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Ecuador: The last ice man

Apparently, there’s a mountain in front of me. Apparently, it’s called Chimborazo. And apparently, it’s Ecuador’s highest peak at 20,500ft. The summit, they say, is the closest point on Earth to the sun, thanks to the equatorial bulge, which pushes it beyond Everest.

Ecuador: The last ice man

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I tell you this because I have little else to say about the mountain, chiefly because it is obscured from my vision by the dense, Andean fog. So it’s just as well the conversation is good, because the misty foothills of Chimborazo are scoring poorly when it comes to views.

The conversation in question is with a chap called Baltazar Ushca, who’s best known around these parts as the ‘last ice man’. He has earned this moniker by following the family tradition of collecting ice from the Chimborazo glacier and selling it at the local market. He has been doing this since he was 15. He is now 68.

Through a translator he tells me this occupation dates back to the Spanish conquest, when their occupiers sent indigenous people up the mountains to fetch ice for their drinks. The trade continued after the Spanish left and at one point Chimborazo teemed with men picking away at its flanks. Baltazar’s family were among them.

But fridge-freezers have all but banished the profession to the history books and Baltazar remains the last ice man standing. He makes the pilgrimage twice a week and his incredible story inspired the award-winning documentary, The Last Ice Merchant.

It usually takes Baltazar four hours to reach the glacier. “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 take it from the earth.”

Fuelled by coffee and soup, he extracts six blocks – each weighing around 45kg – wraps them in homemade bags and loads them onto his three mules. Each block will sell for $5 at the local market. Demand for his ice has fallen as more Ecuadorians buy freezers, but loyal clients stick by him, claiming the thousand-year-old ice “has lots of vitamins and is good for you”. I can’t confirm this, but it does taste rather good.

Baltazar might trade in ice, but he’s a warm soul. He has kind eyes, a beaming smile and likes having his photo taken. He talks candidly about his life and the death of his wife last year.

“He didn’t go to the funeral,” says the translator. “It was market day.” She then explains how market rules are strict and that if you miss a day they won’t buy his ice. It’s ruthless and I feel a great sense of injustice for Baltazar.

On a cheerier note, he explains how he boosts his small salary by taking tourists up Chimborazo. I ask him how much longer he will do this; does he have plans to retire? Peering from under his black felt hat, he says: “I will go to Chimborazo, until I go to God.”

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