Anna Fleming writes about climbing and mountaineering as a means of self-determination and empowerment for women around the world.
'Una mujer no debe quedarse con un sueño, lo debe cumplir.'
'A woman should never be left dreaming, rather she should achieve her dream.'
Five brightly coloured skirts and petticoats dance in the wind, the full fabrics lifting and flowing over modern mountaineering boots and crampons. Instead of rucksacks, the climbers wear vibrant woven k'eperinas tied in knots around their chests.
With all these layers of skirts and woollen materials, the climbers echo the early women who went out onto the Alpine glaciers in full skirts, dresses, hats and bonnets. But unlike those women whose ventures are captured in grainy sepia images, these are served up in full colour. And the flamboyant skirts are worn to make a point.
The skirts belong to the cholitas escaladoras, the climbing cholitas, a group of Aymara Indigenous women from Bolivia. In 2015, 11 cholitas climbed Huayna Potosí (6088m), the tallest mountain near La Paz, where many of the women live. This was a step out of their comfort zone. There is no tradition of climbing within the Aymara community: the mountains were venerated, not climbed. Their children told them they were crazy. Others told them that mountaineering was a man's sport and could only be done by men. And definitely not in their traditional pollera skirts.
But something had sparked within the women. After Huayna Potosí, the madness continued. The cholitas climbed Acotango (6052m) on the border between Bolivia and Chile, then Parinacota (6380m), Pomarapi (6225m), Illimani (6462m) and Bolivia's highest mountain, Sajama de Oruro (6542m).
Their dream was realised in 2019 when five women climbed Aconcagua (6961m) in Argentina. The journey that Cecilia (35), Anali (33), Elena (22), Dora (50) and Lidia Huayllas (53) made up the highest mountain in South America is captured in the documentary film Cholitas (2019).
The climb is very emotional. There are many hugs and tears as the women wait out storms on the mountain, playing football, hopscotch, cooking and dancing in the camps over the ascent. The women support one another, trudging on through blizzards in their colourful pollera skirts. Facing the challenges that the mountain throws at them, the camaraderie is strong.
Before climbing, the Aymara women perform the challa, a libation ritual using coca leaves that honours the Pachamama, or 'Mother Earth', a goddess revered by Indigenous groups in the Andes.
On the summit of Aconcagua, the women cry and hug. They bring out both the Bolivian flag and the Wiphala – the rainbow flag of the Indigenous people of the Andes. The flag is associated with social movement and protests. Each colour represents an aspect of their life.
Their achievement is remarkable across many fronts. In a UKC interview, cholita Lidia Huayllas Estrada explained her background:
Before starting climbing in 2014, I worked in international mountaineers' camps, cooking, cleaning and carrying equipment. I have worked as a cook for about 20 years. Other people did not expect much from me, as I was just a humble cook. Only recently did I gather the courage to climb higher and I think that doors have opened up for me now.
The cholitas are lower class citizens, expected to cook, wash and serve. A woman in such positions may have dreams but it is hard for her to fulfil them. To shift from such subservience to climbing the highest mountains is truly astonishing.
As Indigenous Andean women, the cholitas belong to a marginalised race. Across the globe, Indigenous people (who make up 5% of the world's population) are widely discriminated against. They have to defend their lands, languages, religions, cultures and traditions from colonial expansion. Indigenous people often lack self-determination. They are underrepresented in film and television. They are widely excluded from political and legal processes and are vulnerable to violence and abuse.
Indigenous women can suffer disproportionately from violence and domestic abuse. UN data shows eight out of ten Bolivian women suffer some type of violence in their lifetime. In neighbouring Peru, thousands of Indigenous and peasant women were forcibly sterilised in the 1990s as part of a government family planning scheme.
Yet in Bolivia, the Aymara have risen in status. Cholita is derived from the Spanish word 'cholo' (chola for females) meaning mixed-race or, pejoratively, 'halfbreed' or 'civilised Indian', but in the case of the Aymara women, it has been adopted as a badge of honour.
Sport is part of their rise. Aymara women play football and golf. Some are learning boxing, wrestling and taekwondo for self-defence and to protect from domestic violence. This training and sports participation empowers women to tackle gendered violence and aggression. Strong bodies make strong minds.
Crucially for the Aymara cholitas, all of this sporting activity is done in the traditional pollera dress. Their distinctive style includes full skirts with up to five tiers of cloth plus petticoats, bowler hats and hair worn in long black plaits. This style is a cultural symbol: instantly recognisable, it marks them out as Indigenous women, which can make them targets for discrimination. But in climbing to the top of the highest mountain in America while proudly wearing their traditional clothing, the women send a powerful message to the world. We are here. We can do this. We are proud to be cholitas.
