I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia from 1964–1966. Being an avid skier from the Adirondack Mountains in New York, I wanted to test my skills at the highest ski resort in the world, Mount Chacaltaya, a 45-minute drive from the capital of Bolivia, La Paz. At 18,000 feet above sea level, Chacaltaya rises well above the tree line. A small shack at 12,000 feet, warmed by a wood stove, housed used skis, moldy leather boots, bags of salted yucca chips, and bottled water.
At the time, there was no ski lift, per se, only a towrope, powered by a chattering Volkswagen engine that pulled the skier up to an elevation of 16,000 feet, affording a straight 4,000 ft. run down to the base. Salvador, the towrope operator, a broad-shouldered, dark-skinned Aymara native with deep wrinkles worn and weathered by freezing wind told me that the ski base measured 12 ft. of deep, heavy packed glacial ice, topped with 6 ft. of pure white powder. On the day before the trip, knowing that I’d be venturing into painful cold, I purchased a heavy, white, handwoven alpaca sweater for $50 in La Paz. That same sweater today would be worth $350, were someone able to find one.
My friend Dan, a Peace Corps volunteer from Denver, a veteran skier from what he referred to as “real mountains” in Colorado, came along to teach me some twists and turns on the frigid slopes. However, once we were outfitted with the proper gear, getting to the top turned out to be tougher than what we thought. The towrope had somehow gotten wet and the cold caused its surface to be covered in ice. When I tried to grab hold, I slipped and fell backwards, knocking Dan off of his skis and sending him sliding like a sled down the slope on his side.
Salvador burst out of the shack laughing, with a smile so wide I could see his large front teeth stained green from years of chewing coca leaves. He sidled over and handed us heavy, lama-hide gloves sewn together with sinew stripped from the hide of butchered sheep. The palm side of the gloves felt like rough sandpaper or something used to scrape dried, brittle paint off of a wall.
On our second attempt, Dan decided to go first. I watched as he waddled towards the tow, bent his knees, and lunged forward while grabbing the moving rope. I waited a while to give him some distance in case he too fell backwards, knocking me off my feet. But that was not to be. He was more the pro than I. By the time I grabbed the rope, he was halfway up the slope. Minutes later, we met at the top, congratulating each other, and proceeded to plan our decent.
At 16,000 feet, there are no trees or bushes, nothing but shining silver mounds of moguls undulating downward shaped by the whimsical nature of the prevailing winds. The landscape looked like desert dunes or rolling waves on a rough sea. Off in the distance, we saw a huge condor, its enormous wings stretched wide as it rode an invisible wind from slope to slope in pursuit of prey. I could feel my chest heaving in the thin air as my lungs gasped for oxygen. “Time to head down, Dan,” I said, barely being able to breathe. “I’ll lead,” he said, “Just don’t follow too close behind.”
Dan made slow sweeping turns as he circled around the base of the moguls, leaving long wide tracks for me to follow. I took my time trailing behind him, wanting to feel the gentle pull of gravity as I meandered down and around the mounds. The shushing sound of skis on snow soothed my apprehension and I settled into a smooth ride back to the base. I felt forlorn as we reached the bottom and approached the shack. It all seemed to end so soon.
Suddenly, Dan stood in front of me laughing hoarsely while pointing at my chest. I looked down to see the front of my sweater stained with dark, frozen blood. The altitude gave me a major nosebleed. Salvador, seeing what had happened, led me into the shack, pulled off my sweater, and immersed it in a bucket of steaming lama milk sitting on the stove. Apparently, a chemical reaction between the milk and blood neutralizes the stain. That one long run down was enough for both of us for the day, so we packed our gear, smelly soggy sweater and all, and settled into a slow, silent drive back to La Paz. We never made it back to the mountain that year, but made a pact to return whenever possible.
Jump forward 50 Years
On the 50th year anniversary of my not so spectacular ski experience on the slopes of Mt. Chacaltaya, I made a point to return to Bolivia to witness what had changed economically, politically, socially, and, most importantly, to make another run or two down the mountain. Unfortunately, Dan had other plans and couldn’t make the trip, but with parting words of wisdom, he reminded me to stuff Kleenex up my nose so as not to ruin my beautiful sweater. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that moths living as uninvited guests in my clothes closet consumed practically every last thread.
