To commemorate International Women's Day, I share with you our story on how the power of belief, teamwork and solidarity, propelled a small group of women (WARMIS) up their mountain path, celebrating women worldwide. It would be the first expedition of indigenous women to attempt to summit Cotopaxi, the world’s highest most active volcano 19,347 feet, located in Ecuador, South America. The standard route involved 1,100 meters of ascent on non-technical but crevassed terrain to the summit. I had the privilege of being one of the women on the expedition.
I began my time in Ecuador living 2+ years in a rural village located in the northern Andes of Ecuador working on girls and women's leadership initiatives. Living and working alongside the Warmis, I gained their love and respect as together we experienced moments of powerlessness and empowerment and learned how women can address, overcome, motivate and achieve what we want when we put our minds to it.
Twenty years ago in Ecuador, climbing glaciated volcanos was viewed as a man's sport, few women were actively involved in the mountaineering community and we wanted to climb to break trail and break gender barriers.
So here's our story...
Ready to play big, fired up and excited for all the support and encouragement we are about to receive, we share our aspirations and passion project publicly. The initial responses received are not what we expect to hear:
"Women have no place in the mountains."
"You won't make it to the top."
"There are no porters to carry all your weight."
"You'll get dizzy, tired and won't make it."
"Do you even know how to self-arrest if you were to fall on the glacier?" (Self-arrest is a technique used in mountaineering when you slip on a glacier you use your ice axe to help stop and anchor your fall if you are sliding downward.)
When confronted with the skepticism of others, the inner critic makes its appearance. The inner critic being that voice of- You aren't ready yet, you aren't good enough, you can't. I know the mental and physical strength of our team but question my own mental strength and ability to see something like this through. As the women are accustomed to hauling 100+pound saks of potatoes on their backs, I figure they would be strong at higher elevations and would be able to carry their own weight. I too begin to question, would we be able to work as a team if things didn't go right, or would it become every woman for herself? The inner critic talk takes over not just for me but for the team as well. We doubt our ideas, our vision and even worse, ourselves. Our initial excitement quickly plummets, as we look to others for approval. We lose our spark, become quiet, and lose our voice.
After focusing on all the reasons why we can't do this (and we spend a great deal of time on that), one of the women jump-starts a pep talk on why this could be possible. We listen...
We already know how to take one step at a time on our community projects and pace ourselves to accomplish our goals. We know how to communicate with one another when things seem cloudy, or even when there's no visibility. We consistently work together through obstacles and are pros at encouraging one another through the challenging times. We support one another and know when we need to ‘self-arrest' if we slip and fall, and we know what it feels like to tread lightly, take deep breaths and focus. We are accustom to waking up at the crack of dawn and work endless hours with heavy weight on our backs and push through the fatigue and drowsiness! And YES, we can see those metaphorical crevasses coming miles ahead and what to do to avoid stepping/falling in one. Why can't we do this climb?
By looking outward for support, encouragement, and approval, we find that we aren't going to get it. We need to look inward and believe in ourselves.
There it is, that 'aha' moment, we discover our inner voice of wisdom and confidence. That voice of- Be bold, try, put forth your best effort, you've got this. We are off to tackle our hopes and dreams and do not need anyone's approval except our own. We'd use all of our skills working together at the community level and apply the same practices above the clouds. We respond to of our inner and outer critics with a simple- If you tell us it can’t be done, we will have to prove you wrong.
We set two main ground rules:
1) The mountain will always be there, reaching the summit is the secondary goal with the first goal to return safely in order to climb again. It's not about conquering the mountain as the mountain will always win. It's about respect, maintaining a tread light attitude. We agreed and committed to deliver on this.
2) You are as fast as your slowest climber. We will be connected on one rope and find a pace that works for all. If one gets sick, we stop, we support and will turn back if necessary. We will work cohesively as a team and be responsible mountaineers. We agreed and committed to deliver on this.
We gear up and leave the basecamp at 11:30pm to begin our long journey towards 19,347 feet. Practicing patience with ourselves, others and the volcano, we take one step in front of another; breathe, believe and be is our mantra. We acclimate, embrace the pace and find our flow. After five hours of this repetition, we make it to about 18,000 feet. We feel the lack of oxygen, shortness of breath, cold air on our faces as well as strong winds.
Temperatures drop, we take a break, and sit on the glacier. It's the coldest time of the early morning, I take off one of my gloves to get my thermos of dried coca tea leaves seeping for hours. In a row of four women, we sit higher, as the clouds get lower, drinking our tea in silence, watching as the dark sky gets lighter and the moon begins to disappear.
Tired and fatigued, we still have a good hour of steep climbing to do in order to reach the summit. One woman on the team shares she's not feeling strong, and doesn't think she can summit. We discuss our original ground rules that we are in this together and will all turn back if one doesn't feel good. As we talk how the ascent is already a success, reflecting on how far we have come, the sun begins to rise, we look in the horizon at several glaciated peaks glowing, standing strong above the clouds, a priceless moment, a moment I will never forget. A moment where we made peace with the fact that our goal of summiting was not going to happen but our goal of daring greatly, being courageous and attempting this climb was achieved. We stand, organize our gear and accept we are turning back. The same woman who wasn't feeling strong, quietly takes a few steps up the glacier towards the summit not down to base camp. We ask "Where are you going?" She responds, "I am feeling better, I want to try, let's go for the summit." Like that, her inner mentor shows up (just in time) to remind her of her abilities and mental strength.
We look at one another "Believe, Breathe, Be" and know this is going to happen. We walk step by step, connected on the same rope, the same mission, the same dream towards our epic goal. One hour later, we take our final steps to the summit.
On February 18, 2001 the first expedition of indigenous women reached the summit of Volcano Cotopaxi- the highest most active volcano in the world. Four Andean women and two North American women all joined together to climb in celebration of women worldwide.
The women carry their traditional clothing in their backpacks planning to put on over their goretex as they do not think anyone would believe that indigenous women can make it to the top and want to be in their clothing for proof. Their golden beaded necklaces glowed from 19,347 feet and later would become the symbol of The Warmi Project representing strength, wisdom, and the ability to expand our comfort zones.
Once we realized the great potential we had within ourselves, once we found our footing so to speak, we successfully climbed to the summit together and were later able to turn outward to inspire (and be inspired) by other women. After touching snow for the first time in their lives and after reaching the top of the massive Cotopaxi, the Warmis returned to their communities to educate others on their experience and how the ascent had empowered and impacted their lives. They felt capable of accomplishing many things that they had never dreamed of. Six months after the ascent, both women strengthened their small businesses and increased their monthly sales. Women's participation in the development of community and approach to problem solving was also strengthened, in which one of the woman became the first female president of her community and she led that community like no president before! They attributed their new found strength and leadership skills from their mountaineering experience. The fact that they were able to navigate through the darkness of the night on this beast of an Andean glacier, and found the physical and mental strength to climb at almost 20,000 feet gave them the strength to tackle many of their other challenges back in their communities.
As I look back, that ascent impacted my life and showed me the power of women, self-belief, and teamwork. I learned about mental strength from some of the 'toughest' women on the planet and continue to apply those teachings to everyday life.
The Warmi Project women walk bold and brave leading positive change. We have used the mountain, adventure, and endurance racing as a tool to strengthen the leadership skills in ourselves and of others. We continue to voluntarily act as catalysts towards social change in our communities and are hoping that other women will hear this story and too act in their own communities so more and more women look inward not outward to go after their dreams.