Bolivia’s Only Ski Resort Is Facing a Snowless Future
Picture: "Chacaltaya" by Evan Abramson for The New York Times
Chacaltaya bills itself as the world’s highest ski resort, at 17,388 feet, but its ski run is expected to disappear in a few years. Skiers now descend to the lodge on a trail of rocks that 14 years ago was a 40-foot-deep run.
Font: Article originally published in The New York Times
By SIMON ROMERO
Published: February 2, 2007
CHACALTAYA, Bolivia, Jan. 28 — The lodge here at what bills itself as the world’s highest ski resort has fraying black-and-white photos evoking memories of the years when this country had an Olympic ski team.
Skip to next paragraph
The New York Times
A member of the Bolivian Andean Club skiing at Chacaltaya on Sunday. The club has followed studies of the snow’s dwindling with alarm.
Bolivia’s die-hard skiers still boast about the place, asking where else one can ski above the clouds at a dizzying 17,388 feet with a view of Lake Titicaca on the horizon.
Where else, they ask, would the après-ski tradition include coca tea and soup made from the grain of the quinoa plant?
Their pride in the ski resort here, the only one in Bolivia, soon gives way to a grim acceptance that the glacier that once surrounded the lodge with copious amounts of snow and ice is melting fast.
Attributing the melting to the growing emission of greenhouse gases causing global warming, scientists say Bolivia’s skiing tradition could be extinguished when Chacaltaya’s modest ski run disappears forever in a few years.
“This is a tragedy I can hardly bear to witness,” said Franz Gutiérrez, 65, who has been a member of the Bolivian Andean Club, which operates Chacaltaya, since he was a teenager. Guiding a group of about a dozen skiers on the opening day of this year’s season, Mr. Gutiérrez reminisced about how he skied nearly every weekend until Chacaltaya’s glacier began melting significantly a decade ago.
“It is magical,” he said, “to ski at an altitude at which planes don’t fly in parts of the world.”
Chacaltaya, of course, never had the glamour of a Vail or a Zermatt. Founded in the late 1930s by a dreamer named Raúl Posnansky Lipmann, it can be reached only by a dirt road winding through the chaotic markets of El Alto, a sprawling city of slums above La Paz, and with nail-biting-inducing switchbacks that lack guardrails.
Though ski resorts in Chile and Argentina thrive during the South American winter, from July to September, the best skiing at Chacaltaya is — or rather, was — from about January through March, when snow and hail are somewhat more common here. After Mr. Posnansky died in an avalanche in the 1940s little was done to alter Chacaltaya’s spartan operations.
Its lift, which stopped working recently, was powered by an old automobile engine. Now skiers must hike 30 minutes to Chacaltaya’s only run. For those not acclimated to La Paz, the capital, much less to Chacaltaya, which is about a mile higher, that effort intensifies the splitting headaches and shortness of breath that afflict visitors to such heights.
“I thought training at this altitude would offer some advantages,” said José Manuel Bejarano Carvajal, 50, a member of the team that competed in the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo in 1984. “But I finished last.” Mr. Bejarano said Bolivia was represented in the Olympics as recently as 1992, before its team was disbanded.
He and other members of the Bolivian Andean Club, which operates from a building in downtown La Paz whose facades are sprayed with graffiti, have followed the studies of their disappearing snow with alarm.
Scientists say that glaciers are increasingly receding throughout the Andes, but that Chacaltaya’s melting has been especially quick. More than 80 percent of the glacier has been lost in 20 years, said Jaime Argollo Bautista, director of the Institute of Geological Investigation at the University of San Andrés, in La Paz.
“I would give Chacaltaya three more years,” said Mr. Argollo, adding that the relatively small size of the glacier and the abundance of rocks under its ice, which easily absorb heat, have quickened its retreat.
Beyond the impact on skiing, the pastime of only a small elite in Bolivia, Mr. Argollo said, the country’s receding glaciers threaten drinking water supplies and water for hydroelectric plants that supply power to La Paz and El Alto.
“Chacaltaya is but a preview of what’s to happen to our other glaciers,” Mr. Argollo said.
Bolivia’s skiers seem to approach the impending end at Chacaltaya with a mixture of denial and resignation. Some members of the Andean Club talk of transforming their lodge into a gymnasium where mountain climbers and other athletes could adapt to high altitudes. This would involve redesigning the club’s proud emblem, a condor on skis.
Others dream of bringing in artificial snow, a prohibitively expensive solution here in South America’s poorest country, or of building a new lodge on nearby Mount Mururata, which still has ample snow so far, an idea limited by terrible road access.
Humor helps those who have frequented Chacaltaya most of their adult life. Alfredo Martínez, 72, a sprightly former skier and mountain climber, said global warming had nothing to do with the snow’s disappearance.
Mr. Martínez said it was because “Bolivia’s women have grown too mischievous.” He did not explain his joke further, and the younger women who had come for the first day of skiing this year were not amused.
Some skiers continue trekking to the only remaining ski slope here to get a few runs in before Chacaltaya surrenders its claim to being the world’s highest ski area to peaks like Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in China, Gulmarg in the Indian Himalayas or Tochal in Iran.
“Let’s just say this place is unique,” Darrel Nitshe, 41, a Canadian who works for a skiing outfit that brings people to the tops of ski runs in British Columbia by helicopter, said as he stopped to catch his breath on the trek to the summit here, which is surrounded by the snowcapped peaks of the Andes.
But there are some who seemingly refuse to admit that the end is near. Angelo Martínez, 22, a dentistry student in La Paz, took no fewer than four runs on his snowboard on Sunday, climbing to the top after each descent as if he were ascending a flight of stairs at sea level.
“There’s no place I’d rather be,” Mr. Martínez said, squinting as the sun beat down on the lonely slope. “At least Chacaltaya is ours.”