This article is from Edition 17: Transition
Benjamin Swift
Written by Benjamin Swift
Published on 22nd October 2023
8 min read

As Bolivia's glaciers rapidly melt, a group of Indigenous women known as the Cholitas Escaladoras are rewriting Bolivian climbing culture.

You can read a Spanish version of this article, translated by Daniela Anze with the author, here.

Puedes leer una versión en español de este artículo, traducido por Daniela Anze con el autor, aquí.

The first time Elena Quispe touched snow, she was walking through a fresh dusting near her home in sandals. She was eight years old. Elena and her mother had left their small town of Chucura on foot to buy groceries in Bolivia’s capital city, La Paz, and partway into their four-hour journey, snow started drifting through the thin altiplano air. By the end of the day, they were thoroughly soaked.

This wasn’t Elena’s first time seeing snow, though – far from it. Growing up among the peaks ringing the world’s highest capital city, snow and glaciers served as the backdrop to daily life in her hometown, accessible only by footpath. “It’s a beautiful life I’ve lived,” she reflects, “having what I’ve lived since I was a girl… walking among the mountain peaks.” But the snow Elena got to touch as a child rarely falls anymore, and recently the glaciers have been receding too.

Elena at the base of Chacaltaya

Photo courtesy of Laura Barriga Dávalos

Last April I climbed Pico Austria, a 5,328m peak in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real, with Elena. This was my second time on this mountain; my first was in 2016. As I looked down to Laguna Jori Qota below me, I felt the same sense of awe and appreciation that I felt six years earlier. However, mixed with the adrenaline and sorojchi – altitude sickness – was also a nagging sense of deep loss. Last time I took in this view, the glacier creeping down from Picos Eslovenia and Janchallani almost touched the lagoon below me. Now, all that validated my memories from that era were the dark water stains – like dirt in a drained bathtub – that marked the walls of the mountainside. 

The Andes are some of the world’s most at-risk mountains in the face of climate change. Ask most people from the Northern Hemisphere what first comes to mind when they think of the Andes, and ‘snow’ and ‘glaciers’ come to the fore. But with much of the mountain range at a latitude near the equator, many of its glaciers are particularly vulnerable. In fact, according to the United Nations, the Andes have lost from 30% to 50% of their ice cover just in the last 40 years. According to one study, that glacier Elena pointed out to me could disappear completely within the next 30 years.

For anyone who loves snow, glaciers, drinking water, and a stable climate, these facts are terrifying. For the people of La Paz and El Alto, twin cities largely dependent on glacial runoff for their water supply, they’re existential. But for Elena, a high-mountain alpinist, glaciers serve another purpose, one beyond survival: they are essential for safe high-mountain alpinism. 

Glaciers form platforms of snow and ice that, in many cases, are much more stable than the loose rock below them. On many mountains, the rock is destabilised through centuries of freeze-thaw cycles in the ice above. As glaciers melt, snow-capped peaks around the world are becoming more difficult and dangerous to climb. With this backdrop of inevitable change, Elena and her team’s goal feels all the more urgent, as they know that each peak they climb could be one closer to their last.

The Andes

Image courtesy of @sgbirch via Wikimedia Commons

Growing up in the shadow of some of the Andes’ most prominent peaks, Elena and many fellow members of her community worked in the trekking industry leading expeditions for foreigners, mostly hailing from Europe and the United States. At just eight years old, Elena started working in the mountains as a high-mountain chef, porter, and muleteer. While some of the men from her community accompanied foreigners to mountain peaks as guides, Elena and the rest of the women she worked with never made it further than the base camps. 

These were mountains and valleys she knew intimately – they were her home, her neighbourhood – yet she had not once followed a ridge to its peak. As the tourists she guided continued up the mountains, Elena would look up at the peaks with curiosity. What could be there, she wondered, that could pull these foreigners from thousands of miles away? “There must be gold on the summits,” she thought. “When I climb a peak one day,” she dreamed, “I’ll bring gold back down.”

Years later, Elena and many of her childhood trekking colleagues were living in El Alto, the nearest city to Chucura. The dream of climbing a glaciated peak themselves still burned. So in 2015, along with her sister Alicia Quispe and a group of other women from their town, Elena began planning to make that dream a reality.

Elena climbing Chacaltaya

Photo courtesy of Laura Barriga Dávalos

Elena and her friends knew it wouldn’t be easy. Elena and Alicia are cholitas: Indigenous Bolivian women who speak Aymara or Quechua as their first language and wear ‘traditional’ clothing typical of Indigenous Bolivians, such as wide flowing skirts, bowler hats, and long braided hair (I use ‘traditional’ in quotations because much of this outfit was shaped by Spanish colonisation). 

The word cholita is derived from cholo, a term that has been used to describe Indigenous Bolivians in a derogatory way; until recently, cholitas were effectively banned from entering certain public spaces, including many restaurants, city plazas, and buses. While, since the early 2000s, Indigenous Bolivians have led a massive movement reclaiming their Indigeneity, there’s still a long way to go. Intersecting sexism is also still alive and well, especially for cholitas.

Elena, Alicia, and their women friends and family were right: it wasn’t easy. When they started planning to climb the 6,088m Huayna Potosí, many male climbers resisted. Veiling their fear that climbing cholitas would threaten their work, male climbers invented myriad claims to stop them. They suggested that climbing as women in polleras – traditional skirts – would be dangerous. They even claimed that a woman’s presence that high on a mountain would spontaneously melt the glaciers or trigger avalanches, endangering others on the mountain. 

Their protests were met with deaf ears: Elena and Alicia continued working towards their goal. After months of planning, training, and knocking on doors to gain supporters, their team had raised enough money to rent equipment. But they faced one last setback: the climbing boots that they found were too large – all of them made for men’s feet. 

