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Ski the World’s Highest Slope Only If You Must

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It’s inevitable. Somewhere along the way, every skier is touched by a yearning to ski the world’s highest ski area. Perhaps because there is a love of superlatives that goes hand in hand with skiing--the longest run, the steepest run, the fastest time, the best skiing . . . and the highest ski area.

Though the word highest is terribly overused in the ski world, experts agree that the true “world’s highest ski area” is Chacaltaya, about 35 miles northeast of La Paz in Bolivia.

Now before you say, “All right, I’m off to add the Chacaltaya patch to my collection,” I’d best explain two things. First, Chacaltaya does not offer the type of skiing to merit a $900 plane ticket, especially when you think of the skiing that $900 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 big part of the ski day.

Chacaltaya seems best suited for skiers so obsessed with the unconventional that they’ll put up with any kind of discomfort or inconvenience to find it.

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Consider these “qualifications”: a summit at about 18,000 feet, 1,000 vertical feet of ski run, one lift (but no crowds) and a season stretching from December to March.

If you’ve ever felt light-headed in the Rockies, imagine how you might feel a mile higher at 18,000 feet. My ears buzzed. I puffed like a Kenworth 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-foot ski run actually seemed to be at best 600 feet, though maybe the altitude or the Coriolis effect skews one’s perception of distance. Whatever the true vertical measurement, it’s more than enough to get a good bit of skiing and also test one’s 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 there could roll all the way to La Paz. In fact, it’s so frightening and looks so shaky that some skiers refuse to enter. Then again, some skiers don’t even put their skis on when they reach Chacaltaya, asking instead to be taken immediately back to La Paz. Club Andino, which manages the area, has a truck ready for this contingency.

Since there are no accommodations at the mountain, the city of La Paz serves as the resort base. It’s something like skiing Alta or Snowbird from Salt Lake City.

“Is that La Paz down there in that big ditch?” another American 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 attempt to climb the walls. At nearly 12,000 feet, the city is the second-highest capital in the world.

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The views from Chacaltaya are first-rate. In the south, La Paz can be seen peaking up from its burrow, white and sparkling. In the north, the Cordillera Real Mountains cut the stratosphere. You see teardrop lakes hung among the sharp-edged peaks. To the west, the hazy outline of Lake Titicaca looks something like a puddle on the gigantic altiplano that stretches for hundreds of miles between Bolivia and Peru.

The altiplano fills almost all of the mountains’ western stage. At 13,000 feet, it is so dusty and hot-cold that it could probably 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 than the altiplano . On clear days, you can see all the way across the Andean Cordillera to the Amazon Basin. That verdant horizon is where the country’s notorious cocaine industry flourishes.

Club Andino offers daily bus service to Chacaltaya, leaving at 8:30 a.m. from the club office at Avenida Mexico 1638 in La Paz. The office opens at 8 a.m.

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On our way to Chacaltaya in the Club Andino microbus, 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 very pleasant consistency by noon.

First we had to get to the area, though, and at the rate we were going, it seemed like our group of eight, most of us foreigners, would be lucky to arrive by noon.

Once out of the La Paz canyon, the road goes from asphalt to dust--that’s dust, not dirt. In one place it came up to the wheel hubs. This continued until the final ascent up Mt. Chacaltaya, where the dust changed to rocks the size of bowling balls. I felt sorry for the straining vehicle.

When we finally reached the chalet, after a road trip of 1 1/2 hours that seemed more like 3 1/2, the first thing we did was shake some of the dirt out of our clothes.

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After that I walked into the shaky chalet, examined the Zermatt and Davos ski posters and searched out water to wash down two aspirin. Our trip leader inquired about cranking up the cable tow.

The run is close by the chalet. It’s a slightly doglegged swath of snow that is narrowest at the top and widest in the middle, where it bends to the left. It ends abruptly in a stack of brown rocks. The run is lined with similar rocks from top to bottom. No enchanted forests up there.

The first step on the slope revealed the unusual nature of Bolivian snow. It was like a big carpet of Styrofoam, decorated with the little ripples and lumps that are God-given parts of glaciers. Slope grooming is an unknown practice here.

I couldn’t tell whether it was just me or the dull Club Andino rental skis, but I couldn’t carve a turn on that styrosnow . It’s comparable to skiing what is called “breakable crust” at other ski venues. I had a hard time controlling my direction and speed, both vital on a rock-lined run. In time, I learned that it was best to hold a tight line down the middle, where the two dozen weekly skiers had etched a fairly hospitable path.

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It must be reported that the run never reached the soft, pleasant condition that the trip leader had promised.

Then again, maybe we didn’t stay long enough. After two hours, most everyone had had their fill. I had a painful soroche headache and was more than willing to stop.

The group sentiment was unanimous: “Vamos a La Paz ahorita!”

The descending microbus was quickly transformed into an ambulance for sick and exhausted skiers. Few words were spoken. I thought of the old saying about ski areas: “You have to ski it to believe it.” This does not quite apply to Chacaltaya. After skiing it, I still couldn’t believe it.

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