If I'm being truthful, climbing mountains at the far reaches of the southern hemisphere has never been high on my list of things to do before I die. I've always been under the impression that doing anything this extreme would mean traversing endless, thigh-deep snowfields, and nothing much more. Once you reach the summit, you stick a flag in, do a little dance, break open the brandy and retrace your steps all the way back down.
Call me old-fashioned, but I find it hard to balance a sense of achievement with the words "probable blizzard" and "high-altitude camping" without laughing. Maybe I'm just too choosy about my modes of transport. After all, walking is what Neanderthal man used to do. Yet, contrary to my former wife's opinion, I have evolved. I have learnt about the benefits of driving Land Rovers. But then being offered the opportunity to "go" up a mountain is a completely different kettle of fish.
Apart from a new piece of wood trim to the centre console, there's not much to differentiate between this new version of the Discovery 3 and the previous one. But for a man choosing between hiking boots and a large, capacious boot powered by a wonderful V6 turbodiesel engine, there's no contest.
For those who want to spend a little more than £29,815, there's a top-spec HSE edition with leather heated seats, and that new wooden embellishment, too. Now, these are ideal for Sir Ranulph Fiennes-spotting-type activities, so, figuring that the odds of extremities turning black would be nigh-on impossible, a quick jaunt up a fairly large hill seemed like a good idea.
Although it is classed as a "package holiday", the trip I was taking is designed to appeal to those seeking a little more adventure than unpronounceable cocktails at the Copacabana. Arranged through Land Rover Experience, the excursion forms part of a two-week tour tracing part of Routa 40: the road stretching more than 3,230 miles from the southern tip of Argentina to the borders of Bolivia.
Paying customers will experience more detailed sightseeing than my three-day version, but the route through the north-west of Argentina remains the same. Cafayate is a small town renowned for its wine and, at 1683m above sea level, it's a good place for acclimatising to higher altitudes. From there, the tour snaked its way through the Calchaqui Valley. Springing from the slopes of Nevado de Acay, this part of Argentina is breathtakingly beautiful. The scenery is constantly changing as the river winds its way through deep gorges. The valley gradually broadens into a wide, rocky expanse, with cactus parks, vineyards and farmland. Every mile we travelled through this sparsely populated area we gained altitude, rising away from eye-quenching vistas towards bleak and barren peaks.
I'd been told that I would be driving "high" but, reassuringly, not "extremely high". According to medical texts, "extremely high" is determined by an altitude of over 5,500m above sea level. The highest point we were to reach was just over 5,000m. But even at this relatively lowly height, where Sherpa Tenzing would have smiled politely, I had been warned to expect altitude sickness. Shortness of breath, headaches, nausea and dizziness are the milder symptoms; more severe cases can lead to an altitude pulmonary oedema and impaired cerebral functions, before a slow, painful death. Nice. The chances of developing this condition are pretty rare, or so I was told by the full-time Land Rover Experience GP, but even so, I had been told to check my mental faculties.
I wasn't sure how to do so, but as the digital altitude counter marked our steady ascent – 3,000m... 3,500m... 4,000m... – I decided to test the little grey cells. I remembered seeing an old war movie where the hero became a PoW and sang nursery rhymes to keep his sanity. After reciting the first verse of Baa Baa Black Sheep, I indulged in some light mental arithmetic: driving at over 5,000m converts to about... 16,400ft, near as damn it. Which, in inches was 16,400 multiplied by 12... my brain was fine. I wouldn't be able to do that one at sea-level, either.
As the air became thinner, so the road, too, narrowed. But this is a rather grandiose name for something that is little more than a dusty track. What's more, it seems that rivers are integral to the road's structure: Routa 40 doesn't halt at aquaceous obstacles – it just carries on under them. Dial in the setting on its All Terrain Off Road system, raise the suspension and it obliges by lifting its skirt to carry the occupants across. I'm not so sure the locals would find it so easy, but then again most still use horses as their main form of transport. Other vehicles tended to be as rare as South American water-crossings; those we did see were ageing transporter lorries, old Renaults and battered Dacias.
By the end of the first day, the altitude and arduous driving had taken their toll; I'll regret saying this, but even sleeping under canvas looked good. Five-star, hot and cold running room service is not part of the itinerary here; this is the world of rufty-tufty Land Rover enthusiasts, where temperatures soar to 30C during the day and drop to -15C at night. For those willing to brave the elements and join this tour, a mixture of hotels, hostels and makeshift campsites are in store, and a very welcome sight they are, too.
The next morning, with dawn still an hour away, we set off for the highest peak of the journey. By now Routa 40 was little more than a path cut into the mountainside, and stepping out of the car for the call of nature took more and more effort as the air thinned out. Even the Discovery, which had been specifically tuned for the South American climate and capable of working up to 4,500m, was starting to wheeze like a 40-a-day Gauloises smoker.
Finally, we reached the summit; we had driven as far, and as high, as we possibly could: 5,011m above sea level. There was no planting of a Union Jack, no popping of champagne corks and no jig, either. Just a sense of geographical triumph, and the recognition that none of us could lay claim to it without recognising the landmark against which we were leaning.
Land Rover is offsetting CO2 generated by the 'Road to the Clouds' expeditions through Climate Care (www.climatecare. org), and offsetting emissions from all manufacturing activities. Next year's event is now being planned. The cost is around £2,800 per person, excluding flights. www.expeditions@landrover- experience.de