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Count Henry Russell-Killough (right), credited with the invention of the bivouac, near the entrance of a cave on Vignemale in the Pyrenees

How the designers of mountain bivouacs are hitting new heights

WT24 Desk

Count Henry Russell-Killough, the “hermit of the Pyrenees”, was not an everyday 19th-century man. From the 1860s onwards, the principal representative of the Irish branch of the house of Russell relinquished civilisation, instead taking up in the vast, barren expanse of the Pyrenees. According to A Arnold, writing in The Wide World Magazine in 1900, the count worshipped the peaks “as a lover might a mistress”, according to The Financial Times

Throughout the 1880s he dug seven caves in the side of Vignemale, the highest peak in the French Pyrenees, in which he hosted legendary banquets. On quieter nights the count would climb to the summit with a sheepskin body bag. There, after burying himself under rocks and earth with only his head sticking out, he would remain until dawn, frost gathering on his beard.

Russell-Killough is broadly accredited with the invention of the bivouac, or mountain shelter, in extreme, inhospitable places. Bivouacking — derived from the German words for “night watch” — sprang up with the sport of mountaineering in the late 1800s as climbers found they needed to sleep sometimes on their way to the summit.

A “bivvy” can be a mere bag in the Russell-Killough model. It can be a tent suspended from a cliff face or a tree, or an improvised structure made from branches and leaves. It can also be a hut, traditionally made from wood or metal. In all its forms it represents shelter, a refuge from the elements — a symbol of the most basic provision of architecture.

In The White Spider (1959), an account of the harrowing first ascent of the north face of the Eiger in 1938 — then the most dangerous face in the Alps — mountaineer Heinrich Harrer describes a bivouac near the summit that would be central to the expedition’s success.

“We managed to drive a single piton into a tiny crevice in the rock,” he writes. “We bent it downwards in a hoop, till the ring was touching the rock . . .  First we hung all our belongings on it and, after that, ourselves.” The climbers fashioned a seat out of rope slings and dangled 4,000ft above the snowfields at the base of the precipice. “It is absolutely no exaggeration to say that we all felt quite well and indeed comfortable,” Harrer adds. They brewed a cup of tea.

For decades climbing was a pastime for gentlemen and wayfarers but in recent years, with the invention of state-of-the-art climbing equipment, handheld GPS tracking technology and a 21st-century strain of voracious wanderlust, it has become a lucrative and thriving business. Out on the mountain, though, things can quickly unravel. In April, two French climbers, a father and a son, were forced to abandon their ascent of Mont Blanc because of bad weather. They took shelter in Refuge Vallot, a bivouac hut located at 4,362 metres that can sleep 12 climbers. The pair rationed their food until rescuers arrived three days later.

To scale mountains you need courage, stamina and skill. For architects, too, mountains present a host of challenges. Charlotte Perriand was one of the first illustrious architects to engage seriously with the bivouac. Born in 1903, Perriand spent her childhood between Paris and her grandparents’ home in the mountainous region of Savoie, before becoming one of the most influential designers of the early modernist movement.

In 1937, following a tenure at Le Corbusier’s studio, Perriand collaborated with André Tournon on the Shelter Bivouac, an 8 sq metre refuge for six people on Mont Joly. Inspired by the vernacular architecture of Savoie, the structure was prefabricated and built around a tubular steel frame. Perriand used aluminium components because they were lightweight and easy to transport yet robust. To mitigate the cramped conditions, the beds were removable and functioned as benches in the day, while cubic stools doubled as storage.

The challenges associated with building in harsh climates continue to interest architects. David Garcia, founder of Map Architects, based in Copenhagen, researches habitation in extreme environments; places such as the Arctic, the Alps, the Amazon rainforest and the desert. Garcia’s approach is highly technical so as to “build on new sites with a higher level of specificity”. In the Arctic he shot lasers into the night air to map ice particles that are invisible to the naked eye but which accumulate in buildings. Map designed a tent to withstand environments where the temperature fluctuation is high, as it is in the mountains. When the temperature outside the tent drops, the fabric contracts, trapping the heat inside.

