Chacaltaya: The Highest Ski Resort
In The World
On Bended Knee In Bolivia
Story and Photos By Bob Mazarei
We were about a month too late to do any skiing
near Santiago. It was mid-October and it hadnt been a good
snow year in the southern hemisphere, so after a few fun days
in the Chilean capital, we decided to fly to Bolivia.
The LanChile flight reminded me of a bus trip:
a stop at Iquique, then another stop at Arica. A short touch
down, people got on and off, and then we continued. Ive
heard that take-offs and landings are the most dangerous moments
of any flight. We had just tripled our chances of death without
the flight being any cheaper. Finally we approached in a huge
arc and landed at El Alto airport on the altiplano. At 4018m,
El Alto is the highest international airport in the world. The
runways are super-long affairs necessary for jets taking off
and landing at that altitude. The highest capital city (La Paz),
highest navigable lake (Titicaca), and the highest ski area (Chacaltaya)
in the world are all located near the airport. No wonder Bolivia
is often referred to as The Roof of the World. Although
my wife Fabienne was indifferent, I needed to ski Chacaltayato
feed my obsession to ski, well, everywhere.
We bumped along roads, both paved and dirt, past
poor villages lined with auto repair shops and junkyards. Indian
women fisted laundry in a polluted river while dirty-faced children
played alongside. Then all of a sudden La Paz was in our front
windshield. I dont think we will ever forget that first
view of the city. I remember once seeing a picture of La Paz
in a Time-Life book, or maybe it was a National Geographic, and
thinking that I want to visit this place one day. And you know
what? The picture was better than the real thing. Just kidding!
It was great to be at the rim of La Paz, gazing down, because
at the time I saw that picture, I figured that I would never
La Paz was set in a huge bowl some five km rim to rim, streets
and homes climbing the steep walls of the canyon. Far below,
skyscrapers, like concrete stalagmites, poked upwards. And high
to our left towered, sentry-like, the icy ramparts of the massive
Descending into the city, we had the cab driver
drop us off at the Hostal Republica. Our friend Marissa recommended
the place to us. This beautiful historic building was once the
residence of a former Bolivian president. We got a great room
with a private bath for $25 per night (1996). There were two
beautiful courtyards with comfy rattan chairs perfect for chilling,
drinking cervezas, and swapping tales with fellow travelers.
The Republica was picturesque, friendly, and centrally located.
It was one of those places where, after you had stayed there,
you couldnt imagine yourself having stayed anywhere else.
The first thing on my list was to find out
if Chacaltaya was open for skiing. This prompted a rolling of
the eyes from my wife; she still couldnt believe that we
had been traveling a month in South America toting two pairs
of skis around wherever we went. Chacaltaya is the highest ski
area in the world, I reasoned, and it had to be done. I didnt
care if it was only 200m vertical and probably more of a novelty
than anything else. We headed to the Club Andino Boliviano to
see if the skiing was happening. The friendly staff told us that
they would be open (yes!)If enough people were interested
in going up. They asked me to call in a few days and they would
give me the scoop.
The next three days were filled with Tech- nicolor
street scenes of the kind I never tire of, or forget. There were
pony-tailed Aymara and Quechua ladies with their voluminous dresses
and ever-present British- style bowler hats. They were the subjects
of the second picture I remember seeing in that Time- Life book,
or it might have been a National Geographic. The women contrasted,
amusingly, with serious businessmen in suit and tie, going about
their daily routine. We went to the mestizo-styled Iglesia de
San Francisco with its large pigeon- filled plaza. There were
cholas (relaxthats what the women are called) selling
hairbrushes, playing cards, nail clippers, and coca toothpaste
from colorful blankets lain on the ground. The cholas were all
side-by-side selling basically the same things. I wondered why
they didn't do something special to make themselves stand out.
Like juggling the toothpaste tubes, or wearing a Madonna style
pointy-bra, or something. Actually, the pointy-bra would match
well with the bowler hat (sort of A Clockwork Melon
look-- uh, sorry, Stanley).
A weathered looking man made a political speech through a beat-up
megaphone, stirring up emotions. A small crowd gathered around
a gentleman in a suit who had a bunch of mini-alligators with
him. He laid them out right there on the plaza. I bet Fabienne
that he had a brother who was a plumber in NY City.
