June 07, 2007

Chacaltaya: Climate change closes world's highest ski area

In this month’s National Geographic Tim Appenzeller writes about global warming and its appetite for Earth’s glaciers.

Icefields from Montana to Greenland to the Alps are disappearing faster than scientists and climatologists thought possible just a decade ago. The meltdown changes lives and landscapes, threatens creatures like the polar bear and beluga whale, and simultaneously brings more water in the form of higher sea levels to areas that don’t need it and less water in the form of annual potable glacial melt to areas that do. Himalayan ice disappears; Bangladesh sinks; India loses the reliable, life-giving pulse of the Ganges.

Appenzeller opens his article with Chacaltaya, a 17,250-foot peak that rises from the burnt-brown dust of the Bolivian altiplano. Chacaltaya has been the world's highest serviced ski area since 1939 when a rope tow began taking skiers to the top of Chacaltaya Glacier.

But Chacaltaya Glacier is now a few blotches of rock-strewn snow. Writes Appenzeller, “...in the past decade, it’s gone into a death spiral... By last year all that remained were three patches of gritty ice, the largest just a couple of hundred yards across. The rope tow traversed boulder fields... Chacaltaya is history.”

Some years ago, Adam and I rode from La Paz, Bolivia to Lake Titicaca in a Crillon Tours van and looked on Chacaltaya sitting big above the high, dry plain that is the Bolivian altiplano.

Mario, our driver, was a silent, wizened road warrior who’d been carting tourists across the high plain so long that he was able to negotiate through the roiling clouds of Altiplano dust that blanketed the windshield. We often couldn’t make out the road for the swirling dirt and dust, but Mario, through some innate or cultivated skill set, kept rubber to pavement.

Our guide was Federico, a young doctor who’d just finished his internship. He was trying to qualify for a residency program in Germany and moonlighted at Crillon Tours
to earn extra money for his anticipated air ticket to Frankfurt.

For two hours, Mario, Federico, Adam and I drove parallel to the Cordillera Real (photo), a nearly nonstop string of regal, white-cloaked Andes that stretch from Bolivia's capital into Peru. From grand Illimani that looms over La Paz to even grander Illampu near Lake Titicaca, the ride was a visual feast of some of the world’s greatest peaks.

But one peak looked barren. Chacaltaya was mostly stark brown in comparison to its brilliant, higher, snow-draped neighbors. I’d read about Chacaltaya and its claim to fame as the world’s highest developed ski area, so I was surprised to see it rough and rocky. At 17,000 feet in a Bolivian winter, there should have been snow and ice – and a ski run.

I asked Federico about the mountain.

“Every mountain is an abuelo – a grandfather – and a great spirit,” he said softly. “When a mountain loses its snow, it is cause for much concern. We say that the grandfather is taking off his poncho.”

When an abuelo takes off his poncho, Federico explained, Bolivians believe the grandfather is preparing to act in some way that will affect the lives of those who live near the mountain. Federico said Chacaltaya had been slowly taking off his poncho for several years.

A recent photo of Chacaltaya accompanied Appenzeller’s National Geographic article.

The grandfather is bare. He has no poncho. Cause, as Federico said, for much concern.