A sudden gust of wind stifles the crunch of footsteps on the ice and makes the skirts swell in the icy night.
Ten indigenous Aymara women slowly climb a Bolivian mountain in their traditional dress as a sign of emancipation.
The Climbing Cholitas of Bolivia Warmis is a group dedicated to advocating for indigenous women’s rights through mountaineering.
Cecilia Llusco, 36, is the daughter of a mountain guide and had dreamed since she was young of climbing the snow-capped Huayna Potosi, which rises to more than 6,000 meters above sea level.
However, for many years she was limited to cooking for other mountaineers and preparing their backpacks.
That was until she and several other rural women, including some of her sisters, decided to change their fates.
“Why can’t we climb mountains? she said they wondered, while drawing dismissive reactions from some men.
“What are these women doing here on the mountain? Llusco remembers them saying.
Seven years after their initial expedition, and having climbed nearly a dozen peaks in Bolivia, Peru and Argentina, the Cholita Climbers, named after indigenous Bolivian women called “cholas” or “cholitas”, are tackling again in Huayna Potosi on this austral winter night.
And they didn’t compromise on their style.
“We wanted to show that women are strong and brave, that we can do it with our clothes,” said LLusco, who wears her hair in long braids adorned with brown wool.
“A lot of discrimination”
Whenever they can, and often aided by funding from NGOs and private companies, they hire a minibus to drive two hours from their home in El Alto – the satellite overlooking La Paz, to the wall of ice they plan to climb.
There are 14 members and each time they climb they share an ‘aptapi’ – a banquet in which each person brings food to share.
After resting for a few hours in a shelter, the Cholitas get up at 11 p.m. and begin to dress in their traditional colorful pleated skirts, called polleras.
Knitted by housewives, porters and tourist guides, they begin the ascent of the glacier at midnight to reach the summit at sunrise.
Over their woolen clothes, they wear typical mountaineering equipment: helmets, crampons, ice axes, boots and chaps.
But instead of a backpack, they carry their gear in a traditional cloth bag slung over the shoulder and tied around their neck.
“There has been a lot of discrimination against female pollera,” Llusco said, pointing out that Bolivia’s rate of femicide was the highest in South America, according to international organizations.
Indigenous peoples, who make up nearly half of Bolivia’s population, have long been marginalized.
“Flying Between the Clouds”
In the dark of night, all that is visible is a line of ant-like lanterns illuminating the ice on either side.
One by one, the Cholitas cling to a safety harness and carefully drive their crampons into the ice to avoid falling 30 meters into a chasm.
Oxygen levels plummet and temperatures drop to minus 10 degrees Celsius.
In the distance, 30 kilometers away, the lights of El Alto are visible.
At the first light of day, the coppery faces of these women – aged between 18 and 42 – become visible.
As a few snow-capped peaks break through the low cloud, several Cholitas stop to take photos of the dawn sun emerging from the dramatic scenery with their cellphones.
The extreme altitude causes headaches and stomach aches which the Cholitas try to relieve by chewing coca leaves and chocolate.
Near the top, two exhausted climbers decide they’ve had enough and give up.
The last path is steep and narrow. Attached to a rope, they grow slowly.
At the top, it’s all smiles, hugs and dancing.
“When we reach the top of the mountain, it’s like flying between the clouds,” Llusco said.
His daughter Camila Tarqui, a new recruit, says she likes “the way the air is stirring” at this altitude.
“You can almost touch a star when you come here at night,” she said.
In a plain a few meters below the summit, the Cholitas are playing a football match.
High altitude football is not new to Bolivia, whose national team plays its matches in La Paz on the highest pitch in the world used for international matches.
Having already scaled the highest peak in South America in 2019 – Aconcagua in Argentina – the Cholitas now dream of tackling Mount Everest.
“We women have broken down many barriers…and we want to go further, always holding the Aymara culture high,” Llusco said. -AFP