Meet the Middle-Aged Cholitas Conquering the Highest Mountains in South America

Most mountaineers wouldn’t venture out on an expedition without the proper gear and attire, but a group of Bolivian women have shocked the world by climbing some of South America’s highest mountains – all while wearing their traditional attire of colorful, layered skirts. Dressed in ‘cholita paceñas’ outfits complete with Andean ‘aguayo’ shawls and knitted cardigans, they look like typical grannies albeit on a serious mission.

These women, belonging to the indigenous Aymara people of the Andes, would normally stay at home while their husbands worked as mountain guides in the worst of conditions. They would cook at base camps or work as porters, never actually scaling the treacherous peaks themselves. But all that changed a couple of years ago, when Lydia Huayllas, wife of a mountain guide, wanted to know what it felt like to scale the steep, glacial slopes of the 19,974-foot Huayna Potosi mountain.

“What do you do up there, how does it feel?” she asked her husband, Eulalio Gonzalez. In response, he told her to find out for herself. So she did just that.


Photo: Asociación Andina de Promotores de Turismo en Aventura y Montaña (AAPTAM)

Inspired by her husband’s suggestion, Lydia put together a group of 15 Aymara women aged 42 to 50 who shared her ambition and set off to climb the Huayna Potosi mountain. They put on crampons (spiked boots for climbing) under their skirts, got their hands on some mountain climbing equipment like like ropes, harnesses, and ice axes, and off they went. The challenge was tough, but they did have the notable advantage of being well acclimated to the thin air at high altitudes, so there first attempt was a success.

But the mountain climbing cholitas’ first achievement only left them hungry for more, so they decided to keep going. Their short term goal now is to climb eight mountains higher than 19,700 feet. “The first experience was Huayna Potosi,” said 50-year-old group-member Dora Magueño. “I cried with emotion. And I’m strong, I’m going to continue and get to the top of eight mountains.”


Photo: Asociación Andina de Promotores de Turismo en Aventura y Montaña (AAPTAM)

After Huayana Potosi, these extraordinary Bolivian women have already managed to conquer the mountains of Parinacota (20,826 ft), Pomarape (20,610 ft) and lllimani (21,122 ft). “It was like we had arrived in heaven when we reached the top of Illimani,” one of the women said. “The clouds were below us and emerged as if from a volcano. We could see everything from above. The walls of Illimani are very difficult to climb but we managed it.”

Their short-term dream, however, is to plant the flag of Bolivia on the summit of the 22,841-ft high Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of Asia. They will be attempting this monumental challenge this month, and if their prior exploits are any indication, they will make history once again. After that, who knows? But I have a feeling they’ll be taking a shot at Everest one day.


So the next time someone tells you that you can’t do something, just think of these middle-aged women climbing some of the world’s highest mountains in traditional Aymara garb. That should put things in perspective.

Sources: Reuters, La Razon