The Climbers – Translation
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[Daniel Alarcón]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I am Daniel Alarcón.
Today we are going to the highlands to meet with Lidia Huayllas. She was only one year old when her parents decided to move to El Alto, in the western side of Bolivia. It was named like that for a reason: we are talking about one of the highest cities in the world, more than four thousand meters above sea level.
Today it has a population of almost a million. But in 1967, when they got there, it was a village twenty kilometers from La Paz. At that time, the Aymara and the Quechuas went up there looking for a less expensive place to live.
So that’s how Lidia arrived, in her parents’ arms.
Like with any change, it was a new beginning, and in El Alto, they had managed to buy their first little house. It had enough space for Lidia, her two older siblings, and three more soon to be born.
[Lidia Huayllas]: I remember that only the wind was blowing through the wheat fields, right? And the wheat would hiss, because there weren’t that many houses, there weren’t that many people living in El Alto. Back then it was very cold, right?
[Daniel]: Her father delivered newspapers and was a merchant. Her mom was a cook and took care of the children. It was a simple and quiet life that fell apart when thieves killed her father. Lidia was four years old, her mother had six children, and they lived far from everything. So her mom alone had to take care of the family. Her children helped her however they could.
[Lidia]: My childhood, it wasn’t nice for me. It was always very sad during my childhood, because for us there was no, let’s say, someone that could give my mother some help. For my mom it was very… very stressful, right?
[Daniel]: When she wasn’t helping her mom, Lidia would go to school or play soccer with the other children from the neighborhood. She also would find herself gazing at the mountains. The Chacaltaya and the Huayna Potosí: stunning white peaks.
Lidia used to imagine what it would be like to stand on that land, even higher and colder. Although everything was right there, in her imagination.
[Lidia]: Just seeing that there, it was, maybe the most beautiful thing, right? But to be able to get there was unreachable, right? To go to the mountain, it was like a dream.
[Daniel]: They weren’t that far away: from her house it was a little over an hour by car to the base of the mountain. But her family was very far from being able to make the trip.
[Lidia]: It really was very expensive for us to go there, right? Because… well, impossible to ask my… my mom to pay for the tickets. No, we really couldn’t.
[Daniel]: As she grew older, Lidia’s interest in heights took on other forms. At the age of ten, she would go running home from school to turn on the television so she wouldn’t miss any episodes of her favorite TV character.
[Lidia]: Well… (laughs) My hero was Superman (laughs).
(SOUNDBITE OF SUPERMAN T.V. SERIES)
[Narrator]: Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive.
[Daniel]: It fascinated her that he could fly: a slight leap and then the world below you, getting smaller and smaller.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUPERMAN T.V. SERIES)
[Narrator]: Not afraid of heights.
[Lidia]: (laughs) I wanted to fly like Superman. And I would always… I liked climbing and jumping off the walls (laughs).
[Daniel]: Lidia would climb on everything she would find. One day, playing around, she climbed the wall that separated her house from the neighbor’s.
[Lidia]: Well, so I fell… head first. I cut my head open. So… I was very scared and went home and covered it with a sweater. My mom asked me “What happened?”. “No, nothing mom”. But blood was dripping all over my head.
[Daniel]: Her mom scolded her. But neither that nor the accident stopped Lidia. She loved feeling the adrenaline rush from looking at the world from above.
[Lidia]: And that memory that I have that I had to… I had to fly. (laughs)
[Daniel]: Meanwhile, some of the highest mountains in Bolivia were still right there, so close and, at the same time, unreachable.
Journalist Cecilia Diwan tells us more.
[Cecilia Diwan]: Lidia’s mother, Mrs. Rosa Estrada de Huayllas, worked hard to support her family. She had a stand at the 16 de Julio fair, in El Alto, which was open two days a week: Thursdays and Sundays.
In the early seventies, the fair was just a series of informal stalls, with products on the floor, a few tables, and awnings to protect people from the sun. Driven by necessity, many were taking over the sidewalks and dirt roads to sell whatever they could.
Today, it is huge. Imagine more than 45 soccer fields full of long and narrow corridors, with many stalls. You can buy anything: from used clothes to a car, pets, books, and pirated music, and, of course, food. Fast food and traditional food. The latter was Rosa’s specialty.
[Lidia]: My mom would always make ají de ispi (small fish marinated with pepper) and ají de zapallo (squash with peppers) … Well, my mother always made those dishes.
[Cecilia]: Rosa prepared the food at home to sell it at the fair. She had a space to put her kerosene stove and a single table for her clients. Since Lidia was six years old, she and her siblings had to help her mom, especially on Sundays. They would have preferred to play with their friends, but it was something they had to do.
[Lidia]: We had to work so that, maybe, we would be able to buy a notebook or something, because it was very, very, very hard for my mother alone with her six children.
[Cecilia]: The six brothers did a bit of everything: they loaded the produce, cooked, washed and served the dishes to the customers.
[Lidia]: I was always with my mom. And from that I’ve learned to cook and to follow her steps, right?
[Cecilia]: During those long days she also learned her culture’s native language.
[Lidia]: My mom would talk to her friends and I would listen to what they were saying, right? That’s the way I learned Aymara.
