Jimmy Angel couldn't believe his eyes.
Here he was atop a desolate plateau in Venezuela, surrounded by treasure. "I could see gold. Gold was everywhere," he later recalled.
Mr. Angel and his partner worked quickly, stuffing pockets and bags with more than 75 pounds of glittering ore. But daylight was fading fast. Realizing they had to get off the mesa before nightfall, they slung their cargo aboard Mr. Angel's battered, secondhand airplane and took off, vowing to return in a couple of weeks to get the rest.
They never made it back. It was 1924. Mr. Angel spent the next 32 years of his life searching for the treasure.
Mr. Angel's bittersweet quest had begun three years earlier, when the 22-year-old Missourian met an old Alaska-born prospector named J.R. McCraken in a bar in Panama. Over drinks, Mr. McCraken inquired about Mr. Angel's flying credentials.
"I hear you're the one who can land on a dime," the old prospector said.
"I'm your man," Mr. Angel replied, pointing out that he had once flown with Charles Lindbergh.
Mr. McCraken then told him a fabulous story about gold along the border between Brazil and Venezuela - a remote mountaintop covered with more gold than he could possibly imagine.
That was all it took for the swaggering, daredevil pilot to agree to fly the old prospector to South America.
It took several years for the two to make arrangements for the quest.
Mr. Angel's up-front fee was $5,000, which he used to purchase his airplane. After refueling in Ciudad Bolivar on the Orinoco River, they flew south, Mr. McCraken guiding him through the cloud-topped mountains.
They finally flew over a series of flat-topped mountains. Mr. McCraken spied the treasure-topped sandstone mesa and told him to land.
They jumped out and surveyed the incredible scene. All around them streambeds glittered with gold.
As fate would have it, the old prospector became sick a few days later and died. Mr. Angel was beside himself with grief. Not only was his partner dead, his chances of finding the mountain of gold again were slim at best.
Mr. Angel spent the rest of his life searching for that gold-peaked mountain.
His years of exploration made him famous and yielded many discoveries, including a waterfall found in 1935 while flying for the Case Pomeroy Co. over a tepui, or tabletop mountain, in the Guayana highlands of Venezuela.
The waterfall, known today as Angel Falls in the aviator's honor, cascades more than 3,000 feet, making it 15 times higher than Niagara Falls and the steepest waterfall on Earth.
In 1937, Mr. Angel returned to the falls and attempted a landing on top. The plane nose-dived when it hit soft ground, and it took him and his three companions 11 days to hack their way down to civilization.
The plane remained atop the mountain for 33 years. In 1970 it was hauled out by helicopter and is now on display at the Aviation Museum in Maracay, Venezuela.
In 1956, Mr. Angel took off on his last mission to find the gold. A crosswind flipped his small Cessna as it taxied down a runway in Panama, causing massive head injuries. The legendary pilot died a few days later, on Dec. 8.
His ashes were scattered over Angel Falls.
Author and syndicated columnist Randall Floyd can be reached at Rfloyd2@aol.com.