The Iceman Goeth: An Ecuadorian tradition is down to its last man
Baltazar Uhsca Tenesaca’s hands are rough and warm. The roughness makes sense. For the past 55 years, the now 70-year-old has regularly climbed Ecuador’s inactive Chimborazo Volcano to hack off chunks of glacier ice using an axe, pick axe, and crowbar. The warmth is harder to explain.
In an era of refrigerators and receding glaciers, Baltazar is a rarity, a fourth generation hielero, or ice man. The noble career dates back to the 1500s when Spanish conquistadors sent workers up the mountain to harvest ice for food preservation. Locals came to value the glacier ice for its purported medicinal properties as well, and it remained a profitable trade for hundreds of years. Baltazar remembers when the ice was closer and there were many different groups of hieleros on the mountain every day. Each group came with a small herd of donkeys and brought down large quantities of ice, which was transported and sold to people all over the country. Today, Baltazar is the only hielero left on the mountain.
I met Baltazar and his daughter Carmen during one of the cultural stops made by the Tren Crucero, Ecuador’s four-day luxury train service from Quito to the Pacific. Getting off the plush train at Urbina station was a shock. The wind at 11,840 feet cut through my layers of clothing and, even with the clouds and fog, no SPF seemed strong enough to block the high altitude sun. A llama grazed near the tracks, seemingly oblivious to the severe weather and the disembarking passengers.
Inside the train station, Baltazar stood behind a huge block of ice nestled like baby Jesus in the manger on a bed of fresh cut grass. Despite the cold temperature in the unheated station, he couldn’t keep his hands off the ice. At one point he passed around small chunks for everyone to try, bits of the mountain still clinging to each piece. The ice tasted clear and fresh and hard won.
Twice a week, Balthazar, who falls shy of five feet tall, rises with the sun, says a prayer to “Father Chimbo” for protection and gathers his donkeys. By 7 a.m., he has begun the four- to five-hour climb from his dirt floor home in Cuatro Esquinas (Four Corners), a poor but tidy indigenous Quichua community of less than 50 people, to Chimborazo’s ice.
At 20,564 feet Chimborazoannotation is the highest mountain in Ecuador and the highest mountain in all of the Americas north of this point. On a clear day, the glacier-covered peak can be seen from 90 miles away.annotation Part of Ecuador’s “Avenue of the Volcanoes,” Chimborazo’s lower elevations consist of rolling foothills and moors covered in grass that grows long and thick in the rich volcanic soil. As Baltazar hikes up the mountain’s flanks, he uses a scythe to cut the grass, which blows and bends around him like a supermodel’s hair. As he walks, he deftly weaves select blades into rough rope which he will use to secure heavy loads to his donkeys’ backs. The rest will be used to help insulate the ice.
Higher up, harsh conditions make most life impossible. It’s a mesmerizing and daunting environment of extremes, where cold winds beat against rock and ice under a blazing sun. But life does exist here. In 1987, the 144,000-acre Chimborazo Reserve, or Reserva de Produccion Faunistica Chimborazo, was created, in part, to bring back wild vicuñaannotation after these elegant relatives of the llama were hunted to near extinction. Hundreds of vicuña have returned to the reserve, adding to the rugged beauty of the place.
After hours of walking, Baltazar finally reaches a wall of ice and rock at around 16,000 feet. His glove-free hands reach for his pick axe and he begins to dig trenches in the wall. These trenches form a puzzle of square and rectangular sections of ice, which his experienced eyes know will be the right shapes and weight for the donkeys’ backs. When he is satisfied, he uses his crowbar to pry the block of ice from the mountain's grip.
The thin air makes Baltazar’s work that much harder, but his efforts ultimately yield the blocks he wants. He wraps them in grass to shield them from the early afternoon sun and then hoists the blocks onto his sure-footed donkeys, securing the ice with the grass ropes. The pack animals dutifully carry the load back down the trail, now slick with mud and glacier runoff.
Already a lonely pursuit, Baltazar’s commute is getting longer too. According to a 2011 report in the Smithsonian Institution’s publication “American Indian,” Peru’s National Meteorology and Hydrology Service found that Andean glaciers have lost 20 percent of their volume since 1970. The report also warned that some Andean glaciers could disappear altogether in the next 10 to 15 years. Despite the threat of global warming, the arrival of refrigeration and commercial ice factories has had a bigger impact on Baltazar’s livelihood, gutting the market for natural ice from Chimborazo.
Today, each of Balthazar’s blocks of ice sells for around $5 in the La Merced market held every Saturday in the small city of Riobamba. This is the only remaining outlet for Baltazar’s ice and he’s there every week, no matter what, to earn his $30 or so. When Baltazar’s wife Maria-Lorenza died recently he did not attend the funeral. It was market day and he had ice to sell.
Makers of fruit juice blended with ice prize glacial ice as do makers of helado de paila, a traditional sorbet made in wide, shallow copper pans placed over crushed ice. Some people believe juices blended with glacial ice, sometimes called “breaking neck” juices because the cold hits you in the back of the neck, can cure hangovers. Others believe the centuries-old ice has vitamins, minerals, and other healthful properties not found in factory ice.annotation
There is no denying, however, that the already-reduced demand for Baltazar’s ice is shrinking even faster than the glaciers he mines. Though Baltazar learned the ice mining trade from his father along with his brothers, they have given up the life. Brother Gregorio, ironically, works in an ice factory, and Juan says he retired more than a decade ago because he couldn’t take the cold. He now does construction work.
Even Baltazar is segueing smoothly into a new career as a kind of cultural ambassador, which includes his job regaling train travelers with his snaggle-tooth smile and tales of the mountain and the work that he humbly admits is “dangerous.” Tren Ecuador, which runs the tourist train service that brings visitors to meet Baltazar at the station, pays him $112 per group. In October, Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa presented Baltazar with a medal of honor as part of regional independence celebrations. He was also the subject of a 15-minute documentary called "The Last Ice Merchant," which was lauded at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and the Newport Beach Film Festival among others. Baltazar traveled to New York City for the documentary’s premiere, marking the first time he was ever on an airplane (he says he wasn’t scared) and the first time he saw a big city (he says he wasn’t impressed).
Ambassadorship and movie stardom have not persuaded Baltazar to give up his day job. Whether out of pride, stubbornness, habit, financial need, or a combination of all four, Baltazar has pledged to gather the ice on Chimborazo until the day he dies and his hands are no longer warm.
Until the discovery of the Himalayas, it was believed to be the highest mountain in the world.
A cultural touchstone as well as a geographic one, the iconic white peak is included in the Ecuadorean coat of arms, which is also pictured on the country’s flag. In 1822, the dramatic landscape inspired Latin American liberator and hero Simón Bolívar to write an ode called “Mi Delirio Sobre El Chimborazo” (My Delirium On Chimborazo) in 1822.
According to the USGS, glacial ice is the same as factory ice. You'd have to have a very advanced palette—or very contaminated ice—to taste a difference between the two.