We perused the Witches market up
a steep side street, where you can buy herbs, seeds, magical
ingredients and other strange things to remedy ills, or to just
protect from bad spirits. We bought a vial filled with oil and
black and red curly-Q things. There was a little metal icon-man
in there too. The woman said that it was specialto prevent
divorce. And you know what? Its still working. A protest
march with hundreds of people the men in one group and
the women in another proceeded up the Prado. But they were
very quiet, not raising much of a fuss. (Three weeks before,
we had gotten caught in another protest march in Buenos Aires
those people went nuts. We had to duck into a coffee shop
before I got pick-pocketed, or Fabienne got her pointy-bra snatched.)
They had come from all over Bolivia seeking reforms. The machine-gun
toting military just looked on indifferently.
We worked our way up the side streets, got
sucked up higher and higher, until the city was spread out below
us. Illimani dominated the skyline. It was, we agreed, a truly
stunning location for a city.
The restaurants were mostly inexpensivethe
beers always cold and excellent. (Well, I find most beers excellent!)
We ate meals ranging from traditional South American (mostly
meat dishes) such as lomo or churrasco, to Chinese and even Persian
food. Surprisingly, the most memorable meal was the street-stall
chorizo sandwiches we munched one evening as we watched the fiery
sun set on another great day. There were some great pubs to visit,
also. Just dont expect peanuts on the barmost of
the time it was a bowl of coca-leaves.
We arrived at CAB several days later at 6am.
Two somber Swiss guys were already in the mini-van. I took one
look at them and said, wie gehts? which means
howzit? in German. They nodded a sleepy, ja
gut, danke. The next stop was at the Austria Hotel where
we picked upnot surprisinglyAustrians, Germans and
a couple of more Swiss. More, wie gehts and
gut, dankes, and then we were off, the laden
mini-van shuddering up and out of La Paz. Im always surprised
at how many Germanic speaking people in general and Germans in
particular, travel. I think the Germans are leaving the rest
of us standing. They seem to travel everywhere. Three weeks a
year? Hah! They must scoff. As they get in their BMWs to
go, yet again, to the travel agency. Thomas, one of the Germans,
was in a bulky neck brace. I didnt ask what happened to
Difficult to drink Weissbier like that,
Ja, I haf to use zee straw. I like zee telmark. You bring
za shee with you?
Yup, you can try my skis if you like, but what about your
Ja, ist gut. No problem.
They were all good sorts, and by the time
we reached Chacaltaya, we were all one big happy German speaking
family. Up to the valley rim, we skirted through new La Paz.
I didnt know why they called it that because it looked
old to me. As a matter of fact, the city is upside down in the
sense that the poorer suburbs are up high, and the wealthier,
down low. Not the other way around as in other cities. We rumbled
past the airport then hit the washboard dirt track. Later, potholes
joined forces with the washboard, giving me roof involved cranial
bruising. If I had been Michael Jordan going in for a dunk, I
would have lost my tongue. We had to get out and walk some of
the rougher sections; otherwise we might have blown a tire or
two on the sharp rocks. Chacaltaya came into view, a small white
spot in a sea of brown. One of the Austrians said it best, mein
Gott, das ist kleine!
The real altitude gain came in the last six treacherous
switchbacks. The story goes that when this road was built in
the 30s, one of the engineers was killed in an avalanche.
The Bolivians believed that mountain gods exacted revenge for
cutting the road. A fear of similar reprisals was the reason
no other ski fields were developed. From a distance Chacaltayas
piste looked steep and dirty. It was very early season:
Chacaltaya is the only southern hemisphere ski area with a season
corresponding to the northern hemisphere. The season normally
starts in November and lasts until Marchthe southern hemisphere
winter being too cold at this altitude. We pulled into the parking
lot at 5300m. It was an impressive and breathtaking (literally
and figuratively) two-hour drive. Most of us had broken personal
altitude records without even stepping out of the van.
All the skiers on the slope were wearing green fatigues. Thats
interesting I thought, the Bolivian Army is up here. Maybe it
was the 10th Andes Division. Training for a high-altitude war
in the Cordillera, perhaps? Who knows? Maybe Paraguays
version of a Saddam will one day try to jump the border to try
and snatch some of that lucrative coca-trade. And Dubyas
father wouldnt be around to help (Oh, I forgot, he wouldnt
have helped anyway, because there is no oil in Bolivia). The
Lieutenant stood beside the snow and yelled tips to them, Marine
Sergeant-style. It was as it turned out, everyones third
day skiing. The run looked like funky-chunky ice, with dirt mixed
in down low for good measurein other words, it looked crappy.
