Climbing Islands in the Sky in Search of New Species | Nat Geo Live


Mark:My years in Yosemite were
the best years of my life.
That was where I was trainingand I was learning the
skills of big wall climbing.
And I wanted to find walls
that people hadn’t done before
and I wanted to pioneer
my own routes.
But, you know what conclusion
that I did come to
from going on all
these expeditions?
Climbing is kind of,
a selfish pursuit.
( audience applause ) So, I start thinking,
“What can I do with this with these skills that I’ve
built up as a climber.”And I come across this issue
of National Geographic.
Tepuis, Venezuela’s Islands
in Time, May 1989.
I don’t know how I found it. I opened it up. Guess what?There’s giant rock towers
in the Amazon jungle.
They’re called Tepuis.I thought, “Wow! How do you
get up one of those cliffs? That looks awesome.” The article, of course,
is not about that. It’s about science.It’s about the summits
of these mountains
being the home of all
these endemic species.
And they’ve evolved separately.We’re talking, plants and
animals from their cousins
that live down in
the jungle below.
Everything up there is unique.One of these unique creatures
is called Pebble Toad.
There’s a couple things about
them that are really unique.
If you look at the–
the hind feet,
they are adapted for climbing
in a way that’s totally unique.
I think, there’s eight
species of Pebble Toads. Five of them, have been
found on the top of Tepuis. And I’m thinking “Okay. I’m starting to get
the beginning of an idea here.”The guy who’s trying
to figure this all out
“Why do these creatures
happen to exist
on the summits of these Tepuis?”Dr. Bruce Means.This guy has been on 32
expeditions to the Tepuis. He’s a biologist,
he’s found tons of new species.So, Bruce and I,
we come up with this plan.
And this plan is custom made
for National Geographic.
We say, “So, have
your people been up on the summit of this mountain?” And they’re looking at
it and they’re like “Oh yeah, our guys
have been up there.” “They go up a helicopter,
they found a lot of cool stuff.” I’m like, “Okay, that’s cool. Have your guys been down at
the bottom, in the jungle?” They’re like, “Oh yeah, totally. Our guys have been
all over the jungle. They found a lot of
stuff down there.” We’re like, “Oh, that’s cool.
Have your guys been here in the middle, on the veg
patch, on the actual wall?” And they’re all like, “Hmm”. They’re like, “Actually no I don’t think our guys
have been on the wall.” And that’s when Bruce slams his
fist down on the table and says “I guarantee that I will find new species
on the Tepuis wall.” ( audience laughter )The only problem is,
now we’ve told them
that we’re gonna go up where
the veg is on the wall
and as a climber, that’s really
not the way you wanna go.
You wanna avoid the veg.So, we’ve got ourselves a
little bit of a problem.
Like most of these adventuresthe best part of it is,
connecting with local people.
So here, in the Amazon
are some Amerindians. And we needed these
guys to help us to get into the
base of the tower. There’s no possible way that
we… we could’ve found it.We did not anticipate that the
hardest part of this trip
was gonna be just getting
to the base of the tower.
You can see this ridge,
right here?
This doesn’t look that bad. This looks like a ridge, like
in the Shenandoah’s, right? You hike up this thing. That little section there,
which is half a mile took us five days. And what you can’t see is that it’s actually
really steep under there.And… it’s
jungle mountaineering.
And we would scrape our
way up these little walls
and then we’d build
these ladders. We’d put ropes down,
we’d put these rungs on so that we could all
move up with our gear.But eventually,
we came to this spot
that we called the slime wall.
Bonafide slime!
So like at this pointwe’ve climbed all kinds
of different stuff.
Like all different
kinds of rock and ice.
I even climbed grass in
Poland in the Tatras which is another great story. But, I’d never climbed slime. The closest that I came, was
trying to climb the grease pole at the Fryeburg Fair in Maine. But, slime is really, really,
really hard to climb. We were relying on
going up these vines. We think, the highest we got up
this wall was like, ten feet and then the vines
would break off. We’d slide down the wall and
then hit this little ledge. And you had to hit the ledge because there was a huge
drop-off right to the side. The Amerindian guys thought that this was probably the
greatest show that they had ever seen
in their life.And, eventually we were
like, “Hey, you know what?
