Ojos del Salado at last: climbing the world’s highest volcano

This weekend I’ll be departing for my annual New Year mountaineering trip, and this time I think it’s going to be a bit special. Edita and I will be attempting Ojos del Salado, a peak I’ve been wanting to climb for a few years now.

In the far north of Chile is a high, arid plateau known as the Puna de Atacama. For a distance of over 300km the land rises to an astonishing 4,000m in its lowest parts. There are some 40 peaks over 6,000m and the highest, Ojos del Salado reaches 6,893m. Despite the height, these mountains have very little snow cover. This mountainous region is a small part of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on earth.

Ojos del Salado (6,893m), Puna de Atacama, Chile (Photo: sergejf / Wikimedia Commons)
Ojos del Salado (6,893m), Puna de Atacama, Chile (Photo: sergejf / Wikimedia Commons)

The mountains are dry, rocky and in many parts gently rolling. There are many peaks over 5,000m still awaiting first ascents, but some of the highest are known to have been climbed by the Incas some 400 years ago. On one of these, 6,739m Llullaillaco (a peak that many Welsh people struggle to pronounce), Inca ruins and the body of a sacrificial victim were found just beneath the summit.

The highest peak, Ojos del Salado, is the subject of many superlatives. Not only is it the highest peak in the Puna de Atacama, it’s the highest peak in Chile, the second highest in South America, the highest volcano in the world, and also (arguably) the highest active volcano in the world. It is believed to contain the world’s highest lake, and its proximity to a road (the main highway over the Paso de San Francisco into Argentina runs just 20km to the north) means that some people have used it as a venue for setting altitude vehicle records. I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was also the mountain with the most superlatives in the world.

The name Ojos del Salado translates literally from Spanish as Eyes of the Salty One. This is not a reference to Kathy Burke’s Twitter feed. The name was given to the mountain by members of the Polish team who made its first ascent in 1937. This part of the Atacama contains a number of salt rivers and lakes. The Poles had spent many days ascending the Rio Salado, or Salty River, for which Ojos del Salado was believed to be the source. The name Ojos del Salado simply means source of the Rio Salado.

Incidentally, a side effect of these salt lakes is that you can often see flamingos, which will be exciting.

Flamingos in the Atacama (Photo: Dan Lundberg / Flickr)
Flamingos in the Atacama (Photo: Dan Lundberg / Flickr)

The Polish team made their ascent from the mountain’s southern Argentine side. Two climbers, Jan Alfred Szczepański and Justyn Wojsznis, reached the summit. This is not the side most people climb it from (and nor will we). To reach the mountain the team had to trek for ten days with 25 mules from the Argentine town of Tinogasta. They erected a base camp at 4,300m, and over the course of the next three weeks surveyed the area. They made ascents of nearby Cerro de los Patos, Tres Cruces, Pissis, Nacimiento and Volcan de Viento, all of them over 6,000m.

They then turned their attention to Ojos del Salado. With help from their four muleteers, they placed a camp at 5,800m and slogged their way up steep slopes of volcanic gravel and penitentes fields (pinnacles of sun-melted snow) on the south-west side to reach a subsidiary summit at 6,720m and the main summit the next day. They also claimed to have discovered an active volcanic crater at 6,500m.(*)

It wasn’t until the 1950s that the mountain was tackled again. In 1955 it was reported in the Argentine press that a 7,100m mountain had been discovered in the Puna de Atacama region. This resulted in a flurry of activity on Ojos del Salado the following year.

For a long time this mountain wasn’t much known about. We know that Spanish conquistadors crossed the Paso de San Francisco in 1536, and described an inhospitable wind-scoured plateau, but they made no mention of a towering mountain. When the Argentina-Chile boundary commission surveyed the region in 1896, 1897 and 1903, they observed a mountain that they called ‘Peak E’ (which might remind some people of the story surrounding the discovery of Everest). They measured its height at 6,880m and it was the mountain now known as Ojos del Salado.

In the first of the many 1956 expeditions, an Austro-Swedish team made an ascent from the south-east, and expedition leader Matthias Rebitsh reached the summit alone. Later in this expedition he made some archaeological finds, including silver Inca figures.

A bleak-looking Tejos Camp at 5,800m on Ojos del Salado (Photo: Xevi Varela / Flickr)
A bleak-looking Tejos Camp at 5,800m on Ojos del Salado (Photo: Xevi Varela / Flickr)

Just a few days after this ascent, a Chilean military expedition led by Captain René Gajardo made the first ascent from the northern Chilean side on what has now become the standard route. They made altitude readings that placed the summit at 7,048m. This wasn’t as high as the 7,100m reported in the press, but nevertheless it would have made Ojos the highest mountain in South America by some margin (the highest, Aconcagua, is just 6,959m).

