Student climbs tallest mountain in Americas for thesis

By Ben Seidman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 11, 2012

While many students were spending their spring break lying on a beach or in the comfort of their own home, Architecture and Urban Planning student Andrew McCarthy was navigating Aconcagua — the tallest mountain in the Americas — with a tent he assembled from scratch.

McCarthy started his climb of the 22,831-foot mountain — which lies in the Argentine province of Mendoza — on Feb. 15 as part of his honors thesis on extreme climates. Specifically, he sought to analyze climate patterns in areas where architecture is virtually nonexistent, like deserts and mountain ranges. McCarthy said Aconcagua was a fitting environment for his project because he could experiment with extremes of both hot and cold at the bottom and the peak of the mountain.

“My proposal was to be able to go to these places and live in the climate and not only that, but build something there that I could live in to really test the climate,” McCarthy said.

After meeting with Architecture Prof. Catie Newell to discuss his thesis idea, McCarthy said he began to research extreme climates and consider a project could provide constructive information for the field of architecture.

Going into the trek, McCarthy said there were plenty of questions left unanswered. With three and a half weeks remaining to design and construct a tent before he left, McCarthy had not yet opened or learned how to use a sewing kit. Furthermore, much of his gear had to be shipped overnight, hours before he set off for Aconcagua.

“There were a lot of nights of just non-stop working from the fear alone that you’re not going to get it done,” McCarthy said. “It was a little nerve-racking because of the uncertainty of what the tent would be able to do. If it blew away on day one, it would throw off the rest of the project.”

With the help of his classmates and professors, McCarthy built small-scale models of the project in an attempt to simulate the experience. However, if he would be able to rely on the tent for shelter and survival while on Aconcagua was completely unknown.

McCarthy and the durability of his tent were tested early in the trip when the team — comprised of two guides and ten experienced climbers — encountered a massive storm with gusts so powerful they had to wait a few days for it to pass before ascending the mountain. After seeing the storm, McCarthy said he doubted if his tent would hold up when he began his climb.

Still, the homemade tent did hold. McCarthy, an avid climber, said he fought off winds of 50 miles per hour at great heights in addition to testing the limitations of the climates on his climb that lasted until March 5.

“It was pretty wild and gratifying,” McCarthy said. “It was hard going up, but going down was the tricky part too because mentally you are kind of checked because you have been doing this thing for 3 weeks. You’re finally done and you have made it to the summit, but it takes a lot of energy to watch every step.”

McCarthy said he learned a lot about taking risks, even though a typical thesis does not usually include such an extreme experience.

“I learned a little about extreme climates,” McCarthy said. “And I learned a lot about how to manage my time and get a project done. It was a micro-experience of how to get a full project going full circle really quickly, but all your ducks have to be in a line before you get going.”

McCarthy, who returned to Ann Arbor on March 8, said he now plans to study the weather patterns on Aconcagua, which he wrote about in detail every day along his expedition.

McCarthy said he plans to join a traditional architecture firm after he graduates this spring.

“I wish I could do the same thing on Everest,” McCarthy said. “But we’ll see.”