In an unexplored corner of the South American jungle, 115 table-top mountains break through the treetop canopy. Known locally as tepuis, these striking rock formations rise up to 9,800 feet tall, with vertical faces that plunge back into the steaming vegetation. The table mountains are all as flat as plateaus and span several square miles. This region inspired the Lost World of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous 1912 novel, in which he depicted a forgotten realm of dinosaurs and primeval plants. Indeed, many of the tepuis are inaccessible today and have only been explored by means of thermal imaging cameras on helicopters, penetrating thick, almost permanent cloud cover.
Mount Roraima, the exact border point of Brazil, Venezuela, and Guyana, is the tallest tepui, and the highest point in Guyana. On the Venezuelan side, it declines gently enough for guided trekking tours, but in Guyana there is La Proa (The Bow), a wall 2.5 miles wide and 2,000 feet high, which in places rates the highest possible on mountaineering difficulty scales. In Doyle’s imagination, the worlds at the top and the bottom were entirely separate -- because nothing could scale to the top, and nothing could successfully descend.
German climbers Stefan Glowacz, Kurt Albert, and Holger Heuber planned an expedition during which they would climb the wall “by fair means,” meaning that they could only use technical assistance if life and limb depended on it.
The expedition’s first attempt in early 2010 failed after Glowacz had an accident; they met with success on their second attempt later that year. Glowacz and Heuber had to finish their mission alone. In September 2010, Kurt Albert, the inventor of the internationally recognized “redpoint” free-climbing technique, fell to his death at an oddly unchallenging point on a fixed rope route in northern Bavaria, Germany.
“It was savagely nasty right from the start.”
Stefan Glowacz on a yearning for never-climbed mountains, luxury on the rock face, and completing his late friend’s mission.
THE RED BULLETIN: The new Roraima film, Climbing the Lost World, begins with a scene from another movie, Werner Herzog’s Scream of Stone , in which you are hanging one-handed, clearly unsecured, under an almost horizontal overhang above an Australian plain that stretches as far as the eye can see. Back then, in your mid-20s, you played a cocky, ambitious competitive climber at odds with traditional mountaineering ...
STEFAN GLOWACZ: I didn’t have to act too much.
Would the Stefan Glowacz of those days have managed to complete the Roraima expedition?
Probably not. He would have been too impetuous. He would have wanted too much too quickly. He might have just drowned.
You get rain and brutal thunderstorms there every day, the likes of which we’re simply not familiar with. When it really rains, it’s like the gates of hell opening and water shoots down the wall, waterfalls which will drown you if you choose the wrong route or bivouac in the wrong place. There’s nothing else you can do but check out the wall meticulously before making your ascent, to see where you can climb in the dry, behind the water.
So the younger Glowacz would not have studied the natural drainage system of a rock face?
No, he would have been very bad at waiting. Especially at waiting in the jungle, in the mud, in soaking wet clothes, after a night in a soaking wet sleeping bag. Back then I was all zap-bang! “Where’s it steepest? Where’s it at its most difficult? Let’s go up that way.”
Why is La Proa on Roraima considered such a dangerous climb?
You have to understand it in context. There are walls where there’s a 100 percent probability that you’re going to die, just because there’s basically always something crashing around you: Falling rock, falling ice, everything. Things you can’t control which, to a certain extent, are beyond the realms of the predictable. And of course, most of these walls still haven’t been climbed. Anyone who goes there anyway and comes back to tell the tale is then a great hero. “Wall of death conquered. Ta-da!” But if they die there, then they’re idiots.
But isn’t the draw of extreme mountaineering to beat the elements, for man to subdue nature?
No. That is not what mountaineering is about. The art of mountaineering is to grow old as a mountaineer. Not to be a hero because you had amazing luck, or to be an idiot because you didn’t. Extreme mountaineering is still bloody dangerous even once you’ve discounted all the risks you don’t have to take. But there are still the ones you do have to take.
Why did you choose Roraima?
