This account is kindly reproduced
from Adrian Warren's original. For more on Adrian's documentary
on the land of the tepuys, see here.
The south-east face of Roraima showing
ledge of ascent. From a drawing by Henry Whitely
Up to the time of the explosion of interest
in Roraima in the 1880's, few had ever seen Kukenaam and Roraima,
and it is not surprising that became "mystery mountains".
It is possible that Sir Walter Raleigh
was the first white man to see Roraima. In his Discovery of
Guiana he wrote:
I was enformed of the mountain of
Christall, to which in trueth for the lenght of the way, and the
evil season of the yeare, I was not able to march, nor abide any
longer upon the journey: we saw it a farre off and it appeared like
a white church towre of an exceeding height. There falleth over
it a mightie river which toucheth no part of the side of the mountaine,
but rusheth over the top of it, and falleth to the ground with a
terrible noyse and clamor, as if 1,000 great belles were knockt
one against another. I think there is not in the world so strange
an overfall, not so wonderful to behold. Berreo told me it had diamondes
and other precious stones on it, and that they shined very farre
off: but what it hath I knowe not, neither durst he or any of his
men ascende to the toppe of the saide mountaine, those people adjoyning
beeing his enemies and the way to it is so impassible.
At the end of 1835, Sir Robert Schomburgk,
under the auspices of the Royal Geographical Society, was exploring
the then almost completely unknown interior of British Guiana. He
ascended the Essequibo and Rupununi rivers and spent a considerable
time in the neighbourhood of Pirara, an indian settlement not far
from the Rupununi river, where he heard accounts of a remarkable
mountain to the north-west. In 1838 he returned to Pirara and set
off to the mountain, eventually viewing Roraima from the south and
south-east. In 1842 he again visited Roraima, this time with his
brother Richard. Richard subsequently wrote an account of the plants
found during the trip. The mountain was again viewed only from the
south and south-east, and the summit was pronounced "inaccesible".
The next visitor to Roraima was Karl
Ferdinand Appun, a German botanist, who, in 1864, remained in the
vicinity of the mountain for nearly a month. He reached Roraima
from the Mazaruni and the Kako with a long journey on foot from
the headwaters of the latter river. He examined the mountain from
the eastern and southern sides, and, presuming the vertical cliff
to completely sorround the plateau, also pronounced the summit "inaccesible"
In 1869 Charles Barrington Brown, employed
by the goverment in making a geological survey of the colony, visited
Roraima by the same route as the Schomburgks. From Pirara, it took
him nine days' walking across the savannahs until he was able to
see Roraima and a further eight days before he was able to ascend
the mountain almost to the base of the vertical cliff at the south-eastern
corner. Then, through want of provisions, the same factor which
forced the Schomburgks and Appun to return, he had to make all speed
for Pirara. In 1872 Barrington Brown gained a very distant view
of Roraima from the north-east, when he ascended the Mazaruni river.
He pronounced the summit "inaccesible, except by means of balloon".
Messrs. Flint and Edgington were the
next visitors to the region, in 1877. They had worked in the interior
of the colony for some years, and approached the mountain from the
Rupununi savannahs, a journey which took eighteen days. They too
were driven back for want of provisions, and later also pronounced
the summit, in all likelihood, to be inaccesible.
In the following year, 1878, Messrs.
McTurk and Boddam-Wetham visited the mountain by way of the Mazaruni
river and the Savannahs of the west, finally aproaching the southern
cliffs. They also examined, though at a distance, the northern face.
(sorrounded as it is by dense forest) to be even unapproachable.
... It only remained for us to see
what we could of the western side. Of this flank we could only get
glimpses (from the southern savannahs) by returning towards Kukenaam
and from savannah hills, thus obtaining a view of the dividing valley.
Owing to the clouds which almost invariably filled the gorge, it
was seldom that we could enjoy a satisfactory view; but what we
did see only convinced us that the western side was a repetition
of the others.
Three years later, an enterprising young
orchid collector, Mr. David Burke, visited the mountain by way of
the Mazaruni and viewed its north-eastern side. He did not pronounce
the mountain either accesible or inaccesible.
