An All-Woman Climbing Team in the Andes

Ascending Chachacomani (source: Griselda Moreno)

Mujer Montaña—“Woman Mountain” in Spanish—participated in a recent project of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA), in which women climbers from Latin America and Europe carried out ascents of peaks in two mountain ranges in the Bolivian Andes. They established mountaineering records, achieving first all-female ascents and opening new routes. They met another goal as well,  promoting exchanges between people of different cultures and worldviews. And, in their distinctive way, they built awareness of mountains in the context of climate change—a key goal of the UIAA’s Mountain Protection Award Platform, which supported the project.

Sunset in the Bolivian Andes (source: Griselda Morano)
Sunset in the Bolivian Andes (source: Griselda Moreno)

This project, supported by a number of government agencies and tourism firms in South America and Europe, brought together the members of Mujer Montaña, a Latin American group founded in 2013, with representatives of the Women’s High Mountain Group of the French Federation of Alpine Mountain Clubs (a UIAA member since 1932). In total, four women from South America and eight from Europe took part in the project.

Making offering to Pachamama (Earth Mother) and the apus (Mountain Lords) (Source: Griselda Moreno)
Making offering to Pachamama (Earth Mother) and the apus (Mountain Lords) (Source: Griselda Moreno)

The group started out in the Quimsa Cruz range on 28 July, staying there through 7 August. Traveling from their base camp at 4,400m, they climbed a new route up Torrini (5800 m). The second stage in the Cordillera Real, from 10 to 19 August, included ascents of Chachacomani (6100m), Janq’o Uyu (5520m) and Jisk’a Pata (5510m). The final stage, in the city of La Paz, involved a meeting on 22 August with students at the Catholic University of Bolivia, discussing issues of mountain protection, climate change and glacier retreat. On the last day, 23 August, they participated in a program with teachers and schoolgirls which linked climbing and self-esteem, and addressed issues of female empowerment. Carolina Adler, the president of the UIAA Mountain Protection Program, took part in the Janq’o Uyu ascent, as well as the last two days in La Paz.

Dawn on Chachacomani (source: Griselda Moreno)
Dawn on Chachacomani (source: Griselda Moreno)

The group is preparing a documentary film about their expedition, and preparing their next climbs, scheduled for November, which will take place in Ecuador. And they are waiting for the selection of the 2016 UIAA Mountain Protection Award winner. That will be announced October 14 in Brixen, Sudtirol, Italy during the 2016 UIAA General Assembly.

GlacierHub interviewed Lixayda Vasquez, one of the participants in the project. Vasquez comes from Cusco, Peru. In addition to Spanish, she also speaks Quechua, a major indigenous language of the Andes.

Lixayda Vasquez (source: Lixayda Vasquez/Facebook)
Lixayda Vasquez (source: Lixayda Vasquez/Facebook)

GH: What do you see as the significance of all-woman climbing expeditions?

LV: I think that what is most important is to stop seeing mountains as a place where only strong men, the ones with “big muscles,” can go. In recent times, many women in my country have wanted to explore new experiences for themselves, experiences which take them outside their comfort zone. They leave this zone, filled with myths and a whole machismo complex. And they discover that when they go outdoors, they enter a wonderful world where they never feel alone, because they are connected with nature.

It’s not necessary to go to the mountain in expeditions that are composed only of women, or only of men. The best way is for men and women to complement each other. We can remember that men and women are parts of the same world. And we can both bring our distinct contributions to make this world better.


Lixayda Vasquez, on her 21st birthday, on the summit of Cotopaxi, Ecuador (source: Lixayda Vasquez/Facebook)
Lixayda Vasquez, on her 21st birthday, on the summit of Cotopaxi, Ecuador (source: Lixayda Vasquez/Facebook)

GH: As a climber who speaks Quechua, have you ever used Quechua on an expedition?

LV: Quechua once saved my life.

I was with a group of friends from the climbing club in Cusco. We were trying to ascend Chicón, a snow peak in Cusco. It was already dark when we were returning to our camp near a village. A group of people came up towards us. Some of them were very drunk. They thought that we were the thieves, the ones who had stolen their alpacas several days earlier.

They were ready to kill us, burn our bodies and bury us there, where no one would ever find us. That is what they told us. We were terrified. We tried to explain that we were climbers, but none of them had ever heard of that.

We were in that situation until I said the magic word: chicarapuiku [We are completely lost]. As soon as I said that, they all calmed down, and finally they listened to us.


Lixayda Vasquez leading an ascent of Ausangate (source: Lixayda Vasquez/Facebook)
Lixayda Vasquez leading an ascent of Ausangate (source: Lixayda Vasquez/Facebook)

GH: You are from the mountain city of Cusco, and you have seen the snow peak of Ausangate since you were a little child.  How have your connections with mountains changed over time?

