Reaching the mountains is not easy. First the team has to get to a village at the foot of the tepuis in small airplanes that can land on a dirt runway just 100 metres long. “In a previous expedition to the Auyán Tepui, we used an Antonov II that is over 60 years old – the pilot showed us the compartment housing emergency procedures, it only contained a Bible!” says Sauro.
From the village, transport is by helicopter. “Landing on the tepuis is very difficult because of strong winds and the rough surface, and it’s even more difficult when carrying a large amount of equipment.”
“The main sensation when the helicopter leaves you on the plateau is a sense of utter isolation,” says Sauro. “The risk of being trapped by fogs and bad weather is high – it can take the helicopter hours – with costs rising every hour – to find a window through the clouds.”
What to take
A multidisciplinary expedition requires up to 1.5 tonnes of equipment, which must cover all needs as the helicopter will not return for up to three weeks. Technical tools and scientific instruments that could break down must be in duplicate. Essentials are:
- 1,000 metres of static ropes, 100 carabiners and anchors for setting up lines to reach cave entrances in the high cliffs or to descend into deep abysses.
- Battery drills to position the anchors.
- Two 1,000 W generators and small solar panels.
- High-performance LED lights for the caves, up to 1,600 lumen.
- Medical and rescue kit, with a portable stretcher. If an accident occurs the team will have to undertake the rescue to the surface. Each hour of normal progression inside the cave usually requires one day of rescue.
- VHF radios for communication with the village or base camp. Inside the caves, a device called a “TEDRA” that works through rock with 70 kHz wavelengths, allowing communication from the cave to base camp.
On the top of the world
It rains almost every day on the tepuis, so the expedition takes two large tents, one for cooking and food storage, the other for tools, chargers, computers and scientific equipment. Smaller tents are set up for sleeping. On the surface the team has a balanced diet, with carbohydrates and protein, as well as vitamins and mineral salts: pasta, rice, fresh vegetables and fruit. Then in the cave it’s mainly dry food – cheese, tuna, eggs.
To save time, the explorers sometimes camp in the caves. “It’s important to find a place safe from possible flooding, normally in high and dry sectors of the cave’s galleries,” says Sauro. “We don't need tents – the temperature inside the caves is between 15C and 20C – only mattresses and sleeping bags, hoping that scolopenders [large centipedes], spiders or other insects will not come to visit us by night! We use a stove to boil water for freeze-dried food.”
Expeditions are required to minimize their impact, including removing all waste and equipment. “Due to the extreme fragility of some parts of the caves, we define specific passages which all the explorers are to follow; in some cases we decide not to pass at all, and only photograph and survey without crossing,” says Sauro.