Outside at Tribeca: The Last Ice Merchant of Chimborazo

For the past five decades, 68-year-old Baltazar Ushca has made a living by harvesting glacial ice from the tallest mountain in Ecuador. His work is no longer needed, but he still gets up every morning to climb to 16,000 feet.

The Last Ice Merchant     Photo: Sandy Patch

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Fifty years ago, the residents of Cuatro Esquinas, Ecuador, got their ice from the slopes of Mount Chimborazo—ice miners trekked up the dormant volcano every week and returned with blocks of freshly carved ice. Then came electricity and freezers, and ice mining became a bygone profession. In The Last Ice Merchant, a short film that just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Sandy Patch profiles 68-year-old Baltazar Ushca, the only remaining ice miner. Patch spoke to Outside about his three-week production.

How did you meet Baltazar?
My good friend’s a tour guide—he’s been a tour guide for 22 years—and he was trying to get me to do a video on his friend Baltazar. I kind of kept rolling my eyes until we went to go visit him and saw how cool it was. So Rodrigo [Donoso, the tour guide] turned into a producer and I turned into a director, and we put something together.

Mount Chimborazo is almost 21,000 feet high. How far up does Baltazar hike for ice? How long does it take?
From the town, I’d say it takes him four hours or so. He moves pretty fast because he rides the donkeys a bunch. If you’re doing it by foot it takes longer, but it’s about four or four-and-a-half hours to get to where he goes—and where he works is about 16,000 feet. That’s roughly where the ice starts to show. He doesn’t have any trouble with it, but when other people go you often find them huffing and puffing and needing to take breaks. Some people halfway there have to stop and are throwing up, but Baltazar just keeps rolling.

How did you get your equipment up? How big was the crew?
Most of the time it was just me and Rodrigo. I had been living in Ecuador, in Quito, so that has an altitude of 9,500 feet, and Rodrigo lives at 12,000 feet, And we both go running a lot and we were training. So the first couple times we were a little slow, but by the end we were practically jogging up the mountain. It felt great. But we did have two days where we had a bigger crew, and it was difficult for them.

What’s the hike like?
Gorgeous. You start out in a small indigenous town. You’re surrounded by the sounds of sheep and cows and roosters and dogs all around you, and with each different step on the way up, you get different colors and sounds. Down there everything is green and brown, you’ve got grasses and dirt roads. Then you move up to the hay, which is higher in altitude and away from the town, and the hay in the sun sort of shines a really beautiful golden and you just hear wind going through the tall grasses. Occasionally you hear birds and things, but then you get higher up and it slowly transitions to just rock and there it’s just wind. You don’t see almost any birds up there, and then you get higher and it’s rock and ice, and there again you hear the wind but you also hear the ice melting in the sun and it sounds like rice crispies.

Is it a steep hike or gradual?
It’s pretty gradual. Some parts are steeper than others but for the most part it’s pretty gradual. Unless it’s windy, you’re not using your hands. So the rigorousness of the hike is really in the altitude, not in the incline.

What kind of equipment did you carry?
Basically the majority of the movie is shot on my Canon 5D Mark II. With that I had a shoulder rig so I could mount it on my shoulder and hold it with my hands to hold it more stable, and on that there’s a four-pound counter-weight on the back. I have an extra lens, so I have two lenses with me at all times. I have audio-recording equipment, wireless microphone, headphones and a shotgun microphone as well. So with food and snacks, all in all we’re probably carrying at times 30 to 40 pounds of equipment in our bags.

You mentioned there were a couple of difficult days with a larger crew. What were some of the challenges?
The slow-motion footage at the beginning and end of the movie was shot on a different camera, a Red One, and for that I had to hire a guy with a camera, Juan Carlos [Ortiz-Duran], and his wife Paulina. So with that, we’re talking significantly more equipment. It took seven of us to get the equipment up there on our backs. There are two shelters on the way up to the ice mine and when we were getting up to the second shelter it just started sleeting and it was very, very windy. Obviously he didn’t wanna leave $125,000 of equipment sitting in a hut, even if it’s remote, so they wanted to stay for the night. I stayed the night with them because I was worried and had to make sure that everything was gonna be okay, and I had more mountain experience.

It started snowing in the evening and the snowing got more and more difficult. All we had was what we were wearing and it was below freezing outside and the fire was just a piddly little thing and was mostly just smoking. And we only had three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we didn’t have a lot of water. But we made it through and the next morning about 7:30 the rest of the team got back up there and we did the shoot that day. It was the windiest day that my guide friend had ever seen up there, and he’s been up there for 22 years. Ice was literally forming not on the tops of rocks but on the sides of rocks—icicles were forming horizontally.

