Girl power in the mountains

About a month ago, we were informed of the return of Yvonne Antonieta Mejía Romero, known locally and in the Peruvian mountaineering world as Tana Mejía. Tana is a true pioneer in female mountaineering, becoming the first Peruvian woman to set foot on the Huascarán, in 1979. She has since conquered numerous mountains in the Himalayas, Alps, Andes and the United States. Tana is an honorary member of the mountaineering club of the Autonomous University of Mexico and her list of merits in international mountaineering is extensive and very impressive. In 1982, she became the first Peruvian woman to attempt the South East Edge of Ranrapallca, she conquered the South-West Edge of Oxshapalca and opened a new route on the North-West Face of Chopicalqui. She became the first Peruvian woman to reach the top of Europe´s highest mountain, Mont Blanc.

As well as having worked as a university lecturer and having published books on environmental education, she is also an international consultant in education, environment, ecology and tourism and a trekking and exploration guide. Tana shocked the Huaraz mountaineering world between 1988 and 1989 when she became the first female president of the Technical High Mountain Commission. In the 80s, she founded the Regional Association of Practical Tourism Guides and was president of the Club Andinismo Cordillera Blanca in Huaraz. Additionally, she has led and participated in multiple international conferences and seminars all around the world. The Huaraz Telegraph became very curious when we were first told about this woman, and during our interview, we got to know about female mountaineering in the 80s, her views on the city of Huaraz and the reason she has finally returned home.

Thanks a lot for your time Tana, please share with our readers how you got involved in mountaineering and some of your major achievements

Well, when I was still an adolescent, I had always liked mountaineering and started to practice it at the oldest mountaineering club of Peru, the Club Andinista Cordillera Blanca. I got obsessed by the mountains and mountaineering became my reason of existence and in just a couple of years, I became the first woman to conquer the Huascarán. I was named president of a mountaineering club and organised thousands of activities, and one of those activities concerned a fellowship of mountain clubs and we went on to climb the Huascarán, which is how I became the first ever female to summit the Huascarán. My passion for mountaineering grew, and I started to climb more technical mountains and mountains over 6,000 metres. I opened a new route on the North-East Face of Chopicalqui (6,354 m) in 1982 and a year before that I summited the East Edge of Ranrapalca. Because of my enthusiasm, I wanted to become a professional mountain guide; however, the Swiss-Peruvian convention didn’t allow me to. I just kept climbing, although I did always get invited to training courses for safety reasons. When I returned to Chopicalqui to open another route, our team was hit by an avalanche. I was injured badly and while back home recovering Martine Rolland visited me. At that time she was the second best female mountaineer in the world, the first being Wanda Rutkiewicz (1943 – 1992). For four years, Martine had been preparing to climb the virgin route I had opened on Chopicalqui. However, upon arrival in Lima she was informed that a local girl from Huaraz had just done it. Martine went on to climb it anyway.

What´s interesting is that I had finally met someone who understood me. We talked about mountaineering and a friendship was created. Later on, in that same year, I received a scholarship from the Ecole Nationale de Ski et d’Alpinisme in Chamonix, Mont Blanc, France and I believe this was a gift from Martine. I enjoyed being in Chamonix, and trained very hard to become better and better, and managed to conquer the highest peaks of France including the Mont Blanc. After having climbed mountains in Switzerland and having studied a postgraduate course in tourism, I finally returned to Peru.

While back in Peru, I was eager to promote female mountaineering so Peruvian women had better opportunities to develop themselves and their technical capabilities. Peru is such a rich country in terms of mountains and maybe I had become a little tired of going to the mountains with only boys. I talked about this idea with a couple of Chilean mountaineers and they thought it was an excellent idea. The Chilean Mountaineers Federation liked the idea of promoting female mountaineering and forming an organisation for women too. At the time, we had no idea that any female mountaineering clubs existed around the world and this would be the first one. Although the general level of female mountaineering in South America wasn’t very high, Chile and also Argentina participated. In 1986, Chile finally organised the first ever all-female expedition with participation of 12 women from Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru and Chile and we set foot on the Nevado Ojos del Salado. We also went to Bolivia to climb Chearocko and Sajama. Some expedition members were lacking a bit of experience and had a hard time, but, in general, it was a very successful mountaineering expedition.
Afterwards we went climbing in Argentina and a 14-strong female team climbed Aconcagua. Having summited Aconcagua by the normal route, we left a bikini at the top of Aconcagua as evidence that women had conquered this mountain! The year after, our team headed to Ecuador where we climbed the Chimborazo, Cotopaxi and Tungurahua. The less experienced climbers were improving and getting better all the time. After Ecuador, in 1988, it was Peru´s turn, and we had to conquer the highest tropical peak in the world. Our expedition team was expanding as we received climbers from Brazil and Guatemala, for example. We even received messages from girls in Spain who were wondering why they weren’t invited to our expeditions. Besides the Huascarán, we also managed to conquer Vallunaraju. All the girls were motivated and started to look for other girls in their home countries that would be interested in mountaineering too.