[Cecilia]: After Spanish, Aymara is the most widely spoken language in Bolivia, a country where more than sixty percent of the population recognizes their indigenous roots. The Aymara, like Lidia, are the second most common ethnic group, after the Quechuas. For this reason, their traditions, their parties, their food, and their music are present everywhere. Both in the country and in the city.
[Lidia]: I have very strong roots for being a chola, right?
[Cecilia]: Cholas are said of those who dress in a traditional way. There are the Cholas from Tarija, the chuquisaqueñas, the cochabambinas. And those who were born in the department of La Paz, like Lidia, are known as Cholas paceñas.
[Lidia]: The dress code of a cholita from La Paz is, well… to put on a hat, a cloth and a skirt. And inside the skirt we have to wear a set of petticoats.
[Cecilia]: Four pieces of petticoats that bulge the pollera, the skirt.
[Lidia]: And we also have to wear a pin that we put on the hat, and let’s not forget the earrings.
[Cecilia]: This clothing comes from the Colonial era, when the conquistadors forced the indigenous women to wear the clothes that were popular in the Iberian Peninsula. White skirts with petticoat, hair gathered with a comb and a mantilla on the shoulders. Over time, the indigenous women appropriated this clothing, modified it and made it colorful.
For the Aymara women, this way of dressing is an important part of their identity. For this reason, it hurt Lidia that the school forbade her to enter dressed like this.
[Lidia]: Because didn’t accept us because we were wearing polleras to school. We all had to wear… pants and a jacket to be able to go to school, right?
[Cecilia]: It wasn’t the only place where Lidia couldn’t wear her pollera.
[Lidia]: When we had to go, let’s say, to an office, women with pollera were not allowed. To be allowed into an important place you had to wear pants and a jacket.
[Cecilia]: They couldn’t even step on a plaza dressed like that. Not that there was a formal law against it, but it was natural in Bolivian society to prohibit it until the late eighties. Although today it is common to see women in traditional clothing in public and administrative spaces, and even in positions of power, it does not mean that the historical discrimination against indigenous women has been abolished.
In any case, what must be understood is how deeply rooted the use of pollera skirts is for the identity of hundreds of thousands of Bolivians, and for Lidia as well.
[Lidia]: If I took off my skirt it was as if I was missing, right? A part of myself, right? As if I was missing a hand, as if I was missing something. I felt very, very sad, right? I felt discriminated against, of course.
[Cecilia]: Years went by, and Lidia was forced to accept that only in some places she could dress in her traditional clothing.
When she was 15 years old, Lidia went to one of many carnivals that were organized in El Alto. It was a Challa, a celebration of gratitude to the Pachamama or Mother Earth.
The Aymara celebrate it by throwing firecrackers, pouring wine or beer on the ground, and decorating houses, cars, and businesses with streamers and colored flags. There were also live shows with local bands. And that day, at that party, she met Eulalio Gonzales.
[Lidia]: He was a musician and played an instrument… well, the drums.
[Cecilia]: They called him Elio, he was 21 years old, and he was Aymara, like Lidia. He had also grown up looking at the Huayna Potosí, but from Zongo, a town 66 kilometers from El Alto. They started talking about the music, the band and they got along very well. Lidia liked him immediately.
[Lidia]: Very jovial, very friendly. He hasn’t… he has not treated me badly. Rather, he was nice when he spoke to me and made me feel better, right? And that is how… he got my attention.
[Cecilia]: She liked the fact that he was respectful. And to Elio…
[Eulalio Gonzalez]: What I liked about her was that she was tranquil, she was quiet. Doesn’t make that much trouble, as they say.
[Cecilia]: Since that night at the carnival the relationship moved very quickly. A month later, Elio’s father went to Lidia’s house to talk with her mother and ask for her hand. She accepted. Lidia and Elio went to live together right away. After a year they got married and moved to a house that they built right there, in El Alto.
Sometime later, Lidia gave birth to the first of her two daughters, and had to drop out of school. She was seventeen years old and was still working at the 16 de Julio fair with her mother, only now she was carrying her daughter on her back.
Meanwhile, Elio made a living playing with a popular band called “Tormenta”. He proposed Lidia to join the band as a vocalist because she sang well and the pay was good. So she started working on both things: in the mornings she would prepare and sell food with her mother, and in the afternoons she had rehearsals and shows with the band.
Very quickly, Lidia became the center of attention. People would flirt and approach her and wanted to talk to her. And Elio did not like that.
[Elio]: She was always invited, right? To go to TV shows. They no longer invited her with me, instead, they wanted to do the interviews with her alone. And I got very jealous and told her: “Well, no. You are not going. We are leaving the band”, and that’s what we did, right?
Cecilia]: Lidia accepted her husband’s decision.
[Lidia]: Well, I didn’t want to leave the band, right? But he was my husband, therefore I had to, right? I had to do what he said. He would say sit and I would sit. He would say stand, and I would stand.
[Cecilia]: She had to obey him. That’s how it used to be, what it was expected from women. So Lidia left the world of Bolivian show business as fast as she got in.
Now no longer with the band, at the age of 21, she decided to open her own food stand in the 16 de Julio fair. There she sold about four hundred dishes a day of traditional food, such as fricassee, chicken sajta or trout.
