Monday, January 01, 2007

Is Aconcagua really the highest volcano in the world?

Here’s a spoof for Seven Summit summiteers- which is really the highest mountain in the Andes: long time accepted Aconcagua or its northern sister, the dormant volcano Ojos del Salado?

A similar scenario raised its head in the mid 80’s around Everest and K2. Just as it was getting really popular to climb Everest, someone through a spanner in the works and questioned whether it was indeed the highest mountain in the world, or if the more dangerous and more difficult K2 in the Karakorum was not higher.

The media caught on and hyped it up, and a whole bunch of Italians got excited (the Italians made the first ascent of the climb in 1954). Ardito Desio, the aging leader of the expedition and a famous Italian geographer returned to the mountain to measure it again, confirming it was no doubt 8611 metres high, more than 200 metres lower than Everest.

Now at the end of 2006 Aconcagua, South America’s highest mountain has been questioned. According to some Chileans, Ojos del Salado, a massive volcano in the northern desert region may not only be taller, but may exceed 7000 metres in height.

It may be amusing to note that while Aconcagua sits within Argentinean borders, Ojos del Salado marks the border between the two countries and the most frequented approach to climbing it starts from the Chilean side. One can only imagine the revenue for the country if every Seven Summits Summiteer and Seven Summit hopeful would have to now climb a new peak in South America.

While this first issue may be something of a national feud, the second claim, that it may exceed 7000 metres represents more of a continental, if not global hope. In the world as we know it, no mountain outside of the Himalayas exceeds 7000 metres. Aconcagua sits on the official’s books at 6971 metres. Having climbed in the Andes, I can testify that this is a difficult statistic for South American mountaineers and South Americans in general.

If prompted locals will often say that South American cartographers measure the mountain at 7004 metres, while the Europeans claim it to be 6971. If indeed Ojos del Salado is 7000 metres plus, it opens the mountain (and Chilean tourism) up to a whole new bunch of peak baggers, those of the ‘only mountain outside of the Himalayas exceeding 7000 metres’.

According to, a local Chilean publication "Andes magazine" published testimonies from climbing pioneers stating these claims. During the first summit of the peak made by Chile in 1956, the climbers led by Colonel René Gajardo, measured the peak at 7084 metres high.

In the same year, a US team led by Adams Carter and sponsored by the American Alpine Club also measured Ojos del Salado, stating it was 6885 metres high. The prestigious AAC's claims were generally accepted, despite Carter's team never reaching the summit.

This year the Andes Magazine contacted the now 84-year-old Gajardo, who claims there is a reasonable doubt on the subject. With regard to Carter measurements, Gajardo also believes the North Americans mistook the main summit of Ojos del Salado, and measured another peak instead.

In addition, French climber Philippe Reuter made US Air force aeronautical charts note the peak as 7083 metres high.

Andes Magazine (and Chileans) have called for a re measuring of both peaks. The most recent official measuring of both mountains was in 1989, when a team from the University of Padua in Italy, aided by Argentinean climbers and geologists, surveyed both Aconcagua and Ojos del Salado, using GPS technology.

Ojos del Salado came out at 6 900 metres while Aconcagua seemed higher at 6 962 metres, with a possible error of plus/minus five metres. None of the measurements were high precision however, so the debate continues. Response to the article has been varied, with more than a number of people, including South Americans calling the claims as nothing less than ridiculous.
Ojos del Salado is the highest volcano in the world. It is a massive volcanic complex with numerous craters, cones, and lava domes. No historical eruptions have been recorded, but fumarol activity is present.

The mountain is located in the extremely dry and harsh Atacama Desert, with snow only remaining on the peak during winter. The first ascent was made in 1937 by Polish Jan Alfred Szczepañski and Justyn Wojsznis.

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