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Last Gasp

Last Gasp

Travel
By Philip Higgs
posted: 03/03/2004

The snow will not lure you to Bolivia's Cerro Chacaltaya. You can find bare spots and patches of icy slush in your own backyard. Nor will the amenities: The sole "lift is a jerry-rigged ropetow powered by the engine of an ancient and angry Volvo. The "base lodge? It is not at the base at all, but teeters precariously on a jumble of rocks halfway up the area's single 650-foot run.

No, the thrill of skiing the Chacaltaya glacier—the highest lift-served area in theworld—is in the journey. For starters, there's no altitude adjustment: Oxygen deprivation sets in on arrival at El Alto International airport, at 13,000 feet. Be sure to pick up a few coca leaves, the native cure for altitude sickness, sold openly here. But before you set out for Chacaltaya, contact the local ski club, Club Andino Boliviano in La Paz (info@club- andinoboliviano.org), to see when the lift is running—usually weekends throughout the antipodean summer, November to March. (Winters are lethal up here.) If there's enough weekday interest, members might haul a group up the treacherous road to the base in the club's Isuzu minivan. (Lean into the turns, and be prepared to hop out and push when the road gets rocky.) And definitely bring your equipment: "They gave me my choice of any two boots, recalls one Chacaltaya veteran, "none of which matched.

If you make it to the base, riding the antiquated ropetow is high-risk adventure in itself—but one that'll cost you a mere $6 a day. The lift consists of a short length of rope with a stick tied to one end and a metal hook on the other. Simply slip the stick behind your thighs, Poma-style, grab the rope with one hand, jam the hook onto the tow's metal cable as it speeds past you, and off you go. Or don't go, as the jolt of a new rider can yank the cable off its guides. Once you've had enough, the shack has a swinging après scene—BYOB, of course—where the truly traumatized can wangle a swig of chicha cochabambina, a potent corn alcohol, from one of the ever-present locals.

The genius behind the operation was killed in an avalanche in 1945. Local legend holds it was an act of revenge by the snow gods, who wanted the glacier to themselves. They may yet succeed: Thanks to global warming, the Chacaltaya glacier is expected to vanish within 20 years. It's now or never.

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