There are few remaining unclimbed 6,000m-peaks in South America, but a small British party has recently made what they believe is the first ascent of 6,046m Medusa North East in the Puna de Atacama.
Medusa North East lies a little east of Ojas del Salado (6,893m), the highest peak in Chile and second highest in South America.
There are two approaches to Ojas. Access from Chile is relatively straightforward for a Puna peak and begins at a road c20km north of the mountain. From Argentina to the south the approach is much longer, but has the advantages of donkey hire and more fresh water on route.
The Argentinean approach arrives at El Arenal, a sandy plain at 5,500m and normal base camp for Ojas. It was from here that Jon Biggar, Thom Rankin and Barry Woods made their ascent of Medusa North East in a day, trekking round the east side of Cerro Medusa (6,120m) and then continuing on gently-angled scree slopes.
The three found no cairn or evidence of a previous visit on the summit and there is no mention of an ascent in any literature.
Despite an unusual amount of snow cover this year, the ascent was no more than rough walking over snowy rubble. Biggar, who runs the company Andes and is an expert on this area, feels the mountain was simply overlooked in the past. Bleak scenery and constant wind mean that the Puna is not to everyone's taste.
The high, arid and desolate mountains of the Atacama Desert are volcanic in origin: Ojas del Salado is the world's highest active volcano, with fumaroles in the crater close to the summit.
Ascents are technically very straightforward and some of the highest peaks were climbed hundreds of years ago by Incas. Ruins, remains and even sacrificed victims have been found on many mountain tops. Llullaillaco (6,739m) has two small Inca huts just under the summit, the highest ruins discovered anywhere by archaeologists.
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