Bolivia had changed drastically in the past half-century. The population trebled, increasing from 4 million to 12 million. Most of this growth came from a tremendous number of births, rather than from immigration. It is not uncommon to see a young Andean girl of 18 years old walking briskly up the steep streets of La Paz while holding her 3 year old daughter’s hand, a baby boy bundled and strapped snugly in a handwoven blanket wrapped around her broad shoulders, and a protruding bump on her belly foretelling yet another baby that would be born into poverty.
There’s just not enough healthy food to feed the burgeoning, undernourished population. And if good food was available, many would not be able to afford it. La Paz, the highest capital in the world, sits in a deep, bowl-like valley surrounded by the Andean mountain chain. Weather inversions often trap polluted air caused by fumes emanating from an onslaught of trucks, buses, automobiles, and motorbikes zipping through the narrow streets, creating an environment rife with pulmonary infectious diseases in the city of just under 2 million.
I arranged a self-tour traversing the towns and villages where I had lived and visited 50 years ago. With each stopover, I found similar sights as in La Paz: an abundance of pollution and poverty, primarily in the pueblos, but also prominent in some of the larger cities. Two new things that I never saw in the past were obesity and diabetes. One would wonder why excessive weight gain would exist in a country where people are poor and malnourishment is prevalent. The simple answer is the availability of packaged foods high in sugar but low in nutrition. This isn’t to say that all of Bolivia is suffering. There are pockets of wealth ensconced in enclaves, especially in the larger cities that represent a very small portion of people, perhaps less than ten percent of the population. I’ve been told that beginning in the late ’90s, the extreme gap between rich and poor has been diminishing.
My trip took two weeks, traveling in a dilapidated Toyota Land Cruiser to the towns and outposts of my past. It was occasionally heartwarming to see that in some places, time seemed to have stood still, in that daily life was calm, the air clean, and children smiled as I waved while bumping along the rocky roads in the rusty Cruiser.
I was often invited into their modest homes for coffee and snacks. Even the poorest of the poor, living in adobe huts, shared what little they had. Their kindness overwhelmed me. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to these towns in 50 years’ time. Will they even exist, or evolve into smog-filled, concrete megalopolises, baking in the heat of the unforgiving sun?
I circled my way back to La Paz, feeling excited and kind of giddy with the goal of making one final run down the slopes of Chacaltaya. And for this special occasion, I bought a new alpaca sweater, this time dark brown and beige rather than white, for obvious reasons, at a small shop called La Esperanza (The Hope). And with hope in my heart, I strolled into a nearby travel agency and blurted out in broken Spanish,
“Hola, quisiera ir a Chacaltaya.” (Hello, I would like to go to Chacaltaya).
The attendant, a young woman dressed in a hand-embroidered blouse and multicolored skirts called polleras, responded to me in broken English, saying,
“Why you want to go there?”
Taking her lead and not wanting to appear aggressively gringo, I replied,
“I want to go skiing.”
“You can’t go skiing,” she said.
I could feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck while thinking, nobody is going to tell me what I can or cannot do.
“Why can’t I go skiing?” I asked forcefully, trying not to be too rude.
She bent forward, looking into my eyes, and with a stern look she said,
“There’s no snow, nada, nothing, all gone.”
I backed away slowly, feeling embarrassed for my blatant behavior, and said,
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
As I turned to leave, she reached over the counter and gently touched my shoulder,
“I can find you nice mountain in Chile for ski,” she said smiling.
“Thank you, but no,” I said, feeling sad for having my hopes dashed and now nowhere to go.
I later learned that the Andean glaciers began to lose their snow at a rapid pace in the 1980s. By 2009, Chacaltaya had lost all of its ice and snow, forcing the people who depended on meltwater for their survival in the towns and villages surrounding its base to pack and leave, looking for homes and shelter in La Paz and other locations. Climatologists using advanced weather-recording instruments have observed that up to 50% of the snow in the Andes has melted within the past 40 years, with no end to snowmelt in sight.
I recommend this article: “The History of Chacaltaya, Bolivia | The World’s Highest Ski Resort That Disappeared Because of Climate Change.”
The Movie: “Samuel in the Clouds”
Snow-forecast.com writes, “As we told you before, Samuel Mendoza is one of Chacaltaya’s guardians. Pieter Van Eecke, a film director from Belgium, lived and worked in South America for years, obtaining several awards for his Goudougoudou documentary. There, he showed Haiti’s devastating earthquake. In this new opportunity, he takes us to Bolivia, to show us first-person Samuel’s life, and how the Chacaltaya glaciar melted. This is the trailer of ‘Samuel in the Clouds’.”