Pissis is the third highest peak in South America and the world´s second highest volcano. It has four distinct summits of which three are of almost the same elevation. The west summit is considered to be the highest and was climbed for the first time in 1937 Osiecki and Szczepanski, two Polish mountaineers who climbed a lot of peaks in the area that year. It was not climbed again until 1985. Some of the local mountaineers doubt the mountain was climbed by the Poles as they always marked the summit of all the peaks they climbed, but on Pissis the second ascenders didn´t find one single trace that anyone had been there before.
The peak is one of the most heavily glaciated peaks in the Puna and one of the few where crampons are a necessity. There are even some areas on the glaciers with smaller crevasses and that´s unique in this area. Until 1997 it was a hard to even reach the peak as it is located quite far in the wilderness, but when a mine opened close by, a primitive road was constructed. The peak got a lot more ascents when it was upgraded to "a-second-highest-in-South-America-status". It is named after a French scientist Pierre Joseph Pissis.
From the south:
Pissis is located far into the wilderness and to reach the peak from the south is not easy. The last city of any size before the wilderness takes over is Villa Union, which is a pleasent sleepy place where all provisions can be bought. This is also the place for arranging a jeep or 4w vehicle which can take you to the target. The companies who deal with travel to the mountains are all located around the town's main square. Demand for travel to Laguna Brava, which is the area's main attraction, is relatively high and easy to arrange. The demand for travels to the mountains beyond is very low. One exceptition though: There are tours to Caldera del Inca, the highest water-filled crater in the world. If you head for the Caldera, you are not that far away from Pissis, even if there are three passes over 5500 m and these you have walk all by yourself.
No mulas available in this area. I don't know what the going prices for a tour to the Caldera from Villa Union is, but from the province capital, La Rioja, it's about 550-700 Arg. Pesos. Make sure the pick up time is crystal clear and also excactly where that pick up will be. If you're uncertain how long it'll take for you to climb the peak and you want the jeep plus personal to stay at the peak, it'll be a very expensive deal. Another option is to walk out to the main road yourself and try to hitchhike back to Jague, where you can find a bus back towards Villa Union. If you are a strong walker, count on three full days out, from the foot of Pissis to the main road.
From wherever you arrive in the area, you have to pass through Villa Union. From there a good asphalt road takes you past Castelli to Vinchina. The latter is the last real outpost of civilisation. There is an internet café, some small supermarkets and two hotels there. A camp-ground is located 2 km out of town. After leaving the plains you´ll enter a narrow gorge with strange-looking rock formations. The road is in an awful shape for about 20 km and rivers, mud and sand has to be negotiated. After the gorge the landscape opens up again, the asphalt is back and the going is easy to Jague, a little settlement where you have to pay the park fees and register at the police station. Road construction and stretches of good asphalt for another 35 km to Punte del Agua, which is a goldminer's settlement consisting of 10-12 newly built baracks.
From there on; only gravel road all the way to the border of Chile. The first refugio en route is El Peñón, where you can find fresh water. A steep climb with lots of llamas along t he road, which continues all the way to Paso Laguna Brava, a windswept pass from where you have the first close views of the peaks in the area. A small hill down to Laguna Brava and the refugio on the northern end of the salty, light blue lake. The road continues for another 11km to Refugio Veladero. This is where you'll leave the road and head into the wilderness for real. If you're on your own, the track can be hard to find. Leave the road approximately 450-500m before the refugio. It's very hard to find in the beginning, but after a km or two it's almost like a "real" dirt road.
A sandy track follows a dry riverbed in the direction of Bonete Chico, the dominating peak on your right side looking from the refugio. The pyramid-shaped peak on your left is Veladero. The jeep can take you to the SE side of the Caldera, but from there you have to walk It´s a very dry area, but the reason the jeep can´t go any further is a deep river valley full of clear water. You´ll be able to find water all along the way to Pissis from here. The rest of the route in short:
Down into the deep river valley, up on the other side. Pass a quite large peak and continue to an area full of small lakes fed by penitentes fields. Walk over another high pass. The altitude will now drop gradually when you cross a couple of passes and after some time you´ll be on a ridge overlooking a wide valley with some beautiful crystal clear blue lakes. Go down there and start to walk towards the foot of Pissis, which now is not more than 1-1½ h away.
It is not advisable to make the journey from Villa Union directly to Laguna Brava (4300m), let alone further on if not acclimatized. Count on a full day of rough travel from Villa Union
If you're of the really hardcore type and wants to arrange the whole venture by yourself, hitching is the only option after Jague. Count on three to five cars a day, but as this is a very dry area there's a high chance they all stop for you. Be prepared to carry water for at least two days when leaving the main road. If acclimatized, count on carrying food for at least 12 days.
From the north:
If you don´t want to deal with the quite extreme nature of the approach on the southern side of the Pissis massif, you better shot for the northern side. You can arrange a jeep or 4w in Fiambalá, which is a good base for the climb. Jonson Reynoso, the legendary climber has his little office at the main square. He can help you with all the arrangements and is extremely knowledgable about the area as he has been working as a cartographer and been the official guide for many of the first ascents in the area. He is one of the few persons who has climbed more than one summit in the Pissis massif. The ride will be a pleasent 2 h on good asphalt on the main road towards Paso de San Francisco.
You turn off at Pastos Largos and in front of you a rough 5 h on a bumpy path awaits you. Switchbacks up to the first pass. Here you gain almost 1500m in one go, so you better have some acclimatization. A bit up and down past beautiful very blue lakes. Lots of llamas and flamingos at the lakes. The multicolored mountain Cerro Negro de la Laguna Verde are looming over you on your right and in front of you the Pissis massif is getting closer by the minute. The path leads to a mine and after about 80km you leave the main path and head for Pissis BC. This last part is the roughest and count on almost an hour for the last 10 km.