Between the years 1879 and 1884, Mr Henry
Whitely, a succesfull ornithologist, spent some time in the neighbourhood
of Roraima. On the subject of reaching the summit of the mountain
Mr. Whitely wrote:
It seems impossible to ascend either
Kukenaam or Roraima except by balloon and this could only be done
from the south side, on account of the strong wind constantly blowing
from that direction. It might be possible to ascend by forming scaffolding,
making use of the timber of the large forest on the slopes, but
in this case it will be a work of great time and expense. A solitary
traveller would, perhaps, be able to obtain a sufficient supply
of provisions, but a large party would be forced to bring everything
for their sustenance with them, besides perhaps encountering opposition
from the indians, naturally jealous of the advent of any large party
The scenery around Roraima is very
grand; rain was constantly falling on Kukenaam and Roraima during
the greater part of my stay in the neigbourhood, and for days together
the mountains were envoloped by clouds; at times, when it cleared,
waterfalls were observed coming over the edge of the cliff, and
when the sun was shining, the deep red colour on parts of the vertical
sides, standing out as they did from the sombre coloured forest
on the lower slopes, was seen to great advantage.
Mr. Whitely describes in some detail
his journey to the foot of the southern cliffs.
The savannah land at the foot of
Roraima is covered with inmense boulders and smaller pieces of sandstone.
These have evidently at some remote time broken away from the face
of the rocks and altough I made inquiries amongst all the old indians
some of whom had been in the service of Sir Robert Schomburgk 40
years ago, not one of them had ever seen a part of the rock break
away, and they told me that they must have fallen away ages ago,
for they have no record of any such circumstance from the tales
of their ancestors.
Mr. Whitely laboriously cut a trail through
"some of the densest underwood I have ever passed through" on the
slope formed by rock breaking away from the mountain. At a height
of 6,000 feet he met brambles and prickly bromeliads and eventually
reached foot of the cliff at just over 7,000 feet.
Mr. Whitely observed, at a different
place on the cliffs to that he visited, a spot where the vertical
cliff had broken away to form a sloping ledge, and it seemed to
him that an attempt could be made to reach the summit at this point,
but his efforts to cut a trail through the talus forest to the base
of the sloping portion of rock were unsuccessful.
South-east face of Roraima, showing
ledge of ascent.
In conclusion to his expeditions, Mr.
Whitely expressed some optimism in the possibility of reaching the
summit by this sloping portion, in spite of the fact that a break
exists about half way up. He suggested that the difficulty might
be overcome with the use of ropes.
Siedel, who visited the mountain to collect
orchids, arrived in February 1884. On his second visit in December
he met up with Everard Im Thurn and Harry I. Perkins, assistant
crown surveyor, who had arrived on an expedition sponsored by the
Royal Geographical Society, the Royal Society, and the British Association,
to make an all-out effort to gain access to the summit. Their route
followed the Essequibo river and the Potaro river, as far as Chinebowie
(now known as Chenapow), a large Patamona Amerindian village above
Kaieteur falls. From here a long journey on foot took them across
the Ireng river near Konkarmo, across the Cotinga river to the southern
savannah side of the mountains.
Harry I Perkins takes up the story:
The view from here is magnificent,
as the village of Teruta is placed just in front of Roraima, giving
a sight also of Kukenaam; it is situated on a high hill 3,751 feet
above sea level, but is dwarfed by the gigantic walls of rock near
it, Roraima being about four, and Kukenaam three miles from it.
Each mountain seems like a huge impregnable fortress built on a
mountain top 7,000 feet high with walls 1,200 to 1,800 feet in height.
The portion of Roraima facing Teruta
is about four miles long, and of Kukenaam about the same. In wet
weather, their summits are wrapped in dark clouds, and after the
rain is over and the clouds have dispersed the water can be seen
casting over the cliffs in splendid falls that only by being seen
can be at all imagined. At a distance of four to five miles they
look like delicate white threads against the dark background of
sandstone rock. The two mountains are separated by a wide gorge,
and in this clouds of dense white mist accumulate, and gradually
creeping up as the day advances, enshroud their summits.
Roraima has not been seen on every
side, the northwest at present not having been viewed by anyone,
and it would perhaps be quite safe to say that no side but the south-western
has been thoroughly scrutinized with a view to finding a means of
access to the summit ... and it is a curious fact that our ledge
is on (this) the most easily approached side of the mountain.
