Explorer: The Last Tepui is a National Geographic special that is equal parts jungle adventure and scientific discovery. The documentary follows elite climbers Alex Honnold and Mark Synnott as well as legendary biologist Bruce Means as their team treks through the Amazon. Their ultimate goal is to help Dr. Means complete his life’s work by searching for undiscovered species. Their journey takes them up a 1000-foot cliff and into an “island in the sky” known as a tepui.
Dorkaholics had an opportunity to speak with National Geographic Explorers Mark Synnott and Dr. Bruce Means to discuss their experience traversing “the last tepui” as well as learn more about exploring biodiversity in unexplored habitats.
Neil Bui (NB): It is said that the tepui climb is more dangerous and filled with more unknowns than other trips like Yosemite or El Capitan. Could you describe the unique dangers and hazards encountered while scaling this tepui? And did it end up being more challenging than expected?
Mark Synnott (MS): Well, the most challenging thing about this expedition was the fact that we were trying to drag this 80-year-old dude up the cliff. And that was an insane plan. So, it wasn’t just the cliff, but even getting to the base. I mean some of the most treacherous terrain on the whole expedition was the final section from our last camp up to the base of the wall. But we’re trying to do science, so we’re looking for creatures along the way and we’re not just solely focused on the climb and that was what made it so unique and what made it so challenging.
NB: Could you elaborate on the preparation that you undertook for this specific expedition of a tepui with Dr. Means and the rest of the team?
MS: So, one thing was let’s make sure that we can get to the top of the mountain no matter what. So, what are you gonna do? I mean, you can’t have any guarantees when you’re going to do something as ambitious as this. And so, my recipe for that is to bring in these ringers, Fuco and Alex. Something else we did, which is unusual [given that] I’ve been on a lot of expeditions, and I’ve been on a bunch with Bruce and we’ve never done this before, is that we brought a team physician. So, we had a doctor there and he did a great job. His name was Dr. Briner, and he did a great job taking care of us and also making sure that Bruce was going to survive this ordeal that we had out in the jungle. We had an incredible outfitter called Wilderness Explorers too. They did an amazing job with the logistics which involved support from the local people who live in this forest that we were exploring. And then comes really thorough preparation and planning and organization before we left, and it all looks pretty smooth in the article and in the film. But in reality, in real life and as Bruce and I know, since we were there, it was chaos. Total chaos.
Bruce Means (BM): One of the neat things about it is [that] this was like an expedition of old, back in the 1800s. People went on expeditions on foot out with the people they hired to [drive] their equipment and their food and the like. And those expeditions generally fail because they ran out of food. More than anything, so we actually reenacted one of those types of expeditions and we almost ran out of food a couple of times, but they were able to ferry more of it back and forth to us at various points. I don’t know whether you could feel that in the documentary, but to get the sense of how difficult it is to plot along all day through some of it, [which] was virgin terrain that had never been explored before and never had a trail cut in it. And it’s rainy and it’s muddy, and it’s full of roots and wet all the time, that I hope that came through. But on the other hand, what we were doing was a wonderful wild adventure, and it was successful. We all pulled together and made sure it happened.
NB: I read that for every frog you capture, you smell it and lick it to see if they’re poisonous or not. Are there any other tricks like this that you typically do on a research expedition that you’re willing to tell us?
BM: What would eat a frog, probably a mammal or a bird? And I’m a mammal, so my reaction to whatever the noxious skin secretions might be on something would be exactly what a predaceous mammal, another prodigious mammal, would be like. So yeah, I do that. Of course, I spit it out. I don’t swallow it, but I’ll lick it. Squeeze it a little bit so it produces a skin secretion. Smell it, because often the smells are associated with a bad taste. If let’s say a weasel or a predator mammal, were to put one of these in its mouth, it would get a bad taste, but it would also get a bad smell. So after [it] survived, next time it smells that odor before it bit the animal that would cause it to remember ‘ah, that’s leave that thing alone.’ That’s common in nature. Many animals and even plants have secondary compounds that function in that way to keep predators from biting them.
NB: When you discover new species on expedition, what is running through your mind, and has it become second nature to you? And is it just as exciting as the first time?
BM: Yeah. “Wonderful! Wow! Look what I got!“ That’s one reaction. Now another one is coming later because many species are part of what are called cryptic species complexes. You got a bunch of frogs or a bunch of fish or whatever else, and they all kind of look similar and you don’t know how to sort them out, whether you have a very widely, variable species, population, or whether you have two species or not. That’s where DNA comes in later. Then later you just go “I got one.”
NB: Of all the species that you’ve discovered, which ones still stand out as the most to and why?
BM: Oh, my goodness, by all means I discovered an entirely new family of frogs, and it was a little frog about an inch and a half long, sitting on a leaf during a heavy rain, under another leaf. So, when I looked at it, I thought that thing is deliberately shading itself from rain drops. A raindrop would stimulate a frog to think [of] a predator or something else. So, when it rains heavily, the frogs all kind of hide. And right after the rain, they all come out and feed well. Anyway, I caught this little frog and didn’t think anything of it. It looked similar to other frogs, and I thought I’ve probably got a new species here, so when I sent it to my colleagues that do DNA they came back to me and said something is wrong with our DNA analysis. This thing is so far off the chart we’re going to have to run it again because the DNA must have got contaminated. They ran it again and came back and said, ‘oh my God, this thing is so different from all the other things that’s related to it, it is a new family, a new genus, and a new species of frog.’ Spectacular prizes come in small packages sometimes, and this certainly was one for me.
NB: So, I first remember hearing about a tepui in a little movie called Up, but since then I’ve known very little about them. What makes a tepui so important to research, and what can we learn from exploring them?
BM: Well, they are made of sandstone and when the sandstone erodes, it just erodes into sand. Sand is almost inert; you know it’s not good for agriculture. So not only the tepuis themselves, which are difficult to climb, Amerindian people back thousands of years ago, would never have a reason to climb them. But then there’s the sand that makes the soil all around the bases of tepuis terribly nutrient impoverished, and it’s not good for agriculture. So even Amerindians had not really settled this area very much and it remains one of the Earth’s true remote, wonderful phantasmagorical, kind of Shangri-la-like wild places that I hope gets conserved better than it presently is.
NB: What was going through your mind when you were delivered the news, we can’t move forward with you (Bruce).
BM: I actually thought well, to heck with that when they’re not looking, I’m gonna climb that damn thing. Almost did. But to be honest with you, I mean, all I had to do was one more day worth of climbing up. But I knew dangerous it was, and I’d already slipped and fallen a whole bunch of times, so I understood that I was putting the whole expedition at risk.
Catch Explorer: The Last Tepui on Disney+ starting April 22, 2022.
About Bruce Means
Bruce Means’ research includes a wide variety of topics ranging from ecosystems of the southeastern U. S. to fire ecology, the natural history of South American tepuis, biogeography, conservation, endangered species, and the evolution and natural history of amphibians and reptiles.
About Mark Synnottt
Mark Synnott is a New York Times bestselling author, a pioneering big wall climber and one of the most prolific adventurers of his generation. His search for unclimbed and unexplored rock walls has taken him on more than 30 expeditions to places like Alaska, Baffin Island, Greenland, Iceland, Newfoundland, Patagonia, Guyana, Venezuela, Pakistan, Nepal, India, China, Tibet, Uzbekistan, Russia, Cameroon, Chad, Borneo, Oman and Pitcairn Island. Closer to home, Mark has climbed Yosemite’s El Capitan 24 times, including several one-day ascents.
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