On January 23, five indigenous Bolivian women, aged 42 to 50, completed a climb of Argentina’s Aconcagua (22,841 feet), the tallest peak on both the continent and in the world outside of Asia. The women, who worked as porters and cooks in mountain camps on Huayna Potosí (19,974 feet), one of Bolivia’s tallest peaks, for a number of years, are members of the Aymara indigenous group. The Aymara people, who archaeologists estimate have lived in the Andes for at least a thousand years and perhaps longer, possess their own language and are known for their vibrant traditional dress. They are spread across Peru, Bolivia and Chile, and number close to 1 million.
In 2014, after years of helping mountaineers achieve their summit goals, eleven of these female Aymara porters and cooks strapped on crampons and swapped their high bowler hats for helmets to start bagging peaks themselves, all while wearing their traditional wide, puffy skirts and plaited hair. “We’re not taking off our [traditional] attire because we want to climb like this,” said one of the climbers, Jimena Lidia Huayllas, in a Great Big Story video.
“To me, [climbing] is one of the most wonderful feelings a woman can have.”
Their initial goal was to scale eight peaks over 6,000 meters (19,685 feet). By 2016 they had achieved summits of the Andean mountains Acotango (19,856 feet), Parinacota (20,827 feet), Pomerape (20,610 ft) and Huayna Potosí (19,974 ft), as well as Illimani (21,122 feet), the tallest summit in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real and the second tallest peak in the country.
These Aymara women call themselves “cholita” climbers. Cholita is a bastardization of the Spanish word cholo or chola, a derogatory term for an individual of mixed ancestry, typically with Indian blood, but the Aymara wear the label proudly as a sign of their unique heritage.
Long a repressed subclass in Bolivian culture, according to a BBC article, until recently the cholita “could be refused entry to certain restaurants, taxis and even some public buses.” With the 2005 election of the nation’s first indigenous president, however, things slowly began to change, with regards to both more progressive domestic policy and economic progress. “Just 10 years ago it was almost impossible to think of a chola being a lawyer or a journalist, or in front of a television camera, leading a national programme,” said Aymaran woman Maria Isabel Cordova, a prominent cholita activist in La Paz. But things are very different now. Many cholita women are even choosing to throw themselves into traditionally male-exclusive activities, such as wrestling.
And now some cholita are battling mountains too. “We’ve always had a culture of machismo here in Bolivia,” said Huayllas. “They would say, ‘How can a woman climb up a mountain? That’s wrong!’”
Though they managed several impressive summits in their four year stint, all in traditional Aymara dress, the women had one main objective all along. Since the beginning, the cholita climbers’ goal was to stand atop Aconcagua. Now, after countless years of portering and cooking, and four years of preparing on lower peaks, five of the cholita climbers have summited the peak. Lidia Huayllas Estrada, Dora Magueño Machaca, Ana Lía Gonzáles Magueño, Cecilia Llusco Alaña and Elena Quispe Tincutas successfully scaled Aconcagua last Wednesday.
It is unclear what their next goals are, but it seems unlikely they’ll stop with Aconcagua. “There’s always someone who’ll criticize us,” said Huayllas. “They still do. But we’ll show them with actions, not words.”