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Posted on Sun, Feb 19, 2012 : 1:57 p.m.

University of Michigan student hikes tallest mountain in Americas with self-made tent

By Kellie Woodhouse

At 9:26 p.m.on Feb. 12, Andrew McCarthy was sitting in Miami International Airport waiting for a flight to Argentina when he texted his professor.

"Time to put this tent to the test," he wrote.

University of Michigan architecture instructor Shaun Jackson pondered the text that evening, thinking that McCarthy's brief spell in the airport was probably the first time in weeks his pupil had a chance to rest.

McCarthy was en route to Aconcagua in South America's Andes Mountains. At 22,841 feet, it's the highest peak in North or South America. With him was a 60-pound backpack containing, among other survival necessities, a tent.

That tent, despite appearances, wasn't purchased from Patagonia or North Face or any other popular outdoor retailer.

Instead, it was designed and constructed entirely by McCarthy as a part of his graduate thesis.


Andrew McCarthy works on the tent he'll use while climbing Aconagua, the Western Hemisphere's tallest mountain.

Photo courtesy of Andrew McCarthy

Unlike other student theses, which live only on paper, McCarthy is using his creation during a 24-day climb through unpredictable weather conditions to the top of the Western Hemisphere's tallest mountain.

"This is very serious business," said Jackson. "It’s a very high mountain and this is potential life and death."

McCarthy's graduate thesis focuses on extreme climate conditions and nomadic architecture.

In his blog, McCarthy explains that his summit of Aconagua is a real-life exploration and application of his architecture studies.

"Architects should become explorers of new possibilities," McCarthy wrote. "This is a practice that requires the architect puts (sic) their shelter on their back and travels to the unknown."

McCarthy's thesis, coupled with a love of hiking —he's also summited Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro, the world's second-highest summit,—led him to approach Jackson in January with his plan to design and construct a tent so it could be ready for his Aconcagua summit the next month.

Jackson was stunned.

He was even more doubtful when he learned that McCarthy did not know how to sew, an essential skill when putting together a tent made from fabric.

"I was incredulous," he recalls. "Incredulous that he would finish it, let alone finish it as well as he did."

But McCarthy, working weekends and late nights, managed to finish his project the evening before he began his trip.

"The tent is complete with 17 hours to spare before departure to South America," McCarthy wrote. "Time to eat, sleep and prepare for the next phase of work to be done."


Andrew McCarthy's model tent after experiencing winds over 120 miles-per-hour.

Photo courtesy of Andrew McCarthy

McCarthy hand sew the inner and outer layers with a rip-stop nylon fabric. Each piece of fabric was carefully measured to achieve the right amount of tension and stretch so the tent could withstand high winds.

He tested a half-sized model in an engineering wind tunnel and the structure withstood 120-mile-per-hour winds, but the fabric began ripping under the pressure of 80 mile-per-hour winds. McCarthy made some changes to the final tent design and construction, but he will be forced to share space with another hiker if his tent fails during the trek.

High winds are an ever-real possibility at Aconcagua, which —like most tall mountains— is known for unpredictable weather. In 2010, five hikers died summiting Aconagua.

"The thing with mountains and mountaineering is you absolutely never know what the weather is going to be like," said Jackson, whose firm has designed outdoor equipment for L.L. Bean, Patagonia and Eddie Bauer.

"They could be faced with weather conditions that are ideal, where there is not high sustained winds," he continued. "Or, on the other hand, mountains are notorious for micro-climates and out of the blue you could end up with incredibly strong, powerful storms... that keep you in your tent for days."

The extreme climates, Jackson says, also come with an extreme reward.

"It's seldom if ever that a student of architecture gets to actually execute and experience the results of their design work full scale," he offered. "He is, in some ways, putting his life on the line to do so."

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.



Mon, Feb 20, 2012 : 11:52 p.m.

