Ice Merchant Tradition Melts Away with the Glaciers

Preparing raspadilla (shaved ice) Source: Cornell University Library
Preparing raspadilla (shaved ice) Source: Cornell University Library

On the slopes of Mount Chimborazo, Ecuador, it’s just Baltazar Uscha and the ice. For more than 50 years Baltazar has made his way up the mountain twice a week to chip ice from the glaciers of the closest place on Earth to the sun.

“The natural ice from Chimborazo is the best,” Baltazar told film maker Sandy Patch in a short documentary for the New York Times. “Full of vitamins for your body… no one wants natural ice from Chimborazo anymore.”

There was a time when as many as 40 ice merchants would wind their way up the mountain to bring ice back to the community. The ice was used for local treats, including raspadilla, or shaved ice. But those days are almost gone – only a few places in South America still make raspadilla from glacier ice.

Baltazar is a relic of a way of life that existed for centuries. Now, ice is mainly made in factories, though a few juice and ice cream makers continue to rely on Baltazar’s ice supply from the ancient glaciers.

For every 80 pound block of ice Baltazar harvests from the Chimborazo glaciers, he earns $2.50. On a weekly basis, he earns roughly $25. His brothers, who like Baltazar were brought up breaking away ice on the slopes of the 20,564 foot mountain, have since found other occupations.

Mount Chimborazo Source: Photo Friday

“When I was little, I thought I would always have work because I was raised on the ice,” Baltazar’s brother Gregorio told Patch. “But times are changing and nobody needs us to bring ice anymore.”

Still, without fail, Baltazar, now in his 70s, continues his lonely work. He carries his pickaxe and prepares large chunks of ice for loyal customers in the city market. As he climbs to the glaciers he collects grasses and twists them into sturdy, thick chords he can wrap around his ice chunks, which are then carried down the mountain by his three donkeys.

But numerous factors are slowly eating away at Baltazar’s livelihood. Global warming and a volcano not too far away mean the mountain’s glaciers, like many glaciers around the world, may be on their way out. For Baltazar, this means climbing higher and higher to reach ice.

Baltazar hopes his sons and grandsons will carry on his legacy, but his brothers think this is unlikely.

“When I die, this might be gone,” said Baltazar. “As long as my body allows me to, I still want to work.”

Watch Baltazar’s story here:

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