Meet Baltazar, the Last Ice Merchant of Ecuador

While the rest of the world reaches into the freezer for ice, there’s someone on this planet who actually climbs mountains to chop it off. Meet Baltazar Ushca, Ecuador’s last hielero, or ‘iceman’.

Ushca is the last surviving practitioner of his family’s trade – passed on from father to son for centuries. At least once a week, the 68-year-old spends five hours hiking up Mount Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest peak. He keeps going until he reaches the ice mine that has fed him and his family for generations.

Negotiating the steep 14,700-foot path is no joke, especially at Uscha’s age. But he continues the family tradition of cutting ice from the cave and shaping it into blocks. He then transports the blocks, by mule, down to the nearest city of Riobamba, where they are sold.

Despite his age and his short stature (4ft 11in) Ushca can carry two 66-lb blocks of ice on his shoulders. And he’s quite happy working on the mountain that he considers to be sacred. “This is a man’s work,” he said, proudly. “I am happy when I walk. Father Chimborazo looks after me.”

When asked about his profession, Ushca fondly recollects the time when his entire community sold ice. “We would go out in a group of friends – four or six groups,” he said. “I would go with my mother and father, with my brothers and sisters.” Now, he only has his son-in-law Juan to keep him company. The walk itself has become much longer as well, because of the receding glaciers.

Ushca and Juan leave their village at around 7am. Uscha rides the donkey for about an hour. They make a pit stop at the pajonal – an area with low brushes – to pick up straw for wrapping the ice. They load the straw on the donkey, and walk the rest of the way. In the final leg of the trek, the path is covered with loose rocks, so the mule needs to be lead with great care.

The duo finally reach the ice mine – Los Hieleros – at around midday. Ushca then gets to work, using a pick to break blocks of ice off the glacier. He sculpts the ice into cubes, wraps them in straw, and loads them up on to the mule again. Ushca and Juan then start the journey back home; they usually return by 4pm. Every Saturday,  Ushca travels to Riobamba’s markets to sell the ice at $2.5 for an 80-pound block. He makes about $25 a week selling ice.

Interestingly, Ushca’s ‘natural ice’ is still in demand. People claim that it has healing properties, and it is still used to make traditional fruit juices and ice creams. And ever since his story was covered by the media, it seems that his humble profession has transformed into a lucrative business. He earns a fair bit of money from tourists as well, who pay him about $60 an day for a guided excursion to the ice mine.

Several international filmmakers have also visited Ushca, following up the treacherous mountain on his weekly hikes. He even attended the premiere of one of the documentaries, in New York City. He’s a local celebrity, especially at the La Merced market where he sells ice – people flock around him asking to take pictures with him. Ushca’s proudest moment though, was when he got to meet President Rafael Correa.

“My family is envious that I am a friend of President Correa,” the humble man said. “I tell them, just come and do my work.”

via BBC News

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