No other places interested me personally. Take the Himalayas: The mountains there are great, but I can’t bear the style of mountain tourism in the Himalayas. We’re interested in something else: places climbers don’t normally go. We want to find our way in places you won’t find anything about in the specialist magazines or on the relevant Internet forums. It starts getting interesting where there are no Google Earth images. And there’s probably nowhere more like that than this “Lost World,” like that of Arthur Conan Doyle’s. I need to look at somewhere and say, “I want to get up there.” Otherwise, it doesn’t work for me.
Do you have any moral issue with seeking out blank spots on the map and then going there?
In 20, 25 years’ time there won’t be any blank spots left on the map, but that’s not a bad thing in itself. The important thing is how you get there. We have always been committed on our expeditions to the “by fair means” concept: largely without high-tech, treating the world we open up and the people we meet along the way with respect, and starting off on our own from a point that any human could get to. In our case that was Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. So that meant three people with 900 pounds of baggage and provisions and 220 miles of jungle between us and the wall. We organized local porters in the jungle.
Doesn’t it break the “by fair means” rule?
Only if you exploit the porters, and not if you integrate them into the expedition. They understood that too. They trusted us; otherwise they wouldn’t have gone along with it. They have enough bad experience with white people. “By fair means” also means setting an example, showing how one should approach these areas, how careful and cautious one should be and how to interact with the people. It wouldn’t do anyone any good to do without porters just for the sake of doing without help altogether. And it would have been stupid, because it would have meant putting our lives at risk. If it hadn’t been for the locals, one of us would probably have been got by a bushmaster, the most dangerous snake in South America. We heard stories about how it doesn’t flee, how it pursues its victims and can leap up to 6 feet into the air. A single bite and you’ve had it within three minutes. The locals know where they are and how to avoid them.
Why did the porters turn back earlier than planned?
There were some overgrown ascents that really were dangerous, that they couldn’t climb, and we understood that. We couldn’t take responsibility for that. That sort of thing only happens to you in places of which you don’t have experience. So we had to carry our baggage to the wall for the final stretch. That added days. They were groundhog days: the same thing every day and rain every day, but rainforest rain, so that nothing ever dried out. It was savagely nasty right from the start.
Did you suffer in those conditions?
Humans get used to things. Eventually you say, “OK, shit happens,” and you just put those wet shoes back on in the morning and that wet T-shirt and those wet trousers, and you stop thinking about it and get on with it. Of course, you’ve always got some inflammation or other and you’ve got wounds on your feet and you poke around at them and there’s a maggot in there. But what can you do? You know it’s going to be nasty beforehand and you mentally prepare yourself for that.
You can prepare yourself for maggots in open wounds?
It’s all about your basic attitude. You can imagine the heat, the humidity, the rain when you’re still back at home. You say to yourself, “OK, it’s going to come down hard every day. Everything’s going to be wet the whole time, but it’s warm rain. You won’t freeze.” And it might last six weeks. Life can be nasty for six weeks. You’ve got to train yourself to be calm. And it’s a lot easier in heat than it is in the cold. The cold hurts. Something gets frostbitten, your hands get cold, and then it hurts like hell when they thaw out again. Pain really saps morale.
How physically and mentally ready for climbing are you after three or four weeks in the jungle?
It wasn’t that bad. To start with, the wall was a pretty relaxed climb. Upper eights on the 10-point difficulty scale, let’s say. Then it got progressively more difficult the further up we went. The key stage right at the end is level 10. That’s pretty demanding, especially when you’ve already been on the wall for days.
When you bivouac on ledges that are just several feet wide, are you really getting rest and sleep?
Three feet would be a lot. It’s luxury if you can more or less lie down. Finding ledges like that is a real piece of luck. If they aren’t there, we’d have to set up camp in a hanging frame tent [supports that look like a combination of a car seatbelt and a hammock].
Can you really sleep in those?