Nonetheless, after months of persistence, Elena and her team of family members and childhood friends – all cholitas – were finally ready to pursue the summit of Huayna Potosí in late 2015. Along with high-tech trekking clothes for warmth, the cholitas wore their resplendent polleras.

'Veiling their fear that climbing cholitas would threaten their work, male climbers invented myriad claims to stop them. They suggested that climbing as women in polleras – traditional skirts – would be dangerous. They even claimed that a woman’s presence that high on a mountain would spontaneously melt the glaciers or trigger avalanches, endangering others on the mountain.'

Benjamin Swift
The Cholitas Escaladoras climbing

Photo courtesy of Julia Quispe

On a frosty December morning, the group woke well before dawn to set off for the summit. As they donned their high-alpine equipment, they didn’t know what the day ahead would hold. Wearing thick down layers, bulky mountaineering boots, and crampons along with her pollera, Elena felt like a robot. “How am I going to walk, and to where?” she remembers wondering. Once the group started the ascent, the excitement of their goal overcame their fear. Arriving at her first crevasse, Elena leapt across. As her pollera and layered skirts underneath flapped in the wind, her crampons caught in the fabric, tearing parts of it to shreds. 

The group continued their ascent for hours, arriving at the peak as the rising sun illuminated the shores of Lake Titicaca in the distance. Though she had refined her crevasse-jumping technique over the course of the day, by the time she summited, Elena’s skirts were tattered.

They were the first ever Indigenous women documented to have climbed that peak, or any other glaciated peak in Bolivia. When they reached the top, they did not find gold. But they did relish the moment. They danced and waved their polleras in the wind, documenting the moment with videos that they would have likely immortalised on TikTok, as they now do, had the platform existed then. They took in the vast landscape and inhaled the thin air deeply. “Condors were flying below us, even aeroplanes were below us,” Elena remembers with a smile.

'Arriving at her first crevasse, Elena leapt across. As her pollera and layered skirts underneath flapped in the wind, her crampons caught in the fabric, tearing parts of it to shreds.'

Benjamin Swift
Elena at the top of Chacaltaya

Photo courtesy of Laura Barriga Dávalos

After Huayna Potosí, the Cholitas Escaladoras, or Cholita Climbers, resolved to climb more peaks. On each subsequent expedition, the Cholitas Escaladoras have celebrated at the top by dancing and letting the wind billow through their skirts, an act they call flameando. “We need to continue to flamear our polleras,” Elena says, because “yes we can, we women – we can do it!”

Since first climbing Huayna Potosí, the Cholitas Escaladoras have climbed almost every glaciated peak in Bolivia, and travelled to Argentina to climb Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. Now, their sights are set on Everest.

Though Elena recognises the dangers, she’s committed to this dream. She and her husband have decided not to have kids, both so that Elena can focus her efforts on training, and as an acknowledgment of the risks inherent to climbing the highest mountain in the world. This decision feels especially significant in a community where having kids is expected of married women Elena’s age (27). While she admits that climbing Everest will be “a bit difficult,” she is determined to make it a reality both as a personal goal, and because of what it would mean for her community as an Indigenous woman.

“It’s the highest mountain in the world,” says Elena – of course she wants to see its summit. It would be an enormous accomplishment. But it’s about more than her personal dream. “Here in Bolivia,” she adds, “only two people have summited Everest,” and “not a single Indigenous woman, Aymara woman, or woman who wears the pollera.” The Cholitas Escaladoras would also be among the few women to have climbed Everest in its 70-year climbing history: of over 4,000 people who have summited, only a small percentage are women. Elena wants to flamear her pollera at the top of the world.

'Here in Bolivia, only two people have summited Everest ... not a single Indigenous woman, Aymara woman, or woman who wears the pollera.'

Elena Quispe

Until then, the Cholitas Escaladoras continue to train, fundraise, and lead expeditions in pursuit of their Everest dream. But as they push towards their goal, change weighs heavily on their minds. 

Elena now works as a mountain guide, leading tourists to the summits of the mountains she used to dream of climbing. She often guides tourists on Huayna Potosí, and notes that a lot has changed. During her first ascent in 2015, the summit was blanketed in a thick layer of snow and ice; now the summit and its approach is “just rock and ice.” As more snow and ice melts, Elena and other guides have to change their routes to avoid opening crevasses. Elena speculates that many glaciers will only last another five to ten years. “We need to take advantage of still having snow,” she says. Just like in Elena’s home mountains, Everest’s ice is melting too, making it more dangerous, and sometimes even impossible, to climb.

As the ice thaws and changes, conversations about racism and sexism in a colonised society are also changing, if at a more glacial pace. For one, the same men who once called their dreams crazy now support their climbing goals. Though they have gained social support, the situation of the Cholitas Escaladoras and other Aymara women remains complex: the struggle against racism and sexism is far from over. Nonetheless, the Cholitas Escaladoras are playing a role in changing long-held beliefs. And no matter their mountaineering success, they’re proud to be Indigenous women climbing the Achachilas, or peaks their ancestors have called home for thousands of years.

Elena isn’t certain that this social transition has happened soon enough to allow her to flamear her pollera on the top of the world before its ice is too unstable. But she’s confident that, one way or another, she’ll achieve her goals. “I’ve always lived in the countryside planting potatoes and raising llamas, and I’ve always had this dream. I know that one day I’ll make it happen.”

You can follow the Cholitas Escaladoras on Instagram at @cholitasescaladoras.

If you’d like to support Elena and the Cholitas Escaladoras’ dream of climbing Everest, you can donate to their GoFundMe here. Note that the fundraiser is currently in the author’s name, because GoFundMe won’t deposit into Bolivian bank accounts. They’re working on finding a solution.