5000m up Ecuadors highest peak Chimborazo, the countries last ice merchant works.
Icemen or ice merchants, which used to number more than 40 in Ecuador, were workers who went up to the glaciers in the mountains and used ice axes to chop away blocks of ice to sell in the markets.
With the advent of refrigeration and freezers though, the profession has slowly dwindled to where there is only one Iceman left. Baltazar Ushca is famously known as the last ice merchant of Ecuador. Because of this, he has risen to fame and can be found on billboards and has met many famous figures in his home country.
The job is not an easy one. When I visited him in 2002 he was going up to the glacier two times a week on Thursday and Friday, and was going down to the market to sell the ice on Saturdays. He has been doing the job for over 50 years and has seemingly perfected the process.
With just an ice axe, he walks from town early in the morning up to where the glacier begins at nearly 5000m with a donkey and starts to pick away at the glacier. With what seems like incredible speed, he knocks away a large chuck, carves it into cube, wraps it in hay and places it on the donkey. The chunks of ice easily weigh over 25kg. When he is ready late in the afternoon, he heads back down the mountain carefully with his donkey and prepares to sell the ice on Saturdays at the market in Riobamba for just a few dollars profit from each cube. Below, you can see some photos of collecting the ice blocks.
At over 70 years old, the reality is that when Baltazar is gone, there will be no one else to take his place. A job that has been going on for years and years in this region will be no longer. For some, it will make sense, as with refrigeration and freezers, there is no longer a need for this type of job. For others though, it will be a part of the culture that can no longer be experienced and revered.
As far as I know, he is still collecting ice on Thursdays and Fridays. If you want to visit him and see the craft for yourself, you can either arrange it through a travel agency (I arranged my visit through a climbing guide) or I’ve heard his son can also arrange tours to visit him if you would like to. However, if you don’t want to take the whole day, you can also meet him at the market in Riobamba on Saturdays and he will be glad to take a picture with you.
What are some other extreme jobs that you’ve encountered in your travels? Let us know in the comments below!