The Chacaltaya glacier, 5,300m up in the Andes
The glacier used to be the highest ski run in the world
Disappeared due to climate change
Located around 30km from La Paz, the Chacaltaya glacier was formerly one of the highest in South America. It was previously possible to ski the glacier during the summer months with a skiable summit at over 5,300m; higher than Mt. Everest Base Camp.
The 18,000 year old glacier melted and shrank in size from 0.22 km2 in 1940, to 0.14 km2 in 1982 and 0.08 km2 in 1996, before finally disappearing completely in 2005.
PERSONAL STORY Provided by Jimmy Petterson - Ski Journalist & Author
When I visited Chacaltaya in 1985, it was not only the oldest ski resort in South America, but more importantly, it was home to the highest ski lift in the world (5,421m).
To be honest, resort is perhaps not the correct word to use. It possibly gives a false impression. Bolivia does not have the economic resources of Austria or Switzerland, so it is hardly comparable to what one might expect to find in the Alps.
Chacaltaya had no glitzy restaurants or four-star hotels. In fact, at the end of a windy, dirt road, at an altitude of about 5,300 metres, was a dirt parking lot, a building with a restaurant and rental shop, and a second building housing an old automobile engine that powered a rope tow.
The Chacaltaya skiing adventure began with the bus ride up to the lift—a very uncertain journey on a bus that was not fitted out with snow tires or chains. Passengers would regularly be called upon to get out and push.
Once at the parking lot, a ride up in the lift was by no means certain either. Chacaltaya was the model of inefficiency. Even at the best of times, the ancient rope tow, first installed in 1938, was likely inoperable thanks to a catalogue of ludicrous circumstances.
My friend, Papi Tuomala, made a visit in the early 1980s, and the lift was not running. The reason? Unfortunately, the man with the keys to start the motor had stumbled over a precipice a few hours earlier and plummeted to an untimely death. Although the body was quite accessible, nobody had made any attempt to recover it or the sole set of keys to the ski lift. Having come all the way from Finland, and not wishing to be thwarted in his quest to ski the highest ski run in the world, Papi organised a group to retrieve the body (and the keys) so they could open the ski area themselves!
“The ancient rope tow, first installed in 1938, was likely inoperable thanks to a catalogue of ludicrous circumstances”
Some years later, I visited Chacaltaya, and although the lift operator had been replaced since the time of Papi’s visit, unfortunately the lift had not. It had broken down two weeks prior to our visit and remained unrepaired. The simple explanation was “Falta Plata!” (no money).
Even at the best of times, when the lift was in motion, it moved very fast and was reputed to be the most difficult in the world to ride. Hence, a successful trip to the peak was by no means guaranteed. A metal hook and a wooden stick were attached to opposite ends of a piece of rope, and in order to ride the contraption, one was required to attach the hook to the moving rope tow while simultaneously placing the stick between one’s legs. Many visitors found the hike up in the rarefied air to be easier than the rope tow.
In my case, with the rope tow out of service, I had no choice. Not wanting to miss my chance to ski the glacier, I hiked the 300 vertical metres. If you have ever trekked with ski boots on at elevations of over 5,000 metres, you know that progress is snail-like. I did eventually reach the summit and completed one run for posterity.
Alas, this kind of ski adventure, which was a true joy to me 30 years ago, is now no longer possible.
WHY HAS IT DISAPPEARED?
Accelerated global warming has been labelled the main culprit. In the 1990s, when scientists at the Mount Chacaltaya Laboratory began measuring the glacier, they predicted that it would survive until 2015. In reality, the glacier melted much more rapidly. By 2005 it had been reduced to a few patchy lumps of snow and ice.
The World Bank has issued a warning predicting the disappearance of many glaciers in the tropical Andes within the next 20 years. The glaciers and their meltwater are a vital resource for nearly 80 million people in the region.
- Minimise your water consumption and wastage.
- Support charities such as Agua Sustentable who are helping communities find way to adjust to the changes in water supply.
- Huge Bolivian glacier disappears - news.bbc.co.uk
- The World’s Highest Elevation Ski Resort - snowbrains.com
- Chacaltaya: the resort which broke all the records - andeslideres.com
- Vergara, 2009; Soruco, 2012; Rangecroft et al. 2013
- Soruco et al. 2009
- Ramirez et al., 2001; IPCC, 2007; Painter, 2007; Vergara et al., 2007
- Beniston, 2003; Vuille et al., 2008
- Bradley et al., 2006; Mark et al., 2010
- Beniston, 2003; Orlove et al., 2008