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Honeymoon on the Summit of Aconcagua

Guest blog­gers Jason Ahlan and Car­o­line Le Jour share their incred­i­ble sto­ry of sum­ming Aconcagua for their hon­ey­moon! The 2012 – 2013 sea­son was one of, if not the worst sea­sons on record on the moun­tain for bad weath­er, but this hap­py cou­ple was lucky enough to find a good weath­er win­dow and start off their mar­riage stand­ing on the sum­mit of a 22,841 foot peak! Con­grat­u­la­tions to the both of them!

A lit­tle over 2 years after Car­o­line and I cel­e­brat­ed Valen­tines Day on the sum­mit of Mt Kil­i­man­jaro, we were board­ing a flight from Cal­gary Cana­da to Men­doza Argenti­na for our hon­ey­moon. The idea of climb­ing some of the high­est moun­tains on the sev­en con­ti­nents start­ed not because of brag­ging rights, but more so because of the promise of exot­ic des­ti­na­tions they were going to bring us. Being an hour from Banff, we are already blessed to have some of the nicest moun­tains in the world in our back­yard, but the oppor­tu­ni­ty to climb Aconcagua with Moun­tain Mad­ness was our per­fect idea of a hon­ey­moon… what bet­ter way of start­ing a life togeth­er than 20 days on a moun­tain, eat­ing freeze dried food and rationing clean under­wear, right? 

The hap­py cou­ple. Jason Ahlan photo

Our trip offi­cial­ly start­ed in Men­doza, where we met our intre­pid guides Ian Nichol­son and Gas­par Navar­rete, a per­fect blend of child­like ener­gy (Ian) and qui­et con­fi­dence (Gas­par). Our group of 6 includ­ed Car­o­line and I, two hilar­i­ous friends from Den­ver, Col­orado, and an ex-WWE wrestling star and his col­lege foot­ball team­mate from Hous­ton, Texas. Jump­ing right into things, Ian and Gas­par took us imme­di­ate­ly through a gear check…blending all their expe­ri­ence (Ian is also a writer for Out­door Gear Lab and knew vir­tu­al­ly every sta­tis­tic about gear pos­si­ble, and Gas­par is the direc­tor of the Moun­tain Guide School in Ecuador) to ask us to leave some things behind, or add oth­ers. Car­o­line, who is often cold, bought anoth­er insu­lat­ing jack­et in Men­doza that she end­ed up wear­ing almost every day on the mountain. 

The group get­ting packed up. Ian Nichol­son photo

Aconcagua, at 6,962 meters/22,837 feet ele­va­tion, is the high­est moun­tain in the world out­side of the mighty Himalaya. From the drop off point, it took us three days to get to Plaza de Mulas, the sec­ond largest Base Camp out­side of Ever­est. We had a short hike to start Day 1…arriving at a camp called Con­flu­en­cia in the mid-after­noon. It was a nice start to get the legs mov­ing after about 24 hours of trav­el. Day 2 was a more stren­u­ous acclima­ti­za­tion hike to Mirador to look at the amaz­ing South Face of Aconcagua…one of the most dra­mat­ic moun­tain faces in the world. 

South Face from Mirador. Jason Ahlan photo

Day 3 was our approach hike to base camp, a hard fought bat­tle through intense winds and blow­ing sand to arrive at our tem­po­rary home nes­tled between glac­i­ers and moun­tains at 14,370 ft. Being late in the sea­son, a lot of expe­di­tions had either left the moun­tain already, or were in mid prepa­ra­tion. One team in par­tic­u­lar was rest­ing at base camp after being turned around from a sum­mit attempt because of the hor­ri­ble weath­er that plagues the Andes and dri­ves the suc­cess rate down to below 50%. We rest­ed here for two days in prepa­ra­tion for the sum­mit attempt ahead. News start­ed spread­ing of the high winds and cold tem­per­a­tures high­er up on the moun­tain. Our sum­mit day was slat­ed for March 10, giv­ing us a lit­tle less than a week to get from base camp to the sum­mit through a series of three moun­tain camps. 

Aconcagua’s Base Camp — Plaza de Mulas. Jason Ahlan photo

Alpine moun­taineer­ing is a blend of patience and strength, endurance and pain tol­er­ance. There are tem­per­a­tures that plum­met well below ‑30C, there are winds that force you to tur­tle for fear of blow­ing off the moun­tain. There are exposed sec­tions that scare you into think­ing you could slip right off the side of the moun­tain and find your­self thou­sands of feet low­er. But it’s the high alti­tude that chal­lenges most alpin­ists. Over 6000 meters, your body just does­n’t heal as quick­ly. Coughs per­sist. Diges­tion slows. It’s hard­er to sleep. You feel like quit­ting. The high­er you go the hard­er it gets. To beat this, expe­ri­ence dat­ing back from some of the first attempts on Ever­est in 1922 fol­low a step­wise lad­der­ing” up the mountain…generally fol­low­ing the trend of climb high and sleep low”. The phys­i­o­log­i­cal stress forces the body to adapt. This cre­ates more red blood cells to per­form at an alti­tude where oxy­gen is less than half that of sea lev­el. Breath­ing through a straw, car­ry­ing 30 lbs in a deep freez­er, on a tread­mill set to 15% incline might be a close anal­o­gy. But if I have learned any­thing from these trav­els, it’s how quick­ly the body adapts. Most nights Ian and Gas­par took our oxy­gen sat­u­ra­tion and heart rate data, and twice we had med­ical exams from qual­i­fied doc­tors at sta­tions well equipped to turn you back down the moun­tain. At these heights, life is frag­ile and any com­pli­ca­tion can be dis­as­trous. But our bod­ies were adapting.

