Romain Dumas & Team On (Literally) Taking the Porsche 911 to New Heights

Airplanes generally cruise at around 10,000 metres above sea level. The summit of Mount Everest, the tallest point on Earth, sits at 8,849 metres. Mont Blanc’s peak is 4,809 metres. Toronto’s CN Tower? A paltry 553 metres.

So use these as reference points when we tell you the story of racing driver Romain Dumas and his small support team who had the bright idea to drive to an elevation of 6,734 metres above sea level, travelling to the pinnacle of the Ojos del Salado volcano in Chile. That’s high. And, as if the altitude wasn’t enough, they wanted to do it in a Porsche 911.

Romain Dumas talks Porsche 911

The previous altitude record was set in 2020 by a Mercedes Unimog, a gigantic off-road truck. Unimogs, however, are workhorses by trade. The Porsche 911 is a thoroughbred, and one with no business at the top of a volcano. Of course, a little craziness is necessary for any great expedition to succeed but this seemed more than a little crazy.

“For sure, the most scary time was above 6,500 metres,” Dumas tells The Book For Men on a video call from his home in Geneva. “I’m not unhealthy, you know. I do a lot of sports. But you have to be fit to go higher, especially if something goes wrong.” The air is half as dense as the human body is accustomed to at the top of Ojos del Salado, and temperatures there can drop way below freezing.

“You could die at any time, […] this was no joke.”

Romain Dumas

“So that was my biggest fear,” Dumas says, “bending the car or breaking my arm or something. I had a bottle of oxygen in the car in case of emergencies, and a small [first-aid] kit in case of little minor injuries, but nothing else.”

Dumas, for context, is not a person who is easily scared. He’s 48 years old, and has been racing for 32 of them. In his long and illustrious career as a professional driver, the Frenchman has won 24-hour races at the Nürburgring, Spa-Francorchamps, and Le Mans. He also holds the current record for the fearsome Pikes Peak hill climb — which tops out at 4,302 metres — which he set in an electric Volkswagen. In 2019, during a practice session for the Goodwood Festival of Speed hill climb in Britain, Dumas smashed the course record that had held for 20 years. The following day, only a damp track prevented him from making the record official.

Yet, with the Ojos del Salado expedition, Dumas was the leader of a whole team, of guides, engineers, and professional climbers. “It was really a team effort,” he explains. “We trained in Europe to see who would be able to handle the high altitude. We went to Chamonix and did lots of fitness tests in simulated high-altitude. The engineers from Porsche understood that they needed to train, that you could die at any time, that this was no joke.”

The pair of specially modified Porsche 911 Carrera 4S models used during the expedition were built in Dumas’s workshop. Their 3.0-litre, 443 horsepower flat-six engines were left unchanged; the electronic systems automatically adjust for thinner air. Both cars ran on e-fuel, a carbon-neutral combustion fuel Porsche has helped to develop.

Portal axles were fitted to increase the cars’ ground clearance (to 350 millimetres) and reduce the gear ratios. Aramid underbody armour protected the cars’ oily bits, and a steer-by-wire system called “Space Drive” made turning extremely light so Dumas wouldn’t get too exhausted at high altitudes. They’re incredible machines that make the special-edition 911 Dakar off-roader look timid in comparison.

Romain Dumas talks Porsche 911

Once the cars were completed, the team departed for Chile in late 2023. They set up base camp, roughly 1,000 kilometres north of Santiago, at 4,500 metres on the side of the Andean volcano. Then, for two and a half weeks, the team got acclimatized to the altitude. Dumas walked the route, up to 6,500 metres. Beyond that point, he’d be venturing into the unknown.

“I went with the car to 6,500 metres quite easily,” Dumas says, matter-of-factly. “It took from 5 a.m., and I was at 6,200 metres by 8 a.m. Then, suddenly, I arrived at this place that looked quite flat and completely icy — like a lake. I went at it quite aggressively, thinking I could power through, but I got stuck and had to wait for two guys to winch me out. I realized that it was going to be a long day.”

Porsche 911

As Dumas drove — at a 45-degree angle — up the side of the volcano, he couldn’t see the ground. Only sky was visible through the windshield. “You can see nothing,” he says. “I could communicate with guides outside on the radio. But the problem is you have to use power to climb so you need speed. If you stop, you have to go back down and build up speed again.”

As such, it was slow going. Driving 100 metres sometimes took well over an hour — and the more time spent at these altitudes, the more dangerous the expedition became. Initially, the plan had been to stop short of the very top of the volcano. And, after arriving at the approximate point where the Unimogs had stopped, it looked like the terrain simply wouldn’t allow them to travel any farther.

Romain Dumas talks Porsche 911

“It was midday,” says Dumas, “and we’d been driving for seven hours. Your brain is not really clear anymore. It looked like we couldn’t go higher, but the guides said: ‘Hey, why not try and go up to the [volcano’s] crater?’ I said: ‘We have to try.’ I turned left and walked maybe 30 metres to see where to go. But, at this altitude, after 30 metres you’re already exhausted. So I went back into the car and drove in a big loop underneath the crater.”

As Dumas drove, the route flattened out. Instead of driving up a 45-degree slope, it was now around 20 degrees. They were close to the summit, and Dumas knew it. He drove carefully around boulders that had been thrown up by volcanic explosions — but eventually hit one of these rocks at high speed. “I knew there was a rock there,” admits Dumas. “But, because my brain was missing oxygen and we had to use lots of speed to get to the summit, we hit the rock. The car was almost on its side. I was sure we bent something or destroyed a wheel.”

Romain Dumas talks Porsche 911

To the surprise of both Dumas and his team, the car was fine. And, at 3:58 p.m. on Dec. 2, 2023 — after driving for nearly 12 hours from base camp — Dumas, his Porsche, and his two accompanying guides reached the summit. The altimeter read 6,734 metres above sea level. No car has ever driven higher. The exhausted team found time to pose for a few photographs and briefly enjoy the vista before they had to begin the long, careful drive back down the volcano.

And, with that, the Porsche 911 achieved yet another world record — at the ripe old age of 61 years old. Is there anything this car can’t do?