Mujer Montaña: Awakening the spirit of mountaineering in South America’s women

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Ascent of Cerro Cinchao, located inside Coyhaique National Reserve. Photo: Griselda MorenoAscent of Cerro Cinchao, located inside Coyhaique National Reserve. Photo: Griselda Moreno
 
 
By Zoe Baillargeon and Cristóbal Pérez 
 
As the home of the mighty Andean mountain range and many other peaks that bypass the over 22,000 feet mark, including Aconcagua, Argentina’s Big Seven addition and the highest peak on the continent, South America is an ideal mountain climbing playground. But these craggy peaks have historically been regarded as the purview of men.
 
Now, however, feminist, women’s rights, and gender equality movements (such as #NiUnaMas) are gaining support and attention in the traditionally macho cultures of South America, and that message of female empowerment is also spreading to outdoor sports.
 
One such movement is Mujer Montaña (Mountain Woman), a collective of women of all ages and professions from around the continent that go on climbs and hikes together, whose mission is "transcending the sport and understanding mountaineering as a poetic bridge to awaken the mountain that each person carries within.”
 
“It is our aspiration to promote and spread, in a responsible and sustainable way, the practice of hiking, rock climbing, high mountain and adventure sports, creating spaces for exchanges about sports, education, culture, and social change, together with a vital commitment to the environment and the impact that we leave in our land,” says Griselda Moreno, the group’s co-founder.
 
 
On the International Day of Non-Violence Against Women, November 25, twenty women from Mujeres Montana, between 11 and 45 years old representing different countries in Latin America and Europe, reached the summit of Cerro Cinchao in Aysen. Photo: Griselda MorenoOn the International Day of Non-Violence Against Women, November 25, twenty women from Mujeres Montana, between 11 and 45 years old representing different countries in Latin America and Europe, reached the summit of Cerro Cinchao in Aysen. Photo: Griselda Moreno
 
 
An independent group that receives support from governments and organizations, as well as funding from its own members who pay to participate in the wilderness activities, Mujer Montaña had its first international meet-up in Bolivia in 2013, the home country of the group’s other co-founder Denys Sanjinés. Since then, once a year they meet up in a different country (Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, and Mexico) where they embark on planned hikes and climbs, participate in educational workshops, and promote their message in local communities.
 
The workshops cover all manner of topics, including wilderness first aid, ecology, reforestation, cartography and GPS navigation, and climbing techniques. All their activities and work aim to be as sustainable and eco-friendly as possible, citing respect for the environment and developing a real relationship with nature as one of their main goals. But it’s also about fostering an atmosphere of respect, companionship, solidarity, generosity and friendship, creating a place for women to challenge themselves and grow.
 
For Moreno, who in addition to her role in Mujer Montaña is also a journalist and photographer, climbing mountains is about so much more than the physical act.
 
“The challenge of physically climbing the mountain, with all its dramas and wonders, is a mirror to the internal summits. The mountain then becomes a magical source of strength to tread the most important peaks: those of life,” she explains.
 
 
Mujeres Montana backpacked for three days and two nights in Cerro Castillo National Park during their 5th annual meeting in Chilean Patagonia. Photo: Griselda MorenoMujeres Montana backpacked for three days and two nights in Cerro Castillo National Park during their 5th annual meeting in Chilean Patagonia. Photo: Griselda Moreno
 
 
Trekking at Cerro Castillo National Park. Photo: Griselda MorenoTrekking at Cerro Castillo National Park. Photo: Griselda Moreno
 
 
Mujer Montaña recently had its first Chilean sojourn, meeting in Santiago, Chile, in October 2018 to give a talk with famed Chilean mountain climber Patricia Soto (who was the first woman from Chile – and South America – to summit Mount Everest and all the Big 7 peaks) and other female Chilean climbers. Afterward, they decamped to the Aysen region for two and a half weeks of workshops and activities in collaboration with, among other groups, NOLS, CONAF, and the regional government. Moreno says that they chose to hold the meet-up in Aysen primarily because of the wealth of places to climb and explore, but also for another very important reason: “Sadly, this region shows some of the highest rates in Chile of women being violated.”
 
Mujer Montaña’s message of empowerment, friendship, respect, and solidarity for women and the environment is coming at a critical point in the history of women rights, particularly in South America, where, more and more, women are taking a stand against violence and gender discrimination and stereotypes.
 
“The struggle for the recognition of women's capabilities outside the domestic sphere has been intense and remains urgent,” Moreno says. “In the mountain world, the entry of women to great challenges has been very hard. In that historically masculine universe, where adventure and exploration did not fit in women's skins, the woman had to show that she was capable of dressing in rock and ice and forging a difficult path with snow at her waist.”
 
 
During their trek at Cerro San Lorenzo. Photo: Griselda MorenoDuring their trek at Cerro San Lorenzo. Photo: Griselda Moreno
 
 
Returning to their campsite after the trek at Cerro San Lorenzo. Photo: Griselda MorenoReturning to their campsite after the trek at Cerro San Lorenzo. Photo: Griselda Moreno
 
 
But just as climbing a mountain is a slow process, placing one foot in front of the other and battling the elements every step of the way, so is the path to equality and a better world for women. The summit is still a long way away, often shrouded by clouds.
 
“In general terms, I believe that we are moving toward a different society, in some areas it can be noticed more, in others not so much, and in some others, we are still far away, especially in the equal development for rural women,” says Moreno.
 
Meanwhile, providing the women of South America a group where they can learn and get outdoors, discovering their inner strength and pushing personal boundaries in the process, is a victory in and of itself, helping “write the history of mountaineering done by women in Latin America, starting with making visible what has done by women of past generations, as well as what is contemporary.”
 
And, as Moreno says, “mountains do not distinguish genders.” 
 
 
 
 
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