In Bolivia, feeling low at the world's highest ski area

January 03, 1993|By Jeff Frees | Jeff Frees,Contributing Writer

It's almost predictable. Somewhere along the way, almost every skier is struck by a yearning to ski the world's highest ski area. There is a love of superlatives that seemingly comes with skiing -- the longest run, the steepest run, the fastest time, the best ski . . . and the highest ski area. Any one of these topics can keep skiers consumed in blissful discussion for hours.

When it comes to the highest ski area you must be careful because the word "highest" is terribly overused in the ski world. But experts agree that the true "world's highest ski area" is in Bolivia and is called Chacaltaya.

Before you say, "All right, I'm off to add the Chacaltaya patch to my collection," I should explain two things. First, Chacaltaya does not offer the type of skiing to merit a $1,000 plane ticket, especially when you think of the skiing $1,000 will buy in the North American Rockies. And second, you must be a confirmed masochist to want to battle the rarefied air that makes physical activity difficult and eye-popping headaches a part of the ski day.

No, Chacaltaya is only for a small part of the skiing public. Best for skiers so obsessed with the unconventional that they'll put up with any discomfort or inconvenience to find it. Good for skiers so concerned with the game of one-upmanship that they'll bear certain misery to win a few games.

Look at the qualifications: a summit right around 18,000 feet, 1,000 vertical feet of ski run, one lift (but no crowds) and a season stretching from December to March.

The 18,000 feet is a heap of altitude. If you've ever felt light-headed on top of a Rocky Mountain, imagine how you might feel a mile higher. My ears buzzed. I puffed like an aging truck going up the Continental Divide, and I kept popping "aspirina" to relieve the throbbing behind my eyes -- the first symptoms of "soroche," altitude sickness.

The 1,000 feet of ski run is a questionable statistic. It didn't appear that great. It seemed to be at best 600 feet, but maybe the altitude skews one's perception of distance. Whatever the vertical, it's more than enough to give a good bite of the skiing and also test your grip on the thin cable tow.

Oddly, the ski season is the same as ours, which is the South American summer. This is because the run, actually a glacier, is too icy to ski the rest of the year. Only from December to March does it become soft enough to welcome skiers.

The crown of the area is a chalet,set upon a dizzying ledge. A rock thrown from here could roll all the way to the city of La Paz, 35 miles south. In fact, it's so frightening and insecure-looking that some skiers refuse to enter. Of course, some don't even put their skis on when they reach the area and immediately ask to be taken back to La Paz. The Club Andino, which runs the area, has a truck ready for this contingency.

Since there are no accommodations at the mountain, La Paz must serve as the "resort."

"Is that La Paz down there in that big ditch?" an American woman asked as we flew over the city to make our landing.

Yes, that was La Paz. It's a strange sight -- large, white buildings and highways fill the bottom of the canyon. Wretched little shacks hike up the walls. At nearly 12,000 feet, the city is the second highest capital in the world.

The 400,000 Aymara Indians, who call La Paz home, add to the city's uniqueness. The Indian women, with their famous bowler hats and long, colored skirts, are a source of great visual beauty.

For your ski vacation lodgings, you have a price range from a dollar to $180 a night. Of course, the dollar rooms are short on service and ambience, often little more than a windowless room with a mattress. But take something like the Grand Hotel. For $8, you can get a clean room with a private bath, or for $75, you can have a suite in the Hotel Libertador, a Bolivian landmark.

Getting back to the ski resort proper, the views are first rate. In the south, La Paz can be seen peeking up from its burrow, white and sparkling. In the north, mountains of the Cordillera Real tickle the stratosphere. You see teardrop lakes hung among the sharp-edged peaks. A bit past these, the hazy outline of Lake Titicaca can be seen. It looks something like a puddle on the gigantic plateau that stretches for hundreds of miles between Bolivia and Peru.

This plateau fills almost all of the western stage. At 13,000 feet, it is so dusty and hot and cold that it could serve as one of Dante's circles of hell. Only the toughest Indians live on it. From Chacaltaya, it looks like a flat raceway for cloud shadows.

The east holds less stark vistas. On clear days you can see all the way across the Andean Cordillera to the Amazon Basin. The verdant horizon is where the country's notorious cocaine industry flourishes.

On the way from La Paz in the Club Andino bus, the trip leader talked about the skiing to come. He said that the run would be frozen solid when we arrived in the morning, but would soften to a pleasant consistency by noon.

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