The Power of Gear: How Technical Equipment Redefines Our Relationship With Extreme Environments

A conversation with Scott McGuire, the man behind The Mountain Lab
1mountainlab.jpgPhoto courtesy Scott McGuire.

Several years ago, when half of our team worked on the editorial staff at Dwell magazine, we took a daytrip down to the head office of The North Face to visit their equipment design team and learn more about the architecture of tents.

"As a form of minor architecture," the resulting short article explained, "tents are strangely overlooked. They are portable, temporary, and designed to withstand even the most extreme conditions, but they are usually viewed as simple sporting goods. They are something between a large backpack and outdoor lifestyle gear--certainly not small buildings. But what might an architect learn from the structure and design of a well-made tent?"

Amongst the group of people we spoke with that day was outdoor equipment strategist Scott McGuire, an intense, articulate, and highly focused advocate for all things outdoors. As seen through Scott's eyes, the flexibility, portability, ease of use, and multi-contextual possibilities of outdoor equipment design began to suggest a more effective realization, we thought, of the avant-garde legacy of 1960s architects like Archigram, who dreamed of impossible instant cities and high-tech nomadic settlements in the middle of nowhere.

12mountainlab.jpgScott McGuire talks to Venue in Lee Vining, California; Mono Lake can be seen in the background.

Intrigued by his perspective on the ways in which outdoor gear can both constrain and expand the ways in which human beings move around in and inhabit wild landscapes, Venue was thrilled to catch up with Scott at a deli in Lee Vining, California, near his Eastern Sierra home.

McGuire, who recently left The North Face to set up his own business, called The Mountain Lab, was beyond generous with his time and expertise, happily answering our questions as the sun set over Mono Lake in the distance. His answers combined a lifelong outdoor enthusiast's understanding of the natural environment with a granular, almost anthropological analysis of the activities that humans like to perform in those contexts, as well as a designer's eye for form, function, and material choices.

Indeed, as Scott's description of the design process makes clear in the following interview, a 40-liter mountaineering pack is revealed literally as a sculpture produced by the interaction between the human body and a particular landscape: the twist to squeeze through a crevasse, or the backward tilt of the head during a belay.

Our conversation ranged from geographic and generational differences in outdoor experiences to the emerging spatial technologies of the U.S. military, and from the rise of BMX and the X Games to the city itself as the new "outdoors," offering a fascinating perspective on the unexpected ways in which technical equipment can both enable and redefine our relationship with extreme environments.

• • •

Geoff Manaugh: I'd like to start by asking you about the constraints you face in the design of outdoor athletic equipment, and how that affects the resulting product. For instance, in designing architecture, you might think about factors such as a building's visual impact, its environmental performance, or the historic context of where your future structure is meant to be. But if you're designing something like a tent--a kind of athletic architecture, if you will--then you're talking about factors like portability, aerodynamism, cost, weather-proofing, etc.. What design constraints do you face, and how do you prioritize them?

Scott McGuire: The first thing is always the user. Everything has to be very user-centric, in a way that's perhaps unlike conventional architecture. You might say, "I'm building a house; it's about this site; it's about this view; people are going to live in it in a certain way," but you would rarely design a house based on whether or not someone has a propensity, for example, to use their kitchen utensils with their left hand or their right hand. But when you're creating a technical product, you become really myopically focused on how that product interacts with an individual. It's about establishing who that person is.

Of course, if I'm talking about doing a small technical pack that will hold 40 liters for someone who's going mountaineering--well, I know that same pack may very well be used by someone riding on a bike as a commuter in New York City. Still, when we're talking about that product, it's very much about things like: what's the person who's going mountaineering wearing? What are they carrying? Where are they going? What environment are they going to be in? How much wear and tear is their pack going to get? As you study the user, you usually end up discovering a lot of nuances about the way they'll use the product, and they're often things you wouldn't normally think about.

23mountainlab.jpg34mountainlab.jpg41mountainlab.jpg42mountainlab.jpg"Mt. Blanc from Le Jardin"; "The Finsteraarhorn"; another view of the Finsteraarhorn; and "Glacier of the Rhone." All photos taken between 1860 and 1890. Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

I'll give you some examples of how that would work. I'll stick with the 40-liter technical pack, which is the one you usually find in an area that's high alpine, above 8000 feet, with year-round glaciers, where there's lots of climbing and mountaineering. What you're going to find, obviously, is that people are carrying it. They're moving at a relatively athletic pace. They want to have the ability to fit the pack.

When we think about fit, it's not as simple as saying: "This person's got a 34" waist, a 19" back, a 42" chest, and that's what we need to focus on." It's also the fit based off the way someone moves--what I would call the interaction between the user and the device. The way a 65-liter pack fits someone who's walking down a manicured trail, doing eight miles a day--the height that their knee climbs and the amount that their body twists--is different than the fit of a 40-liter pack for somebody who's going up a mountain, where they might be climbing a 45-degree slope. Or they might have somebody on belay and they need to be able to look up, so they need to have a tiny pocket of space so that, with a helmet, they can crane their head back and look up at their partner. The pack can't get in the way of that.

43mountainlab.jpgThree 65-liter packs by The North Face, High Sierra, and Kelty, respectively.

Then you add to all that not just an ability to carry weight, but questions like: what does it feel like when an arm comes up to reach for a hold? Or: what happens when you're trying to twist through a crevasse? There's a fair amount of time spent really thinking about all of those elements on the body.

Presented by

Geoff Manaugh & Nicola Twilley

Geoff Manaugh writes at BLDGBLOG. Nicola Twilley is the author of Edible Geography. In 2012-13, they are traveling to sites around the United States with their portable-media project, Venue.

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