Once upon a time Chacaltaya was a glacier – an 18,000-year-old glacier many metres deep in snow. In its heyday it was a fashionable Bolivian ski resort frequented by presidents and Olympic skiers. It was the highest ski resort in the world and the first to be built in Latin America. European alpinists used to travel there to acclimatise before venturing into the Andean wilderness. Now it is bedrock.
The lodge that exists today is a shadow of its former self. The chairlift, once famous for its length and treacherousness, now lies coiled and rusty on the rocks. The abandoned engine room is full of detritus with the keys still in the ignition – as though it was only yesterday that Chacaltaya disappeared.
Chacaltaya has been diminishing for decades but in the last 20 years it has demised. Between 1987 and 2007 it decreased by 80 per cent, the result of a number of causes. Global climate change is the obvious culprit, a special Andean rock phenomenon and pollution and heat from industry in La Paz have also played their part. The worrying thing is that this pattern of melting is identifiable across the entire Andean range and scientists predict that the majority of the glaciers will have disappeared in the next 70-80 years. Given that hydroelectricity powers all of the major cities in Bolivia, this will be a significant problem.
Upon reflection, visiting Chacaltaya was a surprisingly moving experience. Looking out over a sea of stone, it symbolised so much: the apathetic years of decay, the harsh destruction of man and the dreadful wasted potential. It was reminiscent of the grim future that Cormac McCarthy depicted in The Road. Perhaps we haven’t reached the point where emaciated corpses are roaming the planet, scavenging for fuel and fodder, but we’re on our way. Chacaltaya acts as a bleak reminder of the inevitable ruin that humankind reaps.
Yet, there is some hope to this story. It comes in the form of the Bolivian Alpinist Club, an archaic corrupt institution which paid little attention to Chacaltaya whilst it was disintegrating, but in the last few years has been given a new lease of life. An influx of fresh-faced young members has been rejuvenating the outdated system and in May 2009 the first president under the age of 30 was elected: Juan de Dios. He explains:
“What happened to Chacaltaya is unspeakable, but our ambition for the future is to protect and preserve the rich Bolivian landscape, by whatever means possible.”
Photographs by Nick Ballon