Meanwhile, Elio left the drums and started working as a driver, taking tourists up the mountain. After a few years, he took different courses on how to be a guide. And that’s how, in a way, Elio achieved Lidia’s dreams. He knew the mountains that she looked at since she was a child. He went on excursions with tourists from all over the world, and meanwhile, for Lidia, life followed its routine: she sold food in the market, as she had done since she was little, and she took care of her two daughters.
And things kept the same for almost fifteen years.
[Lidia]: That didn’t exist… that freedom for women to express themselves and say: “I’m gonna go, I’m going to do this.” That didn’t exist yet, not yet.
[Cecilia]: But as the years went by, Lidia thought more and more about that idea. Until one day she dared to tell Elio…
[Lidia]: Could you take me to the mountain? Because I would also like to go.
[Cecilia]: To Elio that wasn’t a bad idea.
[Elio]: I liked the fact that she could manage herself very well in the kitchen. In a spare moment, fifteen minutes have passed, and she is already cooking, right? So that practice in the kitchen that she had as a child has helped her a lot, very much so.
[Cecilia]: He also liked the idea because the pay in the mountain tourism sector was very good and, with the two of them working there, the family would improve economically. Since most of the tourists were foreigners, they paid in U.S. dollars. The cooks earned about US$40 a day and the guides, who were almost all men, about 150.
Elio introduced her to the agency that was in charge of everything.
[Lidia]: And they told me: “You could work as a cook.” “I would like to go as a cook to Campo Alto. Yes, I would like to,” I said.
[Cecilia]: They accepted. She would work at the Huayna Potosí. One of the most visited mountains in Bolivia for being one of the highest, with almost 6,100 meters above sea level. Lidia would cook for the tourists in the last camp of the climb, nine hundred meters before reaching the top.
She was 35 years old and, for the first time in her life, she would have the opportunity to see the mountain that she looked at as a child every day.
It was 2001. The first day she woke up very early. She was excited, but a bit nervous. A car picked them up at their house and one hour later they got to the Base Camp, the last point on the mountain that can be reached by car. Lidia couldn’t believe that she was there.
[Lidia]: Well, it was shocking, right? Maybe because of… seeing it, right? Seeing the mountain for so many years. To be able to be there, to be able to climb it, right? Those rocks, to step on some snow…
[Cecilia]: Excited for what was to come, she slung her aguayo, the traditional cloth in which Aymara women carry their things, over her shoulder. In it she carried pots, dishes, food, and a metal stove. She was already used to carrying all that weight on her back. She chewed some coca for energy and, together with her husband, other guides, cooks, and a few tourists, they began the almost three-hour walk to Campo Alto, at more than 5,100 meters high.
After her first step, Lidia felt good.
[Lidia]: As I kept walking that sensation got stronger and stronger, and I felt a kind of freedom, and having this beautiful, beautiful feeling for being in the mountain for the first time.
[Cecilia]: All those landscapes that she always imagined started appearing little by little.
[Lidia]: The landscape is, well, wonderful, right? At that height you can admire many glaciers, and also the view below, of the small mountains as well… mountain cracks, cliffs, a lagoon. And a bit difficult, right? To be able to breath.
[Cecilia]: Difficult to breathe because at that height there is much less oxygen, of course. But Lidia quickly adapted and went to work. She wanted to show off the dishes her mom had taught her when she was little.
From Campo Alto, the mountain peaks that for so many years she wanted to meet were closer than ever.
From that day on, that was her routine. Every time she was assigned an excursion, she would leave her house very early, carry all the utensils and food to Campo Alto and start cooking.
She slept two or three nights a week in the mountain hut, where she woke up a little before midnight to prepare breakfast for the climbers. They left at one in the morning, because at that time the snow and ice were compact. It is the safest time to climb the glaciers.
Lidia watched them carefully as they put on their coats, their boots, took their piolets and ropes, and went out with their guides to the top. But she never went with them. She stayed there, in Campo Alto. When the tourists returned from the excursion, a few hours later, she was waiting for them with the food ready.
[Lidia]: When they got back to the camp, they all looked happy, but I asked myself, right? Why are they so happy? What’s on the top I used to say, right?
[Cecilia]: But she wouldn’t dare to ask them anything. That’s because, at the beginning, it wasn’t easy for her to work with people that came from different parts of the world. Italy, France, South Korea, the United States…
[Lidia]: I was very shy, right? I wouldn’t talk to the tourists and all that, maybe because I was scared. And I would say, oh no, it’s because maybe I’m going to say something wrong, and they’ll criticize me. So many doubts I had, right?
[Cecilia]: She was also scared that people wouldn’t like the food she was making. However, tourists always left their plates empty.
[Lidia]: They would say: “You cook so well, Lidia. Do you have any more? I would like to eat more” (laughs).
[Cecilia]: Gradually, those compliments made her feel more confident and comfortable with foreign tourists. Even more than with the Bolivians themselves, she sometimes felt mistreated by them.
[Lidia]: There has always been discrimination in our country, right? Within our own race, our own people. “You are a woman in a skirt, an indigenous woman.”
