Archives: The Incan Terraces

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: Terraces⏤the opposite of ramps?


The Inca are surely one of my favorite ancient cultures. Much of this is due to the unusual amount of research available on their building techniques and architecture. The pieces of their engineering I've been reading about lately are their terraces.

Terraces might be something of an opposite of ramps, but that just makes them more fascinating. Living among some of the steepest mountains in the world, the Incans had to improvise heavily when it came to all sorts of facets of their life. Their terraces did a lot more than provide flat areas for food production (though don't get me wrong: that was just a little bit important); they also helped to control erosion and landslides.

In fact, much of Incan architecture was built to be earthquake resistant, and the terraces were no exception. They were so well built that, despite the Incan's comparatively low technological level, their terraces survived from Pizarro's conquest of their empire, totally forgotten, all the way up to the twentieth century, when they were rediscovered.

Do you think anything we build today would last that long without maintenance? Not likely. This workmanship stretched all the way through their construction, too.

The Incans by no means had a monopoly on agricultural terraces, of course. Terrace farming has arisen independently in dozens of cultures worldwide, with almost as many individual styles. It's almost certainly the most efficient method of farming in the mountains.

The most famous are almost certainly the rice terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras: they've actually been declared a UNESCO heritage site. You've almost certainly seen images of them before. They've been farmed continuously for something like 2000 years, which is absolutely crazy. That's not just architecture, it's a way of life.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: The Power of Powder

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy writes his own cautionary tale of sorts: some seemingly sci-fi tale of producing a yard ramp with a 3-D printer.

Click HERE to read all about it.

Archives • Switchbacks: Ramp Diversity

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week: Italy makes me dizzy.


There is one kind of ramp I absolutely love, except when I'm using it, in which case I absolutely hate it. That ramp is the switchback.

Anyone who's done much mountain driving learns to hate switchbacks, even though they're some of the most cost-effective engineering tricks we have in the mountains. (Much, much cheaper than tunnels, that's for sure.) Truckers especially hate them. I've known some who will go hours out of their way to avoid them. I think gearheads are the only ones who enjoy them.

stylized photo of Stelvio Pass in Italy

Careful, there.

One of the craziest examples of the breed is the Stelvio Pass in Italy. It's one of the highest roads in the Alps and has 75 switchbacks. Seventy-five! Not a road you want to drive fast on, or even drive on at all if you can help it. Apparently, it’s so dangerous during the winter and spring that they close it completely during those seasons.

Of course, being dangerous, gearheads flock to it. That British car show everyone likes, “Top Gear” (I don't watch that show anymore after what they said about the F150), declared it the greatest driving road in the world. (Or at least in Europe. Have you seen the pictures of the crazy roads they have in the mountains in India?)

The Italian bicycle Grand Tour frequently goes through Stelvio Pass. (The Giro d'Italia, sister race to the Tour de France. I try to catch all three of the Grand Tours when I can.) Thousands and thousands of cyclists ride through Stelvio Pass every year.

It's easier to find info on battles fought at the pass than it is to find anything beyond basic info on its construction or maintenance, but that's pretty constant. Historians are obsessed with wars, despite the fact that construction and architecture affect us way more.

I'm working on persuading Maggie on this European vacation bit but, as carsick as she gets, I don't think that Stelvio Pass will be on the itinerary.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Moving Your Yard Ramp

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy provides some astounding weight comparisons (and gives me newfound respect for the blue whale, from which I'll never ever wish to receive a tongue lashing), then transitions from heavy to smooth and shows how easy it is to move a yard ramp.

Buckle up, then click HERE to read all about it.

From the Archives: Ancient Ramp Construction

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. This week I explore the earliest civilizations that built with⏤ surprise ⏤ ramps.


Information on the Internet about the construction of the great cities and monuments of the Mesoamerican and South American cultures is surprisingly hard to find, it turns out.

McCoy Fields: Relatively Young Dude

Not So Ancient: Me

The Aztecs were real tricky to find stuff on. Almost every supposed "source" detailing its construction techniques immediately starts going on about how they sacrificed people during construction, then doesn't bother to actually discuss the techniques they used. I'm no trained historian, but that seems like sensationalism to me, and it sure doesn't answer my questions.

There are a few interesting tidbits out there, though. Teotihuacan, one of the major Aztec sites, was actually constructed over a thousand years before the Aztecs gained power, by someone else entirely.

The Inca and Mayan empires have a bit more out there to easily find. I had to dig through a lot of nonsense about Mayan prophecies and their mass disappearance, but there was a lot of good stuff. Like this: They actually used a primitive form of limestone-based concrete for much of their construction.

That First Step is a Doozy

One Small Step for a Spring Chicken

The Incans were the easiest to find information on, since most of the stuff on the Internet is about their construction techniques anyhow. Their buildings were famed for being constructed of huge stone blocks in irregular patterns that for together perfectly, without gaps. You can't even stick a knife between the stones.

