He’s fast become a household name in Ecuador. The reason: a most peculiar livelihood. Baltazar Ushca has dedicated his entire life to obtaining ice from the glaciers of Mount Chimborazo. Today, when most human beings need just a few steps to reach their freezer, this 73-year-old man continues to flaunt the energy of a young adult treading up the highest peak in the country in search of ice.
His pace has undoubtedly diminished over the years, yet he undertakes up to two 4-to-5-hour expeditions every week to get to his “ice mine” located just about 5,000 meters above sea level. The road is difficult, irregular and steep. The work is dangerous; he calls it a “Man’s Job”. Once he reaches the glacier, he breaks off ice with picks and shovels; he then sands the ice into a cube and transport it back down by donkey to the Riobamba market, where each 30-kg block is sold for $5.
Decades ago, up to a hundred “ice merchants” climbed the Chimborazo. Spanish hacienda owners where known to send their indigenous workers to seek ice from the glacier in order to keep food fresh. These “hieleros”, as they are called in Spanish, created a profession out of it once social reform freed them from hacienda slavery. “Mining ice” has long been crucial for trade in the Andes, especially between the tropical coast and higher elevations. Thanks to the ice obtained from Chimborazo, seafood could arrive fresh. Every block of ice takes almost a week to melt completely, so product freshness was magically guaranteed much before the advent of the Industrial Revolution!
Nowadays, the ice-mining profession is on the verge of extinction due to obvious reasons: refrigerators and factory-made ice has made them superfluous to our modern world. Baltazar is actually the very last ice merchant, and his ice is only sold at the Riobamba market by very few vendors who prepare local fruit shakes, using Chimborazo’s purported healing properties as a major selling point.
The recent death of fellow ice merchants and the fact that many have abandoned the profession to find closer, less risky and, above all, more lucrative jobs, has lead Baltazar to find himself alone in his trade. Even his brother Gregorio has found a living elsewhere. If the economy fails, he says however, he’ll make Andean blackberry ice cream with the ice Baltazar brings from the mountain.
There is little hope that the profession will live on. Yet the legend does. Chimborazo ice, as mentioned above, is supposed to have healing properties. According to local belief, “Taita”, or Father Chimborazo, is a deity, and the kichwa word Chimborazo conjures a slew of meanings, including “Ice God”, “Snow mountain” and “Sacred wind of the moon”.
Baltazar has his own indigenous legend: if a pregnant woman fails to remain indoors during a thunderstorm, she will give birth to a “son of Chimborazo”; that is, an albino child. Baltazar’s father was albino. Baltazar thus considers himself a direct descendant of the mountain itself and since the age of 15, has made it a point to visit the Taita’s snow at least once a week.
His commitment and dedication to Chimborazo have made him famous. Several international film producers have documented his life and work. He even traveled to New York with his daughter to attend the premiere of one of these documentaries.
Some very tall women over there
– he remembered of the experience with mischief and great joy.
Baltazar has also become a most welcoming and friendly host at the train station in Urbina where visitors have the great opportunity to meet, speak to and take a selfie with the man and legend of the great Chimborazo.