Pretty well, actually. You’ve just got to be really well roped up to sleep. You can always get an hour of deep sleep in them. Then you doze; standby sleep, let’s say, but that’s enough. The nice thing about Roraima was that there was so much overhang from the wall that there was no danger of falling rock or anything like that. You don’t sleep all that well when you know that something from above might batter you to death at any second. Adrenaline basically helps a lot too, of course. You only notice how exhausted you really are when you get back and lie down in a hotel bed for the first time. You might sleep for a whole day.
What led to the abandonment of the first attempt of scaling Roraima in 2010?
I injured my heel, and we were running out of time and provisions. So we had to call it off, but we knew we’d be back. What hurt a lot more than my heel was the fact that I had to be taken away by helicopter. It took a lot for me to leave that scene in the film.
How did the film, and the expedition, change with Kurt Albert’s death?
What a loss it was, what a shock, what a watershed. Kurt ... he was the type of guy who taught himself to play the piano because, as he said, “Life is all mathematics and I can understand anything mathematical. I’m not interested in anything that isn’t mathematical.” Kurt could calculate for you how many times you’d have to cross an avalanche-prone slope for you to die on it. Kurt was a guy who didn’t know a word of Spanish and then he got it into his head that he had to learn Spanish and a year later he was giving talks in Spain.
On expeditions, Kurt only ever had books that you wouldn’t want to swap with him: scientific essays, intelligence tests from the latest geniuses’ world championships, that sort of thing. That was Kurt. Kurt was the total lone wolf. Completely unattached. No family. There was nothing but mountaineering, and he was eerie in the way he defended his independence. Kurt would have been 60 next year. His death tore us apart. The three of us -- Holger, Kurt, and I -- were the Three Musketeers. We had an intuitive understanding. You won’t find that perfect symbiosis more than once in your life.
Was that because the three of you climbed so well together?
Skills are much less important than the personal side of things. If somebody bugs you on this sort of expedition, it doesn’t get to the point where this is about professional matters. You’re living with people for weeks at a time, closer than in any other form of partnership, and that was just perfect with Holger and Kurt, precisely because we all knew that each one of us was placid and had a high tolerance threshold. You haven’t just got to be extremely resilient mentally and physically but you’ve also got to be unbothered when someone jokes first thing in the morning, “Hey, you look like shit today!” You can’t afford to get in a huff about that sort of thing. You just laugh along with the joke. Composure is incredibly important. As is being goal oriented, not having to be right all the time, and deciding things democratically.
How did it feel to set off for the second attempt, accompanied only by Holger Heuber?
We felt closer, even more like kindred spirits. It’s as if we had a contract. We’d bring it through, in memory of Kurt. For Kurt. That’s the legacy you leave behind when you’re a climber, after all: A great route. It doesn’t matter if someone climbs it after you or they don’t. In the same way that a writer writes a book or a painter paints a picture, we climb a route. We leave our mark. And this route is here now, left by Kurt.
How do your wife and children feel about your climbing?
Once I’ve decided what I’m doing, I go home and say, “I’m going to be away for six weeks at such and such a time.” And no more is said about it.
Isn’t that harsh?
It only works if the port you’re setting sail from is secure. There’s got to be an understanding there. If there was a fight every time you wanted to set sail, it wouldn’t be the right kind of relationship.
Are there mountaineering careers that have faltered because of family?
Lots. When I go climbing somewhere, I hear a lot of people say, “Oh, I’d love to do what you do, but then I met my wife, had children.” I get annoyed every time I hear that “I’d love to, but …” I can’t bear it. You either do it or you don’t. It doesn’t matter whether you want to be a successful manager or a good painter. At some point you’ll have to be selfish. I think it’s the greatest thing in life to discover your passion and then gear your life towards it with all the consequences if that’s what you have to do.
So are you saying a person’s passion is something they would be willing to give up a great love for?
Yes. You recognize the passion is so great that it would be self-denial to give it up. Self-abandonment. And that self-abandonment leads to sentences starting, “… Oh, I’d have really loved to …” In actual fact, you should look in the mirror in such cases and say, “I just didn’t have the balls to live my life.”
Check out the May 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands April 16) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.