Printed on October 17th, 2020 |
by Frank Semmens
October 17th, 2020 by Frank Semmens
I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia from 1964–1966. Being an avid skier from the Adirondack Mountains in New York, I needed to check my abilities on the highest ski resort on the planet, Mount Chacaltaya, a 45-minute drive from the capital of Bolivia, La Paz. At 18,000 toes above sea stage, Chacaltaya rises effectively above the tree line. A small shack at 12,000 toes, warmed by a wooden range, housed used skis, moldy leather-based boots, luggage of salted yucca chips, and bottled water.
On the time, there was no ski elevate, per se, solely a towrope, powered by a chattering Volkswagen engine that pulled the skier as much as an elevation of 16,000 toes, affording a straight 4,000 ft. run all the way down to the bottom. Salvador, the towrope operator, a broad-shouldered, dark-skinned Aymara native with deep wrinkles worn and weathered by freezing wind instructed 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 earlier than the journey, understanding that I’d be venturing into painful chilly, I bought a heavy, white, handwoven alpaca sweater for $50 in La Paz. That very same sweater as we speak could be value $350, have been somebody capable of finding one.
My buddy Dan, a Peace Corps volunteer from Denver, a veteran skier from what he known as “actual mountains” in Colorado, got here alongside to show me some twists and activates the frigid slopes. Nevertheless, as soon as we have been outfitted with the correct gear, attending to the highest turned out to be more durable than what we thought. The towrope had by some means gotten moist and the chilly induced its floor to be lined in ice. Once I tried to seize maintain, I slipped and fell backwards, knocking Dan off of his skis and sending him sliding like a sled down the slope on his facet.
Salvador burst out of the shack laughing, with a smile so vast I might see his massive entrance enamel stained inexperienced from years of chewing coca leaves. He sidled over and handed us heavy, lama-hide gloves sewn along with sinew stripped from the conceal of butchered sheep. The palm facet of the gloves felt like tough sandpaper or one thing used to scrape dried, brittle paint off of a wall.
On our second try, Dan determined to go first. I watched as he waddled in direction of the tow, bent his knees, and lunged ahead whereas grabbing the shifting rope. I waited some time to offer him a long way in case he too fell backwards, knocking me off my toes. However that was to not be. He was extra the professional than I. By the point I grabbed the rope, he was midway up the slope. Minutes later, we met on the prime, congratulating one another, and proceeded to plan our respectable.
At 16,000 toes, there aren’t any bushes or bushes, nothing however shining silver mounds of moguls undulating downward formed by the whimsical nature of the prevailing winds. The panorama regarded like desert dunes or rolling waves on a tough sea. Off within the distance, we noticed an enormous condor, its huge wings stretched vast because it rode an invisible wind from slope to slope in pursuit of prey. I might really feel my chest heaving within the skinny air as my lungs gasped for oxygen. “Time to go down, Dan,” I mentioned, barely having the ability to breathe. “I’ll lead,” he mentioned, “Simply don’t observe too shut behind.”
Dan made sluggish sweeping turns as he circled across the base of the moguls, leaving lengthy vast tracks for me to observe. I took my time trailing behind him, eager to really feel the light pull of gravity as I meandered down and across the mounds. The shushing sound of skis on snow soothed my apprehension and I settled right into a easy journey again to the bottom. I felt forlorn as we reached the underside and approached the shack. All of it appeared to finish so quickly.
All of the sudden, Dan stood in entrance of me laughing hoarsely whereas pointing at my chest. I regarded all the way down to see the entrance of my sweater stained with darkish, frozen blood. The altitude gave me a serious nosebleed. Salvador, seeing what had occurred, led me into the shack, pulled off my sweater, and immersed it in a bucket of steaming lama milk sitting on the range. Apparently, a chemical response between the milk and blood neutralizes the stain. That one long term down was sufficient for each of us for the day, so we packed our gear, smelly soggy sweater and all, and settled right into a sluggish, silent drive again to La Paz. We by no means made it again to the mountain that yr, however made a pact to return each time attainable.
Bounce ahead 50 Years
On the 50th yr anniversary of my not so spectacular ski expertise on the slopes of Mt. Chacaltaya, I made a degree to return to Bolivia to witness what had modified economically, politically, socially, and, most significantly, to make one other run or two down the mountain. Sadly, Dan had different plans and couldn’t make the journey, however with parting phrases of knowledge, he jogged my memory to stuff Kleenex up my nostril in order to not wreck my lovely sweater. I didn’t have the center to inform him that moths dwelling as uninvited visitors in my garments closet consumed virtually each final thread.
Bolivia had modified drastically up to now half-century. The inhabitants trebled, growing from Four million to 12 million. Most of this development got here from an incredible variety of births, fairly than from immigration. It isn’t unusual to see a younger Andean lady of 18 years previous strolling briskly up the steep streets of La Paz whereas holding her three yr previous daughter’s hand, a child boy bundled and strapped snugly in a handwoven blanket wrapped round her broad shoulders, and a protruding bump on her stomach foretelling one more child that might be born into poverty.