In 1989, thanks to friendships and having conquered Popocatepetl, Iztaccihuatl and the Pico de Orizaba in 1981, I was invited to be a member of the very first Latin-American expedition to the Himalayas and Broad Peak in Karakorum, Pakistan. Here I had a terrible experience because of bad weather. There were just four of us on the expedition team, two of us representing 16 South American women and two Japanese. Luckily, we were able to escape and get off the mountain; however, that same year on K2 many other mountaineers were killed. I felt sad because we had to turn around, despite being in great conditions. We were so close on summiting Broad Peak; however, this is how mountaineering works, if the mountain doesn’t cooperate, than you simply can´t make it.

In 1992, I went on my own to Nepal to Everest Base Camp where I reunited with many friends I had made in Chamonix and some climbers I had met during my expeditions in Peru. A couple of these friends told me they were going to climb Everest the following day, and I was invited to join their expedition. Sadly, I didn’t bring enough money to realise this kind of expedition and barely had a return ticket to the States and Peru. I returned home. I hoped to return to Nepal soon, but this sadly never happened. That is where my mountaineering career in the Himalayas ended.

On my return to the United States, I dreamt of studying environmental sciences, a career that wasn’t available in Peru at that time. I was accepted to the Huxley College of Environment – Western Washington University. Environmental issues were very important to me, in particular in the Huascaran National Park. When I graduated, I got a job related to biodiversity conservation in the Amazon area thanks to a private agreement between Peru and the United States. I did this for about 10 years and as a result I didn’t climb as much; however, on holidays in the States I was still able to climb a couple of mountains such as Mount Baker and Mount Teton in 1992 and Mount Hood in 1993. In 1997, I got stuck with some friends in a heavy storm while attempting Mount Denali (also known as Mount McKinley, its former official name). It was a great time. As time passed by, I lost contact with my fellow mountaineers, but I went back to Peru almost every year in June, July and August to climb and guide in the Huayhuash. I also managed to summit the highest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro during a holiday. Maybe this is more a touristic activity instead of a mountaineering achievement but still, it´s Africa´s highest mountain.

I have never received any help, and was isolated as a female climber. Maybe Peru wasn’t ready for female mountaineering or they looked at it like mountaineering was a man´s sport. If you look at the Peruvian male mountaineers, they have received awards and credits for their feats; however, I never got any invitation, no thank you, nothing. Maybe this is part of our Peruvian culture, but I was too busy to worry about that. On another occasion, I had the opportunity to visit Egypt to study the pyramids, but I couldn’t afford to travel as much, and I lost the opportunity to climb. One thing I regret is not having taken more photographs of my mountaineering career. I only have a few.
Why and when did you return to Huaraz, and, after having been abroad for so long and having travelled to almost every corner of the world, what´s your opinion on the city?
I mainly returned for family reasons, especially my mother and sisters – no matter how much I have travelled and all the places I have been to, I have always had a strong bond with my family. Although I returned to Huaraz last October, I have been hiding a little. I feel frustrated and demoralised with my city. Huaraz used to be a small city, but it has grown a lot and without any urban planning so it seems. I am worried to be honest, in terms of environmental management, lack of urban planning, lack of organisation and development. Instead of moving forward, I believe my city has deteriorated, principally in education and culture. In the 80s, a group of local youngsters would voluntarily organise cleaning campaigns, for example, to collect garbage that had been littered in the nearby mountains. Between 1981 and 1982, and together with other local climbers, I remember having collected tons of garbage. Sadly, it has got worse and this kind of initiative is not taken anymore.

