Enjoying the stunning view of
Laguna Verde, 1000 metres below. ©Jimmy Petterson

There can certainly be no more romantic a mission than skiing in Venezuela. This beautiful country of lush rainforest, vast savannah, and steaming marshlands is situated just eight degrees north of the equator. The friendly local inhabitants are as likely to know something about skiing as they are to become Arctic explorers. And yet, the southwestern corner of the country marks the northern end of the mighty Andes, and the peak of Mt. Bolivar rises above the rainforest, the cloud forest and the rest of the surroundings to the lofty pinnacle of 4,981 metres.

Pico Bolivar and nearby Pico Humboldt (4,942m) have forever been the home to perennial snow and ice in the form of small glaciers. With the advent of climate change, which has knocked all of the world’s equatorial mountains’ glaciers into a devastating retreat, this will very soon no longer be the case. Within a few years, possibly before the end of the next decade, the possibility of carving even a few ski turns on Venezuelan snow will have vanished into the history books forever.

Not so long ago, things were quite different, and a small amount of skiing actually existed in Venezuela. In the mid-1950s, they actually held a Venezuelan national ski slalom championship for a few years on the short slope atop Pico Espejo. Participants rode donkeys up to Refugio Moya at 4,200 metres and completed the ascent on foot. At that time, one sport shop in nearby Merida even sold skis.

Then the Merida teleferico opened in 1960, and skiing became much easier. The cable car was built in four stages—12.5 kilometres long, and more than 3,000 vertical metres up to the lofty heights of 4,765 metres—the top of Pico Espejo. It was the longest and highest cable car in the world, and for the entire decade of the sixties, year-round skiing was possible on an approximately 300-metre-length slope near the top of the cable car station.

By 1980, the possibility to ski only existed sporadically during the winter months, as climate change began to take its toll. And as time passed, snow even at such a high elevation became more and more of a rarity. Today, snow no longer stays for more than the day after the snowfall, and skiing on Pico Espejo is more or less extinct.

At the time that the cable car was opened, there were nine glaciers in Venezuela. Seven of those bodies of ice passed into oblivion during the early nineties, leaving two small patches of unskiable ice and snow left on the North face of Pico Bolivar and one skiable glacier—what is left of the permanent ice atop Pico Humboldt.

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PERSONAL STORY Provided by Jimmy Petterson - Ski Journalist & Author

A few years ago, in 2010, I finally got the opportunity to visit this region—a visit I had written onto my bucket list many years earlier. But would it be too late to accomplish my wish of skiing in Venezuela?

By the time I arrived there with my son Erik and our friend Simon Grahn, not only had most of the ski alternatives disappeared, but also, the teleferico had been permanently closed. A new aerial tram was in the planning stages, but we would have to reach the peak unassisted by any mechanical device if we were going to have any chance to ski. This is no simple undertaking. It is a four-day round-trip trek with an ascent of 2,640 vertical metres.

Trekking through the jungle on the way to the glacier.

The first section of the trail is quite good, as we hiked through thick cloud forest, which eventually gave way to bamboo forest. Ultimately we put up our tent next to Laguna Coromoto, a pristine body of water situated at 3,300 metres.

The following day we got our first view of the glacier. There is something other-worldly about emerging from tropical and sub-tropical vegetation to a view of glacial ice. At 3,900 metres, we again made an early camp, this time alongside the lovely Laguna Verde.

Trekking through the jungle on the way to the glacier. ©Ken Delcourt

My alarm clock roused me from a restless sleep at 2 a.m. and after a brief cup of tea, we headed up the steepest section of the trail by moonlight. Our headlamps were redundant, as the illumination from the heavens was more than adequate and more beautiful as well.

The final hundred metres to the peak was a rock climb above the remains of the glacier. Old photos reveal that not many years ago, this was the location of a south-facing glacier, but climate change had already brought about the demise of that chunk of ice.

All of us, our guides presumably excluded, were experiencing some effects of the altitude on this last push to the top, so a brief moment of exhilarated celebration at 4,942 metres was in order before we turned tail and began our descent.

Now, finally, came the moment of truth—the goal of our journey—to ski in Venezuela. Our experience was brief, but it was spectacular. The glacier afforded a stunning view of Laguna Verde, 1000 metres below. To the southwest, Pico Bolivar basked in the first morning light, while much of the northern end of the Andes stretched out along the horizon.

Chacaltaya glacier, Bolivia
The glacial ice emerges from tropical vegetation. ©Jimmy Petterson

The upper part of the glacier is rather flat, but it quickly steepens to a slope of about 30 degrees. I would have loved to ski the entire length of the Humboldt, but it did not seem prudent. The glacier is full of crevasses, and our guide, quite naturally, only had experience with traversing the flat upper section of ice so as to reach the peak. All things considered, the trial-and-error method did not really seem the most advisable approach. We satisfied ourselves with a short run within the confines of an area where we felt secure, and then dismounted our boards and headed back down the way we came.

While very few people have skied in this lovely land, there are, nevertheless, a fair number who have come before us. Sadly, we may well be the final skiers to ever transcend Venezuelan snow.

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