But foreign tourists don’t, uh! I have never been discriminated against by… by a tourist, ever. They do accept our culture and everything, right? Well, even our clothes draw a lot of attention to them.
[Cecilia]: Tourists asked her about her skirt, her culture, and Lidia enjoyed conversing with them. They made her feel welcome. And they always asked the same question:
[Lidia]: “Have you at least made a mountain? Or something?” they would tell me. “Since you live so nearby, then you look where the mountain is… the mountain is right there,” they would tell me.
[Cecilia]: “To make a mountain” means to reach its summit. When people asked her that question, she would answer…
[Lidia]: “No,” I would say. “No, no, I cannot.” I couldn’t afford the equipment. That equipment is very expensive, right?
[Cecilia]: That was true, but also, there was a part of her that doubted she could make it to the top. Even though every time she went to the mountain, she made a long and heavy hike to the camp, which was already a little more than eighty percent of the way.
But the more she talked to tourists, the more curious she was to know how the world looked like from the top of Huayna Potosí. What was there that attracted so many people from different places. And she said to herself …
[Lidia]: One day I would like to see what is… there.
[Cecilia]: Lidia thought about it, but she still felt far from achieving it, and she worried about what would happen to her daughters if something happened to her. She was only nine hundred meters away from the top, closer than ever in her life. And yet it would be another fifteen years before she decided to take the first step.
On an afternoon in December of 2015, when her daughters were already grownups and when she was fifty years old…
[Lidia]: I finally said it, right? I do want to climb the mountain now.
[Cecilia]: Making this decision was quite a process. In a way, to climb it in her fifties was part of her plan. It was either now or never. But there was something else. After experiencing and witnessing so much discrimination, reaching the top became, in a way, an act of protest. A way to show that women like her, cholas, could do it too.
[Lidia]: Because I was really angry, right? With all the discrimination that I would see against women in polleras. So much racism. There was so much femicide, right? Here in my country.
[Cecilia]: Bolivia is the South American country with the highest rates of femicide. One occurs every two days. The violence is brutal, and the Aymara women suffer from it more than the average.
[Lidia]: On several occasions I have witnessed other women, right? Right in front of me being mistreated, and that to me… I didn’t like that at all.
[Cecilia]: In her case, even though at home he was the one in charge, the one that made decisions on her life and her career, he treated her well and respected her. But this was not common among the people she knew, who suffered a lot of mistreatment from their husbands. There was a case of violence from a very close friend that marked her more than any other.
[Lidia]: She suffered so much. I didn’t like at all the way she was treated by her husband. He even, well… he even stabbed her on the leg with a knife. So that really shocked me.
[Cecilia]: Lidia would try to talk to her friend and advised her to leave her husband. But she felt it was really hard to talk sense into her.
Then it occurred to her that the best thing to do was to break that idea that a woman in a skirt should be obedient.
[Lidia]: Well, so that way I made the decision, right? The decision to do a man’s work.
[Cecilia]: And she was going to do so right from her place: the mountains.
[Lidia]: So I can prove to them, right? That not only men can do that kind of sport. Women can also do it, while dressing the way we do, right?
[Cecilia]: But she didn’t want to do it alone. So she started telling her friend Domitila, who also worked on the mountain, about her plan.
[Lidia]: She told me: “Of course, I want to go.” “You could form a little group of four or five people more that could climb,” she says.
[Cecilia]: Lidia began recruiting cooks, baggage carriers, and wives from other guides who worked at the camp, because she knew they also wanted to know what was at the top. They just needed a little push.
[Lidia]: I took the first step to meet with them, right? To summon my colleagues. To be able to tell them: “We can go up the mountain. We might actually see what it is like over there.”
[Daniel]: Some said no because their husbands wouldn’t allow it. But others, very enthusiastic, answered yes immediately. And so, four of her peers decided to join.
Lidia already had her group of climbers assembled. All of them Aymaras, who would climb up with their skirts, petticoats, braids, cloths, and mushroom hats. Now, the most difficult thing would be: preparing for their adventure. We’ll be back.
[Daniel]: And we are back with Radio Ambulante. I am Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, the cook Lidia Huayllas decided that she wanted to climb to the top of Huayna Potosí, one of the highest mountains in Bolivia. So, she gathered a group of Aymara women and they decided to do it together.
When Lidia told her husband of her plan, he doubted she could pull it off.
[Elio]: Because, since she was a bit chubby, I said to myself she wouldn’t, no… She is used to this, acclimatized, right? But technically they weren’t since it was their first trip. The altitude becomes difficult to deal with when you are reaching the top.
[Daniel]: The other guides also doubted them. They told Elio all the time.
[Elio]: “No… What are they going to do?” They were saying… saying like… like making fun of them, I think. “They will not be able to.”
[Daniel]: She also found her family resisted the idea.
[Lidia]: And my mom tells me: “You, ugh, always with your nonsense,” right? she tells me: “Because at your age, there is no one who could stop you” my mom says (laughs).
[Daniel]: And that’s because the physical work of a climber is very demanding. It takes many hours of training to acquire agility, endurance, and technical knowledge. But she was convinced.
[Lidia]: And I tell her: “I have to try. If I don’t try, I will always have that doubt if I can or cannot climb it.”
