Fridge freezers have all but banished the job of 'ice man' to the history books, but at Chimborazo in Ecuador there is still one man keeping the tradition alive.
On the day that I visit, the dense Andean fog means I cannot see this legendary volcano. However, I am assured it is there by a local man called Baltazar Ushca, who I meet at the station. He is best known in Ecuador as the “last ice man,” a title he has earned by preserving the family tradition of climbing Chimborazo to collect ice from its glaciers. He has been doing this since he was a fifteen. He is now in his seventies.
“Ice mining on Chimborazo started during the Spanish conquest when they sent Indians up the mountains to fetch ice for their drinks,” he says. The tradition continued after the Spanish left and Baltazar recalls a time when many men worked on the mountain. His father “the albino son of Chimborazo” was the most famous amongst them.
“Nobody wants Chimborazo ice anymore, they want factory ice,” Baltazar says. But loyal clients stick by him and believe his claims that the 1,000-year-old ice is rich in vitamins and minerals. I can’t confirm this, but it is rather tasty.
Baltazar climbs Chimborazo every Thursday and Friday whatever the weather. After a hearty breakfast of soup, bread and coffee he sets off from his house with three donkeys. “It takes about four hours to reach the glacier and on the way I weave baskets from grass to carry the ice back down,” he says, demonstrating his technique. “When I arrive at the ice it takes three hours to mine it from the earth.”
Typically, Baltazar will extract six blocks from the glacier – weighing roughly 45kg each – wrap them in the hay bags and loads them onto his donkeys. His ice blocks sell for around five dollars at the local market. The rules there are strict and if he ever missed a day of trading they would not buy his ice again. It is ruthless and I feel a great sense of injustice on his behalf.
But with trains stopping at Urbina once again, Baltazar could become less reliant on the market; the railways are helping introduce him to adventure tourists who can pay Baltazar to take them up Chimborazo and collect ice with him. He seems thrilled at the prospect of working with tourists, but will he not be retiring soon? Peering from under his black felt hat, he says: "I will go to Chimborazo, until I go to God.”