Magazine article Geographical

The Ice Man of Chimborazo: Once a Global Industry and a Source of Income for Communities All over the World, Ice Harvesting Has Steadily Declined with the Proliferation of Refrigeration and Industrial Ice Production during the 20th Century. but on the Slopes of Mount Chimborazo in Central Ecuador, One Man Is Intent on Keeping This Age-Old Practice Alive. Jordi Busque Went to Meet Him

Magazine article Geographical

The Ice Man of Chimborazo: Once a Global Industry and a Source of Income for Communities All over the World, Ice Harvesting Has Steadily Declined with the Proliferation of Refrigeration and Industrial Ice Production during the 20th Century. but on the Slopes of Mount Chimborazo in Central Ecuador, One Man Is Intent on Keeping This Age-Old Practice Alive. Jordi Busque Went to Meet Him

Article excerpt

In the foothills of Mount Chimborazo in central Ecuador, legend has it that if a pregnant woman doesn't find refuge during a storm, she will give birth to an albino son of Chimborazo. That was the case for Juan Ushca, whose fate was forever linked to the volcano.

Working as a hielero, or ice man, he spent his life climbing the volcano to harvest blocks of ice from its glaciers. Juan was one of many men who earned a living in this way at a time when ice was scarce and selling it in the local markets could turn a profit. But with the arrival of ice factories and refrigerators, this job, introduced by the Spanish during colonial times, rapidly disappeared. And today, only one hielero remains: Juan's son, Baltasar.

Now 66, Baltasar still climbs the volcano twice a week, accompanied by his two donkeys. It's no mean feat for a man his age. At 6,268 metres, Chimborazo is Ecuador's highest mountain and, thanks to the Earth's equatorial bulge, the peak's summit is also the farthest point from the centre of the Earth.

Baltasar lives in Cuatro Esquinas, a Quichua community of about 30 people near Riobamba, the capital of Chimborazo province. With his wife, Maria-Lorenza, and teenage son, Baltasar lives in a single-room house, a concrete construction with an asbestos cement roof. His daughter Carmen lives next door with her three children.

Upwardly mobile

On the day of a climb, Baltasar usually gets up at dawn and eats a hearty breakfast prepared by Maria-Lorenza. On the damp, chilly morning that I join him, he's warming himself up with a steaming bowl of potato and pasta soup. As he eats, Maria-Lorenza tends a fire that burns on the dirt floor of their house. There's no chimney, so the room is full of smoke and the inner walls are covered in soot. I have to go outside every few minutes to relieve my eyes, but neither Baltasar nor any other family member seems bothered.

After finishing his meal, the hielero prepares his donkey Moreno, loading saddlebags, tools and clothes onto its back. Maria-Lorenza passes him a pair of rubber boots and a plastic poncho for use on the upper slopes of the volcano, where the weather is nearly always harsh.

Baltasar is a laconic character. His first language is Quichua and he speaks only rudimentary Spanish. As he secures his saddlebags, he tells me that he has been doing this job for more than 50 years. 'I started going with my father when I was 15,' he says. 'I'm very grateful for what he taught me.'

But he couldn't do it without the volcano, he explains. 'Father Chimborazo has always provided ice and he lets me return home safe and with enough energy to continue my job. I'm very grateful to him.'

Knowing that global warming has affected glaciers all over the world, including those in the Ecuadorian Andes, I ask Baltasar whether he has noticed any change during his lifetime, but he doesn't acknowledge any such problem. 'This ice is never going to end,' he says. 'It is born in Chimborazo.'

Baltasar gives the word and Moreno begins to move. The donkey clearly knows the way, as he has made this journey so many times. The hielero walks after the animal and I follow. We leave the rest of the family behind, with Carmen washing her hair in a bucket of steaming hot water and her children getting ready for school.

When we reach the main path, Baltasar mounts his donkey and I follow on a horse hired from a neighbour. We ride uphill, following a dirt track for an hour and a half until we reach a field where a white donkey is tethered. …

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