country. Both Jimmy and McCracken failed to notice the water falling from an underground river, about three hundred feet below the rim of the plateau, some distance from where they were picking up gold nuggets. At this location, McCracken is supposed to have gone alone and picked up about one hundred pounds of gold nuggets according to some versions, and 75 pounds according to others.

Once back in Panama, McCracken supposedly sold the nuggets for about US$27,000. McCracken allegedly returned to the United States, where he died four years later. Some versions of events claim that the river of gold did not exist, but instead, McCracken had smuggled the gold from Peru, and hidden it in that remote location, for later retrieval.

When he felt the end of his life approaching, McCracken had telegraphed Jimmie and asked him to come to see him to his house, in Denver, Colorado. He told Jimmie "The mountain is all yours now," but due to his illness or other unknown circumstances, was unable to provide Jimmie with the precise location of the river of gold. This meeting released Jimmie from his secrecy pledge to McCracken, so he then began looking for the secret place on his own.

During the late 1920's or early 1930's, Jimmie engaged in a series of attempted and some successful long distance flight records, and also supposedly flew a Zenith Albatross on a non-stop flight to Guatemala, as we will see later. In 1935, Jimmie managed to convince F.I. "Shorty" Martin, a geologist with the Case Pomeroy Mining Company, to obtain financial support from the company, so they could go looking for the river of gold.

During one of his many flights over the expanses of Venezuela's "La Gran Sabana," they landed on the Kamarata Valley, and on 25 March, 1935 they discovered a canyon, the Auyantepui Canyon, known nowadays as the "Cañón del Diablo" (The Devil's Canyon). While flying around a mountain, Jimmie reportedly saw the mists of a waterfall, which cascaded down the boulders into the jungle, many, many feet below; Jimmie later said: "I saw a waterfall that almost made me lose control of the plane. The cascade came from the Sky! But still, I didn't have any luck in landing." Flying down to the foot of the cascade, and then up, and using his altimeter, Jimmie estimated the height of the fall to be more than 3000 feet. He had never seen or heard, of such a magnificent and tall water fall.

At first, he tried to keep silent about his discovery, since his stories about all that gold in the river, had only brought him mocking laughter and looks of disbelief; Jimmie was not going to provide his detractors with more ammunition to use against him! But, he was unable to keep telling about his discovery, to his friends Hall and Dennison, who true to form, laughed his claim off . . . until one day, when both agreed to go up with him, on the airplane, to look at the fall. Their disbelief soon gave way to gasps of admiration and the realization that Jimmie had been telling them the truth all along . . . at least, about the falls.

Jimmie repeated this story so many times, to anyone who proved willing, too drunk or available, to listen. Of course, with the telling and retelling, details changed, and when people re-told the story, facts or their lack thereof, changed constantly. This changed versions and exaggerations, no matter who told them, were usually attributed to Jimmie, and he was chastised and ridiculed for the stories. Some people believed him, and some didn't.

One of the believers was Marie Angel, nee Sanders, Jimmie's first wife. Another person who believed Jimmie, was Gustavo Cabuya Heny, who accompanied Jimmie on an expedition in 1937. They went in by land, and reportedly climbed to the top of the mountain, in search for adequate landing sites.

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