how to build a bridge in patagonia

W8 UPDATE / 28 February 2013

This is for all my geeky engineer friends. . .

by C Joseph Vigil IV, AIA founding partner | architect

My friends Richard and Chris Braunlich have been hiking and backpacking for more than 40 years. In 2007 they saw a blurb about U.S. Forest Service rangers who were getting together a group of volunteers to do trail maintenance in Chile’s premier national park, Torres del Paine. Ready for their next great adventure, Dick and Chris signed on, had a great time, and realized that they had stumbled on one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Torres-del-Paine-Chile

Richard—a retired Structural Engineer—puts it like this, “I have been cursed with the engineer gene”. As he hiked around the park, crossing over small rivers and walking along deep gorges, visions of bridges danced in his head. When he returned home to Cali he put pen to paper and designed three bridges for the park.

Dick’s wife, Chris, secured a grant to help build the first bridge from a non-profit foundation called TourismCares. With that grant and donations, ConservationVIP — which Chris is now the CEO of — raised $12,000 an amount the Chilean park service (CONAF) was able to match.

In December 2010, Dick, Chris and the guardaparques (park rangers) made plans to construct the first bridge in March of 2011, but all sorts of logistical problems arose, and so the construction was put off until November 2011.

You know the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished”? Well, Dick recounted the curse of his good deed to me like this:

“The worst of the problems was the substitution of cut trees for the heavy timbers I had designed for the end towers. Because all materials have to be transported by boat up a 10-mile long glacial lake, and then hauled by people two miles up a trail to the bridge site, someone in Chile decided that it would be better to cut trees at the site rather than to transport heavy timbers. I had warned that this would change most of the connection hardware, but was assured that the trees had already been cut and milled to the proper size at the site. (I imagined a portable sawmill—silly me). 

When we got to the site only a few trees had been cut, and there was no way to mill them to the size I had specified. So in the six weeks we had, in addition to having to take time off twice to go into the nearest small cities to straighten out other logistical snafus, we had to cut, haul and shape the logs (with the indispensable aid of an old time carpenter using an axe and hatchet), connect them, and lift them into place so they could be bolted as well as possible to the now wrong-sized steel column bases we had set in concrete. By the way, the concrete had been mixed by hand in wheelbarrows using sand, gravel, and water from the gorge, and cement that had been brought up by horse. And so it was that we were only able to get the end towers and some of their supports into place by the time we had to leave at the end of December 2011.”

hauling logs / “milling” logs with an axe

Vigil_Braunlich-Bridge-Patagonia_1

In December 2012, Dick and Chris returned to Chile to finish the work they had started a year before. Since they already had the towers in place, their first step was to cross-brace them with steel angles to make them stable before they put up the main cables. Unfortunately, since the steel angles that had been delivered to the site were wrong, they spent the first several days hauling them back down to Pto. Natales to be corrected, and then hauling them back. (Remember what I said about good deeds?)

hoisting logs / setting a “mickey mouse” brace

Vigil_Braunlich-Bridge-Patagonia_2

Once the angles were in place and the cables across the gorge, they piled an enormous number of rocks on the cable drums at each end to serve as anchorages.

pulling cables across the gorge / using rocks as anchorages

Vigil_Braunlich-Bridge-Patagonia_4

Vigil_Braunlich-Bridge-Patagonia_3

Then come the scary part, they had to walk out on the cables to attach the deck boards. I can tell you what, I’d never get my wife out there doing this work.

attaching the deck boards

Vigil_Braunlich-Bridge-Patagonia_5

This good deed may have been punishing, but it has been appreciated. Dick and Chris have been thanked by various park officials and the U.S. embassy in Santiago (near where I attended 7th grade when my mother was in the Peace Corps) has also been appreciative of their efforts.

and it works!

Vigil_Braunlich-Bridge-Patagonia_6

When I asked Dick why he was doing this, he said:

“How can I explain such craziness? I guess I’m doing it because I’m alive, because I like being able to engineer things that seem useful to me and others, because Torres del Paine is an incredible part of the world with limited resources to preserve and protect it, and because it beats sitting around watching TV.”

Dick and Chris Braunlich and their bridge in Patagonia

Vigil_Braunlich-Bridge-Patagonia_7