It was while he was dangling in mid-air, making painful progress towards a tiny ledge on the vertical rock face of Roraima, that Hamish MacInnes noticed his rope was badly frayed.  So badly frayed, in fact, that the sheath had split and dropped away, leaving just the inner core that was about a quarter of an inch thick.  Above his head, hidden by the pouring rain, loomed the aptly-named ‘prow’, an overhanging wall of unyielding sandstone that looked, in profile, just like the bow of a monstrous ship.  Below him was a nauseating drop of 1,000 feet into the rainforest of Guyana.  

MacInnes tried to control his panic.  He forced himself to examine the rope and then shouted up to his climbing partner, Don Whillans.  Don cast an experienced eye down at his friend, and shouted back helpfully:  “You’d better get a move on before it parts!”  As he spoke, another strand of the rope snapped.  But MacInnes was stuck, because the loose sheath had bunched itself up, snagging on the jumar or locking mechanism that allows a climber to ascend a freely hanging rope.  He carefully unclipped the device and attached it to a second rope, which was in slightly better condition.  Using both ropes alternately, he hauled himself up towards a temporary foothold no more than three inches wide, where he allowed himself to take a shaky breath.  “You know, Don,” he said, “I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a dangerous climb!”

Hamish MacInnes

Early in 1973, when MacInnes was asked if he’d like to join the team attempting the first ascent of Roraima’s prow, his answer was a definite ‘no’.  A hugely respected mountain climber, he already had several first ascents to his name and he was hoping to return to the south-west face of Everest, which was as yet unclimbed.  This formidable challenge was, in his opinion, far preferable to Guyana’s sweaty rainforest and its seething hordes of snakes, scorpions and spiders.  

But somehow the idea lodged in his mind, and when his climbing friend Don Whillans came up to see him at his home in Glen Coe, he allowed himself to be persuaded.  In November of that year they joined the renowned climbers Joe Brown and Mo Anthoine in Guyana, and with a supporting team of guides, porters and documentary film-makers they travelled by boat up a succession of rivers before trekking overland through some of the most difficult terrain they had ever encountered.  

Rainforest, where the rain poured incessantly and turned their camps into mudbaths, gave way to a ‘slime forest’ where every branch and leaf was coated in a thick layer of dripping slime, and this inevitably transferred itself onto skin, clothes and hair.  This, in turn, opened out into what they affectionately termed ‘El Dorado Swamp’, an area of white, oozing mud in which they sank up to their calves.  MacInnes’ horror of snakes and creepy-crawlies became a living nightmare, and they all learned to check their boots for scorpions each morning before they put them on.

With their deadpan humour, the team managed to joke their way around most hardships.  Joe Brown, on emerging from the slime forest, remarked, “I’m not going to list that in my 50 favourite walks.”  MacInnes helped - or so he thought - by quoting doom-laden passages from the Bible, until his pals told him to shut up.  But when food supplies ran low they started to get really concerned.  A helicopter had been chartered to drop food parcels, but day after day their radio operator was told that the helicopter could not fly, either because of bad weather or because it had broken down.   Walking hungry and sleeping hungry, they were facing the prospect of aborting the whole expedition when a small plane appeared out of the cloud and lobbed large cases of food into the rainforest. 

Just getting to the base of Roraima had been gruelling enough.  But when the MacInnes, Whillans, Anthoine and Brown stood beneath the prow, they knew that this was where their real test started.  Unlike the route taken by Sir Everard im Thurn up the south face in 1884, the prow offered no ‘easy’ access by walking or scrambling.  The ascent would have to be by rope, with someone climbing ahead on each pitch. 

Having worked out a plan of attack, they each took turns to lead, hauling themselves up by degrees and hammering pitons into the bitterly hard sandstone.  Progress was painfully slow, and at night they suspended their hammocks from anchors driven into the rock face.  It wasn’t for the faint-hearted.  Often, the only places where they could gain a foothold were ledges just inches wide, where the vegetation was already inhabited by centipedes, scorpions and bird-eating spiders. 

One such ledge they named ‘Tarantula Terrace’.  MacInnes, who was obviously learning to live with his phobias, commented:  “I was most impressed with Tarantula Terrace.  My hammock position was particularly fine;  it reminded me of the Hall of the Mountain King.  When I awoke in the morning, the mists were clearing and a fresh wind was blowing over from Venezuela.”