Edward Im Thurn wrote:
After due examination, it appeared
that there would be especially three points of possible difficulty
to be met in making an ascent by the ledge. In the first place,
that part of the forest slope which we would have to pass before
reaching the foot of the ledge had as we then thought, never been
penetrated by man and was of quite unusual density, chiefly on account
of the great quantities of rampant bamboo which matted together
the trees of which it was composed. A second difficulty, evident
from below, was presented in the fact that the lower part of the
ledge seemed much broken, and indeed appeared to be not so much
of a continuous shelf but rather a shelf which had at some time
been broken up into large masses of rock. The third and most doubtful
point of all was where, some two-thirds up the lenght of the ledge,
a considerable stream of water fell onto it from the summit of Roraima.
This stream, falling on the ledge, had eaten away, and made a deep
gap, impenetrable to the eye from below. It certainly appeared that
this might well be impassable; and our only hope was that we might
just possibly be able to climb down into it, and up its further
side and so on to the upper part of the ledge, which from that point
to the summit of the mountain seemed accesible enough.
The path to the foot of the ledge
once cleared, and all such observations as could be made from below
having been completed, we still had to wait for a tolerably clear
day on which we might make our first attempt to ascend with some
prospect of success.
On Thursday, the 18th of December,
came a bright morning. We found that the path to the foot of the
ledge had been cleared only just sufficiently for us to pass, and
that not without considerable difficulty. The ground was exceedingly
slippery, in consequence of the heavy rains which had recently fallen;
and this special difficulty was enhanced by the fact that much of
the ground was occupied by a large flag-leaved Stegilepis which,
trodden or cut down as we advanced, gave us many a fall, on account
of the great slipperiness of the whole plant and by the big Brocchinnia
cordylinoides, the latter so densely placed that we had to walk
over their tops, plunging and slipping about in the considerable
quantity of water which each of these plants holds in its axil.
Seldom, if ever, did we step on the real ground, but instead we
climbed, hands and feet all fully employed, over masses of vegetation,
dense enough to bear our weight, over high piled rocks and tree
stumps and not seldom under boulders of vast size, up tree trunks
and along tree branches, across the beds of many streams so filled
with broken rocks that the water heard trickling below was unseen.
Nor did the dense and universal coating of moss, filmy ferns, and
lungworts, afford any but the most treacherous foothold and handhold.
It should perhaps before have been
explained that what had appeared from below the broken part of the
ledge really consists of three rounded spurs, or shoulders, running
from a little way up the cliff down onto the ledge; and that these
spurs are all wooded, though not so densely as the ground below
the ledge, while in parts a few huge boulders stand out over the
tree tops. These three spurs occupy about two-thirds of the ledge
as seen from below; then comes the part of the ledge on to which
the fall dashes from the cliff above. After that the shelf slopes
gradually upward to the top of the mountain, its surface, as we
saw it through the field-glasses, covered with rocks and low vegetation,
its upper part passing behind a sort of false face to the cliff.
Im Thurn and Perkins made their way without
too much difficulty round the three spurs and came to the point
where the fall meets the ledge. There was a downward slope covered
with tall coarse grasses then a gradual upward slope with no more
apparent obstacle than slippery rocks.
On reaching the upper section of the
ledge, it was found to be covered in a dense growth of Brocchinia
cordylinoides, interspersed with a beautiful crimson flowered Befaria
and the pitcher plant Heliamphora nutans.
Im Thurn continues in his flamboyant
Up this part of the slope we made
our way with comparative ease till we reached a point where one
step more would bring our eyes on a level with the top-and we should
see what had never been seen since the world began; should see that
of which, if it cannot be said all the world has wondered, at least
many people have long and earnestly wondered; should see that of
which all the few, white men or red, whose eyes have ever rested
on the mountain had declared would never be seen while the world
lasts-should learn what is on top of Roraima.
Rock of extraordinary shape at the
summit of Roraima
All around, on the summit, where
rocks and pinnacles of extraordinary shapes; 'seeming to defy every
law of gravity! -rocks in groups, rocks standing singly, rocks in
terraces, rocks as columns, rocks as walls and rocks as pyramids,
rocks ridiculous at every point with countless apparent caricatures
of the faces and forms of men and animals, apparent caricatures
of umbrellas, tortoises, churches, cannons and of innumerable other
incongruous and unexpected objects.