What are some of the biggest dangers of the job for Baltazar?
He is literally, by hand and all alone up on the mountain, carving out large pieces of ice at a time. So the biggest dangers are things falling on him. The pieces of ice that he breaks off are hundreds and hundreds of pounds. But the ice isn’t the only danger, because on top of that there are just loose rocks going up the mountain. Everything on the mountain is pretty much just stuff sitting on other stuff. It’s like Jenga—if you take out one of the lower pieces, who knows if something is gonna topple down?

What’s a typical day like for him?
He gets up roughly at five in the morning and has a quick breakfast, usually a piece of bread and maybe horchata. He prepares his donkeys and then starts going up the mountain. The first thing he’ll do once he’s high enough is cut hay and make some rope—the hay is for wrapping the ice and acts as insulation. Then he’ll get to the ice and the first thing he’ll do is stand there looking at it for a second, deciding which part to take. Then he starts hacking away with a pickaxe, and he carves around the sides to try to get a single piece to break off. He’ll do a vertical line down one side and a vertical line down another side. Then he starts working at it with a pry bar. In the beginning you hear a higher-pitched hit, and once it’s about to fall off you start to get a lower-pitched boom. At one point he’ll give a little push on the pry bar and the ice will come toppling down in one piece. Then he starts breaking up the ice into smaller blocks and he’ll use an axe to clean the ice and get all the grit off and start shaping it into blocks. Once it’s in blocks he literally wraps it like a gift using hay ropes as a bow, then he gets both pieces of ice on the donkey. Each donkey carries two pieces of ice down, so he has three donkeys carrying six blocks of ice.

How large and heavy are the blocks?
Each block is roughly 40 kilograms, so it’s heavy. And for a 68-year-old guy to have two of them strapped to his back when he delivers them in the market, it’s impressive.

How much money does he make?
Each block is $2 to $2.50, and that’s U.S. dollars. Ecuador uses U.S. currency.

Does he have regular customers at the market?
Baltazar goes to specific customers that he delivers to in the markets, and all they use it for is blending it into juices and selling them as juices with Chimborazo ice. At this point it’s really just a novelty for people. Originally, before electricity, before freezers, before you could manufacture ice, this was just where ice came from. There were teams of indigenous locals going up the mountain harvesting the ice. When fish was brought up from the coast to the highlands on the train, they’d be shipping it with ice that they first brought down from the mountains. That kind of thing isn’t necessary anymore, since they have refrigerated trucks and they have many ways to keep things cool. So at this point it’s really just a novelty and used for juices.

When did the ice merchants start retiring?
The last three ice merchants were Baltazar and his brothers, and they were all going up together as recently as the late ’90s and early aughts. When you see books about ice merchants, you see the three of them together. So it’s really taken its last toll recently, but it seems like numbers really started thinning 30 or 40 years ago.

How much money does he make per year? Is it enough for him and his wife to live on?
At this point a lot of his money is gotten from tourism, because tourists can come visit him and they pay to go up with him. Like me—I paid him when we went and hung out with him. I paid when we were living in his yard. So most of his money comes from other places, but as a direct result from being an ice merchant.

Are there lots of tourists who do this?
There are some, not a ton. It’s a rigorous hike for people so it isn’t for Joe Tourist, but for people wanting to see something genuinely interesting and get a glimpse of another way of life, absolutely people do it. And there are guides that will take people up there.

How do they find out about the hike? I assume it’s not in Lonely Planet or anything.
Word of mouth, and once you’re in Ecuador you can hear about it. Baltazar is pretty well-known throughout Ecuador because he’s the last ice merchant, so they’ve had a number of TV shows about him. People know who he is, so it is an option that some people offer for tourists.

Does the ice actually taste sweeter, like Baltazar says?
I didn’t do blind taste tests with people. I’ll tell you it’s grittier. But a lot of people say that the ice has a much higher mineral content, which does contribute to the flavor.

His brother Gregorio gave up ice mining because it just wasn’t worth it, financially. What do you think keeps Baltazar going?
I definitely think that part of it is Baltazar’s age. He’s the oldest brother, so he started the earliest and at the time that Baltazar was growing up there was a rapid amount of change taking place in the country. Baltazar was raised with this notion that life is work and so he just keeps doing it. It doesn’t seem to bother him because it’s just ingrained in him. He’s this relic of an era that doesn’t exist anymore.

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