The icy wind sweeps mercilessly over the dark expanse of sand and volcanic rock, as close to a lunar landscape as anywhere on Earth. Penitents – meterhigh, razor-sharp pyramids of ice and snow – made progress practically impossible. At a height of over 6,000 meters above sea level, there’s nothing but the endless fastness of the surrounding Atacama Desert as far as the eye can see. The thin air makes every movement enormously strenuous. In short, the inhospitable conditions make Ojos del Salado a huge challenge even for experienced climbers. Matthias Jeschke knows a thing or two about this remote spot on the border of Chile and Argentina. The offroad expert and leader of the expedition set out on the Rheinmetall MAN High Altitude Truck Expedition with a 14-person team at the beginning of November 2017.
The expedition had two main goals: 1) to construct the world’s highest mountain refuge on Ojos del Salado; and 2) setting a new world record for high-altitude driving, which meant surpassing the previous figure of 6,675 meters set by Matthias Jeschke himself. Two trucks – the Rheinmetall MAN 40M 4x4 and Rheinmetall MAN HX 58 6x6 – did the heavy lifting. Owing to their robust design and outstanding performance, these all-wheel-drive vehicles were the ideal choice for the undertaking.
“Mountain Refuge of Friendship”
A good three weeks after the start of the expedition, the first world record was a done deal. The team successfully erected the “Refugio Amistad,” at 6,100 meters above sea level, the world’s highest mountain shelter. The name, which means “Refuge of Friendship,” pays tribute to the expedition team’s diversity, whose members came from five different countries, and who quickly became friends during their stay in Chile. Among them were two military veterans, Paul Warren of Australia and Chris Bailey of Great Britain. By taking part in the expedition, they wanted to support veterans’ organizations in their countries, and to prove that wounded warriors are perfectly capable of achieving extraordinary things. “We wouldn’t let our wounds keep us from attempting to achieve this ambitious goal. Personally, it was very important to me to emphasize our accomplishments, not our limitations,” declares Paul Warren. “I’m very proud to have been able to take part in this expedition and of what we accomplished by erecting a building at such a high altitude. It could definitely save people’s lives.”
It took two days to build the Refugio Amistad, which proved to be a very arduous undertaking. Because boulders and penitents blocked the direct route to the building site on the high plateau, the team members had to carry all of the construction materials, tools, and camping equipment over an intervening escarpment.
An unplanned rescue mission
Even en route to the building site, there were holdups. The expedition team rescued five Russian mountain climbers who lost control of their vehicle in a sand field on their way to the Tejos camp at 6,150 meters. The vehicle slid down a slope, coming to rest crossways, the right front wheel already over the cliff edge. Fortunately, the Rheinmetall Expedition’s powerful HX 58 truck was able to come to the rescue and recover the stricken vehicle. A few days earlier, Matthias Jeschke’s team had to interrupt preparations for constructing the Refugio Amistad when a climber at High Camp Atacama reported that two of his colleagues had gone missing on their way to the summit. A seven-person team in the HX 58 eventually found the two climbers at an altitude of around 5,900 meters, and drove them back down to High Camp Atacama, 700 meters below.
There, with the active assistance of numerous local climbers, the team erected a second mountain refuge at the beginning of December, the Refugio Apacheta. “By building these two mountain shelters, we definitely helped to make Ojos del Salado a safer place,” insists Matthias Jeschke. “In the future, a lot of climbers are going to appreciate having a safe refuge to retreat to in this inhospitable environment.”
Forced to turn back by a wall of boulders
The successful construction of the two mountain refuges and the rescue of a number of climbers in peril made it easier for the team to come to terms with their inability to achieve one of their two main goals. The adverse weather conditions and an impassible barrier of boulders put an abrupt end to the plan to reach the highest point on the planet ever attained by a motor vehicle. An all-out effort to circumvent the barrier left us totally exhausted”, recounts Matthias Jeschke. “Removing the boulders, some of which weighed hundreds of kilos, and then trying to clear a path through meter-thick penitents took a huge toll on us and our equipment, too.” At around 6,150 meters, the team finally had to turn back to the nearest high camp. “Even if our plan to break the record didn’t work out this time, I’d like to thank our sponsors for the terrific support we received both before and during the expedition,” declares Matthias Jeschke. “They always believed in us, and made the expedition possible in the first place.” And one thing’s for sure: the effort to set a new world record has been postponed, not abandoned. Matthias Jeschke is already busy planning a new attempt.
Rheinmetall MAN Military Vehicles
Key performance data of the trucks used in the expedition
- D08-36 LFG 51
- Euro 5
- Six-cylinder inline engine with 6.9 l displacement
- 340 HP
- Max. torque: 1,250 Nm @ 1,200–1,800 rpm
- D20-66 LF 34
- Euro 4
- Six-cylinder inline engine with 10.5 l displacement
- 440 HP
- Max. torque: 2,100 Nm @ 1,000–1,400 rpm