Between the rocks were level spaces
of pure yellow sand with streamlets and little waterfalls and pools
and shallow lakelets of pure water; and in some places were little
marshes filled with low scanty and bristling vegetation. Not a tree
was there; no animal life was visible, or it seemed, so intensely
quiet and undisturbed did the place look, ever had been there. Look
where one would, on every side it was the same; and climb what high
rock one liked, in every direction as far as the eye could see was
this same wildly extraordinary scenery.
The result of Im Thurn's expedition was
an increased scientific interest in this remote plateau. McConell
and Quelch made interesting zoological and botanical collections
during two expeditions in 1894 and 1898. There where three expeditions
by the Comision de Limites in 1900, 1905 and 1910; an explorer called
Anderson made his way to the mountain via the Ireng river and Amokokopai.
Another, one Koch Grunberg, arrived from the south by following
the river Kukenaam in 1911. The Clementis, whose journey is quite
well documented, came in 1915-16 by a prismatic compass traverse
from Holmia, a settlement on the Potaro river above Kaieteur falls
started by an old swedish gentleman called Dr.Bovallius; crossing
the Ireng river near Mataruka and from there an approximately direct
route to Kamaiwawong, within striking distance of Mount Roraima.
It is worth reproducing their account here:
On January 15 1916 we made the ascent
of Roraima being most fortunate in having a cool grey morning whilst
the mountains were still quite clear. There was a heavy dew on the
grass and it was delightful walking up the savannah slopes. The
path winds continually uphill over long grass with big boulders
lying on all sides much as they do on Dartmoor tors, whilst the
depressions are boggy and full of marsh plants. From Kamaiwawong
to the brink of the forest was a steady three hours' walk with no
halt and we reached the forest edge at 6,150 feet above sea level.
Our guide introduced the place to us as "English pappa banaboo";
and we thought he meant to indicate it as Im Thurn's camp of 1884.
The climb thru' the forest belt is
the only disagreeable part of the whole ascent. The ground here
is a pell-mell of huge boulders, over which grows a mass of small
trees and magnificent tree ferns, rooting on the debris of earlier
fallen jungle, which is covered with a carpet of slimy green moss
and has a horrid corpse-like smell. The whole place is dank and
cold to the last degree; and the moss makes it impossible to know
wether one is planting one's foot on a piece that will hold or on
a rotten tree branch, or on a mere covering of twigs and leaves
over a chasm between boulders. This lasted two hours. After reaching
the ledge the path is still in jungle for a little way but with
the cliff rising sheer on the right. Gradually the ledge widens
and the forest drops away, so that one gets a glorious view of the
country spread out below like a great green sea. Lovely flowers
abounded at our feet, and the air was like a tonic after the damp
oppression in the forest. A troublesome feature on the ledge is
that it has three v-shaped descents in it; these are very steep
and we had to slide down, clinging on to every root, bush or stone
we could catch hold of. Getting up again was of course more difficult,
and in the second place we used a rope. It could be managed without
one save for the baggage, which must be pulled up. At the third
dip the ledge passes under a waterfall, when after a heavy shower
of rain doubtless a great deal of water comes down; but on this
occasion it was practically dry. From this point the ascent is direct
and steep and in three hours from the foot of the cliff we reached
the top, 8,625 feet above sea level.
The summit is covered with enormous
black boulders, weathered into the weirdest and most fantastic shapes.
We were in the middle of an amphitheatre, encircled by what one
might almost call waves of stone. It would be unsafe to explore
this rugged plateau without white paint to mark one's way, for one
would be very soon lost in the labyrinth of rocks.
Mr. Clementi mentions the cold, the temperature
at 6:15 p.m. dropping to 51ºF; and the shortage of wood to build
A fairly extensive expedition was led,
in 1927, by G.H.H. Tate, of the American Museum of Natural History,
which arrived by following the Cotinga river. A detailed account
of this is to be found in Ecology, vol. III, Nº 3, pp.235-257. Other
expeditions include Henry Edward Crampton's in 1911, which came
via Chenapow; Paul Zahl in 1938; Adrian Cowell, Adrian Thompson
and an important expedition by the University College, Bangor, which
in 1963 made the first ascent of Kukenaam. An account of their ascent
is given here in some detail, partly because the 1971 British expedition
would, if it had entered Venezuelan territory, have followed this
route to climb Kukenaam; and partly because one of the purposes
of this report is to accumulate knowledge of the mountains to aid
those following in our footsteps.
