Generally, we think of altitude mostly when it comes to aircraft. For our wheeled vehicles, they tend to be pretty well tethered to the ground via gravity, that same magical force that also keeps your bathroom ceiling relatively free from urine stains. Wheeled vehicles can achieve near-airplane-like levels of altitude, though, if they can find ground high enough. And that’s just what a Mercedes-Benz Unimog U 5023 truck did, driving nearly 21,962 feet above sea level.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Unimogs, they’re Mercedes-Benz line of tough, go-anywhere trucks with flexible ladder-frame chassis and portal axles that they’ve been making since 1948. The funny, slightly alien-sounding name is actually an acronym for UNIversal-MOtor-Gerät which, kind of hilariously, just translates to Universal Motorized Machine, which is a gloriously vague name for, well, any motorized machine.
Two of these Unimogs were being used on the highest volcano in the world, the Ojos de Salado in Chile to install emergency radio units at high-altitude camps up on the volcano. These units would allow radio connections between them and three other base camps, which will help provide more safety for science researchers and mountaineers.
The two Unimogs took the expedition team up the rough, rocky terrain of the mountain to the Amistad high-altitude camp, located 6,100 meters/20,013 feet above sea level to install the final radio unit, then decided, since they were already so close, to set the new world altitude driving record for a wheeled vehicle, and sent one of the Unimogs on up to 6,694 meters/21,962 feet.
The trucks weren’t entirely stock, however. According to Mercedes-Benz’ press release,
“The expedition was supported by Mercedes-Benz Special Trucks which provided two extreme off-road Unimog U 5023 vehicles of the latest generation to carry the expedition team and all of their equipment required to these extreme altitudes. To ensure that the vehicles were ready to tackle the challenges of such extreme altitudes, both Unimog trucks were equipped with special tyres, strong winches and special bodies with variable centre of gravity balancing developed by the specialists at the Unimog Museum, Unimog bodybuilder AS Söder and by engineers from the Unimog development team.”
That variable center of gravity system sounds interesting; maybe it’s using some sort of sliding weight system? I’ll have to look into that, because it sounds very cool.
So, just in case any of you were considering breaking the wheeled-vehicle altitude record, you’ll probably have to go for plan B, which involves a helicopter carrying a small round track for you to drive on.
Just, you know, be careful.