A rock-climbing legend helps an 80-year-old biologist in search of an amphibian.
On a largely unexplored rock mesa in a Guyanese jungle might live an undiscovered frog, biologist Bruce Means theorized, which could be the missing link in his lifetime of amphibian research.
But how to get up the mesa's sheer walls, which modern climbers haven't attempted yet? You bring along rock star climber Alex Honnold, who stunned the world ascending Yosemite's El Capitan without a rope in the Oscar-winning 2018 documentary Free Solo.
Honnold was enlisted by Mark Synnott, a veteran climber and explorer who'd met Means in 2001 and had gone on several trips with him searching for amphibians around these rock mesas, called tepuis. One of these tepuis, Weiassipu, lingered on their to-explore list until they finally committed to an expedition -- and since he'd turn 80 on the trip, Means knew this would probably be his last shot at discovering his frog, which he expected to be among the genus Stefania like the others he's found in the area.
An episode of National Geographic Explorer set to go live Friday -- Earth Day -- documents the star-studded expedition. Viewers can watch it on Disney Plus and read Synnott's detailed account in the April issue of National Geographic magazine.
At first, Honnold worried whether Means would be able to make the long journey, which involved flying into Guyana, canoeing upriver and forging through 40 miles of jungle to the chosen tepui. But as the team paddled out from the last village on their canoes, Means pointed out flora and fauna with enthusiastic detail, explaining everything from parasitic plants to food chains.
"I compared it to hanging out with the village gossip," Honnold told me. "You just end up seeing the jungle through totally different eyes when you can appreciate relationships between different species. It makes the whole tapestry feel a lot richer."
Together with seasoned tepui climber Federico "Fuco" Pisani and a handful of others, it would be Synnott and Honnold's job to get Means up the sheer sides of the tepui, where he thought his rare frog might live. Their plan was to be the first modern climbers ascending the cliff face and to haul Means up in a portaledge. That would be difficult enough, but just getting to the tepui was a multi-day ordeal.
Even with the help of 70 Indigenous Akawaio guides and porters trailblazing a path through the dense jungle of the Upper Paikwa River Basin, the going was rough enough that Means reluctantly agreed to stay in camp close to the treeline to avoid risking serious injury. The climbing team would make the ascent as planned to look for Means' frog, while Means would explore the more biodiverse jungle floor. The arrangement worked out better for the biologist in the end: He discovered six new species.
"So far, it appears that [from the specimens we had gathered] on this expedition we have at least three frogs, one lizard and one snake new to science," Means said over email, and detailed research could confirm that an additional fourth new frog species may also have been discovered.
But completing his survey of the Paikwa River system goes a step beyond just finding new species. "It makes all the work of this latest expedition and that of previous ones worth so much more complete towards the ultimate conservation of the Guyana tepuis and this emerging biodiversity hotspot," Means said. "It's all about conserving the most biodiversity possible."
With Means gathering specimens at base camp, Synnott led his climbing contingent to the base of the tepui. While he and Pisani were experienced climbers who took turns leading the route up the cliff face untouched by human hands -- which meant pulling off plenty of loose rocks to find solid anchor points for the climbing rope -- they deferred to Honnold for the trickiest parts of the ascent. His expertise speaks for itself: At one point in the National Geographic Explorers episode, Honnold hoists himself around a cliff overhang and then casually drops his legs and one arm from the rock face, angling around to gaze at the jungle while holding on with one hand.
Honnold reckons he's done around 20 of these "first ascents" that involved creating a new route on an untouched wall. They're a fundamentally different challenge than free soloing, which requires meticulous planning to envision the route step-by-step, handhold-by-handhold. Without any maps of the wall, topographical information or even high-resolution photos of the tepui face they'd be ascending, the climbing crew walked up to the wall and decided their route then and there.
For an elite climber like Honnold, heading up the tepui wasn't "cutting-edge rock climbing," as he put it, but it was a cool new route that was difficult and meaningful for enabling scientific discovery. It also gave some incredible views as the climbers ascended above the verdant jungle treeline, peering through the mist at other nearby tepuis like Mt. Roraima.
"Every couple hundred meters, there'd be a waterfall, and each one would have a rainbow," Honnold said. "It looks like a fantasy."
The trip made Honnold reconsider his team in the future -- if heading to a remote area for a climb, he might bring a scientist. Having one extra mouth to feed is a small price for an ecological tour guide who will bring the surrounding natural world to life, Honnold said
"If I'm going on trips like this, I really should be making an effort to have somebody like Bruce along," Honnold said. "If you're going to go on a cool climbing adventure, you may as well do something more useful."
He'll get his chance: This summer, Honnold is going on another climbing-and-science expedition that will be filmed by National Geographic. This time, he's headed to Greenland to aid a climate scientist, and while the details are still being worked out, he may end up climbing rock walls to plant sensors that will track temperature change over time.
But Honnold's trip up the side of Weiassipu will remain a career highlight, a great moment where he got to use his climbing adventurism to spotlight rich wildlife in a region few may ever visit. If anyone does follow the expedition's trail up to the tepui wall, they'll find the team's anchor points for the route they mapped. And Honnold made sure to leave his own metaphorical mark: After the National Geographic cameras stopped rolling, he left the ropes behind and did the route again -- free solo style.