A group of indigenous women who have gained fame for scaling the highest peaks of the Andes in their traditional skirts and hats are facing an uncertain future as the glaciers that sustain their livelihoods are shrinking due to climate change.
The women, known as the “climbing cholitas”, are former porters and cooks who worked for foreign mountaineers and decided to become climbers themselves two years ago. They have since conquered five mountains over 6,000 meters high in the Cordillera Real range, including the imposing Illimani, which overlooks the capital city of La Paz.
The cholitas, who belong to the Aymara ethnic group, wear colorful outfits that consist of a wide skirt, a shawl, a bowler hat and flat shoes. They also use modern equipment such as crampons, harnesses, helmets and ice axes. Their attire and achievements have attracted international attention and inspired a documentary film and a photo exhibition.
However, the women are worried that their passion and profession may soon come to an end as the glaciers that feed the rivers and lakes in the region are melting at an alarming rate. According to a study by the University of Zurich, Bolivia has lost more than 40% of its glaciers in the past 50 years, and some of them may disappear completely by 2030.
The loss of glaciers not only threatens the water supply and the agriculture of millions of people in the highlands and the lowlands, but also the tourism industry that depends on the snow-capped mountains as a major attraction. The cholitas say that they have noticed the changes in the landscape and the weather during their expeditions, and that they fear for their future and their children’s future.
“We love the mountains, they are our home, our culture, our identity. But we see that they are suffering, that they are losing their white color, that they are drying up. We don’t know what will happen to us if they disappear. We don’t have any other source of income,” said Lydia Huayllas, 48, one of the cholitas.
The women hope that their example can raise awareness about the effects of global warming and the need to protect the environment. They also dream of climbing more mountains in Bolivia and abroad, and of planting their flag on the summit of Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America.
“We want to show the world that women can do anything, that we are strong, that we are capable, that we have rights. We also want to show the beauty of our country, of our mountains, of our culture. But we need help, we need support, we need solutions. We don’t want to lose our mountains, we don’t want to lose our lives,” said Dora Magueño, 50, another cholita.