Cholita Mountain Climbers Defy What Climbing Looks Like

graphic design in collage style of a group of native women climbing mountains

In Bolivia, Cecilia Llusco, an Aymara woman, guides hikers to the summit of Huayna Potosí, a mountain in western Bolivia, located in the Andes at 6,088 meters above sea level. Llusco is part of a group of native women who proudly embrace their cultural heritage and are popularly known as cholitas.

In the past, the word "cholita" was not exactly a term of endearment for the ethnic minority of Bolivian women. However, things took a turn as time went by. The cholitas reappropriated the term, and their traditional clothes became a symbol of identity and resilience.

Dressed in her colorful traditional skirt and equipped with crampons, a traction device attached to the base of the boot for walking on ice, Llusco is part of a group of mountain climbers whose fame skyrocketed after the release of their award-winning documentary in 2019.

A group of cholitas turned gender norms upside down, literally and figuratively, when they began skateboarding in their traditional clothing.

Now, another set of cholitas are gearing up for their next challenge: scaling the world's highest mountain, Everest.

Llusco's upbringing was tied to the mountains, thanks to her father's job as a high mountain guide, where she gained insight into his profession. At the age of 8, she made her first visit to the Huayna Potosí base camp, situated at 4700 meters above sea level. By 14, she began climbing mountains and started working as a porter—a local native who carries essential supplies like food, tents, and climbing equipment for tourists participating in guided hikes up the mountains.

In 2015, along with ten other Aymara women, she reached the summit of Huayna Potosí, triggering a series of expeditions to other mountains over six thousand meters in height in Bolivia. The initial project was self-funded, and the women organized themselves into a group they named "Cholita Climbers," which now boasts fourteen members.

With the success of the documentary "Cholitas," directed by Pablo Iraburu and Jaime Murciego, Llusco became a high mountain guide and traveled to places like El Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas, second only to the Himalayas in Asia. As if she hadn’t already accomplished more than most climbers of any gender, Llusco climbed to 5500 meters Illimani, a snowy Andean mountain in Bolivia, while eight months pregnant.

Now she and her companions dream of reaching Everest in 2024 to represent their Aymara culture and colorful skirts on the world's highest peak.

To achieve their goal, the Cholita Climbers have launched a crowdfunding campaign to gather funds for their expedition, including training, gear, and travel expenses.

The film also highlights Lidia Huayllas, the group's most senior member, who is spearheading the ambitious project of taking the cholitas to the summit of Everest. Completing this trio of women is Senobia Llusco, Cecilia's younger sister, who not only actively participates in the group of cholita climbers but also plans to invite women from Tibet to join them in conquering the world's highest mountain.

In an interview with Ladera Sur, Llusco shares, "Our biggest dream is to go to Nepal, we have that project for 2024. We will go to the biggest mountain in the world to bring our culture and our colorful skirts. I am proud of not losing the skirt culture, Aymara, indigenous, of my roots. I will never lose it; I won't take it off. When we planted potatoes, I would pull it up, and I do the same when I have to climb on ice. Of course, I've climbed many peaks with my skirt and crampons."

Where it Started

Huayllas, a pioneer and organizer within the group, took the lead in 2015 by encouraging the cholitas to unite and plan their ascent to conquer the summit of Huayna Potosí. She began climbing and proudly carried her cultural identity and the traditional skirt, a symbol of the indigenous resistance in Andean culture, rather than opting to wear traditional climbing gear.

Lidia Huayllas Strava - Cholita

While Huayllas currently serves as the deputy mayor of one district in El Alto, Bolivia, her greatest achievement is leaving a legacy for new generations of women, urging them to pursue their dreams. In the interview with Ladera Sur, Huayllas shared, "To all women, I say there is always sexism, but I would like to tell them that all women have to make dreams come true. We have already taken the step, and we will show that women can reach the summits we set out for. Now, my dream is to go to Everest with my companions."

And inspiring is exactly what they’re doing. The youngest of the Llusco sisters, Senobia, followed in Cecilia Llusco's footsteps as a porter and high mountain cook. Their connection to the mountain goes beyond the physical; for them, a mountain is a person, and they take their deep spiritual connections with them to every mountain they climb. Senobia and her sister performed Aymara rituals before ascending Nevado Ausangate in 2017, honoring the mountain deities.

She dreams of representing Aymara women on the world's highest mountain and sending a message of strength. Despite financial challenges and gender stereotypes, the Cholita Climbers persist in their goal. In the interview with Ladera Sur, the youngest of the Llusco sisters shared, "We want to be known, and recognized as well. We want to show that Aymara women are strong. That's why we are going to the highest mountain in the world."

These cholitas, whether scaling high mountain peaks or showcasing skateboarding prowess, defy preconceived boundaries, empowering indigenous women in spaces once deemed out of reach. For the Cholita Climbers, Everest isn’t just a mountain; it is a symbol of cultural representation and determination. With their fortitude, they aim to change perceptions and pave the way for future generations of Aymara women.

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