A group of middle-aged cholitas reached the 6,438 m summit of Mount Illimani last week, creating a storm on social media and attracting the attention of the international press. Most of the indigenous Aymara women, aged in their 40’s and 50’s, work as cooks for their mountaineer guide husbands.
Two years ago, they decided to climb eight of Bolivia’s highest peaks after one asked her husband how it felt to reach the top of Illimani to which he replied, “Why don’t you find out for yourself?” Since then, the group has scaled five Bolivian peaks over 6000 m; Acotango, Parinacota, Pomarapi, Huayna Potosí, and now Illimani.
They began their mountaineering career with an easy summit of the 6,088 m Huayna Potosi, Bolivia’s most climbed mountain due to its accessibility (it’s considered the world’s easiest peak over 6,000). Easy being a relative term of course, because reaching the summit of Huayna Potosi is still an accomplishment in of itself.
However, last weeks successful summit of Illimani really took things to the next level. This mammoth 6,438 m mountain, which overshadows the cities of La Paz and El Alto, is the highest in the Cordillera Real and commands the respect of even the most serious climbers. Many who make it within sight of the peak are turned away by blistering snow storms or the threat of deadly avalanches.
But that didn’t deter this group of hardy women. To symbolize their ethnic pride, they scaled the mountain wearing their traditional dress, albeit replacing the typical bowler hat with a helmet and headlamp and donning crampons underneath their polleras.
Their final goal is to plant the Bolivian flag upon the summit of the ominous 6,961 m Mount Aconcagua, the America’s highest mountain. Residing on the border between Argentina and Chile, this notoriously dangerous peak has claimed the lives of countless experienced mountaineers.
Ain’t no mountain high enough for these feisty cholitas.