Home>Travel inspiration>Travel Photography

Bolivia’s History-Making Indigenous Climbers, in Photos

By Sara Button

02.12.20

From the March/April 2020 issue

share this article
flipboard
Indigenous Aymara women summited Mount Aconcagua in January 2019; here, Todd Antony photographs as they climb the Zongo Glacier for his project, “Cholitas Escaladoras,” or “Climbing Cholitas.” From left to right: Lidia Huayllas Estrada, Dora Magueño Machaca, Ana Lía Gonzales Magueño, Elena Quispe Zincuta, and Cecilia Llusco Alaña.

Photo by Todd Antony

Indigenous Aymara women summited Mount Aconcagua in January 2019; here, Todd Antony photographs as they climb the Zongo Glacier for his project, “Cholitas Escaladoras,” or “Climbing Cholitas.” From left to right: Lidia Huayllas Estrada, Dora Magueño Machaca, Ana Lía Gonzales Magueño, Elena Quispe Zincuta, and Cecilia Llusco Alaña.

Photographer Todd Antony captures images of the Aymara women who are defying stereotypes and taking to the mountaintops.

Article continues below advertisement

share this article
flipboard

On January 23, 2019, five indigenous Aymara women from Bolivia climbed Argentina’s Aconcagua, the world’s highest peak outside of Asia. Their feat was physically remarkable: They had been trekking together at such altitudes for only a few years, and they did it wearing the colorful layered skirts emblematic of the Aymara instead of typical hiking garb. But it was historically remarkable, too. Until recently, women like them, known as “cholitas,” had been legally and socially discriminated against in Bolivia. They were prohibited from many public spaces, subjected to racism, and shut out from economic and educational opportunities. The 2005 election of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, brought a wave of change for Aymara women, who have taken advantage of their new freedoms to become television journalists, fashion designers, pro wrestlers—and some are even mountain climbers.

Dora Magueño Machaca stands for a photo. “I think people want to see images that have people so they can relate,” says Antony, “and also images that have a story behind it with a wider meaning.”

This group of climbing cholitas got the attention of London-based, New Zealand–born photographer Todd Antony, who was searching for his next photo project. Six months after he read about their milestone Andes climb, Antony found himself struggling to keep up with five of them as he photographed a trek on the Zongo Glacier (pictured). 

Huayna Potosí at sunrise; The photo shoot took place in June 2019; Antony and his assistant spent two days on the mountain with the Climbing Cholitas and other members of the support team.

Article continues below advertisement

Nearby towered Huayna Potosí, the first mountain the women had summited together. “They used to be mountain cooks at base camps. They were watching men climb all the time and finally decided, ‘Why don’t we do this ourselves?’” Antony says. “Their climbing physically reflects their rise from being racially marginalized and oppressed for the last 50, 60, 70 years. . . . as well as [their] rise in a male-dominated field.” The next mountain some of the women hope to conquer? Everest.

“Shot on the first day of the climb, we climbed higher than advised by our guides this early in the trip to capture this image, as I could see the promising crevasses from the foot of the glacier, and the weather was in our favor. It turns out they were right. My assistant and I had pounding headaches and the early stages of altitude sickness as a result, so once we had the shots, we headed down to safer altitudes to acclimatize for the night,” says Antony.

Elena Quispe Zincuta; the Cholitas honor their Aymara heritage by wearing traditional garb to climb.

Cecilia Llusco Alaña scales a face of the Zongo Glacier.

Antony and his team took lighting equipment up the mountain with them for the shoot to give the images a “stylized edge. All the images from the series have in some degree been lit to make them feel unique,” says Antony.

The Cholitas on the lower slopes of the Zongo Glacier in late afternoon. The women told Antony that the glacier has receded considerably in recent years and snowfall across the lower regions of the mountain is nowhere near as frequent as it used to be.

Cecilia Llusco Alaña

To climb Mount Everest is a goal for some of the Climbing Cholitas. Here, they stand on a crest of a crevasse on the Zongo Glacier at about 18,000 feet.

The Cholitas light a small fire and perform a Pachamama offering at sunrise to grant the team safe passage on the mountain.

>>Next: How Women in Paris Are Changing the Stereotypes About Women in Paris

more from afar