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.