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The Ice Men of Chimbarazo


We were in the Ecuadorian town of Riobamba during the filming of “Little Lines of the World”; a 1982, BBC documentary on a train journey from Quito to Guyaquil. Taking advantage of a well earned day’s break, we were sightseeing in the Indian market in the Plaza de San Alfonso.

It was eight in the morning and the market was already crammed full with shoppers. There were stalls of every kind, offering vegetables, fruit, live animals, herbs,obscure roots and other bric-a-brac which, the stall owners were proclaiming, would cure any known sickness.

Those who could not afford the rent of a stall were squatting on the floor with their produce in front of them and herds of children swarming around them. The restaurant owners were touting for business, giving away samples of their  llapingachos (potato patties) to prospective clients and and at the same time, physically attempting to pull them into the restaurant where they could sell them plates of steaming "juatita" (a type of soup made with tripe), or small pieces of fried pork served with corn.

 We had stopped in front of a stall where an Indian woman was offering glasses of  fruit juices from a collection of large urns and  we were sampling a refreshing  "Fresco", when tiny puck-like Indian  came rushing up to the stall. On his back were two large packs wrapped in straw and bound with woven straw rope. The packs were so heavy that the stall owner  had to help him unload these on to the floor. Without a word but with a friendly toothy smile he disappeared into the crowd, only to appear five minutes later with two more similar packs. On polite questioning we were astounded to find out that the packs contained ice from the nearby volcano of Chimborazo, which looks down on Riobamba from a height of over 20,600 feet.

This ice, we leaned, was especially prized by the drink vendors for its hardness and pure flavour. Three times a week a small group of Indians climbed up to the snow line of Chimbarazo to cut the ice and bring it down to sell in the Riobamba market. On hearing this, I recalled the story of a local hacienda owner who, in the not so distant past was known to have  ordered his servants  15,000 feet up Iliniza - a snow-capped mountain, near the town of Latacunga - to fetch ice for his guests’ whiskies.

The producer, Bill Lyons, was quick to realize that these Chimbarazo ice men would make a wonderful sequence in our film and after making many enquiries, we found out the route they took and when and where they started from. It was surprising to us that few people in Riobamba knew, cared or even thought about where the ice came from.

The following week we drove a few miles from Riobamba to small hamlet called Cuatro esquinas, Four Corners. It was from here that the ice workers set out. We arranged for a mule for the cameras and equipment and a boy to guide us up the mountain the next day. There were  only five Indians from the same family in the ice business and they would leave at six in the morning and walk between four and five hours to reach the snow level, which is normally around 15,500 feet.

 We left the next day at dawn but instead of one guide, we were now joined by his friend, his friend’s mother, their uncle and a second mule. Chimborazo was not yet clear of its early morning mist as we set off, winding up a dusty road past little children tending sheep. A group of three ageing, dwarf sized Indian women scurried down the road past us, spinning wool as they went. The road  ended and we walked on through the fields, climbing higher as we went. We were beginning to feel the altitude.Our guides clambering ahead of us, chattering as they went, as though they were on a stroll along the beach and not at 12,000 feet altitude. The guide's mother followed behind belabouring the mules with a stick and cursing them in Quechua – the language of the Andean indigenous peoples.

At around 13,500 feet an Indian and a small boy passed us, head¬ing up the trail with ten mules. Half an hour later we caught up with the small boy and the mules. He was called Pedro and was nine years old. His father Dameon had apparently gone on ahead to start work. Pedro was staying behind to cut the paja (straw) which would be needed for wrapping the blocks of ice and as feed for the mules.

 We struggled on, gasping for air that wasn't there, whilst our guides strolled easily upward. The two boys shaming us by chasing each other around and doing handstands. It was getting cold. The sun was trying to break through the mist. The first streaks of snow were beginning to stretch out of the mist towards us. The grass had given way to black volcanic earth, covered with boulders and small stones. Not long now, we were told. Only half an hour more. They pointed upwards indicating a gully, which had just cleared of cloud. That was  our destination. For us it would take another hour and a half before we arrived at the top of a scree and in front was a wall of ice. We were at 15,500 feet.

A massive pillar of perma-ice had been hacked from the wall by one of Indians, Beltazar Urcar. He talked to us without stopping work. He was 33 years old and had been work¬ing in the ice quarries since he was eighteen. He had a small piece of land down at Four Corners, which he worked on the days he was not on the mountain. The arduous work, he told us, was as much a  tradition as it was a way of making money. His father had also worked for many years up here on Chimborazo.

After resting, we scrambled up another 100 feet, taking care of the warnings of the dangers of falling rock and hidden crevasses. Here we found Dameon Sira, chipping away at another ice wall. He had found a crack in the wall and after clearing this he attached a rope with a home made wooden hook around the massive column of ice. He was wearing a thin cotton sweater and an old  tattered pair of trousers, over which he had a pair of plastic chaps. He told us he had been working here for 20 years and now his son Pedro was regularly coming to help him. He had three more children at home and without the money he made from the ice, he said he would not be able to feed them.

 Pedro arrived with the mules, stacked high with paja. Without a word from his father, he went to work. First he placed the ropes of paja, which he had apparently been plaiting on his way up, on the ground. Then he spread the paja in a thick layer over the rope. On finishing he went to help his father, who had cleared away the slush and stones from the base the towering block he had hewed, which looked as though it would topple at any moment, crushing them both.

 Dameon took hold of the rope and Pedro caught the end of it, and at a respectable distance, started to pull at the column. It was impressing to see a nine year old child put in so much genuine effort. The slab came away from the wall and crashed down in front of us. It was like marble and so hard that no pieces broke away. We estimated it to weigh around 400 pounds. There was no rest¬ing. Dameon started to cut away at the ice with an axe, making blocks about 30 x 20 inches each and his son continued laying more paja. Sweat was pouring down Dameon’s face but there was no stopping in the below zero temperature.

The sun would occasionally break through and within minutes the sound of running water could be heard as the top ice began to melt and small rocks scattered on the top of the ice face tumbled down. There were also some large boulders ready the fall but the pair seemed oblivious of them. Later we were told that many people working up here had been crushed to death by falling boulders but the gods of Chimborazo had always been on Dameon's side.

When the blocks were cut, Dameon picked one up, and placing it on to of the paja,. commenced to wrap the straw round the block tying it with rope that had been placed under¬neath. When all the blocks had been wrapped, Pedro brought up the mules and they loaded two blocks on either side of each mule and one on top. Each block must have weighed around 20 Ibs. Some of the mules could hardly stand upright with the weight. The whole work had been completed within two hours and without a pause the pair set off down the mountain, beating their mules as they went.

Down at the first ice face, Beltazar was loading up his mules and when he finished we set off back with him to Cuatro esquinas. It was two-thirty in the afternoon as we headed down the mountain. The clouds cleared and it was wonderful moment, with Chimbarazo shown in all its glory and a rare condor circling and looking benevolently down on us.

It took us another three hours to return and when we arrived at the hamlet, the ice blocks were already unloaded in front of Beltazars house. The ice is sufficiently hard enough to last for at least three days with¬out melting. The following day a truck would take the ice to Riobamba, where Dameon and Baltazar would once again run around the  market delivering the blocks. With the cost of the motorized transportation deducted they considered themselves lucky to receive a total of 30US dollars for their efforts.

Sometimes, when I am sitting in a comfortable chair, bemoaning my lot in life, I look into my glass of gin and tonic, and see the translucent ice floating there and I remember the ice men of Chimborazo and I have to remind myself  how fortunate some of us are in this world.
BRT
 

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