During the first decade of the twentieth century, European migration in Chile brought together sportsman of German origin interested in exploring the Andes. With the intention of replicating their Alpine culture, the emerging mountaineering community built the first mountain refuges in Chile during the 30s. Today they tell the story of a forgotten heritage that represents one of the many attempts to inhabit the untamed Andes Mountains in Chile. Benöhr, in her column, invites us to think about “the refuge” as a sign of habitation for whomever encounters it and at the same time like a rock in its uninhabited waiting.
The building of a refuge established a relationship between the architectonic object and the mountain landscape that was transformed as a symbol of human presence in remote regions. The territory in which the refuge hut is located reveals a desolate and immeasurable scenario for those who inhabit it. The structures are usually equipped with the bare minimum, where the feeling of shelter is the only and greatest luxury for the guest. We speak here of architecture without a signature: austere and reduced to the essential.
During the first decade of the twentieth century, European migration in Chile brought together sportsman of German origin interested in exploring the Andes. With the intention of replicating their Alpine culture, the emerging mountaineering community gave rise to a legacy of mountain refuges constructed in Chile during the 30s. Today they tell the story of a forgotten heritage that represents one of the many attempts to inhabit the untamed Andes Mountains in Chile. The construction of the German refuge of Lo Valdés, in 1932, marks a precedent in the development of mountain infrastructure not only in the mountain range of the Metropolitan region, but also a few kilometers south of Santiago. Years later, the Aserradero and Garganta del Diablo refuges gave impetus to the construction of Shangri-La and Waldorf, consolidating an important set of mountain huts distributed in the Ñuble mountain range. (1)
(1) KOCH, Josef. “Die Schutzhütten des Deutschen Alpenvereins in der chilenischen Hochkordillere – Refugios de los clubes alpinos alemanes en la alta cordillera chilena” Revista Andina (Refuges of the German alpine clubs in the Chilean high Andes) (Santiago, 1938) pp. 8-16.
Even further south, dominating the landscape from the city of Chillán, the silhouette of the Nevados de Chillán volcanic complex appears with over 3,000 meters above sea level. The complex is formed by the Nevado volcano to the north, the Chillán volcano at the center and the Viejo crater to the south, all devoid of vegetation. The course of the streams and the river Renegado, which descends towards the Trancas valley sustain abundant species characteristic of the high Andean deciduous forest. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the Renegado Valley, as the Trancas Valley was called at that time, was frequented only in summer by tourists who went to the hot springs and muleteers who were searching for grazing lands for their herds. Although the branch of the Chillán railway was the main driver of the economic and tourist activity in the area, to enter the mountain range only transport by mule or on foot was possible. At the beginning of the winter season, the thermal baths closed with the first snowfall of the season, the muleteers travelled down the mountain with their herds, and in terms of human life, the valley remained uninhabited (2).
(2) TRAUB, Enrique. Club Andino de Concepción: Síntesis Histórica y Anecdótica. (Concepción: s/e, 1986)
Motivated by the love of the mountains and attracted by the geography of the Ñuble mountain range, eleven mountaineers founded the group “Ski Club Chile, Section South” with the intention of promoting the practice of skiing and giving rise, years later, to the current Club Andino de Concepción and Club Andino de Chillán. At first, the Club members made weekend sporting excursions that brought them together, but then the need arose to build a refuge to prolong their stay.
In 1937, the Andean Club of Concepción took on the challenge of constructing at 1,950 meters above sea level on the slopes of the Chillán volcano. The route to access the work required the ascent from the Trancas along an 8-kilometer trail that begins at the Aserradero refuge. This penetrates in the thickness of centennial forests, surrounding the Purgatorio hill to the west and the Lomo de Gato hill to the east. When the vegetation begins to diminish in size and shape, it is possible to see at a distance above the hill, the characteristic outline of the Garganta del Diablo, and there a building stands as a monolithic landmark, distinct in order and scale from the landscape.
Years later, the Andean Club of Chillán would also fulfill their dream by building the Shangri-La refuge at the foot of the Nevado volcano (3). In the interior of the Shangri-La Valley, along a six-kilometer path between the coligues and the oaks, abrupt and significant ribbons of volcanic rock appear, old lava flows that emanated from the volcano’s interior. When crossing these ribbons, a large esplanade materializes, and to the west there is an estuary that feeds the extension of native forest. In this oasis, after crossing the rugged geography of the place, you can glimpse the Shangri-La refuge at a distance, another construction that allowed the desolation of the Andes to be inhabited and that now lies collapsed and fused back into its landscape.
(3) FLORES, Rodrigo. Tradición y corta historia del Club Andino de Chillán (Chillán: s/e, 1968) (Tradition and short history of the Andean Club of Chillán)
United by a common historical and geographical context, both refuges ̶ Garganta del Diablo and Shangri La ̶ are characterized by their strategic location, where the architectonic object is conceived as a reference in a changing landscape, transformed in a landmark that points, guides and constitutes evidence of the human presence in the high Andean mountain range. The refuge stands out, but it dialogs with its environment through the use of local materials, stone and wood that condition the tectonics of each work. The stone was carved and stacked, giving rise to the load-bearing masonry, solid and resistant volumes to confront the extremes of the environment and the onslaught of time. However, the hut’s structure is not only established as a container space for the individual in an extreme landscape, but also fulfills a mediating role between the human and his surrounds. A role that lies as much in the contemplation and observation of the landscape, as in the recognition of those surrounds through the sport so bound to the mountain.
Constructing architecture in the high Andean mountain range is not only providing shelter for subsistence, but also offering a platform to develop ideas with respect to the landscape, to measure ourselves and to measure our efforts. The refuge stands as an architectural object that is not understood in its contrast with other architectures of the city, but rather in relation to its mountain site, transforming itself like a beacon, into a geographical referent. To erect a refuge is finally to give shape to a territory where the stranger stops being one, considering himself rather an inhabitant of the place, of the Andes.
Katrin Benöhr. Inhabitant of the Nahuelbuta mountain range and architecture student of the University of Bio Bio, attracted by the history and architecture of the mountain shelters present in our Andes mountains.
This article was born from the research entitled “Habitar Los Andes del Sur: refugios de montaña en mompostería de piedra (Inhabiting the Southern Andes: mountain shelters in stone masonry) (1930-1940)” Research done to qualify for a degree in Architecture from the Universidad del Bío-Bío, Concepción, Chile.