Nevado Ojos del Salado — South America’s Second Highest Mountain

Fast Facts About Ojos del Salado

Ojos del Salado, the second highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, is an easy mountain to climb. Photograph © Ed Darack/Getty Images

Nevado Ojos del Salado, with an elevation of 22,615 feet, is the second highest mountain in South America and the highest mountain in Chile. The mountain straddles the border between Chile and Argentina.

Ojos del Salado is the second highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. It is located 370 miles (600 kilometers) north of 22,841 feet (6,962 meters) Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere.

Ojos del Salado, with 12,200 feet (3,688 meters) of prominence, is an ultra-prominence peak (one with more than 5,000 feet of prominence) and the 43rd most prominent mountain in the world.

Ojos del Salado, a massive stratovolcano, is the highest active volcano on earth. It last erupted 700 A.D., plus or minus 300 years. It’s most recent activity was a gas and ash emission in 1993. Fumaroles, openings that emit gases and steam, and lava flows (of an uncertain age) also indicate recent minor volcanic activity. A strong smell of sulphur sometimes engulfs the summit from nearby fumaroles.

The summit of Ojos del Salado has two peaks which are roughly the same elevation. The west summit in Chile measures 21¼ inches (54 centimeters) higher than the east summit in Argentina. Most climbers ignore the slight difference in elevation and climb one or the other, although some, to make sure that they’ve reached the true summit, climb both peaks. The east summit is more difficult to reach, requiring a short technical climb that is usually climbed with a rope for protection. Both are rotten and loose.

Ojos del Salado rises above the Atacama Desert, the driest place in the world. Some parts of the Atacama have never recorded any rain, and evidence indicates that the desert received no measurable precipitation from 1570 to 1971. Ojos del Salado is extremely dry for a high mountain, especially compared to those farther north in the Peruvian Andes. The mountain has no glaciers and any snow that falls in the winter melts off completely in summer.

The highest known lake in the world is found at 20,960 feet (6,960 feet) on the eastern flank of Ojos del Salado. The crater lake is 310 feet (100 meters) in diameter. The exact depth of the lake is unknown but is thought to range between 15 and 30 feet deep.

Due to its relative remoteness, the exact elevation of Ojos del Salado has been controversial with some climbers and geographers claiming that it was higher than Aconcagua. In 1956, a climbing team from Chile made the mountain’s second ascent and measured its height at 22,926 feet (6,988 meters), higher than Aconcagua, with a pocket pressure altimeter, which are unreliable. In the 1970s the Chilean government arbitrarily raised its elevation to 22,998 feet (7,010 meters), placing the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere in Chile and making Ojos the hemisphere’s only 7,000-meter peak. Later an Argentinean team measured the nearby mountain Monte Pissis at 22,579 feet (6,882 meters), making it two meters higher than Ojos del Salado, meaning that the two highest mountains in the Western Hemisphere were in Argentina.

Now the great elevation debate has basically been settled. A 2007 survey found Ojos del Salado to be 22,608 feet (6,891 meters) while Monte Pissis was 22,287 feet (6,793 meters), while Global Positioning System (GPS) surveys indicate that Ojos del Salado is between 22,570 feet (6,880 meters) and 22,670 feet (6,910 meters) high. The exact elevation is as yet undetermined but Aconcagua is still the Western Hemisphere’s highest mountain and Ojos del Salado is second.

The Spanish name Ojos del Salado, literally “eyes of salt,” derives from large eye-shaped salt lagoons on the slopes around the mountain.