People go crazy over that, some even going so far as to say that there were aliens helping the Incans. (Some nuts out there.) I think it says more about contractors today than it does about ancient construction. Tight seams just take good workmanship.

The stones in Incan constructions were placed by dragging them up huge earthen ramps on log rollers. Interestingly enough, they took the opposite approach to the ramps than the Egyptians, who just put together giant straight ramps. The reason they could do that when the Egyptians couldn't is pretty simple: the Incan Empire was huge. It was basically the Rome of South America. It could afford to just throw manpower at problems until they were solved.

They did save a little money by using locally quarried limestone or granite, but the empire was wealthy and powerful enough that it could have shipped them halfway across Peru on their excellent system of roads if the whim overtook them. We have tons of archaeological evidence for the Incan ramps, and a few—even still—partially exist.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: (Fork) Lifting Toward 2020

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy begins his blog with a quotation from Oscar Wilde. That's all I really needed. And then his blog just got better and better.

Read his consistently fine perspective HERE.

From the Archives: Ramps, Allium & Google

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so: my From the Archives series. Back now to ramps, one of my favorite inventions...


In the family of quality ramps.

Wild Leeks

You know the first thing I see when I Google "ramps"? (Ignoring those constant ads, of course). A Wikipedia article on ramps. It's a pretty well researched and detailed article, too, listing all sorts of uses for ramps, their discovery and history, even festivals dedicated to them!

The only problem, though, isn't about inclined planes. It's about a plant. Specifically: Allium tricoccum, also known as wild leeks.

So when you Google one of the most important inventions in human history—one of the basic simple machines that makes civilization work—you get a smelly weed that some people like to eat. Maybe it's just me: I think the invention that allowed us to build the pyramids is a little more important than a backyard pest that makes food smell like old socks.

At least if you search on Wikipedia itself, inclined planes are the first thing to pop up. Whoever runs that site seems to know what they're doing, unlike those culinary-minded dudes at Google. It's all that time inside, I'm telling you. It's not healthy. You need fresh air and sunlight every day, so you don't end up drooling over random greenery from your yard.

A refreshing beverage helps the thinking.

That's me, thinking about ramps.

And no, this rant wasn't inspired by the new diet Maggie is putting me on. It's a legitimate complaint. I mean, I don't mind cutting back on red meat even more. I like fish and poultry just fine. I hardly drink more than a beer or two anymore, and I've been watching my cholesterol since my bypass 15 years ago.

I really just think that it's not going to hurt me to eat proper vegetables you find in the grocery store, not expensive health food store stuff I could pull out of my neighbor's yard.

(The one without the dogs, at least. Nice dogs, but I'm not eating anything out of that yard.)

That's not the point, though. I just think that Google is doing inclined planes a real disservice.

The Yard Ramp Guy®: Success in Yard Ramp Industrials

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy's big wheels keep on turning with a great riff on the importance of attention to detail.

Dig into the specifics HERE.

Go Jump in a Lake

Or: Good Luck Getting There

The most interesting lake in the world is completely inaccessible.

Well, maybe not completely, but close enough for government work. Which, come to think of it, usually isn't that close.

Lake Vostok is located in Antarctica. Bit of a strange place for a lake, I know, but this gets even weirder. Its surface is 500 feet below sea level. Lake Vostok is believed to have species of bacteria that are present nowhere else on the planet. It's also the largest lake in Antarctica, at more than 160 miles long and 30 miles wide.

lvAnd just to make all this interesting, there's a magnetic anomaly in one end of the lake.

Vostok Station, the nearby research facility, recorded the coldest known temperature ever on our planet. The lake has a single island, which no one has ever set foot on. It's also in complete darkness, even during the part of the year when Antarctica gets sunlight. That, of course, is because it's buried under 13,000 feet of ice.

As in: Lake Vostok is buried under a two and a half mile-high glacier.

Clearly impossible, right? Normally, yes, but in this case, the massive weight and compression created by the glacier caused its lowest layer to heat up, melting the ice and forming Lake Vostok. There are more than 500 of these subglacial lakes in Antarctic.

The hunt for life in Lake Vostok has become a major point of interest. Any creepy-crawly thing there would likely have been sealed off for the lake’s entire 15 million-year lifespan. The warm, oxygen rich, and pitch black waters would have created an ecosystem unlike anything else on the planet.

lv1Unfortunately, there are concerns that the antifreeze used to maintain the boreholes through the glacier might contaminate the lake, so scientists are proceeding with extreme caution. While the overwhelming majority of species they have found could quite likely just be contaminants from the surface, they have found at least one previously unknown species that might very well have come from the lake itself.

Mission to Mars? Sure. But Vacation in Vostok: now we’re talking…even though Maggie won’t hear of it.