“I think what’s interesting is that when you are in these [extreme] contexts it’s much easier to lose your frame of reference and it becomes obvious you can’t build like you would everywhere else,” says Garcia. “When you move to these regions, which we probably will be doing more and more as the population grows and places become more accessible, we will be invading these new contexts. We have to try to do it in the least aggressive manner.”

Not all strive for harmony. Last year Leapfactory, a practice based in Turin, unveiled the Gervasutti Hut in a rocky region in the upper Fréboudze Glacier on the Italian side of Mont Blanc. The modular structure, which resembles the body of a toy tin plane, replaced a 60-year-old timber bivouac and was opposed locally for its “futuristic” appearance. Painted red and silver, it is, by design, a beacon to be seen for miles. Leap describes it as “new alpine accommodation”. Unlike most bivouacs, which offer few modern comforts, the Gervasutti hut is a roomy 30 sq metres, has a kitchen, solar power and internet connection, as well as a big round window to appreciate the Val Ferret.

For Hanif Kara, a structural engineer and co-founder of AKT II in London, mountain shelters are interesting because they pose difficult questions, such as: “Can we find a way to build on mountains without taking people up there?” Traditionally, the materials for mountain shelters would be strapped to the backs of donkeys or carried up on foot. The modern equivalent is the helicopter, which is less time-consuming but comes at a price. “My interest was to find a way of building with fewer resources, keeping construction economical but also [to build] with speed,” says Kara.

Together with Ljubljana-based Ofis Architects and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Kara designed a bivouac — known as a “bivak” in Slovenia — on Skuta, the third-highest peak in the country’s Kamnik Alps. The structure’s interconnected terraced modules are composed of a steel frame with timber panelling. Kara used computer modelling to ensure the structure can withstand avalanches in terms of the impact force — when the snow hits the structure — and the static pressure, or the weight of the snow as it builds up on top. Eight “anchors” or very deep screws help to keep the hut in place.

“We’re looking at ways of using automated machinery to build in harsh environments — drones to transport and ‘crabots’, a mixture between a crane and a robot, that you can remotely operate to construct for you,” says Kara. Funding for the Skuta project fell short so helicopters, not drones, eventually airlifted the bivouac into place in August. Yet AKT II continues to investigate automated remote construction and hopes it can be applied to isolated regions in impoverished countries.

Ofis Architects, meanwhile, is building three other mountain shelters. “Bivaks in our county have a great tradition,” says co-founder Spela Videcnik. “The oldest [such] shelter, built 120 years ago, is on the highest mountain in Slovenia. It’s a symbol of our country.”

A bivouac for Kanin mountain — set to be lifted into place as soon as a military helicopter can be spared from the refugee crisis on Slovenia’s borders — can sleep up to eight people and will service an area popular with extreme skiers. The wholly wooden structure cladded in metal sheets will look “silver-ish”, says Videcnik, so that in winter it reflects the snow and in the summer it complements the rocky terrain. Metal grips will latch on to the mountain. “It’s a structural challenge because in some ways it has to withstand really strong winds and on the other hand we don’t want it to destroy nature,” she says. “We treat the existing terrain as a holy thing that needs to stay intact.”

The Kanin bivak is both a nod to the vernacular architecture of Slovenia and something entirely modern. Here, traditional bivaks have few or no windows so as to conserve heat. In contrast almost an entire side of the new Kanin structure is glass. Ofis works with Guardian, a glass company in Luxembourg, to produce vast panes that can withstand intense wind.

“The glass we use is very thick, I would say almost bulletproof,” says Videcnik. “We wanted to make a big window with a big view of the sky and the scenery because for me it’s just about that: to enjoy being alone, up there and away from everyone.”

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