Guess what dude,
you’re giving this pitch a go.”
Edward was like–
he didn’t speak English but he kind of got the message. He was like, “What?
I’m leading it?” And we were like, “Yeah, dude. Here’s your harness and…
we suited him up.” Well, guess what,
the Amerindians like these guys must have Gecko
blood or something. ‘Cause this guy got
on the slime wall… and he just went right up it. The problem was that we hadn’t
really looked that carefully at like, the upper section. And we just thought “Get past this slime part,
it’ll get easier.” Well, it didn’t get easier. It went from slime to dirt,
which was good. But, it went from
80 degrees to like, 90. So, he went for another
20 feet up the dirt by putting his hand in, all
the way up to his shoulders and he was like, grabbing onto
roots and kicking his feet in. Like he was ice climbing. This eventually, brought him
to a roof of vegetation. And we looked up and
we saw him up there and we’re like “Oh man,
this is bad, you know.” And we’re like,
“He’ll figure it out, he has to. Because he can’t down-climb it.” So, he’s got his arms in,
all the way like this… and he starts going like this… ( grunting ) And he starts
head-butting the wall. And we’re all looking at each
other like, “This is bad.” We’re like,
“He’s head-butting the wall.” And then, on one of the head
butts, he bit on and he went… And he tore off a patch of moss. And we’re like, “Wow. Now,
he’s biting the cliff.” I’d never seen that… ( audience laughter ) never seen anyone do that. Well, he starts biting
off chunks and… we quickly realize, like he’s chewing a hole,
through the wall. And he chewed the hold, big
enough to get his head started and then he started
burrowing into it. And he… he turned
into “Mole-man”. ( audience laughter ) And… took a long time,
over the course of like about an hour and a half. He burrowed his way
all the way into the dirt. And the last thing I saw, was
his leg sticking out in the back and he was like this… And he was shaking to try
to get himself deeper in. I remember, one of
his shoes fly off ( audience laughter ) and spin through the mist and
disappear off the ledge. And for the rest of the
trip he had one shoe. ( audience laughter ) But, he did it. And he burrowed all
the way through and he got out onto the ledge. We couldn’t see him
at this point. But, he let loose with
this bloodcurdling scream that I think, was half
triumph and half terror. And the story was,
is they heard it in the village 40 miles away. ( audience laughter ) But, he was
definitely stoked and he… allowed the
expedition to proceed.We made a little camp,
up here on this ridge.
And we have this,
one last little…
little hill, to get to the base.So, I get up early in the
morning before everybody else and honestly, I was feeling bad. I’m like, “I’m making
the Amerindian guys do the hardest stuff. I gotta redeem myself.” Now, it’s matted, dead wood
laying over the cliff. It’s really steep, but instead of being slime,
it’s rotten wood. And I’m trying to climb it,
it’s all the just breaking off. But there’s… it’s
like this layer and a couple of times,
the whole thing collapses and I fall through
into the inside. And I look up and I can see that
there’s a space on the inside. It’s almost like,
kind of a chimney that you could slither up. And I looked up in there and I
thought, “What would Edward do?” ( audience laughter ) I’m like, “He would go in.
For sure.” I’m like,
“That’s what I’m doing. I’m going Mole-man.” So, I put my hood up, I
cinched everything up and I started squirming
my way up, through here. And I was in there for hours
and… straight up there were tarantulas in there,
scorpions, it was wicked hot. It was probably the nastiest
thing I’ve ever done in my life. Finally, I hit a
wall at the end. I broke all the wood and veg out
above me and I popped out… and the Amerindian guys
are sitting there. ( audience laughter )They’re looking at
me and they’re like
“Marco, where the
hell have you been?” I was like,
“I was down under the veg. I was doing what you
did yesterday.” They were like, “You idiot!” They were like, “We found
this trail around the side.” ( audience laughter ) “We’ve been here for
hours waiting for you.”Well, don’t forget,
we’ve told National Geographic
that we’re gonna climb
up onto the veg patch
and we’re gonna try to
find some, some new species.