The climbing cholitas are part of a growing global movement wherein women are finding empowerment through adventure, sport and mountaineering. The first women's group was the Ladies Alpine Club founded in 1907 by Irish aristocrat, Lizzie Le Blond. The Ladies Scottish Climbing Club followed in 1908 and the Pinnacle Club came in 1921.
Now there is a surge in all-women groups. In the UK, the Adventure Queens, Women's Trad Fest and Black Girls Hike create supportive learning environments where women can learn together, have fun and experience the camaraderie of all women-trips.
In countries where women's freedoms are more severely curtailed, climbing and mountaineering can be a form of quiet - yet nonetheless impactful - resistance and empowerment.
In Iran, the mountains have long offered women a sense of freedom that is forbidden to them in civilisation. As one Iranian climber told UKC in 2016:
"Climbing and being in the mountains was the only place I felt like an equal to the fellow men. After all, there is a platform where you can do well, equally well and sometimes better than your male counterparts. It proves to the woman that she can! That despite many obstacles, she can achieve and feel great!"
Sadly, the recent tightening of hijab laws and restrictions on women in Iran, which led to the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody last year and sparked deadly protests, could make this form of 'stealthy freedom' an even riskier pursuit.
In Afghanistan, too, women are facing an uphill struggle under an oppressive regime. In 2018, before the Taliban returned to power in 2021, an Afghan woman climbed to the summit of Noshaq (7,492 metres) - the highest mountain in Afghanistan - in the Hindu Kush. 24 year-old Hanifa Yousoufi's journey to the top is another remarkable story.
Hanifa grew up in Kabul. At 14, she was married to an older man in Pakistan and was treated 'like a slave for cooking and cleaning.' After a few years, Hanifa ran away to return to her family in Kabul. She will not talk about what happened. Some years later, she joined Ascend Athletics, Aghanistan's first female mountaineering team. She had never participated in sport or been to the mountains.
Through a two-year leadership programme, Ascend trains teams of Afghan girls to climb mountains. The aim is to create a party of strong women with strong bodies and strong minds — a revolutionary development for Afghan women. Under Taliban rule, Afghan girls and women are excluded from sport and are banned from school and university. Domestic violence is normal: a 2012 UNICEF study revealed that 92% of Afghan women felt that a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife if she goes out without telling the husband, neglects the children, argues with her husband, refuses sex or burns the food.
Climbing Noshaq was no mean feat. For Hanifa, an initial major hurdle lay in going against her family's conservative attitude. "My family were not happy. They were thinking that a girl should not do this sport. They were not happy that I was doing sport at all," she told UKC in 2018.
The gruelling journey the Afghan women went through to become mountaineers is captured in the film Ascending Afghanistan. As well as the physical, psychological and social barriers the women had to overcome, the Ascend team faced additional dangers. Just before they were due to set off for Noshaq, there was a Taliban attack near the mountain. The women had to charter a plane to another airstrip and then endure a 13-hour drive on poor roads to reach the mountain. But the struggle was worth it.
"When I was on the top I felt very good, not only for me but for all Afghan women - that shows how strong they are," says Hanifa. "Now I am a role model for other Afghan women who inspires them to believe that if I could do it they also can do it." Her climb represents something that goes way beyond her own individual achievement. In the face of years of war, violence and brutal repression, Hanifa's climb shows Afghan girls and women that they too can be heroes.
In 2021, after the Taliban retook control and Afghan women were stripped of basic rights, Ascend Athletics swiftly shifted from empowerment to evacuation. 134 former students and employees were resettled in eight different countries and a recent Patagonia film, Ascend, shows some of those Afghan women adjusting to their new lives while climbing in Yosemite.
These women's groups in Bolivia, Afghanistan and beyond demonstrate how mountaineering enables girls and women to find new freedoms. Climbing gives us confidence, courage and a vital sense of achievement. For these women, the groups offer unique opportunities to develop new skills, friendships and learn, perhaps for the first time, what it is to have ambitions and work towards goals. With success, the women become role models and inspiring leaders, advancing female empowerment.
Gender Equality is Goal Five of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The aim is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Women's mountaineering groups across the world work towards that end. The importance of empowering women who live in these mountain communities that we pass through en route to the summits is also recognised in the recent UN campaign Women Move Mountains. Climbing, this life-enriching activity, takes place in beautiful snow-capped places which connect us to nature and marginalised communities, while helping us to learn our place in the world and improve our mental health.
On the summit of Aconcagua, the cholitas stood proud in their colourful pollera. Their ascent caught the eye of Bolivian President Evo Morales, who congratulated the group and named them the 'pride of Bolivia.' When they returned from the mountain, the women shared their stories with friends and family. One of the cholitas, a school teacher, held her classroom captive as she passed around her ice axe and told their story. In response, the school children picked up pencils and papers and started drawing. On the white sheets, images emerged of mountaineers: a team of women dressed in skirts, standing on top of the world.