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Bolivia: Ski - Chacaltaya: the resort which broke all the records

Sunday 14 September 2014

Cerro Chacaltaya or simply Chacaltaya. Its name is known world-wide, not for the sad reality but because it is the stuff of enchantment. Who has never dreamt of going there to ski?

Chacaltaya: la estación de todos  los récordsYes, Bolivia had the world's highest piste and ski resort. But as you will have noticed, we used the past tense to talk of this ski area, the only one in Bolivia. Not long ago, Cerro Chacaltaya, 5,395 metres, had a glacier of the same name on which a lift was built and a piste opened.

The world's highest ski resort, highest piste, and even its highest restaurant. The latter lasted after the glacier melted and the resort – and skiing in Bolivia – disappeared. However the resort’s two guardians are still there. Adolfo and Samuel Mendoza have been living in Chacaltaya for nearly thirty-five years. Once amateur skiers and mountaineers, today they look after a ski resort with no snow, where tourists are as scarce as oxygen.
All that remains is the hut of the Bolivian Andean Club, founded in 1939 by Raul Posnanski. The two brothers lived to ski, but there has been no skiing in Chacaltaya, the world's highest resort, since 2005. The reason? The glacier has disappeared due to global warming. The experts gave it fifteen years, but it disappeared in ten. The area shrank from season to season, till it shrank to nothing: 0.22 km2 in 1940, 0.14 km2 in 1982, 0.008 km2 in 1996 and 0.01 km2 in 2005.

Skiers came from all over the world for the chance, the honour, of skiing at the world's highest resort. But they had to earn it. Not everyone can ski at an altitude of 5,300 metres, hypoxia is a major factor. To take skiers to the top, in 1943 the resort's founders invented the first "funicular" in South America. How did it work? Someone sat at the wheel of a military truck, which was parked permanently at Chacaltaya and maintained as a relic of more glorious days, and pressed the accelerator. The Ford engine reeled in a cable which ran over a system of pulleys to work the lift. Skilful footwork with the accelerator was necessary to enable the clients to mount the steep glacier.

 

It was the end of an epoch.

The two brothers, who still live in Chacaltaya, are the first witnesses of the global warming which cost the life of the glacier and of skiing in Bolivia. According to Samuel Mendoza: “ten years ago, if you put a pan of water in the room it would freeze during the day. Now the outside temperature barely falls to -5 °C in mid-winter.” Today, only one tourist agency in La Paz still transports tourists to the hut. Chacaltaya has turned the page on those happy, glorious years, bare rock does not sell as well as the white, snow-covered pistes of the past.

Bernard Francou, a glaciologist from Grenoble who has been travelling in South America for more than twenty years, knows the Chacaltaya glacier well: “This glacier was under observation as from 1991. It was still about 15 metres thick in 1997. It disappeared much more quickly than expected, but it was inevitable. Precipitations have been in deficit since 1976. Glaciers are not in equilibrium with the climate, and they recede to adapt. Our planet warmed by 1 °C in half a century; that is enormous in scientific terms. Tropical glaciers are the sentries of climate change.

Photos © A. Bonnot, DR

 

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