Early in 1963, The Bangor expedition
commissioned Harry Parsons, who was working in British Guiana, to
fly round Kukenaam to make a thorough photographic survey. The photographs
were encouraging, showing a broken region of cliff falling into
the valley between the mountains.
View of Kukenan from the southwest, showing the waterfall centre,
and the route of ascent of the Bangor Expedition, up to the ledge
on the right hand side (camp3 mentioned)
Having reached the gully after considerable
difficulties, the steep angle of ascent made their progress more
ardous. John Ogden takes up the story:
We managed to reach the terrace area
beneath a huge leaning pillar of rock ("the chessman") in "number
two gully" before returning tired to the spur we had left in the
morning. Here in my absence, Harry Parson and Colin Leighton had
established camp three (c. 7,000 feet) and the three of us spent
the night here while the Indians continued down to camp two. We
spent four cramped and uncomfortable nights at camp three. It was
very cold (40-50ºF) and there was a howling gale and heavy rain
for much of the time. However, when the cloud cleared and the sun
beat down onto the rocks about us the site afforded some magnificient
vistas of the cliffs of Roraima across the still cloudy valley and
the savannah below rolling away southwards to the hazy blue mountains
Next morning three Indians came up
from camp two, and all six of us set off to the terrace. We reached
it at about mid-day and hacked our way across it, over a jumble
of the falling logs of trees far larger than any growing on the
site at present, until we reached its right hand edge, where it
formed a broad ledge (a continuation of the right hand fork of the
original gully, see sketch).
At this point the cliff arched above
us for perhaps 300 feet, and ascent here was obviously out of the
question. Leaving the Indians with the packs we gained a large ledge
running beneath the overhangs and continuing across the cliff face
beyond the termination of the terrace, towards a large square tower
leaning against the main cliff.
On reaching this tower, we descended
slightly down a patch of dense vegetation and traversed the tower
by a narrow ledge. The gaining of this ledge was the "crux" if such
it can be called, of the whole climb. On the far side of the tower
was a waterfall, and between it and the tower, steep vegetation
and large boulders ran up toward the final rounded cliffs, now less
than 100 feet in height. We reached this, and traversed back along
their base until we were in a small cave formed between the tower
and the main cliff. This led to a large mossy and boulder filled
crevasse running parallel to the cliff but behind it, here forming
as it were, a false face to the cliff. We scrambled over and under
these boulders until one, bridging the crevasse high up, enabled
us to step onto a verdant ledge, running up, a few steps onto the
summit. The climb, while physically very strenuous, would technically
be graded as no more than hard scrambling or "moderate" in this
Their observations on the summit of Kukenaam
showed that there were no significant differences from the summit
of Roraima. This conclusion was made by Adrian Thompson, who took
part in the Bangor expedition and who had seen the summit of Roraima
on several occasions.
Finally, in March 1971, during the final
planning stages for the British Expedition to take place that summer,
Robin Hanbury-Tenison, of the Royal Geographical Society, walked
up Roraima and down again in just few hours, demonstrating how easy
it in fact is. Indian women and children have even done it, and
the summit of Roraima is no stranger to diamond propectors from
Brazil and Venezuela, who hope to make their fortunes in the jagged
crevasses or in the dark shallow pools on the plateau.
That is basically the story of the exploration
of Roraima and Kukenaam from the south, from the rolling savannahs
of Venezuela. But what of the impenetrable, undeapproachable north,
inside Guyana? Until 1971 the only person who had succeded in aproaching
the mountains through the tangled forest of the Mazaruni drainage
was P.B.H. Baily, of the British Guiana Goverment Geological Survey
Department, in 1958.
For his route refer to the report by
P.B.H. Baily, for the department of Geological Survey in Guyana,
entitled "Kako-Mazaruni Area" (April, 1960; 9 pages and a map).
Even thirteen years later, in 1971, we found traces of his camps
and trails during our exploration of the northern part of the valley
between Roraima and Kukenaam prior to our ascent of the North ridge
The Lost World -- Venezuela's Gran Sabana and Canaima National Park