Jason Ahlan photo

Our first real ven­ture was a car­ry day of equip­ment and gear from base­camp to Camp Cana­da (16,570 ft) and back down. I was told that Camp Cana­da, if it were a moun­tain, would be the sec­ond high­est in Canada…wow. Com­ing back down to base camp let us rest…regroup…sleep…then the next day we pushed to Camp Cana­da again, this time to spend the night. The next day was similar…a car­ry day from Camp Cana­da to Nido de Con­dores (18,270 ft)…breathe some of that thin air…stress the body just enough…and descend to the thick­er air of Camp Cana­da. Rest. And repeat. 

The team rest­ing at Camp Cana­da. Ian Nichol­son photo

Leav­ing Nido to Camp Cholera (19,670) had us already high­er than Kilimanjaro…but with this care­ful acclima­ti­za­tion sched­ule we felt more com­fort­able sleep­ing at that alti­tude than sum­mit­ing our pre­vi­ous high point!!! Arriv­ing in Cholera was tir­ing and I had a real chal­leng­ing day which left me dis­cour­aged. But I kept telling myself…you have made it this far, at least give it your best shot. We for­ti­fied camp in howl­ing winds and hid in the shel­ter of our tents, eat­ing what we could and wait­ing for our wake up call at 4am to re-assess the weath­er con­di­tions and see if it was safe to pro­ceed. At 4am, it was still too windy. Com­bine this with the cold and dark and the risk was too high. So we decid­ed to wait until 6am. At that time, we got the go-ahead from Ian and Gaspar…all that were com­fort­able to make a sum­mit push with the strength to get down to base camp could try. But for those that did­n’t feel 100% ready for the chal­lenge, it was not worth the risk. Get­ting to the sum­mit and back to the shel­ter of Camp 3 might be ok on bet­ter days, but with anoth­er storm brew­ing the only real safe­ty for the fol­low­ing night would be the rel­a­tive calm of base camp. 

The team head­ing out. Jason Ahlan photo

Of the 6 of us that orig­i­nal­ly start­ed, 4 would attempt the sum­mit, with 2 even­tu­al­ly mak­ing the tough deci­sion after start­ing that it just was­n’t their day. Some bat­tles are best left for anoth­er day. It is bet­ter to be safe than sor­ry. I admired their strength and trust that they fol­lowed their heart. Who knows what the day would have played out like — mak­ing the sum­mit is option­al. Get­ting back down safe­ly is mandatory. 

The hap­py cou­ple on the sum­mit. Jason Ahlan photo

Three days to base camp, three advanced camps to accli­ma­tize, and a 9 hour sum­mit attempt brought us to the high­est point we had been in our lives. But although that iron cross sym­bol­iz­ing the sum­mit will always make us proud, it was the mem­o­ries of the climb that will for­ev­er be etched in our minds. I was lucky enough to share the sum­mit with my new wife on our hon­ey­moon. How can you beat that? Valen­tine’s Day on Kilimanjaro…honeymoon on Aconcagua. I don’t know what we will do next! Any sug­ges­tions? We have some ideas :-)

A final thought on the unsung heroes. Moun­tain guides need to blend a fine bal­ance between the skills need­ed to keep us alive, but also fas­ci­nate group dynam­ics, and keep us hap­py when all we want to do is quit. Ian and Gas­par fit this def­i­n­i­tion to a T”. They were con­stant­ly work­ing to try and make us as com­fort­able as pos­si­ble. They car­ried loads that were hard to believe. Imag­ine the effort of climb­ing a moun­tain like this, then imag­ine col­lect­ing ice to melt for tea, climb­ing from tent to tent to update us with weath­er pat­terns, and guide us through the doubts and chal­lenges all of us fear when doing some­thing for the first time. We had a great group of climbers, but this was blessed from the begin­ning by the hard work of our moun­tain guides. Hilar­i­ous debates, high alti­tude insults, the famil­iar­i­ty of shar­ing bow­el move­ment sto­ries at over 20,000 ft ele­va­tion. Like the quote states, its not about the des­ti­na­tion, its about the journey.

MM Guide Ian Nichol­son. Jason Ahlan photo

I would like to offi­cial­ly thank Ian and Gas­par for tak­ing such good care of us. To my climb­ing part­ners, Den­ver John, Aman­da Pan­da, Big John and Bil­ly Goat — you made the trip so mem­o­rable. And to my new wife Car­o­line, I could­n’t think of a bet­ter tent­mate to share three weeks with! We are already plan­ning for a Mount Elbrus trip in June. We will lit­er­al­ly have to ski down the moun­tain to catch a flight to Barcelona for my cousins wed­ding on July 5th. Sounds crazy but Car­o­line and I would­n’t have it any oth­er way!

Thanks for read­ing about our honeymoon,

Jason Ahlan and Car­o­line Le Jour