Being a Climbing Cholita carries immense responsibility. Many women say we represent them. They view these achievements as inspiring and remarkable. Their awe motivates us to pursue the very things we once believed were beyond our reach.
EL ALTO, Bolivia — When I reach the top of a mountain, fully dressed in my ancestor’s clothes, I feel a surge of adrenaline and strength washes over me. Memories and self-reflective thoughts begin to flow. The air washes away any negativity I carry, and I feel reborn. I extend my arms, breathe in deeply, and fully embrace the moment. At the top, I witness breathtaking landscapes that transport me to another realm. I am in sync with nature.
My father works as a high mountain guide, and my mother, Dora Magueño, is a 57-year-old cook. Together, we are part of a group known as the The Climbing Cholitas of Bolivia.
Going to the mountains feels like a learning opportunity. I seek permission from the mountain, asking for good weather and protection. Mountain climbing carries risk, and anything can happen. I climb through fatigue and negative thoughts, considering my route and adjusting to the weight I carry. As I ascend, I immerse myself in the landscape and engage in silent conversations with the mountain.
A sense of amazement fills me as I see magnificent landscapes. My surroundings appear whiter and greener, adorned with shades of brown. The first thing I notice at the peak is the stars. They mesmerize me.
When visible, the moon becomes hypnotic. As dawn arrives, I experience the magical transition from dark to light. Everything takes on shades of orange. Sometimes I sit and watch the sun rise over the plains.
As a child, I spent a considerable time in my ancestral Aymara community. [An indigenous people, the Aymara live in the Andean highlands, in a plateau known as Altiplano. They are spread throughout Bolivia, southern Peru, and northern Chile.] When I moved to the city of Alto Sobre la Paz for my education, it became challenging to maintain and nurture my cultural identity. I began favoring Spanish over Aymara, and gradually left my traditional clothing behind.
In time, I yearned to reconnect with who I was deep down inside. So, in 2015, when the opportunity arose to climb mountains, I felt it was necessary. I needed to reclaim my roots. The Aymara people – commonly called cholas or cholos – don traditional attire central to our identity. The women wear wide skirts with petticoats, blouses covered by wool shawls, and low shoes. We adorn our hair with two long braids tied back, with bowler hats. Today, I combine climbing with that traditional attire.
As a young girl, I saw how wearing a traditional Aymara skirt was not widely accepted in society. Many of us began persistently wearing our traditional clothing, especially in the mountains. As we did this, we saw a change take place in society and in the Bolivian mindset. We wanted to show the world we were proud of our roots. Our efforts became an emblem of feminism and racial progress, breaking barriers and inspiring others along the way.
When we decided to climb as Cholitas, and reclaim our cultural rights, we knew we faced challenges. Ascending a mountain in a skirt presents double the risks, but we embraced the challenge wholeheartedly. We made slight adaptations to ensure safety and comfort. The modified skirt accommodates a harness, and we added thermal mountain leggings. To protect ourselves from the elements, we wear a helmet, gloves, a waterproof feather jacket, and a traditional shawl.
Being a Climbing Cholita carries immense responsibility. Many women say we represent them. They view our achievements as inspiring and remarkable. Their awe motivates us to pursue the very things we once believed were beyond our reach. I feel empowered. Once reserved and shy, today I seek to break barriers. The mountains awoke in me a sense of boundless dreaming.
Reaching the summit of Aconcagua became one of the most pivotal moments of my life. [As the highest mountain in the Americas, the highest outside of Asia, and the highest in the Southern Hemisphere, Aconcagua boasts a summit elevation of 6,961 meters or 22,837 feet.] My father had gone before me, so it held great emotional significance. I dreamed, day and night, about following in his footsteps.
When the opportunity arose, I knew it served as a significant milestone in my mountaineering journey. During the expedition, we spent considerable time at base camp, waiting for a favorable weather window. The conditions proved extreme and harsh. The mountain physically exhausted me and tested my patience.
I pushed through and eventually made it to the last camp, situated almost 6,000 meters above sea level. As I continued my ascent, gradually, I began to feel better and more comfortable. I found my rhythm and the journey transformed from grueling to serene. When I reached the peak of Aconcagua, tears streamed down my face. I stood, in awe of my surroundings.
Soon, I will embark on a new and ambitious campaign to conquer Everest. Alongside my father, we will face rigorous physical and mental training. I will have to push myself to the limits in adverse conditions, but I know I can do it.
When I started climbing, I did it out of curiosity and to fulfill a dream. Today, I seek to motivate other women; to inspire them to pursue their own aspirations.
All photos are courtesy of the Climbing Cholitas group.
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