[Daniel]: Cecilia continues to tell us.
[Cecilia]: Noticing how convinced Lidia was to make it to the top of the Huayna Potosí, Elio changed his mind.
[Lidia]: So my husband tells me: “Well, since you decide to go, well… let’s go,” he says. “I will go with you on the first climb. So that’s it, we’ll go.”
[Cecilia]: Elio offered to be the guide for the group that Lidia put together. So, she began to organize all the details that were missing for their excursion: hiring the minibus that would take them up the mountain, buying the food and getting the equipment. In total, the trip would cost the group a little more than two hundred dollars and all women agreed that each would pay their own expenses.
Lidia asked her husband to borrow some crampons, which are metal spikes that are placed on the soles of shoes to avoid slipping on icy surfaces. Elio also lent her a pair of boots in disuse, too big for her.
[Lidia]: I had to wear some very old boots. The boots were size forty or so, right? Because they didn’t fit me even after wearing three pairs of socks. I’ll put them on and I’ll go to the summit.
[Cecilia]: None of the five climbers needed physical training. They climbed 5,100 meters at least twice a week. And although the remaining nine hundred were the hardest, they felt prepared to endure the lack of oxygen. But they still knew that various challenges and dangers awaited them: rocky terrain, snow, ice, glaciers…
The women took a basic survival course, taught by their husbands.
[Lidia]: They have taught us how to step on the crampon and also how to put on the rope and how to handle the piolet…
[Cecilia]: The piolet or ice axe is a hook-shaped hand tool, used to hold on to if you lose your balance. Also, they taught them how to climb the last leg of the excursion, the most difficult part.
[Lidia]: Because there was a part in the glacier, an icy part that was the most dangerous, and we had to step well on the crampon so it would hold.
[Cecilia]: Lidia and her partners learned quickly. As they were preparing, the word about their plan spread and reached the ears of a journalist from the AP news agency. He offered to accompany them and document their first climb, and they accepted. They wanted everyone to know what they were going to achieve.
After a week of preparations, the night before the beginning of the ascent arrived. Lidia improvised in the backyard of her house a Challa, an ancestral ceremony, to ask Mother Earth to give her permission to climb the mountain.
She first poured liquor on the ground, seeking protection. Then she lit a bonfire and burned some coca leaves as an offering, while saying in Aymara…
[Lidia]: (Aymara language)
[Cecilia]: She is saying: “Allow us to climb. Please, let us through. We want to reach the summit, can you show us the way we want?”
[Lidia]: That’s how we call… call our… Achachila (laughs).
[Cecilia]: The Achachilas are the ancestors that inhabit the mountains. Together with the Pachamama, they are the great protectors of the Aymara people. Lidia believed that if she should ask someone for permission to climb that summit, it was them. So she asked them for good weather and to not put obstacles in their way.
And with that request, at seven in the morning the next day, Lidia left El Alto to Huayna Potosí. She was with four cholas and some of the guide husbands. It was December 16, 2015.
After an hour driving in the minivan, they reached Base Camp, and from there they set off on foot to Campo Alto, where they had worked for so many years. But this time the journey felt different.
[Lidia]: Because we weren’t going to work, instead we were going as our hobby, right? So we could go and see what was really there and how it was, right? To go meet and enjoy the landscape. And well, we were very happy, right?
[Cecilia]: Each one loaded their mountain equipment in their aguayos (carrying cloths). They brought liquor to make a thank you challa at the summit and some snacks, such as chocolate, peanuts, water and coca leaves, to avoid altitude sickness.
But they didn’t just put on the mountaineering clothes that are normally used for this type of ascent.
[Lidia]: We always wanted to climb like this, right? With our skirts. We wanted to give… right? A message that everyone can see us, right? How we are climbing, right? With our Aymara clothes. As the Bolivian women that we are, right? The chola from La Paz.
[Cecilia]: That day, Lidia was wearing a thin and light skirt. It was yellow and white. Underneath she wore long warm socks and a winter suit to withstand the mountain cold, which in December can reach nine degrees below zero. In addition to the traditional cloths, they wore helmets and polarized glasses. They walked for almost four hours until they reached Campo Alto, around noon. They took off their aguayos (carrying cloths), settled in the camp and began to prepare food. There, Lidia received a surprise.
[Lidia]: I remember it was six o’clock in the afternoon, and more women kept arriving, right?
[Cecilia]: The word of them getting to the top of the mountain had been circulating around, and several of the Aymara women that worked there in the mountain didn’t want to miss it. They also wanted to climb.
[Lidia]: I felt so, so happy because they also believed in me, right? And to summon this big group of eleven cholitas. I was very excited and happy that they believed in me.
[Cecilia]: By the beginning of the night, they opened their sleeping bags on the camp’s beds. They had to go to bed early because they had to get up at midnight. It was there when Lidia felt nervous.
[Lidia]: That night I couldn’t go to sleep because I had too much on my mind. How am I going to climb if this is my first time and I don’t know anything. I began to doubt a bit thinking that it was going to be really hard…
[Cecilia]: But she calmed herself down thinking that if the road was too difficult, she would go as far as she could. The important thing was to try. And she fell asleep.
