Enjoying the last few minutes in the Andes with my expedition guide Vern Tejas. Singing our way down the remaining parts of the trail, with Aconcagua hovering in the distance.
32° 39' S 70° 14' W
(Aconcagua, AR, SA) At 22,841 ft Aconcagua is home to the worlds most extreme climate conditions. Designing habitats for the world’s highest mountains may allow architects a testing ground to think about how these technologies in architecture can be used in urban areas, to provide shelter and challenge the fixed notion of site.
Extreme climates and architecture. For me this project granted an opportunity to roll up my sleeves and test a design that was generated digitally and then fabricated using CNC milling machines in combination with hand construction. Throughout the process I have been able to be the designer, occupant, explorer, and researcher. Perhaps this is a working methodology that architects can utilize to formulate relationships with the spaces we create.
People sometimes ask the question, why? Its well below zero, the winds are relentless, the food and water are barely tolerable, what is the point of going to these extreme places in the world? Sitting in my tent, looking at the sun rise over the Andes reminds me why, and this is a view that I will carry with me as I make the laborious climb to the summit.
As the morning skies cleared over Aconcagua it would be our last window of opportunity to summit. We altered our plan of ascent due to our level of fuel and food, and have planned a 5 day push to get up and over to the other side of the mountain. We would go from basecamp straight to MC-03, a high altitude 19,500 foot camp. Then the following day we would move to MC-04, our high camp at 21,500 feet before attempting to summit.
Making the journey to places in the world that have extreme climate conditions requires a mindset that acknowledges the capabilities of the weather and allows climate to dictate your personal level of success. Spending 4 days at basecamp was a difficult mental challenge for our team, and we had to maintain a level of preparedness at all times. We spent our days hiking surrounding peaks, organizing and cleaning gear, preparing our ascent plan, laughing, and always keeping a close eye on the large cloud hovering over the summit of Aconcagua. For the moment that cloud disappears it would be our small window to ascent high on the mountain quickly.
As the temperatures drop well below zero and the wind begin to exceed speeds of 50 mph, our ascent becomes the topic of discussion. Weather predictions from the bottom of the mountain show a system moving in capable of producing wind speeds over 70 mph and the consistent drop in temperature will freeze our water supply and put our team at a great risk of hypothermia, frost bite, etc. Currently we are at 17,500 feet and are going to retreat over 3,000 vertical feet back to basecamp.
It would be stealing if I did not give my guide Vern Tejas full credit for the phrase “oxygen is good, more is better”. As we climb from 15,500 to 17,500 feet it becomes imperative to breathe often and with intention so that the body is able to receive an adequate amount of oxygen. Failure to do so can lead to medical problems such as cerebral or pulmonary edema that can rapidly place one in critical condition.
Once away from the luxuries of basecamp life returns to the essentials; food, water, oxegon, and shelter. Daylight becomes a critical determinant for when and how the human body is able to function. As the sun sets over MC-01 at 15,500 ft we are forced to quickly retreat to our tents and insulated bags for warmth. As the sun rises we await the moment when the light will strike our tents and warm them to allow us to prepare for the day.
Before the climb, during the climb, and after the climb, every piece of equipment gets weighed and accounted for. Each individual on the team is responsible for their own personal gear as well as group gear. Maintaining a light weight team is one of the large challenges for high altitude mountaineering.
Basecamp offers a world within a world on the mountain. As I pursue the study of extreme climates, and places where people nor architecture are able to inhabit, basecamp integrates itself as the misfit. Here there is a large community of cooks, guides, porters, expedition staff, doctors, entrepreneur’s, and opportunists. This is the place of the mountain that offers the highest level of domesticity.
Quick agility on site was a key component to the project. This was several hours into the first night, and because the temperatures were still warm I was able to use fabric repair tape to mend the tears in the fly and inner tent. Over the next few days the sun would heat up the tape and tightly bond it to the fabric. This connection would be imperative for the tent to perform adequately high on the mountain.
Photo Source: Andrew McCarthy / Date: 2.15.2012 : 1819 / Location: Aconcagua, AR
Moments after I completed setting up my tent for the first night, a dust tornado appeared about 200 yards in the distance. It moved quickly through the valley of the high altitude desert and picked up a neighboring tent, launching the tent (North Face VE-25) and all of the rocks attached to its anchors through the air.
Photo Source: Andrew McCarthy / Date: 2.15.2012 : 1649 / Location: Aconcagua, AR
Aconcagua stands as the highest point in the America’s and Western hemisphere. The high altitude mountain is amidst ice, rock, cold skies, and winds that howl like a freight train roaring through the Andes. At times the best recording device can be the country’s blue and white flag that can be found flying proud at all elevations on the mountain.
On February 15, 2012 I started my trek into the Andes, relying on the tent I built for shelter against the extreme elements, with the hope that in several weeks time I would be standing on the summit of Aconcagua.
Photo Source: Andrew McCarthy / Date: 2.17.2012 : 1732 / Location: Aconcagua, AR
Where a project is cited no longer relies on an exploration of the landscape, or an attempt to redefine the coordinates of the places we deem hospitable. Architecture exists in a world dominated by the definitive mapping of site. We rely on buildings to house our lifestyles, and construct ubiquitous environments for people to live in.
Architecture did not always exist in this way. A portion of mankind once relied on non-permanent buildings, caves, windscreens, huts, tents, bivouacs, yurts, and igloos, coupled with a design strategy that was derived from portability, lightness, and flexibility; defining the essence of shelter. Perhaps this is the barest form in which architecture can exist.
The Andes are considered the longest mountain range on earth, and they have the ability to consistently produce extreme and erratic climate conditions. Aconcagua sits 22,841 ft. (6,962 m) above sea level, making it the highest mountain in the Andes and Western Hemisphere; determining it a pinnacle site to work with extreme climates. In five weeks, I am traveling to Aconcagua to live in these conditions, and use the tent that I have built as my shelter and means of survival. For me this is a practice that demands the architect’s inhabitation and design accountability, in an attempt to formulate a relationship with the spaces we create and places we declare sited.
Photo Source: Robert Castillo / Date: 1.6.2012 : 1802 / Location: Mt Aconcagua