MM Collection
Checking in from the Condor's Nest on Illimani, Bolivia. MM Collection
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May 16, 2013

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 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  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 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