How Ecuador's last iceman perpetuates an ancient craft
- 1 June 2012
- From the section Magazine
At an age when many in the West are enjoying retirement, a 68-year-old in Ecuador spends hours trekking up a mountain in the Andes to cut away ice to sell. He is the last practitioner of a dying trade.
It takes Baltazar Ushca five hours to walk to the ice mine on Mount Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador, that has fed him and his family for generations.
The path is steep, and both wind and sunshine are strong at 4,500m (14,700ft).
At 68, he appears visibly tired as he picks the ice and shapes it into blocks he can transport down to Riobamba, the nearest city, by mule.
Ushca is Ecuador's last hielero, or iceman, a craft passed on from father to son for centuries. He has made the trip at least once a week, usually on a Thursday or Friday, since he was 15.
Before fridges, natural ice was used to refrigerate food.
Nowadays, ice from Mount Chimborazo is used to make traditional fruit juices or ice creams - people claim it has natural healing properties.
All the other hieleros have passed away or found easier and better-paying jobs.
But Ushca's attachment to his trade has served him well.
His reputation as the "last iceman" has brought him fame and has transformed his work into a more lucrative business.
Dozens of international film crews have followed him up Mount Chimborazo and he recently flew to New York City for the premiere of one of the many documentaries that have been made about him.
Locally, he is also renowned. At La Merced market where he sells the ice, people of all ages ask to have their photos taken with him.
He has brushed shoulders with Ecuador's President Rafael Correa and other politicians, who have hailed his work as part of the country's cultural heritage.
Ushca dismisses the story, put about by some in his community, that he has become rich.
"My family is envious that I am a friend of President Correa," he says. "I tell them, just come and do my work."
At just 1.5m tall (4ft 11in) he can carry two 30kg (66lb) blocks of ice on his shoulders.
"This is a man's work," he says, proudly.
He says he is happy to work on the mountain, which indigenous people regard as sacred.
"I am happy when I walk. Father Chimborazo looks after me," he says in broken Spanish. He is more at ease in Quechua, the most widely spoken indigenous language in the Andes.
Ushca's weather-beaten face reflects years of exposure to the wind and sun.
He has never worn sunglasses to protect his eyes from the reflected glare of the sun on the snow. As a result, he is constantly squinting.
Images from the 1970s show that little has changed in the ritual of collecting the ice, although demand was much higher before fridges were widely available in Ecuador.
"We would go in a group of friends - four or six groups," he says.
"I would go with my mother and father, with my brothers and sisters."
Nowadays it is only Juan, his son-in-law, who keeps him company.
The glaciers have slowly receded over the past two decades, making the walk much longer.
The two leave their community of Cuatro Esquinas around 07:00.
In winter, wind and snow mean the temperature is well below zero. Sun in summer increases the chances of avalanches.
During the first hour, Ushca rides his donkey, while Juan walks.
At the pajonal, the area with low brushes typical of high-altitude Andean landscapes, they stop and Ushca picks up straw that he uses to wrap up the ice.
He then loads the straw on his donkey, and starts walking.
The last part of the path is full of loose rocks, and Ushca leads the mule carefully.
He reaches the ice mine, called Los Hieleros, around midday. It is a part of the glacier covered by rocks, connected to the main glacier, which is at least another 500m (1,640ft) up.
Ushca uses a pick to break a block of ice off the glacier.
He then sculpts the block into cubes and wraps them in straw to transport them on the mule. It is 16:00 by the time he is back home.
On Saturday, he travels to Riobamba's main markets to sell the ice for $4 (£2.55) a block.
For decades, Ushca supported his family by picking ice and growing vegetables in the fields around his modest home.
"This is how we work because of poverty. I am poor and I have no other choice," he says.
These days, there seems to be a different option for Ushca - an option of which his son-in-law, Juan, is very aware.
Juan charges foreigners $60 (£38) a day for an excursion to the ice mine.
He believes he could charge more to see a real iceman in action, and he hopes he can take over his father-in-law's job when he retires.
"Hopefully this tradition will continue," he says.
Juan might be right. While modern technology has made some trades obsolete, turning the iceman into a tourist attraction might help this ancient tradition survive.