On January 23, a group of five women climbers summitted Aconcagua, in Argentina, at 22,808 feet, the highest point in the Western and Southern Hemispheres. It took them seven days from when they started ascending the mountain’s flanks to when they safely returned to the bottom. This wouldn’t necessarily be noteworthy if not for the makeup of the crew.
They’re all Bolivian Aymara indigenous women who until recent years worked as cooks and caretakers for well-heeled, and mostly male, mountaineers from around the world. These women had been working at high camps for years, catering to the crews headed to the high peaks of the Andes. Finally, they decided to strap on crampons and hike up to the top themselves.
They call themselves the “Climbing Cholitas.” “Chola” can be a derogatory term for indigenous women in some Spanish-speaking countries; the women took it back and have turned it into a point of pride. They climb in their traditional dress, with alpine boots, ice axes, helmets, and modern packs incorporated into their wardrobe consisting of colorful dresses called polleras (sometimes the dresses get caught in their crampons, the women say, but they’re used to hiking through mountains in long skirts). The women range in ages from 24 to 52 years old.
In the past four years, the Cholitas, a group of as many as sixteen women, have climbed seven significant peaks: Huayna Potosí, Illimani, Acotango, Pomarape, Parinacota, Sajama, and, now, Aconcagua. Initially, they climbed with no training. The women had learned enough to reach their first summit, Huayna Potosí, simply by watching experienced mountaineers in camp. Eleven of them set out to bag that first peak, which towers at 19,974 feet, and all eleven of them summitted.
“I had a long time of being a cook, I wanted to go up, to know how it felt there,” said Lidia Huayllas Estrada, the group’s coordinator, of what motivated her to first reach for the climbing gear. When she asked her husband, an Andes guide, what it was like to scale the region’s highest peaks, he suggested she give it a try herself.
Several other Cholitas are the wives of mountain guides and porters, who no doubt passed along some of their knowledge. Now, however, many of the women take mountaineering and alpine safety classes to better their skill levels.
The Cholitas try to climb every two weeks during the climbing season to maintain their fitness and technique. But, as you can imagine, mountaineering equipment and transportation can be a significant hurdle to women working in camps high in the Andes. They often rent the equipment they use and pool their money to afford transportation costs.
When they first set out, the Cholitas had the initial goal of scaling the highest peaks in South America, including Aconcagua. “I cried with emotion [after scaling Huayna Potosí] said Dora Magueño, 50 at the time of climbing. “And I’m strong, I’m going to continue and get to the top of eight mountains.” Now that five of the Cholitas—Lidia Huayllas, Dora Magueño, Analía Gonzáles, Elena Quispe and Cecilia Llusco—have accomplished that feat, they’ve started to set their sights on, where else? Everest.
A documentary on the Cholitas attempt at Aconcagua is in the works, called “Cholitas.” In the meantime, the short video below puts the spotlight on the climbers.
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