There’s simply not sufficient wholesome meals to feed the burgeoning, undernourished inhabitants. And if good meals was accessible, many wouldn’t be capable of afford it. La Paz, the very best capital on the planet, sits in a deep, bowl-like valley surrounded by the Andean mountain chain. Climate inversions typically entice polluted air attributable to fumes emanating from an onslaught of vehicles, buses, vehicles, and motorbikes zipping by way of the slender streets, creating an setting rife with pulmonary infectious ailments within the metropolis of slightly below 2 million.
I organized a self-tour traversing the cities and villages the place I had lived and visited 50 years in the past. With every stopover, I discovered comparable sights as in La Paz: an abundance of air pollution and poverty, primarily within the pueblos, but additionally distinguished in a few of the bigger cities. Two new issues that I by no means noticed up to now have been weight problems and diabetes. One would marvel why extreme weight acquire would exist in a rustic the place persons are poor and malnourishment is prevalent. The easy reply is the supply of packaged meals excessive in sugar however low in diet. This isn’t to say that each one of Bolivia is struggling. There are pockets of wealth ensconced in enclaves, particularly within the bigger cities that characterize a really small portion of individuals, maybe lower than ten % of the inhabitants. I’ve been instructed that starting within the late ’90s, the intense hole between wealthy and poor has been diminishing.
My journey took two weeks, touring in a dilapidated Toyota Land Cruiser to the cities and outposts of my previous. It was often heartwarming to see that in some locations, time appeared to have stood nonetheless, in that each day life was calm, the air clear, and kids smiled as I waved whereas bumping alongside the rocky roads within the rusty Cruiser.
I used to be typically invited into their modest houses for espresso and snacks. Even the poorest of the poor, dwelling in adobe huts, shared what little they’d. Their kindness overwhelmed me. It’ll be fascinating to see what occurs to those cities in 50 years’ time. Will they even exist, or evolve into smog-filled, concrete megalopolises, baking within the warmth of the unforgiving solar?
I circled my means again to La Paz, feeling excited and sort of giddy with the aim of constructing one last run down the slopes of Chacaltaya. And for this special day, I purchased a brand new alpaca sweater, this time darkish brown and beige fairly than white, for apparent causes, at a small store known as La Esperanza (The Hope). And with hope in my coronary heart, I strolled into a close-by journey company and blurted out in damaged Spanish,
“Hola, quisiera ir a Chacaltaya.” (Howdy, I wish to go to Chacaltaya).
The attendant, a younger lady wearing a hand-embroidered shirt and multicolored skirts known as polleras, responded to me in damaged English, saying,
“Why you need to go there?”
Taking her lead and never wanting to look aggressively gringo, I replied,
“I need to go snowboarding.”
“You possibly can’t go snowboarding,” she mentioned.
I might really feel the hairs standing up on the again of my neck whereas pondering, no one goes to inform me what I can or can not do.
“Why can’t I am going snowboarding?” I requested forcefully, making an attempt to not be too impolite.
She bent ahead, trying into my eyes, and with a stern look she mentioned,
“There’s no snow, nada, nothing, all gone.”
I backed away slowly, feeling embarrassed for my blatant conduct, and mentioned,
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
As I turned to go away, she reached over-the-counter and gently touched my shoulder,
“I can discover you good mountain in Chile for ski,” she mentioned smiling.
“Thanks, however no,” I mentioned, feeling unhappy for having my hopes dashed and now nowhere to go.
I later discovered that the Andean glaciers started to lose their snow at a speedy tempo within the 1980s. By 2009, Chacaltaya had misplaced all of its ice and snow, forcing the individuals who relied on meltwater for his or her survival within the cities and villages surrounding its base to pack and depart, on the lookout for houses and shelter in La Paz and different areas. Climatologists utilizing superior weather-recording devices have noticed that as much as 50% of the snow within the Andes has melted inside the previous 40 years, with no finish to snowmelt in sight.
I like to recommend this text: “The History of Chacaltaya, Bolivia | The World’s Highest Ski Resort That Disappeared Because of Climate Change.”
The Film: “Samuel within the Clouds”
Snow-forecast.com writes, “As we instructed you earlier than, Samuel Mendoza is certainly one of Chacaltaya’s guardians. Pieter Van Eecke, a movie director from Belgium, lived and labored in South America for years, acquiring a number of awards for his Goudougoudou documentary. There, he confirmed Haiti’s devastating earthquake. On this new alternative, he takes us to Bolivia, to indicate us first-person Samuel’s life, and the way the Chacaltaya glaciar melted. That is the trailer of ‘Samuel within the Clouds’.”
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