Supported by

The Atlantic Selects

The Curtain Falls on an Ancient Vocation

Nov 20, 2018 | 831 videos
Video by Sandy Patch

The summit of Mount Chimborazo, in Ecuador, is the highest point on Earth. For more than half a century, Baltazar Ushca has hiked up the mountain’s slopes at least twice a week to harvest glacial ice.

“It’s the tastiest ice on Earth, and full of vitamins,” Ushca says in Sandy Patch’s short documentary, The Last Ice Merchant. “But nobody wants natural ice from Chimborazo anymore.”

When Ushca was 15, his father trained him and his brothers in the family’s perilous line of work: mining for ice at high altitudes. But because of innovation in refrigeration technology, the already low-paying vocation has lost most of its financial value. Uscha’s brothers were forced to move on to other work. Uscha, however, maintains a passionate resolve.

“As long as anybody allows me to, I still want to work,” Uscha says in the film. “But when I die, this might be gone.”

Patch’s short film explores the dichotomy between change and tradition through an incredible physical feat that has sustained Chimborazo’s indigenous communities—some of the poorest in Ecuador—for hundreds of years.

“Changes aren’t bad; they are good,” Uscha’s brother says. “But our culture and the work of our ancestors … I don’t want to forget it. I don’t want to lose our culture.”

After spending weeks living with Uscha as he summited the 15,500-foot peak and observing his strenuous job, Patch grappled with his own conscience. “It's very tempting to romanticize these sorts of traditions,” the filmmaker told The Atlantic. “But if you look at it objectively, being an ice merchant is an incredibly difficult, dangerous, and physically taxing job. It seems unfair to ask Baltazar and his community to continue to harvest ice, especially when they are already poor, marginalized, and juggling all the other backbreaking work that they need to do for daily survival.”

Patch decided to help Uscha's community preserve its way of life through documentation. “I certainly support the documentation of traditions for history,” he said. “It’s important to share an understanding of what people can do and have done.”

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to

Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.