At midnight on the 17th of December, they woke up, had breakfast, and began to put on their equipment. It was a ritual that they had seen tourists do many, many times.
Around two in the morning, along with her ten partners and some of their guide husbands, Lidia began the ascent. It was almost pitch black, only lit up by the flashlights they carried on their helmets.
The first part was easy for them, it was more of a walk. But starting at 5,500 meters the journey began to get more difficult. They had to cross a very slippery glacier, near a cliff. If they stepped badly, they could fall off the ravine.
[Lidia]: Honestly, for the first time, I felt fear. Also because my husband told me: “Are you going to reach the summit or not?”
[Cecilia]: She started to doubt herself. But being with others helped her.
[Lidia]: All my friends kept saying was: “Eh, let’s go girls. Step it up.” That was the kind of… cheers that… that my partners were giving me. That was helping to put fear… fear aside. And be more confident, right?
[Cecilia]: Together, they made it across the glacier safely. They had already walked for more than five hours and the sun was beginning to rise. The landscape that she had dreamed seeing up close since she was a girl was now there, in front of her.
[Lidia]: Around all you see was, well, just snow. And from that high you can start admiring all those beautiful landscapes you have been leaving down below… below you.
[Cecilia]: There were just about five hundred meters to reach the top.
[Lidia]: There was a… a mist below us. And a plane was just passing by, right? And when the plane passed by and it was… much lower than from where we were. All those things… wow! That… that made an impact on me.
[Cecilia]: It was seven in the morning and the pointed, steep summit was only a few meters away. The snow, thicker and thicker, wetted their skirts.
[Lidia]: We had to do sort of a row, right? So that we can all see and get there to the edge of the ridge.
[Cecilia]: One by one, they advanced down the narrow path, until they touched what they thought was unreachable.
[Lidia]: We reached the top and well… we shouted, we hugged. We started to cry. And so many emotions that each of us felt. I felt like in paradise, right? Kind of. Maybe like a condor, an eagle, right? Maybe because we reach that height. So I felt the freest woman in the world (laughs).
From that moment I said: “No, not me, I won’t ever leave the mountain, I want to keep going.” I am very in love with… well… with the mountains, right?
[Cecilia]: When the snow began to melt, Lidia and her partners began their descent. They still encountered some dangers, such as the ice being more slippery, but they felt capable of overcoming any obstacle.
Upon arriving at Campo Alto, colleagues, family members and tourists welcomed them and congratulated them. Not only had they reached the summit, but it had taken them only two days. A record time for beginners like them, because usually tourists do it in three. They could not be any happier.
The next day, Lidia organized a meeting at her home to celebrate with her partners, and there she took the opportunity to make a proposal.
[Lidia]: So I told them, right? “Since we’ve made our first mountain, then, why don’t we make a second one.”
[Cecilia]: They accepted immediately. They were excited about the idea of a new challenge. But Elio proposed an even more ambitious goal: to climb 8 mountains higher than six thousand meters of altitude, a common challenge for mountaineers. They loved the idea.
Thus, the expedition that came up as a personal challenge for Lidia, quickly became a larger project. And to make it official, all they had to do was get a name…
[Lidia]: And then I said: Why not the Cholita Climbers?
[Cecilia]: It sounded good to all of them, and on December 18, 2015 the Cholita Climbers of Bolivia were born. They wanted to conquer the six highest peaks in Bolivia, Aconcagua in Argentina, and Mount Everest, in Nepal, the highest mountain in the world, almost 9,000 meters high.
They felt unstoppable. But the second mountain, and those to come, would be much more complicated, and not only because of the difficulty of the climb, but also because of the discrimination from the male guides. And by now, Lidia and her partners’ project had become more ambitious and was getting more media attention.
[Lidia]: They used to say, right? “How can a woman with a skirt be climbing… well, the mountain. Women must be in the kitchen. I think you are doing wrong by letting them go climbing.”
[Cecilia]: Precisely because of comments like those she had wanted to climb Huayna Potosí in the first place. But it seemed as if it had not been enough. Criticism, contrary to stopping her, pushed her further. And she encouraged her partners to continue.
[Lidia]: I tell them: “No, it does not matter, let’s go. Why are we going to do as they say? To… to foolish words deaf ears, so let’s go.”
I think the mountain is not just for a few, it is for everyone.
[Cecilia]: In that spirit, they began to prepare and save money for the second mountain: the Acotango. A 6,050-meter volcano in the shape of a cone, located in the department of Oruro, right at the border with Chile. A volcano that, it is believed, could be an Inca sanctuary.
But when Lidia and her partners approached and asked the village leaders for access to the mountain, they came up with an absurd idea.
[Lidia]: So then that person tells us: “How can you want to climb there? If a woman goes like that, wearing a skirt… Well, it’s… there is not going to be snow, everything will be gone on this mountain, I believe.”
[Cecilia]: In Bolivia and in several other Latin American countries, it is possible to still find superstitions of this type: that women bring droughts, dry wells, and snow disappears.
Discrimination was not new in their lives. But this time it was going to be different. Lidia told the village leaders…
[Lidia]: Don’t discriminate against us like that. One is also free of… of being able to climb. And what are we doing? We just want to go up with our outfits. Because others already have access, but they don’t want to let us in.