At least one person has walked out from the Pissis massif to the main road. If that is your plan, it´s a good idea to leave waterbottles along the road. There´s water along the road, but the locals claim it is aresenic in it. The last part after the pass has good water, that´s a fact as I tried it out myself.
There are no alternatives then camping, regardless of which side you approach the peak. There are no restrictions, camp wherever you find a good spot.
The area, especially the southern approach is plagued by hard and sudden strong winds, so be sure you pin down the tent well.
The closest "roof-over-your-head" is refugio Veladero on the southern approach, but it's a long way from the mountain.
Arriving from the north:
No permits needed, but the tourist police in Fiambalá wants you to register before you head for the mountains. Look for a building with the words "Seguridad Turistica" on the main square in Fiambala.
Arriving from the south:
If you want to approach the peak from the south, you can rent any vehicle, or just walk in. No restrictions or rules apply in La Rioja province. The police want you to register in Villa Union, Vincina and Jague. Free of cost. You do need to pay the entrance fee to Laguna Brava National Park in Jague Park HQ, which is located next to the road and there is a barrier over the road, so you can´t miss it.
Fees for Laguna Verde NP (southern approach) - 2005:
Argentinian citizens from La Rioja province - 10 Arg. Pesos.
Argentinian citizens from all other provinces - 25 Arg. Pesos.
Foreigners - 50 Arg. Pesos.
If you arrive in your own car, a 10 Arg. Pesos/day fee has to be paid.
There are other fees, but these are the ones relevant for mountaineers.
December to March is the warmest and therefore most suitable months. Some climbers prefer to go later in the season as it´s easier to find water then. Personally, I don´t think water was a big problem on Pissis as there are plenty of snow quite low on the peak and even a little creek on the northern side. On the southern reaches it´s even easier to find water, snow and ice.
As for all the other peaks in the Puna, Jonson Reynoso is the person to contact. He's located in Fiambalá and knows the region as the back of his hand. The services he can offer include transport, mulas, info and he has some gear for rent.
If arriving in Fiambalá without any prior contact with him, you'll find him on one of the corners of the main square in a building marked Seguridad Turistica - tourist police. This is also the place where you register before haeding for the mountains.
Fiambalá has a few good restaurants. Ohlala is one of them. It's located on the main square and is run by a french girl. Excellent food. Another option is the flashier and more expensive Pizzeria Roma a block away from the square. There are bakeries, some small supermarkets and food shops. Two farmacies, two internet joints and some highly recommended hot springs makes the place a perfect base for the climbing adventure on the Puna.
The town is also famous for good vines and archeology.
The place to stay for a mountaineer is of course Hostel Campo Base. Located a two minute walk from the main square and ran by Jonson's daughter Ruth, who also is an alpinist with good knowledge about the area. The location is quiet and one can use the kitchen. A great base.
Meteoexploration has good weather info about the area.
Pissis is one of the few peaks on the Puna with substantial glaciers. They can be avoid, but take them into account. Some snow on the higher reaches is common, but it's seldom deep. molst of the time it's all about walking on scree and rock. The Puna is infamous for extremely high winds and sudden squalls.
The whole Puna is very dry and even if there's water around, it may be salty and even arsenic. Make sure you bring a lot at all times, as it can be far in between sources.
When you have reached 5000m, usually you can find snow, ice and penitentes to melt, but don't count on it. The area has the highest snow line in the world and sometimes there's no snow, even over 6000m!
No, it´s the third highest.
Ojos del Salado was since a long time back regarded as the second highest mountain in South America. Very few disputed that fact, even though some claimed it could be higher than Aconcagua. It was not until an erronous measuring (or out of the blue false claim) was done the debate started. A Chilean team made a second ascent in 1955 and claimed the peak to be 6988m, i.e. higher than Aconcagua.
Roughly 20 years later, the official elevation was then all of a sudden raised to 7010m and as a certain country´s leader/dictator stood behind that opinion, very few disputed the claim in the country in question. Its neighbor laughed at the whole thing and did not comment it much. Aconcagua was definitely the highest as far as they were concerned. The rest of the world were quite convinced about the latter and the claim of Ojos being over 7000m slowly died off.
Some years later it was time again for a new debate, but now it was not about Ojos being number one or number two. Over night it had been downgraded to number three! This story obviously started in Ecuador when a British team of GPS specialists measured Chimborazo. It was made with the differential GPS technique and the peak´s altitude was set to a level 40 m lower than before. The Argentinians were impressed and used the same technique on Pissis, which was measured to 6882m and that meant it was two meters higher than Ojos del Salado. The latter mountain´s altitude was at the time set at 6880m and Argentina could claim the two highest peaks on the continent.
Lately, SRTM-data (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission) has shown two things; 1) Ojos del Salado is roughly 6900m and 2) Pissis highest point is approximately 90-100m lower. People who have taking GPS-readings on the peaks verifies these facts.
So, nowadays Ojos del Salado is back on it´s original place on the list as number two and Pissis is firmly in third.
SRTM-data shows there are extremely small differences in altitude in between the three highest summits in the massif.
The west summit is regarded as the highest. Here are the SRTM-data: West peak - 6789m. East peak 6788m and the peak in between the saddle and the east peak is 6786m. As you can see it´s only three meters in between these three summits and i guess no one can be sure where the highest point is located.
The altitude given on this page; 6818m is my own GPS-reading from the summit. It should be within +/-20m. Corrected to 6795m now. Source: Biggar's peak list.
John Biggar´s Peak List is probably the most accurate of South American mountains.
Jonathan de Ferranti´s web site on the matter gives you more details on this.