March 23, 2006

In Bolivia, World’s Highest Ski Resort Melting Away

By Helen Popper

CHACALTAYA, Bolivia -- Times are hard for the world's highest ski resort, a dizzy 17,388 feet (5,300 metres) above sea level in the Bolivian Andes. Its glacier is melting so fast synthetic snow is seen as the only way to save it.

Scientists say Chacaltaya's diminished piste could disappear altogether within five years due to climate change and, though this humble ski center is no Whistler or Chamonix, it is the only one the poor South American country has got.

"This has been the worst year we've had. It's quite sad to see," said Samuel Mendoza of the Bolivian Andean Club. "We want to bring in artificial snow so we can keep on skiing, so the sport does not die in Bolivia."

In the shady spots around the stone ski lodge, little patches of white survive while icicles drip steadily from the rafters. In the distance below, metal roofs in the sprawling slum city of El Alto glimmer under the fierce Andean sun.

The rudimentary ski lift at Chacaltaya dates back almost to the club's foundation in 1939, and the closest thing to apres ski is a tea made with coca leaves -- hastily prescribed to anyone suffering altitude sickness.

Breathing, as well as skiing, is difficult here, but hardened Chacaltaya skiers say the thin air is a plus.

"It's fantastic to ski at this altitude," said Franklin Mendoza, a former national champion, before heading out to the piste on a Sunday in March, near the end of the season. "People who come here say they feel like they've conquered nature."

"The altitude's not such a problem. It's mind over matter," said Alfredo Martinez, a sprightly 70-year-old club veteran dressed in a tracksuit and bobble hat. "I've skied in Chamonix (in France) and you don't get the powdery snow you find up here."


But not even Chacaltaya's lofty heights can save it from the ravages of climate change, though it is not clear whether its glacier is melting so fast because of global warming or its proximity to the growing cities of El Alto and La Paz, some 19 miles away across the Andean plateau. The heat emitted by the cities' vehicles, industry and other human activity is reaching the glacier.

"There is no doubt this is the result of the actions of man," said Alfonso Velarde, director of the Institute of Physical Investigation at La Paz's San Andres University.

Velarde said Chacaltaya's glacier has shrunk by 80 percent in the last 15 years, and the experts measuring its decline say that at this rate it will be gone in four or five years.

"Chacaltaya's glacier is very small and the rocks around it heat up. For these reasons the decline is especially fast," said Dr Jaime Argollo of the university's Institute of Geological Investigation. "Some years it makes up a bit of ground, but the balance is always negative."

Argollo and his international team say similar patterns are being played out all along the Andes and that within 70 or 80 years there could be no glaciers left in the mountain chain that runs the length of South America.

He said the decline of Bolivia's glaciers could cause wider problems, as well as being skiing's death knell. "For the city of La Paz this is worrying because the glacial waters are the source of drinking water and of generating electricity."


The club that pioneered skiing and mountaineering in Bolivia still has plans for the future and has been in contact with European countries as it seeks to raise the $50,000-odd dollars needed for the artificial snow project.

Chacaltaya is already an important acclimatization center for climbers preparing to ascend the next-door peak of Huayna Potosi and the club is considering opening a path to the neighboring mountain.

A more remote possibility is developing a new ski area on the peak of Mururata, which means 'cut-off' in the indigenous Aymara language. But though Mururata's flat top is ideal for skiing, there is no road access.

But just as the black-and-white photos on the walls of the lodge are testament to Chacaltaya's glory days, there is more nostalgia for the past than hope for a brighter future.

"Every year we come here we see rocks where snow used to be," said Bertha Acarapi of El Alto council, dressed in traditional Indian dress at an event to promote tourism.

"We hope our Achachilas (Aymara spirits) will help us care for the little bit of snow we have left," she said. Seconds later a sudden hailstorm beat down on the rocky slopes, temporarily turning Chacaltaya white.