Take It To The Top
The word ‘Cholita’ had previously been used as a derogatory nickname for the Aymara women of Bolivia. Todd Antony photographs a marginalised female tribe of climbers fighting back in their own way – and reclaiming the word
By Annabel Herrick
Photography Todd Antony
Multi award-winning photographer Todd Antony has been scouring the world for hidden subcultures over the last eight years. From wrestlers in South America to a group of retiree cheerleaders in Arizona, his photos tell stories of women who feel empowered through obscure sports. In 2019, the New Zealander headed to Bolivia to cover the ‘Climbing Cholitas,’ otherwise known as the ‘Cholitas Escaladoras Bolivianas.’
The word ‘Cholita’ had previously been used as a derogatory nickname for the Aymara women of Bolivia. Now this community are reclaiming the term as a badge of honour, as documented by the London based photographer. The indigenous Aymara women make up a population of approximately 1 million in Bolivia, Peru and Chile. Until 10 years ago, Bolivia’s Aymara women were socially ostracised and suffered racial discrimination. At worst, they were banned from using public transport, certain restaurants and public spaces, including La Paz’s central square, Plaza Murillo. Easily recognisable by their wide skirts, braided hair and bowler hats, they continued to proudly wear these signifiers despite society’s judgements. Since the 1960s the women have been campaigning for their rights, including better access to jobs. Following the 2005 election of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first Amerindian president, attitudes towards this indigenous population have changed and the women have started working in law, medicine and tourism.
As for the Climbing Cholitas, these women used to cook for tourist groups and assist their husbands who led tours. It all began when one of the women, Olivia, said she had watched her husband climb the mountain countless times and decided she wanted to give it a try. With the oldest climber aged 53, last year the group summited the 22,841 ft peak of Mt Aconcagua for the first time: the highest mountain outside of Asia. Forgoing climbing apparel, they wear their beloved traditional dress – vibrant, billowing dresses and shawls that carry equipment instead of backpacks. At points, the route demands vertical ice climbing, an extreme sport that would normally require practical, expensive kit, but these women heave themselves up the mountain in voluminous skirts and tights. For them, making a statement and taking up space on these mountains is more important than practicalities.
Hearing about the Cholitas’ tenacity, style and fearless attitudes was enough for Todd to book a flight. He headed to Bolivia to spend two days on Huayna Potosí mountain with the Climbing Cholitas, which proved more challenging than he could have ever anticipated. “The summit sits at 6,088 m (19,974 ft) and we made it to 5000m (16404 ft) to take this image. Altitude sickness meant we were exhausted and had pounding headaches. We were only pausing to shoot every now and then because I was puffing from just holding my camera,” Todd explains. At home in these menacing surroundings, the women took charge with ease whilst Todd pushed himself to keep up with the pace. At a distance, the pop colour palettes of their outfits led the way, illuminating like beacons against the crystal white of the terrain. When the photographer asked fellow hiker 53 year-old Dora (pictured above) how many times she’d summited Huayna, she answered “10 or 12” but admitted it was actually more times than she could remember.
Her daughter Ana Lía Gonzales often joins her on these climbs: “She told me that when they’re on the mountain together, they aren’t mother and daughter, but best friends,” says Todd. By tackling the mountain together, the power dynamics of these women shift and level out as they support one another – a daughter becomes a confidant to a mother. Plod after plod, the repetition induces a trance like state, presenting the perfect opportunity to declutter the mind and talk things through. This dangerous activity requires grit and determination but also deep levels of trust between the group as they rely on each other to navigate the route safely – again and again. Now these women set off on the mountain frequently, taking the 6,088 m altitude in their stride. “Really, I see scaling the mountain as a metaphor for the way these women are climbing their way up society after decades of oppression,” says Todd. Next, a few Cholitas have Everest in their sights.