Things looked promising, and spirits were high - but the legendary guardian of Roraima, the ‘Mother of all Waters’, had other ideas.  A few days into the climb, constant heavy rain prevented them from seeing a safe route and they gave up, realising that they had crossed the line between enjoyment and anxiety.  As Mo Anthoine once said, “no mountain is worth a mate.”  Soaked, exhausted and dejected, they returned to the main camp.  The team’s radio report that night to the outside world was pessimistic.  Next morning, the newspaper headlines read:  “Roraima climbers defeated.”

But they were not.

Twelve painful, wet and bug-infested nights later, they were one pitch away from the summit.   MacInnes led first, following natural fault lines in the rock from one narrow ledge to the next.  Then Anthoine took over, climbing up into a steep vertical ‘chimney’ where he complained of a lot of loose rock and vegetation.  The next second, a great lump of debris hurtled down and hit MacInnes in the back, flattening him on the ledge where he was kneeling.  The others could only watch in horror.  Joe Brown later recalled:  “The difficulties of getting him off the face ran like quicksilver through my mind.”  

Luckily, MacInnes was only bruised and winded.  He straightened up and knew at once that he could continue.  One last Herculean effort, and he’d be there.  Anthoine was already on the summit, gazing anxiously down.  MacInnes wrote: “I jumared up slowly, feeling as if I had been massaged by a dinosaur.  Then, as my head emerged over that final edge, I too was in the sunlight.  A broad ledge appeared in front of me and, a few easy feet above, there lay the plateau.” 

Finding themselves suddenly in broad daylight, and on safe, level ground, MacInnes and Anthoine looked around in dazed wonder.  It was, thought MacInnes, like arriving in heaven, having ascended through hell.  Presently Joe Brown and Don Whillans joined them.  MacInnes wrote:  “When Joe came out of the hole, in my mind I saw him emerging from Hades;  this fancy was tinged by reality as the sun made our clothes steam, as if we were smouldering.”

The climbers walked about, feeling light-headed and eerily unrestricted.  The views were like nothing they had ever seen.  MacInnes recalls:  “We looked along the edge of those fantastic cliffs and saw the waterfalls tumbling down into the Paikwa watershed.”   Beneath their feet they saw “hidden gardens containing naturally executed statues, fashioned by the omnipotent forces of wind, water and time.  There were rocks which resembled igloos… We gazed into shallow pools - like dark mirrors - which, for the first time, reflected man, and watched, fascinated, small black frogs…  It was a wonderland like nothing on earth.”

Roraima Bush Toad

Typically, it started to pour with rain.  Instantly, they all knew how vulnerable they were, exposed to the full fury of the weather.  MacInnes had been wearing a poncho of tarpaulin, but had abandoned it at the top of the rope.  Even so, Whillans asked him if he fancied spending the night up there:  regretfully, he declined, because his back was sore and he feared it might stiffen up before he could get down.  “We had climbed to the security of a huge ship, out of a slimy sea, but now we turned back to the descent.”

Going down was quicker than the ascent but almost as scary, because the ropes were increasingly frayed by sharp rocks.  They stayed just one night on the wall, but slept very little.  Then they were back in camp, and the radio operator was hastily relaying the news to a delighted world.  Incredibly, MacInnes had also managed to film some of the final push to the summit, having left the official cameraman and sound recordist far below.

For the BBC documentary (broadcast in 1974), the climbers were interviewed immediately afterwards and asked to summarise their feelings.  The general consensus was that it was an incredibly tough climb, and Mo Anthoine added that he’d rather have been de-scaling a boiler in Sheffield.  MacInnes declared more formally that it was indeed a very serious route, but in his book about the expedition he revealed:  “For me, Roraima is still one of the wonders of the world.”

Footnote:   Since 1973 there have been several more notable ascents of Roraima, including a new route up the prow in December 2019, led by Leo Houlding.   Hamish MacInnes enjoyed further successes, in particular as deputy leader of Sir Chris Bonington’s expedition to the South-west face of Everest in 1975.  He was made an Honorary Fellow of RSGS in 2007.


Reference and quotes:

Hamish MacInnes, ‘Climb to the Lost World’, 1974

BBC Documentary ‘Roraima - The Lost World’