Later in the year, the American Alpine Journal sent a team led by one of its editors, H. Adams Carter, with the principal objective of determining the mountain’s height. Carter was well known for helping to debunk the myth of Frederick Cook’s ascent of Denali by shinning up a 10m pole to take a photograph.

This expedition took place in the depths of winter and faced many hardships. These included murderous winds, a dead car battery that required a three-day walk to obtain a replacement, and the use of ice axes to cut tracks in the snow for a vehicle. Climbing the mountain was never on the cards, but they were able to calculate the height from a base station using triangulation. They discovered that Ojos del Salado measured in at a paltry 6,885m. We now think it’s about 8m higher, though even this figure is disputed.

The Ojos vs. Aconcagua height controversy was an ongoing one through the 20th century, as was the controversy about whether Ojos del Salado is an active volcano. The Polish first-ascent team said it was. According to the Global Volcanism Program, a column of water vapour and other volcanic gases was observed rising from Ojos del Salado in November 1993 from the local police station at Maricunga, 30km to the west. For some people, this makes it active.

On the other hand, some people would argue that an active volcano is one that has recently erupted. By this measure, both 5,897m Cotopaxi, which erupted in 2015, and 6,739m Llullaillaco, which erupted in 1877, have greater claims to being the world’s highest active volcano. By comparison Ojos del Salado probably last erupted 1,300 years ago. I’m no vulcanologist, but I would say if a thing sleeps for 1,300 years, that makes it pretty inactive.

Another controversy is that of the crater lake at 6,390m on the mountain’s east side. Is it the world’s highest? The lake is 100m in diameter, and at that altitude is, of course, more or less permanently frozen. The Nepalese like to call Tilicho Lake in the Annapurna region the world’s highest lake. At 4km in length it’s much larger, and not always frozen, but at 4,900m it’s considerably lower.

Here I am arguing about the claim on the shores of Tilicho with my erstwhile climbing partner Mark Dickson:

Watch on YouTube

(There is a comment on this video by someone calling me stupid for not knowing that the highest lake in the world is the one on Ojos del Salado. This is fair enough, but they ruin it by saying the lake is at 63,891m, a height that would surprise astronauts.)

These arguments about supremacy boil down to how you define a lake. Does a lake have to be a certain size or remain in liquid form for most of the year? Frankly, who cares.

Ojos del Salado has been on my wish list for many years. I actually booked a trip to climb it with an American company in 2010, but the trip fell through and I ended up climbing Aconcagua instead (which I was happy enough about).

This time we have booked to go with the UK company Jagged Globe. Our itinerary includes several warm-up peaks, one of which, Cerro Vicuñas, is also over 6,000m.

It will be the first of three commercial trips that Jagged Globe are running to the mountain, and they’ve lined up the big guns in the form of three of their most experienced high-altitude expedition leaders. I will be reunited with Chris Groves, who led my first expedition to Aconcagua way back in 2005. He has since become one of Jagged Globe’s top 8,000m-peak leaders. On that occasion we were unsuccessful for reasons I described in detail in my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest.

Ojos del Salado should be a good deal easier than both Aconcagua and Everest. You can drive up to base camp at 5,200m, and there’s a hut, Tejos, just a short load-carry above at 5,800m.

You can never take anything for granted – the altitude is extreme by any measure – but I’m sure Chris and I will be eager to reach the top this time, and I’ll be super happy if we see a flamingo up there. You can argue all you like about superlatives, but you can’t argue about that one. Not only would it be the highest flamingo, but also surely the pinkest mountaineer anywhere in the world.

(*) For those of you who speak Spanish, I managed to find an account of this climb online starting from p.27 in volume 69 of a journal called Revista Andina.

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3 thoughts on “Ojos del Salado at last: climbing the world’s highest volcano

  • December 20, 2018 at 9:43 am

    Nice write-up Mark always good to get your dose of humour. Wish you and Edita fair weather and a strong heart on this superlative climb

  • December 21, 2018 at 11:39 pm

    congratulations from Argentina . This should Be a successful climbing and I wish you and Edita all the best. Please, do not forget to visit Las Grutas, 20 Km away from the border, the argentinian custom. There you would enjoy a beautiful and near view of the Incahuasi (6700 metros more or less) and also several Inca vestiges and many many pink flamingos to your record.
    It is my preferred climbing region. I could send you more information if you can read Spanish
    Good luck

  • January 15, 2019 at 2:43 pm

    I climbed Ojos del Salado in 2010 with superb weather before a snowstorm effectively shut off other expeditions. That region of Chile is superb and the last 30 m of the ascent make for an interesting scramble, especially if the rock is icy or you get high winds.

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