[Cecilia]: After an hour negotiating, Lidia managed to convince them to let them climb. She did it by promising to publicly mention the name of the mountain in the next interview they did. The AP report had already been circulating, and the leaders liked that. And because of that, they gave the Cholita Climbers a free pass and Lidia felt that they were getting closer to their goal.
[Lidia]: I think to myself, right? That, well, we have had to break them a bit, right? The traditions that they had in their village and everything, right?
[Cecilia]: They climbed the second mountain without problems. But when they returned to El Alto, the conflict with the guides who worked with them got worse.
[Lidia]: Many guides already started criticizing us… eh… Well, and as usual the sexism, right? And that way, little by little, almost every guide was against me, right?
[Cecilia]: And they would tell her things like…
[Lidia]: “Ugh, no, that lady Lidia always wants to do whatever she wants. And wants all women to do the same. How can we let that happen?” Well, that’s what men said.
[Sergio López]: It has been a big surprise to have the ladies, or cholitas that wished to make a mountain.
[Cecilia]: This is Sergio Augusto López. He is from Bolivia, 53 years old and an experienced mountain guide. He has worked for many years with Lidia, her husband and the other guides.
[Sergio]: We didn’t think that little initiative could become this project that will open many doors for them and their wish to climb. And well, they want to do much more.
[Cecilia]: Many guides did not like this, because they saw the project of Lidia and the other women as a threat to their family values.
[Sergio]: Specifically, the chola or cholita has always been subject to being a housewife, stay at home mom, to take care of their children, to cook lunch, to witness their children’s education. Therefore, sexism has had a big influence and it has made it difficult to accept new things.
[Cecilia]: Something that also bothered the other guides was that they believed that the cholas had it easier than them, since they started climbing without having to take courses like the rest of them. It seemed unfair to them that they prepared for years with foreign guides and the cholas, who didn’t, wanted to do a project of that magnitude.
Despite the opposition, Lidia kept insisting to her partners.
[Lidia]: I would tell them, right? “You are not, well, not owned at all. Then each one should decide if they want to go to the mountain or not,” I said.
[Cecilia]: But several husbands didn’t agree.
[Lidia]: They were forbidden from going out to… to the mountain, and with maybe one of my friends, the husbands have become more violent and everything, right? And it was because of it that many of my friends didn’t want to go anymore. They quit and stayed home.
[Cecilia]: Of the eleven climbers, six remained, including Lidia.
She did not have that problem because after Huayna Potosí, Elio supported them. He helped them practice on the glaciers and prepare for their next climbs. But this got him into trouble.
[Elio]: They bullied me. “Well, you are a…” not sure what you would call that, but here we call someone mandarina when, let’s say, they are constantly next to their wife, right? That it was because of me that women wanted to climb, that I have made that possible.
[Cecilia]: Those criticisms began to have a direct impact on his life. The main source of work for a guide comes from the self-management of the excursions, through personal contacts and the groups that regulate the activity. But since Elio was one of the few who were supporting the cholitas, they no longer hired him for excursions. He and Lidia almost ran out of clients.
It even cost him his position as president of the Association of Andean Promoters of Adventure and Mountain Tourism.
[Elio]: Since the members were saying: “Well, Mr Elio is dedicating himself full time to the cholitas rather than to his work as mountain guide, right? Therefore, we’ll have to change.” Right after that I lost my position as president.
[Lidia]: I started to hesitate if I should continue, because… Well, seeing that my husband no longer had a job. And then, uh, not having that money and, uh, it made me think a lot and it made me very sad at the same time, right?
Cecilia]: But while she was thinking whether to abandon her project, Lidia received some news. A Spanish film production company had raised funds to finance a trip that the Cholita Climbers dreamed of doing: going to Argentina to climb Aconcagua, almost seven thousand meters high, the highest mountain in America. The idea was to make a documentary about them trying to conquer the top.
Without hesitation, they began to prepare for the excursion. In January 2019, Lidia and four other cholitas flew to western Argentina.
[Lidia]: Together with my partners we were saying, right? Wow! We have left Bolivia for the first time. Well, we were all excited.
(SOUNDBITE OF “CHOLITAS” FROM ARENA COMUNICACIONES)
[Cholitas]: Strength, we are strong… Let’s go! Let’s go! Cholita Climbers, let’s go!
[Cecilia]: The guides who welcomed them told them that it was not certain that they could reach the summit, due to the mountain’s extreme weather. And it is because they would have to face temperatures up to twenty degrees below zero and fierce winds, which had torn down the tents of other tourists.
[Lidia]: I was also feeling a little afraid, right? I imagined it was very hard, because they would say I could lose my fingers, that I won’t be able to make it…
[Cecilia]: But that didn’t stop them. They settled in a camp, where they played soccer, cooked, danced and sang, while they waited for the mountain to allow them to climb. There they also received the instructions from the guides.
One morning, after seven days of traveling, they were finally able to begin their ascent. Of the five cholitas, only two made the summit. Lidia was not one of them, because when she was about two hundred meters away, she started to feel sick.
[Lidia]: The last part was a bit difficult because we were already feeling, maybe, a bit like missing oxygen and all that, right? Because our heads didn’t hurt anymore, uh… Others were nauseous. And there was also a smell, a smell of… sulphur, very disgusting.
