Climbing wasn’t what encouraged me to move from Seattle to Cusco in 2019, but it did open my eyes to the strong sense of community waiting to be unlocked in the Andean mountain town. It was after I met a Coloradan called Cass Madden, on a four-day trek around Mt Ausangate, in Peru’s Andes, that my decision was made.
Madden told me of a group of climbers called the Chicas de Alturas, whose name translates to “Girls of Heights.” They operate in and around the Inca capital, which sits at a lofty 3,399 metres above sea level.
Having a solo women’s group is important
This informal band of women hike together, rock climb together, mountaineer together and, of course, share community together. Every member of the group also climbs with men, but founding member, Jenny Bryne – a 39-year-old fundraiser for the British-Peruvian charity Amantani, who moved to Peru from the UK – maintains that having a solo women’s group is important, too.
“No matter how advanced our societies are, a lot of us still fall back on gendered roles, especially in adventure sports. Many women who climb with men find themselves feeling less empowered and less independent. So, that’s where Chicas de Alturas comes in.”
They wanted to create a community of safe climbers
The group first formed in 2016 when Byrne and two South American friends, Diana Gomez and Lixayda Vasquez, wanted to find other women climbers and introduce more people to climbing. Most importantly, they wanted to create a community of safe climbers who would be self-sufficient when climbing outside.
“Not everything we tried was successful in building our community but seven years later, it’s actually happening. It’s quite exciting,” says Byrne.
Of course, there’s still work to be done, she acknowledges: “Mostly in breaking down the divide between climbers from Cusco and those who come from other cities in Peru. Or other countries.”
Her dedication comes from her own childhood
That’s where Diana Gomez comes in. Many women credit Gomez with creating the climbing community in Cusco, though she recently moved about two hours south east to the town of Pitumarca.
She and her partner have bolted the majority of climbing routes in the Cusco region: near the city of Cusco, in the Sacred Valley and in Pitumarca. She has also committed herself to spreading her love of climbing by teaching children.
In Peru and in South America, rock climbing is an elitist sport
“It was hard to connect with other children,” says Gomez. “But as a teenager, climbing was a lifesaver. I’m so thankful for what it’s done for me and what I’ve seen it do for other people.” It’s a tool she’s now using to break down barriers beyond climbing.
“In Peru and in South America, rock climbing is an elitist sport. It’s for people who have resources and privileges,” Gomez explains. “Peru is very diverse. If a child comes to climb and feels out of place, they won’t stay, and the sport continues to be elitist. We won’t have a true community until we can level the playing field.”
It creates an opportunity to learn about local culture
Luckily, the best places to climb in Peru are in rural areas. Since most of the climbing areas are on communal land owned by indigenous groups and rural communities, it creates the opportunity for climbers to learn about local culture and for local residents to learn about climbing.
The foundations laid by Gomez are starting to pay off, with fresh talent coming through, too. Vicky Roberta Guzman Coronado, a 36-year-old climber who goes by the name Beta, has recently applied to the mountain guiding school in Huaraz, in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca mountain range. When she completes her training, she will be the first woman from Cusco to guide on Peru’s high-altitude peaks.
Sharing photos can motivate women and girls to try it themselves
“The mountains are where I find balance and peace,” Guzman Coronado says. For years, she loved hiking the volcanoes in southern Peru. During the pandemic, she discovered rock climbing when she met climber, Judith Pariwana, online and was introduced to a bouldering area called Los Techos. It was her first taste of the Cusco’s climbing community.
“One thing we can do to grow the community of women climbers is share our experiences,” she says. “It seems so simple to just post photos of ourselves climbing, but if it’s the first time somebody has seen a Peruvian woman doing it, it can change their perspective. It can motivate women and girls to try it themselves. It’s important to motivate younger people to create their own community, too.”
Finding Cusco’s climbing community has fast-tracked making friends
As well as online, Chicas de Alturas is growing exponentially around Peru, especially in the mountain town of Huaraz. Jinett Castromonte, a rock climber and mountaineer from Huaraz, recently discovered the group and is keen to create more opportunities for women in sport. She has placed top three in an international competition at the Centro de Escalada Deportiva in Huaraz, where she competed against climbers from around the world.
As I navigate my new life in Cusco, finding established communities like Chicas de Alturas has fast-tracked the process of making new friends. It’s allowed me to tap into a network of talented local women who challenge and inspire each other to keep pushing boundaries – one ambitious climb at a time.
Join Flash Pack’s Peru adventures today and take on new challenges in Heather’s high-altitude hometown of Cusco.
Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveler like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.
Images: courtesy of Heather Jasper, Diana Gomez, Jenny Bryne, Flash Pack, Adobe Stock