Challenging the summit status quoIt is no secret that, historically, mountaineering hasn’t exactly been the most accessible of activities – and not just because of its physical difficulty. When we think of the most famous explorers of yore – be it Edmund Hillary, Reinhold Messner or John Muir – the most common of household names are invariably wealthy white men. Once, mountain climbing was deemed a ‘masculine’ endeavour, and although local people in mountainous regions have always lived and trekked in the mountains, they were rarely given the credit that these revered explorers received. Thankfully, over the past few years, mountain sports have begun opening up to people of all genders, ages, nationalities and races. Journalists are remembering to credit the talented and brave sherpas, like Tenzing Norgay, who help the Hilarys of the world reach their respective Everests. Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb Mt. Everest and complete the Seven Summits, was honoured far and wide for her groundbreaking achievements when she passed away in 2016. Things are changing. But still, in many countries, mountain climbing is an activity reserved for the privileged. Whether because of the social restrictions of gender, class and race – or simply the expense of mountaineering equipment – there are some people who spend their lives looking up at the peaks towering over their homes, yet feel excluded from experiencing the joy of reaching its summit.
The Cholita Climbers: Changing the Face of MountaineeringThis is how Jimena Lidia Huaylas, leader of the Cholita Climbers, once felt. Huaylas spent most of her life working as a cook in the base camps and refuges of Huayana Potosi, a 6088-metre mountain near La Paz. She and her friends worked at altitudes most of us would find challenging, many of their husbands being mountain guides or porters. However, the Cholita women were not expected to climb the mountains themselves – even when women from around the world began heading to the peaks. In a video made by Great Big Story, Huaylas explains, “We’ve always had a culture of machismo here in Bolivia. They would say, “How can a woman climb up a mountain? That’s wrong!” But, rather than accepting the status quo, Huaylas decided to prove everyone wrong. She says, “I encouraged my girl friends, I told them: “Why can’t we climb just like men do?”” And so, in 2014, the Cholitas Escaladoras Bolivianas were born. The goal? To climb eight mountains higher than 6,000 metres, proving to their peers – and the world – that Cholita women could climb just as high as their male counterparts.
The word ‘Cholita’ has previously been used as a pejorative term for the indigenous Aymara women of Bolivia. However, the group decided to reclaim the term and turn it into a symbol of their strength as the name of their climbing collective. The women choose to climb in their cultural attire, swapping bowler hats for helmets, but forgoing backpacks to carry safety ropes in vibrant weaved blankets all the way to each summit. Bold and determined, in December 2015 the Cholitas strapped on mountaineering boots and crampons under their traditional skirts and shawls, and headed to the hills. After their first successful summit of the Huayna Potosi, climber Dora Magueno, 50, said, “I cried with emotion. And I’m strong, I’m going to continue to get to the top of eight mountains.” The group soon grew to eleven climbers, who have scaled peaks including Acotango, Parinacota, Pomarapi, Huayna Potosí and Illimani. With each successful summit, support from the local community and the global mountaineering community grew. Local website Aconcagua Online says, “At each step the beloved women, of different ages and contexts, harvested the affection and encouragement of all, always auguring the success to their commendable initiative.” Before long, the Cholita Climbers set their sights on the biggest Andean peak of all – Mount Aconcagua. Standing at an imposing 6,962 metres above sea level, Aconcagua is a real challenge for even the most seasoned of mountaineers. The Cholitas, aged between 42 and 50, knew that the summit was possible, having worked and lived at extreme altitudes for most of their lives, but they would still have to train hard. For five years, the women climbed and prepared exhaustively ready to attempt their biggest feat yet. On the 23rd of January, Lidia Huayllas Estrada, Dora Magueño Machaca, Ana Lía Gonzáles Magueño, Cecilia Llusco Alaña and Elena Quispe Tincutas safely summited Aconcagua – achieving their ultimate dream.
When we go climbing, we feel free from everything.
– Jimena Lidia Huaylas