LV: I had the good fortune to spend a lot of my childhood in the town where my grandparents live, very close to the high Vilcanota Cordillera. When I looked out my window there, every day I would see imposing mountains, and Ausangate was among them. I would spend hours gazing at them and imagining myself up in them. When I was 19, I got to know a group of rock climbers, and we arranged for a mountain guide to teach us about mountain climbing. That changed my life. I’ve never stopped climbing since then. When I was 23, I fulfilled my dream of looking out from the summit of Ausangate and recognizing the towns and valleys of my childhood. Now, a more mature person, I plan to live connected to the countryside and to the mountains. I will ascend what the mountain lets me ascend.


Lixayda Vasquez will participate next month in an expedition of Mujer Montaña in Ecuador, where she will pass through other Quechua communities and ascend other Andean peaks. You can follow her on Facebook.


In an Empty Building’s Place: Wilderness and Community

The abandoned building in Safiental (source: Facebook/Mountain Wilderness)

A Swiss NGO, Mountain Wilderness, has developed a solution to a problem found in many alpine regions: the abandoned buildings which result from outmigration of rural families. They designed sustainable, participatory techniques for removing the building materials and applied them to an empty farmhouse in a remote glacier valley as a demonstration project. And once the building was removed, plants could begin to establish themselves on the site, promoting habitat restoration.

photo by Mountain Wilderness Schweiz
Local volunteers stacking materials (source: Facebook/Mountain Wilderness)

For their first project site, Mountain Wilderness selected the commune of Safiental, located within the glacier-rich canton of Graubunden. The main village of this commune is located at an elevation of 1,350 m. Its current population of about 900 is roughly half the size of the population at the middle of the 19th century. Like many other high-elevation regions of Switzerland, Safiental has experienced significant outmigration, and it contains many empty buildings. The local residents selected one building for removal. It had been used as a stable during World War II, and provided a few gamekeepers with shelter in the years after the war, but had not been used for either purpose for some time.

A volunteer, removing materials (source: Facebook/Mountain Wilderness)

Their first project faced many challenges. The staff of Mountain Wilderness had to obtain permission for the removal from the owner of the farm and from the local government. They needed to inspect the material carefully to decide the best way to deal with it, and then to arrange for appropriate recycling or waste disposal. Finally, they needed to identify a dozen or so local volunteers to carry out the work, and then to coordinate with the local community to schedule the event.

Moreover, to accomplish the tasks of bringing tools up and old materials down, Mountain Wilderness did not want to use helicopters; they oppose their use in mountain areas in general, since the noise disrupts the wildlife and the wilderness character of the region. A branch of the Swiss army lent horses for these activities—a more sustainable form of transportation, as well as a quieter one.

Swiss Army personnel and horses removing materials from the site (source: Mountain Wilderness)

When the project was completed, the local residents were satisfied.  A local carpenter, Kay Decasper, selected some of the wood to make into artisanal furniture. The mayor of Safiental, Thomas Buchli, described it as a “strategy that is viable in the long run” since it would promote sustainable tourism in the commune.

Though this concern for participatory and sustainable methods added to the effort required for the project, it also increased public awareness of wilderness preservation. In this way, the project became a showpiece for the removal of abandoned buildings and for habitat restoration.

Mountain Wilderness at Safierberg
Mountain Wilderness staff and banner at Safierberg (source: Facebook/Mountain Wilderness)

Founded in the small town of Brig in southern Switzerland in 1995, Mountain Wilderness is an NGO that promotes the protection of high mountain landscapes. Their philosophy is centered on the word “respect.” It guides their strategy of enlisting mountain sports enthusiasts as a means for preservation of wilderness.  They aim to keep ski resorts from growing too large, and they promote car-pooling and ride-sharing to existing resorts as a way to reduce traffic on mountain roads and to keep parking lots as small as possible. They seek a total ban in the Alps on snowmobiles and heli-skiing, since they strongly value the silence of mountain wilderness. The organization also provides teaching materials to schools as a means of building appreciation of wilderness values.

This project was one of the 13 around the world that was nominated for the Mountain Protection Award. This award grants recognition of initiatives that address promotes concrete actions, including energy efficiency, conservation initiatives, waste management, community activities and water conservation. It is awarded by the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, known by its French acronym UIAA. Founded in 1932, the UIAA represents about 3 million climbers and mountaineers through its 80 members organizations in 50 countries on 5 continents. It promotes mountain sports, and works to make them safe, environmentally responsible and accessible. To support these goals, it has development programs in culture and environmental protection and in the engagement of youth in mountain sports.

Meadows and mountains in Safiental (source:

The meadows that are now returning to the open ground in Safiental offer an important example to other mountain regions. Outmigration is growing in mountain regions affected by climate change and glacier retreat. These processes are found not only in the Alps, but also in the Himalayas and the Andes. When the materials in abandoned buildings are reused, recycled and removed in appropriate ways, they do not only contribute to the restoration of habitat. They also engage the local residents in reshaping of their landscapes and communities.