[Cecilia]: And although she wanted to continue to the top, she had no choice but to turn back.
[Lidia]: We shed so many tears there and… That does not mean we have to settle, it’s just that we couldn’t do more this time. But I’m very happy with how far we have come.
[Cecilia]: And that was to be expected. At 53 she had reached an altitude of 6,700 meters. Actually, it was not about her reaching the top, it was about the Cholita Climbers being able to do it.
[Lidia]: And it felt like the entire group made the summit.
[Cecilia]: Her expedition had a great impact inside and outside of Bolivia and appeared in various media outlets. Everyone wanted to interview or talk about the Cholita Climbers.
(SOUNDBITE NEWS REPORTS)
[News anchor]: And, with us we have Andean cholitas that we are extremely proud of.
[Reporter]: But now Bolivian indigenous women are reaching new peaks and they’re doing it in their own style.
[News anchor]: Folks, (speaks in Aymara) the Cholita Climbers.
[News anchor]: The feat was achieved by these five Aymara indigenous women from Bolivia, they climbed Aconcagua in Argentina.
[Cecilia]: Her achievement impressed many. Then Bolivian president Evo Morales wrote on his Twitter account: “Very happy for the feat achieved by our five sisters the ‘Cholita Climbers’, who managed to reach the top of Aconcagua, the highest peak on the continent. Bolivia is proud of them.”
Even a Scottish singer wrote a song in their honor.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SONG CHOLITAS)
[Singer]: We are the Cholita climbers, we reach for the sky. When we climb a mountain, freedom we find. We are the Cholita climbers…
[Lidia]: I was very happy because that challenge that I have already done was paying off.
[Cecilia]: From then on, tourists who went to Bolivia requested to go up the mountains with the Cholita Climbers. And they began to participate in excursions as guides.
Although their fame annoyed the other guides, it didn’t last long. Because a few months after their ascent to Aconcagua, the attention that the Cholas got began to favour all the high mountain workers.
[Lidia]: We have made ourselves known; also more people already know about Bolivia. Even Bolivians themselves, right? Before they didn’t know what the mountain meant… But now since they’ve already seen us climbing and doing this kind of extreme sport. And our mountains are already known and everything, right?
[Cecilia]: The guides, little by little, weren’t hostile anymore. And thanks to the cholitas they even got something they had wanted for years: present a project to the Bolivian Ministry of Education to turn their jobs into a profession.
After five years of climbing, Lidia and her partners have earned the respect of those who did not believe in them.
[Lidia]: So many people told me that I probably wasn’t going to make it. But I did, I showed them with actions and not with words.
[Cecilia]: Even Lidia herself has changed. She is no longer the quiet and obedient woman she used to be.
[Lidia]: Well, now that I began climbing, I’ve done many things, right? Now I don’t think the way I used to. One day I decided to say “No, I won’t do what you want.” I’ll do what I want to do. And that way he kind of accepts, sort of everything I tell him, right?
[Cecilia]: Although women in skirts are still marginalized in Bolivia, today there is a powerful movement that vindicates the Indigenous and their rebellion. And the Cholita Climbers have contributed to that fight. Even other Aymara, inspired by the group coordinated by Lidia, have been encouraged to climb mountains and work with tourists on their own.
So much so, that today there is a mural of Lidia in a school in La Paz, one of those places that used to ban traditional Aymara clothing. But in the mural, Lidia appears dressed in her skirt. She wears a helmet with a flashlight, a rope hanging from her shoulders and an ice axe in her hands. The painting is accompanied by a phrase that she always says:
[Lidia]: The top is for everyone.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SONG CHOLITA)
[Singer]: We are the Cholita climbers, we reach for the sky. When we climb a mountain, freedom we find. We are the Cholita climbers…
[Daniel]: Lidia Huayllas and the Cholita Climbers conquered seven of the eight mountains they planned to climb. Currently the group is made up of 16 women.
Their next project is to go to Mount Everest which, with an altitude of 8,848 meters, is considered the crown’s jewel for climbers.
But in addition to being a mountaineer, Lidia has become a political leader along the way. At the beginning of this year, 2021, she decided to run for counsellor in her city of El Alto, and she won. Her term begins on May 3. On her campaign she promised to continue fighting for the rights of women in skirts.
This episode was produced by Cecilia Diwan and Lisette Arévalo. Cecilia is a journalist and lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Lisette is a producer for Radio Ambulante and lives in Quito, Ecuador.
Thanks to the Bolivian anthropologist from the Latin American Council of Social Sciences, Teresa Arteaga, for her help with this episode. Thanks to Arena Comunicaciones for allowing us to use audios from their documentary ‘Cholitas’.
This story was edited by Camila Segura, Nicolás Alonso and by me. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri. Desirée Yépez did the fact-checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Jorge Caraballo, Aneris Casassus, Victoria Estrada, Xochitl Fabián, Fernanda Guzmán, Rémy Lozano, Miranda Mazariegos, Hans-Gernot Schenk, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo and Elsa Liliana Ulloa.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, and it’s produced and mixed on the program Hindenburg PRO.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.