8 tips for climbing the world’s highest active volcano

Posted on 19 February 2018 By Matt Sterne

Have you ever wanted to climb the world’s largest active volcano? Well, this is how you do it.

Ojos del Salado is the tallest active volcano in the world. Nine of the ten highest active volcanoes in the world are all located in South America, in the Central Andes of Northern Chile, Argentina, and Peru. Source: Flickr

Six South African adventurers are currently sucking in the thin air of Chile’s high-altitude desert as they climb the world’s highest active volcano. Ojos del Salado lies in the remote northern corner of Chile on the border with Argentina at a height of 6893m. For comparison, that’s a thousand metres higher than Kilimanjaro (5895m).

Also read: The foodie’s guide to Chile

The expedition leader is Sean Wisedale, an international mountain guide who was the first South African to climb the seven summits (the highest mountain on every continent). The rest of the group is a mix of intrepid friends and family with different levels of hiking experience.

They’ve set off on their two-week expedition to raise awareness for The Unlimited Child, a non-profit organisation focused on improving early childhood development in marginalised communities throughout South Africa. We had a chat with Wisedale before the team set off about just what it takes to tackle a challenge like this. Here are his top tips:


1. Get creative with your preparation

‘There’s been some tyre pulling, some long treks with heavy packs and one of the team members, Ian, has even been taking ice baths,’ Wisedale said. ‘He has been submerging for five minutes, which is insane. It’s very good for you, though. They swear by it in the Scandinavian countries. It’s like keeping vegetables fresh by putting them in the fridge.’

2. Cycle

‘We’ve been doing a lot of cycling as it’s good for your quads and gets them nice and strong. Due to the nature of climbing, it’s all about the quads and the knees. It’s also passive aerobic as opposed to running, which is a strenuous activity and can lead to injury. You can do the odd jog but no long runs,’ Wisedale said.

3. Go with the pros

The expedition will have Wisedale as its leader with another five guides joining them from Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Wisedale has climbed Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America, nine times so he’s well versed with what is required. Some of the team members are also fairly experienced climbers and a few have even been to be the South Pole.

Sean Wisedale, the team leader, on a previous expedition. Source: The Unlimited Child.

4. Know what to expect

The saying, ‘If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail,’ is an apt description for high-altitude mountain climbing. Knowing how to prepare comes down to knowing what conditions to expect. Wisedale said, ‘The conditions will be testing. As it’s a desert it can be very dry and hot, but it’s also at altitude so it can be very windy, gusty and cold. It’s a very different mountainscape to anything we know in South Africa. The large Bolivian salt flats are nearby and there’s very little life out there.’

‘It’s an awesome place to focus on what’s important in your life and a great place to meditate as it’s completely silent. It’s the perfect place to empty your mind and focus on a purely physical challenge. There are all kinds of unique features and there’s beautiful light. It’s especially enjoyable with a group of good people. There are often lots of laughs and always people wondering what the hell they’re doing there. It should be fun and there’ll be a couple of hot springs to relax in after our long days.’ I suppose hot springs are one of the perks of climbing an active volcano.

5. Acclimatise

‘The greatest challenge will be the altitude,’ Wisedale said. ‘Our strategy will be incremental acclimatisation before we can attempt the summit. We’ll climb three smaller peaks in the week leading up to the summit. It’s very dry so acclimatising is difficult because you’re dehydrating rapidly, but it’s vital to avoid acute mountain sickness. If you’re well acclimatised then you can handle the other challenges such as fatigue, malnutrition, chafe, dehydration, blisters, and potential infections. Because you’re at altitude your immune system is compromised so you’re more prone to infections.

‘We’ll eventually leave from 5800m, so it’s a thousand vertical metres on summit day. We’ll wait and work towards a weather window. If the wind is over 45km an hour we don’t go, if it’s under that it’s manageable. If it’s relatively warm, we’ll try summit early. On summit day, we’ll be on our feet for 14 to 16 hours so it’s important to make sure we carry everything we need and nothing we don’t need.’

A road to sign to Ojos del Salado also shows the stark and dry landscape the adventurers will travel through. Source: Wikimedia

6. Pretend you’re walking on soft grass

‘If you’re battling with the altitude, the best thing to think about is really nice positive things like walking on a beautifully mown lawn with bare feet. I normally just take in the experience and what I’m seeing, but if you’re really cold and struggling, project yourself somewhere else,’ Wisedale says.

7. Eat 20-minute noodles

The group has taken lots of oats, crackers, cheese, biltong, tinned fish, packets of tuna, and rooibos tea, which is very good for altitude (many of the locals drink coca tea to help with altitude). Wallis, the vegan on the trip, has lots of trail mix. ‘And we’ve got loads of 20-minute noodles. Normally, at sea level, it takes two minutes to make the noodles, but at altitude, water takes longer to boils so it takes 20 minutes,’ Wisedale says.

8. Do it for a worthy cause

Not only will this create extra motivation on the trek but it’s a wonderful way to create awareness for a critical, yet little-discussed aspect of our society, such as the work that The Unlimited Child is doing.

Over one million South African children under the age of five have no access to early childhood services, which are critical during a child’s formative years. According to Candice Potgieter, CEO of The Unlimited Child, this lack of opportunity to receive a strong foundation for growth and development before the age of six has a crucial impact on a child’s school readiness.

The expedition team at the airport before they flew to South America. Source: The Unlimited Child

The Unlimited Child aims to create an impact through the support of 5000 Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres by 2021, which will mean that more than 600000 children will have access to a high quality early learning programme. The importance of intervention in the current status of early childhood education was recently highlighted by a literacy survey, which revealed that 80 percent of South African Grade 4 pupils fall below the lowest internationally-recognised level of reading literacy in their language of learning. The fact that South Africa was ranked at the bottom of the list of 50 participating countries made national headlines and underscored the severity of the early childhood education problem and its long-term implications.

The Unlimited Child currently supports over 1200 ECD centres with a footprint that extends across seven provinces. The organisation provides skills development training to teachers at each of the ECD centres.

Follow the expedition’s progress and support their fundraising efforts on www.makethenumberscount.co.za

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