Angel Falls is the tallest waterfall in the world. Hidden away in a region of south-eastern Venezuela that is so remote it is still known as “The Lost World,” the falls are 979 meters high, with a clear drop of 807 meters. Although some historians claim that the waterfall was first seen by European explorers in the 16th or 17th century, discovery of this natural wonder is usually attributed to an American aviator, Jimmie Angel. Certainly, it is thanks to this intrepid and persistent Missourian that the existence of the falls became known to the world.
In 1933, Angel was working as an aviator-guide for the Santa Ana Mining Company, helping to look for likely gold deposits in the Gran Sabana. On 18 November 1933, while flying solo, he first spotted the falls, but his tales of a “mile-high waterfall” were not believed. Other tall cascades were known to exist in the region, but none so grand as this. In 1934, he met Durand A. Hall and L.R. Dennison at the Case Pomeroy mining company offices, and readily agreed to fly them on an exploratory expedition to the Gran Sabana. In March 1935, the three men flew back to Auyantepui – a massive tabletop mountain that was not on any official maps – and into Churun Canyon to see the falls.
“Now I will show you my waterfall,” Jimmie Angel is reported as having said. In his 1942 book which details the famous 1935 flight, Dennison writes that when the falls were plainly seen, Angel cried, “How’s that for a waterfall?” Dennison could not answer him: “My eyes must have been popping right out of my head. I could only stare in amazement.”
Later that same year (1935), Angel returned to the falls with Shorty Martin, a mining geologist, who took the first photographs of the falls and who verified Angel’s story. After many months of disbelief, the mining community, and then the whole world, came to know that the tallest waterfall in the world had been found by Jimmie Angel.
In 1937, Angel had an incredible adventure which further popularized his discovery. He attempted to land his small plane on top of Auyantepui, but the aircraft became bogged and it was impossible to take off again. Accompanied by his wife and two Venezuelans, he completed an 11-day trek down the sloping side of the tepui and back to civilization. The story was big news in Venezuela, and news of the falls reached official ears.
In 1939, the Venezuelan authorities acknowledged Angel’s discovery by naming the waterfall “Salto Angel” on a government map. Ever since then, the greatest waterfall in the world has borne the name of the fearless flyer who first sighted it.