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Over time, Hieleros – or ice merchants – have slowly disappeared. But atop the Chimborazo glacier, Juan Ushca keeps the tradition alive

High in the Ecuadorian Andes, at an elevation of 5,800 metres above sea level, Juan Ushca gets to work chopping away at an ancient glacier atop Mount Chimborazo – or “Chimbi,” as he calls it. At one time thought to be the highest peak on Earth, the inactive stratovolcano now settles for the title of “closest point on earth to the sun,” owing to its geographical location at the equator.

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.”

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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.

Juan and his donkey pass a construction site on the way out of the community of Quatro Esquinas. The signs of modernization are more and more present on the same route once used by dozens of Hieleros in decades and centuries past.
Juan chips away at the buried glacier at an altitude of 5,800 metres. What was once a wall of ice several feet high, is now a buried vein below the dry, warming surface. The loose rocks above pose a risk, in addition to the thin, high-altitude air, the wind, and the cold.

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 centre of Riobamba. Ms. Almachi’s family has been buying ice from the Ushcas since 1860, and she is Mr. Ushca’s last remaining customer.

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High in the Ecuadorian Andes, at an elevation of 5,800 metres above sea level, Juan carries a block of glacial ice over to his donkey Luis for transport.

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Rosita Almachi prepares a 'rompe nuca,' or neck-breaker juice at her juice stand in La Merced market in Riobamba, Ecuador. The rompe nuca is a mixture of glacial ice and various fruits, this version containing more ice then normal, giving it its name. Almachi's family has owned and operated this juice stand for generations. They've been buying glacier ice from the Ushca family since 1860.

“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 Hieleros and 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.”

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A block of chimborazo ice on display outside Rosita's juice stand at the La Merced market in the centre of Riobamba, Ecuador. The ice from the glacier has long been used to make ice cream and juices, with the locals preferring the taste and believing it holds health benefits. Today, many people, both locals and tourist visit Rosita's juice stand to sample the glacial ice, harvested by the famous Hieleros of Chimborazo.

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