But, the veg isn’t really where
you wanna be on these cliffs.
The veg is a
nightmare, actually.
We kind of found this route where we hit a little
veg patch partway. We dug in, we… we
actually got some samples. Every time, you would stick
your hand into the wall and you would pull it out,
you would have either a tarantula or
a scorpion in your hand.We had slightly more scorpionsso we ended up calling our
climb, “The Scorpion Wall”.
We had an awesome adventure
up on this mountain.
We’re on the mountain
in the background there
and we’re flying away
in a helicopter.
We fly over this other Tepuis.Bruce doesn’t even know about ithe’s been on 32
expeditions here.
And as we go over the top,
we see this giant sink hole
and there’s a forest,
down inside. And so, Bruce looks
at that and he thinks “You know what, that is
exactly the kind of place where I need to go. Because, it’s an environment
that’s right in-between the Tepuis summits and
the jungle down below. And… I think, like, this
missing link type of frog that I’m looking for is gonna
be down in that hole.”And my only job is to get
Bruce down in the hole
and then, to get Bruce
back out of the hole.
So, we get Bruce down
in the hole and…
we leave him down in there.It’s really kind of, wet
and nasty down in there.
So, we have this nice dry
camp, up on the top.
So, we go back up to our
camp and we hang out
and we drink scotch
and we look down in
and we see Bruce down in there.Like the frogs,
he’s basically nocturnal.
And we hear him rooting around
and he’s gotta find this thing.
But, he’s having a
hard time finding it.
And it’s like, day after day.And here’s a little video clip
that tells the story pretty good
about what happened to
Bruce down in the hole.
Bruce:
And there, on a little leaf
sat one of these
priceless little babies.
And then I realized “Oh!They do what the
lower elevation one does.
They may sit on leaves.”And I start looking,
within ten minutes
I found another one!And then,
by 9:30 I’d found four.
This is fabulous, I… I do
wanna stay another night. I’d like to do some
more work on their ecology. I didn’t have my camera with me,
on and on and on yada yada yada… but we’resuccessful!Yahoo!( frog croaking ) Mark:
After he found the frog
we had a little celebration
down in the hole.And Bruce fell over.There was a tree right there and
he actually broke the tree off.
It was like, super luckybecause he was gonna hit the
ground, like a sack of potatoes.
I’m thinking, “Okay, I gotta
get this guy out of the hole.”So, here’s another little clip
showing how I got him out.
I’m trying to set up…
basically the beefiest rig that I’ve ever set up in
my life, just to make sure that we can
get Bruce out of the hole.I pretty much tied together,
this entire troll forest.
I think, I have
ten trees interlinked.
This is one of the crazier
things that I’ve ever set up. I can confirm that he just
moved up about six inches.So, he’s got 199 and
a half feet to go.
( audience laughter ) Well, we did it and we
got him out of the hole.Bruce loves to
show this picture.
And if he was herehe would tell you that
I tried to kill him.
( audience laughter ) But, I did have a back-up rope. So, I had two ropes. But, he likes to sort of,
pretend that that didn’t happen. But it’s… it’s one
of his stories.So, Bruce has looked at the
DNA of the Pebble Toads
and guess what he found.The separation is only like,
a few thousand years. The Tepuis have been isolated
for… more, like millions. So, what does that mean? It means that the frogs have
been climbing up and down. And there’s exchange going on between the frogs that
live down in the jungle and frogs that live up on the
top, with this one species.There’s another species
that he’s found
that has been separated from it’s cousins by
millions of years. And so, Bruce says to me,
“That makes perfect sense because those ones aren’t
adapted for climbing.” So, you have both things
going on at the same time. So, you have the old paradigm
and you have the new paradigm.

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