It also looked like a hell of a lot of fun. It was pretty steep,
too. Most of the soldiers were doing excellent considering the
conditions. This was their beginners slope. I laughed thinking
that these guys would be ripping at a place like Vail (its
the best, all the magazines say so) in no time.
While the German speaking lot went to chill
out in the ski lodge (there was a shortage of equipment courtesy
of the army), I went and got my lift hook thingie. The caretaker
charged me 30BL ($6) and told me I should go drink a mate de
coca (coca tea)like everyone else was havingto help
me with the altitude. I smiled and told him no thanksI
The lift hook thingamabob consisted of a piece
of rebar bent into a perpendicular hook at the end. This was
tied onto a short piece of schoolyard jump rope, which in turn
was tied onto a short stick that you try and get between your
legs, poma style. The 1-centimeter cable ran in a huge triangle
from the precariously perched lift house, down to where you try
and hook on the cable, all the way to near the top of the snowfield,
and then back again. The cable runs (supposedly) over eight truck
rims mounted on poles, to keep it off of the snow. I slammed
a beer to get fortified, not for the skiing, but for the lift.
I wrapped the rebar lift hook around my waistyou
keep it with you all dayand stepped into my bindings. I
was so psyched to be skiing the highest ski area in the world.
I felt like a pioneerwhere was National Geographic to record
this moment? I cranked tele turns through the caca while everyone
stopped to watch the technique. The army guys were stoked, and
when I switched to parallel mode, they watched intently. (Parallel,
they understood.) That was the easy part.
Luckily for me, the cable was moving slow
because of the platoon. The lift technique went like thisStep
oneposition the rebar so the cable is running through the
U. Step twopsych up and take a deep breath,
then pull the rebar to your right jamming it on the cable by
friction. (Forget Chacaltaya if you have any kind of rotator
cuff problems.) Step threebend forward at the waist absorbing
the immediate acceleration while holding on water ski style.
(This is where you can bloody your nose in a split-second.) Then
it was a matter of getting the stick between your legs.
I sussed out the technique pretty quickly
but the damn thing kept shutting off. It seemed as if the motor
needed to be kept at higher revs to prevent it from stalling.
I finally passed where the platoon was getting off and continued
up slowly to the top.
Meanwhile, Fabienne and the others had climbed to the summit
at 5400m resetting records. I stopped partway down to enjoy the
view, have another beer, and let the snow soften. Good thing
too, because the lift stopped for 20 minutes. I then teled
the first section and paralleled the second, for the benefit
of the platoon.
When I reached the bottom the lift operator
came over to me and wanted another 20BL. I said no way. I already
paid 30! The guy pathetically said 10BL please, for gasoline!
I figured $2, what the hell, and laid it on him. I hung with
the army guys for a bit. They were all so friendly, with kind
faces and manner. (The Paraguayans would steamroll this lot.)
And they were impressed with the telemark. It was such a foreign
thing to them. The Lieutenant later came up to me and asked if
I could come back up in the next few days to teach the platoon.
I guess he was tired of hollering.
Several runs later, the cable fell off a few
of the truck rims so that it now dragged along the snow. So when
I went by, the rope was pulled down hard, like I was in a tug-of-war
with some guy in Mongolia. Meanwhile, the stick would twist hard
under my butt. Man, it was a tough workout. By the time I reached
the top, my arms were pumped and huge, veins bulging. Hell, the
last time I had a pump like that, was when I was doing massive
curls with Big Tim at 24hr. Fitness.
The lift housewhich looks as if it could
topple off its perch at any momentwas something to behold.
I had to go check it out in the name of research. The works
of the lift consisted of a truck chassis bolted to the floor.
The cable came in through a hole in the wall, wrapped once around
the right rear rim, and back out another hole in the floor. It
was stalling again so one of the privates was sucking gasoline
into his mouth trying to get it started. The Volvo engine finally
caught and then the operator hopped onto the chassis, shifted
the stick, grinded second gear and revved hard like he was going
to make a delivery
which in a sense, he was.
It was then that I saw how fast the cable
normally goes. It was twice as fast as before. That was my cue
to have another beer and watch the rest of the crew take turns
getting some runs in, too.
There is not much more to tell except that
it was one of my more memorable days on snow. The whole experience
was so different from the usual humdrum, high-speed quad, version
of skiing. Chacaltaya. The highest lift-served run in the world.
The only ski area in Bolivia. The first tow in South America.
The closest ski area to the equator. The only South American
ski area not in Chile or Argentina. The only ski area in the
southern hemisphere with a season corresponding to the northern
hemisphere. And in my opinion, the worlds coolest lift.