When you gaze out across the expanse of barren land at the foot of the world’s highest volcano – Ojos del Salado – in Chile, you expect tumbleweed to roll past at any moment. Up here the air is thin, the temperature is a biting -30°C, and there’s not so much as the merest hint of anything you might call a road. The volcano ahead soars over 6,000m into the cobalt blue sky beyond. It feels like the ultimate place for off-roading. Especially if you are doing it in a car famous for its exploits as a sportscar – a Porsche 911.

A 911 is probably the last car that comes to mind when you are driving in a location like this. But then there’s never been quite as unique a pair of Porsche 911 cars as those developed to drive up here. Kept strictly under wraps until this very trip, the two special 911 cars were built as part of the High Altitude project. In partnership with Schaeffler Group, TAG Heuer, BOSS and Mobil 1, Porsche enlisted French endurance racer and adventurer Romain Dumas to not only lead the expedition team, but also pilot one of the off-road 911 cars himself. 

Off-road Porsche 911 facing out of truck, volcano in background
Dormant and waiting – the special Porsche 911 gets ready to tackle the world’s highest volcano

Getting ready to rumble in an off-road Porsche 911

To add to the sense of adventure, there was no chance for any significant test drives – it was simply a case of heading off to the High Andes with the cars and going for it. Luckily, the project had a man with plenty of experience as its leader when it came to tackling the uniquely tough conditions. Porsche factory driver Romain Dumas’ list of achievements includes over 20 years driving in endurance racing, including competing in every 24 Hours of Le Mans race since 2001 (a race in which he drove a Porsche 911 GT3 RS), and five seasons as a driver in the World Rally Championship. In other words, the perfect candidate for leading a team in a car up 6,007m of boulder-strewn gradients and across precarious ice fields. 

Such a harsh landscape was chosen in order to push the cars’ capabilities to their limits – but it wasn’t just the vehicles that felt the effects of the merciless conditions. With half the available oxygen in the air than at sea level, and a landscape of snow and ice at the summit’s approach, it was going to take an almighty push from both man and machine to prove what the cars were capable of in this extreme setting. 

What exactly is an off-road Porsche 911?

As a result of its durable yet streamlined body, the 911 is an excellent base. A lightweight chassis, short wheelbase and an ability to cope with the high altitudes meant the new vehicle was ready for the challenges ahead. Both cars were a 911 (Type 992) Carrera 4S, equipped with a factory standard turbocharged, a flat-six engine that produces 443PS in standard conditions and used their original seven-speed manual transmission. Throughout the development process, Porsche engineers from its Weissach research and development base worked closely with Romain to allow both functional and creative ideas to hone the vehicle to a result that was more than fit to tackle tough peaks. 

To ensure the cars were as robust and safe as possible, they were fitted with roll cages, carbon fibre seats and harnesses, with portal axles later added to increase ground clearance to 350mm. Lightweight materials were considered at every possible turn, with hardy Aramid fibre underbody protection used to ease driving over rocky terrain. Off-road tyres were of course a must, and in combination with the lower gear ratios, more precise and gentler throttle inputs was able to be deployed at lower speeds.

Off-road tyres next to rear of Porsche, volcano behind
The cars were fitted with rugged, hard-wearing off-road tyres in order to tackle the hazardous volcano face

Next, tech from the track was incorporated to bring DNA from the motorsport world to the off-road experience. A device called the Porsche Warp-Connector was added to form a mechanical link between all four wheels. This allows for constant wheel load and maximum traction, even when the chassis endures extreme articulation. The cooling system was moved up to avoid damage when the car needs to get to grips with more gruelling driving, and the final flourish saw the bodywork finished in two distinctive liveries: one featuring the colours of the Porsche 963, and the second 911-themed, as designed by the styling team in Weissach.

This was a truly memorable and special moment in a place that’s both beautiful and brutal at the same time – I guess the only machines anywhere in the world higher than us today were aircraft!
Romain Dumas Porsche factory driver  
Off-road Porsche driving towards snow-capped volcano in Chile
Rocking and rolling, the 911-inspired vehicle boldly went where no Porsche has gone before

How to drive up the world’s highest volcano

It was this expert craft, meticulous engineering and excellent leadership that helped steer this 911 expedition to the spectacular finish line, despite the tricky manoeuvring towards the top. “No one had seen so much ice and snow up towards the top of the volcano, but despite this we went over 6,000m up, to the point where the walls of ice and snow meant we could go no further,” says Romain.

As one of the very few vehicles of any kind to ever reach such extreme altitudes, it was a pinch-yourself experience for the team members involved. “This was a truly memorable and special moment in a place that’s both beautiful and brutal at the same time – I guess the only machines anywhere in the world higher than us today were aircraft!” says Romain. “For the team and the car, it was about learning – and right out of the box, the car was tough and nimble. We were hard on ourselves and really put it in the deep end for its first test, yet it felt at home.”

Checking off such a monumental first test was a huge feat for all involved. “It’s been magical to build a 911 like the world has never seen before – made possible by a small team of engineering enthusiasts,” says Dr. Frank-Steffen Walliser, vice president of complete vehicle architecture and characteristics at Porsche. Meanwhile, chief engineer of the High Altitude project, Michael Rösler, elaborated on what it was like to build such an exciting vehicle. “The 911 has already been proven on the track and, of course, on the road,” he says. “With this project, we’re shifting the focus to where there are no roads. Testing our theories means finding the harshest possible environments to see if they work – and on the highest volcano in the world, we succeeded.” 

Nine people standing next to off-road Porsche 911 on volcano
On top of the world: the pioneering High Altitude team took the special Porsche 911 cars 6,007 metres up Ojos del Salado

Looking towards the next Porsche adventure

Going beyond the heights of Everest Base Camp and Europe’s highest peaks, the achievement in scaling Ojos del Salado was an incomparable adventure for the 911 and its team. “Over 30 years ago, a team of Porsche engineers fitted four-wheel drive to a 911 to explore ‘what if?’,” says Frank-Steffen, looking back on decades of Porsche innovation. “And I’m proud that this natural curiosity and drive among engineers to explore the limits, to test new ideas and above all to inspire, is alive and well. Projects like this one are vital to who we are at Porsche. As they began their journey, the team literally aimed sky high. The first of what I hope will be many adventures.”

Coming back down to earth, Romain echoes those sentiments, and dreams of further expeditions in the off-road Porsche 911 to come. “We’re really proud of what the car and the team are capable of first time out. Hopefully we can count on many more adventures in the future.”

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White Porsche 911 Carrera parked on colourful, geometric tiles