NatGeo’s “Explorer: The Last Tepui” offers breathtaking Amazon vistas while searching the jungle for frogs.

The Disney+ Earth Day special “Explorer: The Last Tepui,” from National Geographic, follows elite climber Alex Honnold (“Free Solo”) and a world-class climbing team led by National Geographic Explorer and climber Mark Synnott on a grueling mission deep in the Amazon jungle as they attempt a first-ascent climb up a 1000 foot sheer cliff. Their goal is to deliver legendary biologist and National Geographic Explorer Bruce Means to the top of a massive “island in the sky” known as a tepui.

The team must first trek miles of treacherous jungle terrain to help Dr. Means complete his life’s work, searching the cliff wall for undiscovered animal species. The one-hour special is the newest installment of National Geographic’s long-running “Explorer” series. The one-hour special streams on Earth Day, Friday, April 22nd.

Alex Honnold discussed the film, his amazing climb, and the baffling search for frogs in a jungle with SCINQ.

Climber Alex Honnold trekked through the Amazon jungle for days in order to make a first ascent up the tepui face of Mount Weiassipu in Western Guyana. (National Geographic/Renan Ozturk)

How did you first get involved with this project?

I’ve been on many different expeditions with Mark Synnott, who was the expedition leader who put the trip together. He invited me probably because he knew that I’d be able to help him get up the wall. I’d never been to a Tepui before. Also, I’d never I’d never been in the jungle before really, so I thought it was a great opportunity to climb somewhere and have a new adventure that I’ve never had.

So what were your expectations when, let’s say jungle before you had guns? What did you think it would be like?

I don’t know. I kind of expected the Amazon jungle to be this totally insane place. Once we were actually trekking through the jungle for 10 days, I realized that the jungle was basically just really thick vegetation. While it is very impressive in some ways – and certainly home to incredible diversity of life – the actual experience of being in the jungle was just some insane vegetation. It’s made me realize that I actually have kind of been in the equivalent of jungles in different parts of say, like the southeastern US or, or even just like thickets, like temperate rainforest in the Pacific Northwest.

So the jungle was sort of there. When you first saw the Tepui, what was your assessment of it?

It was hard to make an original assessment because I never climbed anything like that. It was hard for me to judge exactly what the rock would feel like and what potential for climbing would be. Also, how much vegetation was there on the wall? It was hard to judge and so I think more than most places that I’ve climbed in the world, it felt like a real adventure where you’re just not totally sure where you’re going to get into until you start. You just have to start and try and see how it goes. 

I kind of want to add a little caveat to my note about the jungle. I will say that the cloud forest which is kind of the layer of jungle in between where we approached the wall, where we started to gain elevation. It really was a unique experience. I mean, we dubbed it the slime forest. Everything was like dripping water and covered in slime. It was exactly what I expected from a jungle. I was like “This is insane.”

Bruce Means makes his way down treacherous terrain deep in the Guyanese Amazon. (National Geographic/RYAN VALASEK)

Were there any comparisons that you were able to make between the Tepui and something you had climbed before? Or was it really completely foreign?

It was pretty foreign. I mean, there were elements of it that I could compare to other places. The type of rock is the same in other places on Earth, but almost everything about the experience felt pretty foreign. I mean, it’s still climbing so your body is still moving in the same way. But it was pretty wild. I mean, it’d be raining but with the walls overhanging so even though it was raining, you know, we’d stay dry on the wall. That’s pretty unusual, especially on a wall of that scale, like something that big. It’s rare to have walls that big that are overhanging the whole way.

The original plan was to help Dr. Bruce Means make it to the top. How was that supposed to happen?

In theory, my vision was that we were going to haul him up basically the way that you haul equipment or bags. It’s pretty common to haul giant bags of equipment if you’re doing a multi day climb. Obviously, we had to make sure it was all safe and then adjust it a little bit but basically it was just hauling the elevator right up the wall for him. Unfortunately, it turned out that it was just too difficult to get up the wall.

Right so the reality was different. How different was the reality at what point? At what point did everyone say alright, this really isn’t gonna happen.

I mean, basically, when the advanced climbing team made our first foray up to the wall, we all realized that it was a super long shot for Bruce to make it up through the slime forest and the cloud forest. Basically because we struggled so much. We’re like there’s just no way that an 80 year old man is going to make it through this terrain without serious potential for injury.

What was it like actually climbing that Tepui? What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

It was amazing. It’s this incredible rock with these really great horizontal breaks and that take good gear, so you can put in good safety equipment and you feel safe while you’re doing it. But it also feels really exposed because of the overhang. You’ve seen it with roots dangling out and everything. It’s really rare to be able to climb in a position like that, but actually feel safe doing it. It was a nice combination of incredible climbing experience, but also relatively safe and predictable. It was great climbing and that’s a big part of why I went on the trip.

Can you just describe the feeling you had when you reach the top and actually what you saw

I think the thing about summiting the Tepiui – and I think this comes across in the film – is that it is not like the pointy side of a mountain. They’re basically big mesas like a big flat plateau on top. We made it to the plateau and then we wandered around looking for frogs for quite a long time in the rain and really dense vegetation. 

Everything was incredibly wet and cold. At that point, you’re at a pretty high elevation so it’s pretty chilly. It definitely didn’t really have the feel of a triumph at Summit that you get on some mountains, like alpine terrain. It’s more just like you get to this broad plateau that’s covered in life. That said, it was like we had entered this alien world. 

How difficult was locating frogs up there?

Since none of us are trained biologists, it was pretty difficult. We’re all professional climbers. It’s just not that easy to find a frog in a jungle.

What was more satisfying? Climbing the Tepui or finally finding a frog?

For me, the big satisfaction is doing the climb. At heart. I’m a climber. That said, it’s very satisfying having contributed to the overall expedition because I think Bruce came home and found five or 6 new species throughout the trip. Knowing that we helped facilitate his journey and helped him find new species was maybe even more satisfying than the climate in the long term. But certainly while we were there, climbing the wall was very exciting.

Now, you’re a climber and you are obviously in contact with nature a lot. Do you see the effects of climate change when you’re climbing rocks?

You can see it, particularly with climbing in the mountains. You can see glaciers retreat so quickly and you can see things that were formerly popular climbing routes basically disappear because they don’t form any more. Things that require ice, niggly things that just don’t form ice anymore. There are a lot of examples of places around the world that are just fundamentally different than they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago. When you look at historic photos of some of the first ascents of peaks and landings from 50 or 60 years ago, it’s just a fundamentally different landscape now. It’s pretty easy to visually see the effects of climate change in the high mountains.


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