Before Mr. Ushca can begin on the ice with his pick axe, he must dig it out of the rock and dirt. What was once a wall of ice several feet high, is now a buried vein below the dry, warming surface.
“In the era of the Hieleros, there was lots of snow here,” he said. “They didn’t have to climb so high to find the ice.”
The Hieleros, or “ice merchants,” is what they called the men who would climb Chimborazo to harvest its glacier. The practice dates back to the colonial era. The men would climb in groups, followed by pack animals through the frigid, windswept Paramo, up the rocky, desolate slopes to chop off blocks of ice weighing up to 70 lbs. to sell at the market in nearby Riobamba.
Before the arrival of electricity and refrigeration, the ice was used for everything from preserving food to making ice cream and fruit juices.
Over time the Hieleros, like the glacier, have slowly disappeared.
Mr. Ushca is the last of the ice merchants, leaving his work in construction to take over for his elderly father-in-law, Baltazar Ushca, who held the title for over a decade. Now close to 80 years old, with failing eyesight, the latter spends his days recounting his adventures to tourists at a local museum that houses a bronze statue in his likeness.
Mr. Ushca climbs Chimborazo twice a week. On Thursdays and Fridays, he brings down two 70 lbs. blocks of ice to sell to Rosita Almachi, who owns a small juice stand at the La Merced market in the center of Riobamba. Ms. Almachi’s family has been buying ice from the Ushcas since 1860, and she is Mr. Ushca’s last remaining customer.
“I don’t make as much money selling ice, but it’s a tradition that is important to keep alive,” Mr. Ushca says. “My dream is to keep the culture alive, but we need new ways to keep it viable, for the young people.”
He says that he’s sometimes contacted by the odd tourist who’s heard of the Hielerosand wants to witness the tradition in person. He’s even had groups of up to eight people show up at his humble, cinder-block home looking for the last ice merchant. He welcomes them in, offering them space to lay their sleeping bags on his dirt floor before taking them up to the glacier in the morning.
He hopes that maybe the fame created by his father-in-law can attract more tourists who want to see the Chimborazo glacier before it’s gone.
“With time, the ice will go, or the Hieleros will go,” Mr. Ushca says. “But I will continue, as long as there’s ice or until God takes me.”