The national park should really react and do something about the garbage problem. I believe all entrance fee incomes are directly sent to Lima and this should be changed. On the other hand, it seems that the local university that has an environmental engineering course, isn’t doing much either. Garbage and the lack of hygiene are clearly affecting tourism in Huaraz and this is alarming. I remember having addressed this topic to the local authorities on many occasions but they are visibly not interested or have other priorities. The authorities are staying way behind, especially regarding the noise pollution. This problem is frightening in Huaraz! The mines, for example, are also contributing to the pollution a lot. Part of the problem is the rural migration of people from the mountains to the city. Lima faces the same problem in many districts.

Was mountaineering different in the 80s compared to nowadays?

Well, I believe that in the 80s there were more groups, clubs and more interest in general in mountaineering. On the other hand, now there are more agencies and people working in tourism and adventure tourism, but not so much in mountaineering. Rock climbing has become popular, I believe, but I don’t know if many youngsters in Huaraz are interested in mountaineering. This makes me sad, and I am surprised that the sport mountaineering in Huaraz has not grown. Maybe the sport should be promoted more on a local level. There are some good Peruvian representatives that have managed to conquer some of the most important mountains around the world. When I was young, we were playing tennis, volleyball, climbing trees or playing in the mountains; the current youngsters aren’t doing anything. They´re playing videogames. If you would look at Mexico, there are over 400 mountaineering clubs, but the country only has four mountains. In Cusco and Arequipa, there are some things happening, but in Huaraz, which should be the capital of mountaineering, not much is going on. It gives the impression that mountaineering isn’t considered as interesting or important for the authorities either. Football and basketball are important but climbing and mountaineering aren’t. This is not how it should be.

When you used to climb, female mountaineering was almost considered a taboo in Peru, has this changed?

I believe it has. The sport has evolved and offered integration between men and women. The role of women has changed as well, on all levels around the world. Peru has some great female athletes in different disciplines. In terms of mountaineering, there are definitely more women climbing compared to the 80s. However, more dissemination, incentives and promotion is required. On a social level, greater progress and development is visible, sadly this is not visible in our sport. I would like to meet Silvia Vásquez-Lavado who conquered Mount Everest in 2016, and later this year I am hoping to meet Flor Cuenca Blas who summited Cho Oyu together with Víctor Rímac last year. I know her brother and although she is living in Germany, I believe she will visit Huaraz later this year.

What needs to be done to improve mountaineering in Huaraz and Peru?

Promotion and attention. In the 80s it wasn’t much different and it took much effort to get it off the ground but with the help of the media, we managed to get some attention. Authorities weren’t interested back then and they don’t seem interested now. It´s a tough battle and some mountaineering clubs helped definitely but it´s sad to see that there isn’t enough interest. I fought for 13 years and finally got tired, although in 1992 the Peruvian Sports Federation of Andinismo and Winter Sports was founded. However, they aren’t doing much either so it seems. What we need are a group of capable people, ready to fight for mountaineering.

Rounding up the interview, what are your short-term plans Tana?

Well, maybe I will re-establish my mountaineering club. Clubs are needed to promote the sport. However, this is a team effort and should not depend on one person. More and better communication between other mountaineering clubs is needed in order to promote the sport. It makes me sad thinking about this idea because it didn’t really work 30 years ago, but who knows. Maybe with new people, times have changed. People in Lima and Cusco were interested when I suggested the idea. It´s a great opportunity in which I would like to involve the members of Mujer Montaña in. I met some of them yesterday at an event in Huaraz and I understand they are setting off to Mount Pisco and Vallunaraju in the next couple of days. I have seen a good spirit and when they return from their adventure, I hope to sit down with them and see what we can do together. I actually wasn’t planning to work on promoting mountaineering as a sport again because it has cost much energy and left scares too; however, seems like I have to. We´ll see.

Tana´s achievements and adventures were previously published in a number of international magazines such as The Planet (USA), Alpinisme et Randonnee (Fra), Geomundo (Per), Viajes y Turismo (Mex) and nationwide newspapers such as La Prensa, Expreso, Correo and El Comercio.

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