At over 1,700 metres above sea level, we consider our own city of Johannesburg to be a high-altitude location.
Much to the disdain of local car enthusiasts, normally aspirated vehicles lose about 17% of their power at Gauteng elevations.
Now imagine for one second what it must be like to drive at over 6,000 metres. Notwithstanding the physical toll that such an altitude must take on a person’s body.
But earlier in December three-time Le Mans Champion Romain Dumas, together with his support team, did exactly that in a modified Porsche 911 running on synthetic fuel.
Summiting the west ridge of the Ojos del Salado volcano in Chile, at 6,734 metres above sea level, Dumas not only managed to venture where no other vehicle had gone before but he and his team also set a new world altitude record for cars.
They did this in the face of some extreme conditions. The air at altitude was only about half as dense as at sea level, while temperatures hovered around 20 degrees below freezing.
“I’ll never forget this experience. It was an extraordinary feeling to drive where no car has gone before,” said Dumas shortly after his descent from the volcano. “The 911 managed to go higher than any other earthbound vehicle in history.
“We reached a point where we were met by the true summit of the west ridge - we could go no higher. So this really was the maximum altitude that can be achieved. A proud moment for the whole team – and we’re grateful for the support and belief of all of our partners, each of whom made this possible.”
The project marked a return for the car and the team to the Ojos del Salado volcano, having visited in 2022 and just exceeded 6,000 meters on an exploratory run.
The previous record, set in 2020, reached 6,694 meters.
Two modified Porsche 911 models nicknamed “Doris” and “Edith“ took part in the record attempt. The record itself was achieved by Dumas in the lighter and more agile “Edith” variant.
The off-road capable special conversion is based on the current 911 Carrera 4S. Its 3-litre flat-six engine remained in stock form and was paired with the standard seven-speed manual transmission.
Portal axles were added to increase ground clearance to 350mm, while also reducing the gear ratios to allow for precise, gentle throttle inputs at low speed. The cars were also equipped with lightweight Aramid fibre underbody protection to allow them to slide over rocks.
Interestingly the lead car was also equipped with steer by wire technology, giving the precision and detailed feedback needed to allow Dumas to place the car precisely where he needed it – often while ascending precarious and near-vertical slopes.
Throughout the expedition the project took a cautious, safety-first approach, Porsche says. The team took two weeks to acclimatise to the altitudes, slowly gaining in height day after day. The team were closely monitored by two doctors who formed part of the team due to the remoteness of the location and the ever-present danger of altitude sickness and other health risks.
Unlike in 2022, the team encountered relatively little snow at the higher levels of the volcano – but the challenge remained formidable, including finding a path through the boulder fields.
Following an early morning start the team reached the summit at 15h58 on Saturday, December 2. After enjoying the incredible view for a moment, the team began their descent, arriving the following day at their base camp over a thousand metres below, and feeling weary but proud.