Ana Lia Gonzales Magueno and Elena Quispe Tincuta became the first Aymara women to summit Aconcagua (6962m) in late January with the help of a guide. The two climbers are part of a group of Indigenous women nicknamed the “Cholitas Escaladoras” from El Alto, Bolivia. Three other members of the group–Lidia Huayllas Estrada, Dora Magueno Machaca (Gonzales’ mother) and Cecilia Ilusco Alana–had to stop just short of the summit because of time concerns.
“They told us we were the first Aymara women to climb it,” said Gonzales, 30, in Spanish, to the author. “And we did it all while wearing the cholita outfit, because it is a source of pride.”
The guided summit push was financed by Spanish filmmakers, who accompanied the group to the summit for a documentary.
The Cholitas Escaladoras began to coalesce as an informal group in 2015, when around a dozen women who either worked as cooks and low-altitude porters for tourists in Bolivia’s mountains or whose husbands worked as low-altitude support staff decided to start climbing themselves. After sumitting Huayna Potosi (6088m) in 2015, the group began attracting increasingly more national press attention. The group climbed other iconic Bolivian mountains –Illimani (6438m) in 2017 and Sajama (6542m) in 2018–before deciding to tackle the tallest mountain on the continent.
“It didn’t start out as a project,” said Gonzales. “I just wanted to climb with my mom and my dad, and I was happy. We have such beautiful mountains.”
Her mom, Dora Magueno Machaca, was one of the climbers who nearly summited Aconcagua but had to turn around because it was becoming too late in the day to proceed safely.
The group chooses to climb in the traditional dress of many women of El Alto: thick skirts called a pollera; shawls; and a colorful cloth to carry things on their back called an aguayo. Women in La Paz and El Alto developed the fashion, complete with bowler hats, in the early 20th century. It marks the “cholita” identity. The term “chola” long held derogatory connotations, but that has changed in recent decades to reflect mounting Indigenous empowerment. The country elected President Evo Morales, also Aymara, in 2005 and his policies have elevated Indigenous rights and traditions. Morales tweeted his congratulations to the women after their summit.
“It gives me strength and courage,” said Gonzales about wearing the traditional skirts. “It represents love, and my grandmother, and my city. It’s a symbol of the fight because for us to arrive at where we are now, many things had to happen.”
The images of the women wearing the skirts in the mountains have inspired more Bolivians to take up alpinism, a sport long reserved for foreign tourists. Gear, guides and entrance fees can cost hundreds of dollars–an oft-insurmountable barrier for Bolivians who live in the poorest country in South America. The “cholitas escaladoras” make do with mostly rented gear that they said is sometimes subpar.
The five climbers left Bolivia on January 7 for Argentina. After ten days of gradual acclimatization and hiking, poor weather stopped them at Plaza de Mulas, the large base camp. Every day climbers returned dejected and frostbitten from their summit pushes. The group played soccer with porters at base camp and got to know the other climbers. Unaccustomed to the wind, which reached 120 km/hr, Gonzales said she started to get discouraged.
“We buried an offering of coca leaves and alcohol to ask for permission to climb,” said Gonzales. “It’s what my grandmother taught me to do a blessing for the spirits of the mountains.”
The weather finally broke and the group launched on their summit bid on a clear, sunny day. They took the normal route, a non-technical route that follows the mountain’s northwest ridge to the summit. An Argentinian guide helped them reach the peak.
On January 24, Gonzales and Quispe held up Bolivia’s national flags, including the Wiphala, a banner full of color blocks representing native nations in the Andes, at the summit.
A few days later, Bolivians welcomed them home to the La Paz airport with applause.
“Reaching the peak was very taxing, but I had a lot of will,” she added. “I’m happy I accomplished the dream, and sad we didn’t all get there together.”