At 17,388 feet above sea level, Chacaltaya, an 18,000 year-old glacier that delighted thousands of visitors for decades, is gone, completely melted away as of some sad, undetermined moment early this year. According to Yale Environment 360 report the world’s highest ski area Chacaltaya (which means “cold road” in Aymara) situated in Bolivia has ceased to function due to global warming. The snowcap where the ski area lays has melted down and now the area is barren and desolate.
Chacaltaya ski area was founded in 1939. A road built by courageous locals in the 1930’s links Bolivian capital La Paz and Chacaltaya. The head of that construction perished in an avalanche in 1945 and is believed by Bolivians to be a victim of the snow gods disturbed by works.
Chacaltaya used to be operated only on weekends during the so called ‘warm season’ which corresponds to the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, because the Southern Hemisphere’s winter conditions are too tough and rough. Chacaltaya was not only the highest ski area in the world but also the closest to the equator. It operated the oldest and fastest lift in South America.
As Chacaltaya is closed now, the highest ski area in the world now is Jade Dragon Ski Mountain located in Yunnan Province, China. The gondola access there was provided only in 1999. The gondola in Jade Dragon reaches height of 4516m and it is high enough for visitors to need altitude sickness tablets and oxygen bags. Besides, last year a surface tow at the top of the mountain was launched which created creating a basic ski area above the gondola.
Approximately 35 miles from La Paz, it takes an hour and a half to drive the gravel and rock road up tortuous switchbacks to the top of the mountain of the same name. Visitors on a clear day — and there are many such days — can see the Bolivian highland plain, or altiplano, thousands of feet below, and the nearby Huayna Potosi and Illimani mountains, part of the Cordillera Real de los Andes.
Ten years ago researchers predicted that the glacier would survive until 2015. But the rate of thaw increased threefold in the last decade, according to studies. The disappearance of Chacaltaya is an indication of the potent effects at higher elevations of the interaction of greenhouse gas accumulation and an increase in average global temperatures.
Chacaltaya became well-known long before it started melting. For decades it was declared, and aggressively marketed, as “the highest ski run in the world.”
In better days, when every tour agency and guide book heralded Chacaltaya’s unique altitudinal fame, the Club Andino organized ski competitions and stored the equipment of dozens of its members in the lodge. A large stone-and-wood building housed a winch-and-cable tow operation that dragged skiers to the top of the glacier. The descent was often heart-stopping, and if the skiers didn’t stop in time they could end up on the rocks below the snow-topped glacier.
It’s not the end of alpine skiing at Chacaltaya that is significant, but the death of the glacier and what that means for the people of the Andean cordillera. On the western, mostly arid side of the Andes, millions of people depend on rain, snow run-off and melting glaciers like Chacaltaya, Illimani and Huayna Potosifor their water.
And not only are the glaciers melting, but less rain seems to be falling in the Andes, according to recent studies. The big rain-carrying monsoons drifting west from the Amazon basin have declined in size and intensity, another indication of major climactic changes.
This year, for the first time, the amount of water flowing out of reservoirs serving nearly 2.5 million people in La Paz and its adjacent city, El Alto, will exceed the amount of water flowing into them. This eventually will become a major political issue for leaders in La Paz and El Alto. Researchers fear that Chacaltaya’s fate will be shared by other glaciers in other areas of Bolivia, and in Peru and Ecuador as well.