The article doesn't specifically mention it, but 25-35 years ago, Shaun Jackson's company, Eclipse, was a premier designer and manufacturer of outdoor luggage, specializing in bicycle bags -- handlebar bags, front and rear panniers, etc. I have owned many Eclipse products (some of them prototypes which I snagged out of their West-Side dumpster!), and still use some of them today. If I've got it right, they moved from their Ann Arbor digs (were they on Jackson Plaza?) up to the Traverse City area, are now located out of NC or SC, and currently specialize in motorcycle gear. And Ann Arbor also has an impressive history when it comes to modern tents -- almost every curvilinear backpacking tent can be traced directly back to Ann Arbor's Bill Moss, who created the Pop Tent back in the 50s. The Pop Tent, with its curved fabric panels which conformed to a dome-shaped web of fiberglas poles, was probably inspired by the common umbrella. IIRC, the poles were integrally sewn into the fabric. You pushed down hard on the top of the bundle of poles until they "popped" into their dome form, then tightened a sort of hose-faucet-handle thing on top to pinch the tops of the poles between two plates, forcing them into a horizontal position. The poles then curved down to the circular base. Lots of modern companies like Eureka and Kelty still use Moss patents. Eclipse's founding partners, Shaun Jackson, and Les Boehm, had to have crossed paths with Bill Moss, although Moss started a couple of decades before they did. An article about the three of them would be very interesting.


Mon, Feb 20, 2012 : 8:12 p.m.

"University of Michigan student hikes tallest mountain in Americas ..." I thought the article would be about an insurmountable increase in tuition.

Martin Church

Mon, Feb 20, 2012 : 5:30 p.m.

At last an AMERICAN designed and produced tent. I look forward to seeing the results and hope to see the design produced for those of us who are backpackers and want AMERICAN Built Tents. Today nearly all tents are produced in China.


Mon, Feb 20, 2012 : 12:37 p.m.

Maybe they can donate some prototypes for the homeless off Wagner or better yet for the 99% that will be back downtown later this year.

John of Saline

Mon, Feb 20, 2012 : 4:13 p.m.

Are 120 mph winds common in Ann Arbor?

Kai Petainen

Mon, Feb 20, 2012 : 3:47 a.m.

inspiring stuff. awesome!


Mon, Feb 20, 2012 : 1:42 a.m.

too high and not enough aeroflexability. try installing the rods under the fabric instead above it.


Mon, Feb 20, 2012 : 1:11 a.m.

@a2baggagehandler Patagonia does make luggage and clothing and nowhere in the article does it state that Professor Jackson's firm designs tents. Outdoor equipment includes many things!


Mon, Feb 20, 2012 : 12:16 a.m.

Patagonia doesn't make tents.


Sun, Feb 19, 2012 : 11:14 p.m.

@David Frye: The article referred to Mt. Kilimanjaro's summit. Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest free-standing mountain in the world. As you have stated, it is the tallest mountain in Africa. However, the article did not identify it as a 'peak', of which there are many taller than Kilimanjaro. The use of 'summit', 'mountain' and 'peak' are often misinterpreted as interchangeable and thus, can be confusing.

David Frye

Mon, Feb 20, 2012 : 2:06 p.m.

Good point! Though it just reinforces my point, which is that it is unclear by what standard Kilimanjaro can be called the "second" highest summit in the world. There are so many standards for ranking summits; which one puts Kilimanjaro in second place? I haven't found it... My broader point is that it is a pity when a2com consistently undermines interesting stories with a bloggish indifference to grammar, spelling, and factchecking. I do appreciate Kellie Woodhouse's efforts but I wish she read her articles a second time before posting them.

Linda Peck

Sun, Feb 19, 2012 : 11:10 p.m.

I enjoy hearing about accomplishments of Ann Arbor people, and especially young people creating things and doing things. Congratulations, Andrew McCarthy!


Sun, Feb 19, 2012 : 10:42 p.m.

acb has made the same comment on other stories today. They must be bored


Mon, Feb 20, 2012 : 2:02 a.m.

It's not like there's a world out there with other news sources. <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> Maybe abc should give one of them a try?


Sun, Feb 19, 2012 : 11:49 p.m.

he/she did indeed,,, ( and seems to be deleteably unhappy with my responses to both!!)...which is as intended/just fine..

David Frye

Sun, Feb 19, 2012 : 8:04 p.m.

Interesting article, but I'm not sure by what yardstick Mt. Kilimanjaro can be called &quot;the world's second-highest summit&quot; -- Everest, Aconcagua, and Denali are taller, as are more than 100 peaks in the Himalayas alone. It is the tallest mountain in Africa, however.


Sun, Feb 19, 2012 : 7:30 p.m.

abc...for chrissake! rain on a creative and gutsy person's parade why don't you!