By Vanessa Chavarriaga Posada
"I know what it’s like to be excluded because I'm not the “right” mountain partner. I've worked hard for almost a decade to build the skills to be invited. But I don’t want to perpetuate the cycle by shutting the door for someone else—I want to break down the door."
Would you believe me if I told you this was real?
It took some time for me to find the words—longer than usual. In late October, my two worlds came together by sheer force and will. With the help of friends, I successfully planned and executed a trip to Mexico to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, spend time with my family and friends, and ski the tallest volcano in Mexico: Pico de Orizaba.
This was no small feat for me. Pico de Orizaba stands at 18,491 feet, significantly higher than any place I had visited. Elevation aside, I would also be putting my semi-novice ski mountaineer skills to the test with some pretty “non-traditional” mountain partners.
I'm a community-driven person—everything I do is for my relatives, friends, and loved ones—but when I’m home in the Mountain West, I’m surrounded by individualism. Ski culture is largely built around goals that center individual success. Even a quick Google search of “skiing” will show individuals skiing alone.
"Shared joy is so much more profound."
My short career in skiing has been the opposite. I did not learn to ski alone—I’m constantly surrounded by a community of mentors and supporters who have helped me get where I am. Seeing my achievements as individual is both lonely and unsustainable. We build strength, joy, and resistance through community, which is why a large goal of this Pico de Orizaba trip was bringing my community with me.
When we pick mountain partners, we tend to look for those who complement our skill-set or bring something new to the table. We also look for those who are stronger, faster, and “better” at the sport. Having a well-rounded set of skills and experiences helps keep us safe and navigate risk.
But following this formula for the perfect mountain partner inevitably narrows our pool. Access to technical mountain knowledge is a privilege. The ability to move strong and fast is also a privilege. These narrow guidelines have always excluded me and my community: the BIPOC community. I know what it’s like to be excluded because I'm not the “right” mountain partner. I've worked hard for almost a decade to build the skills to be invited. But I don’t want to perpetuate the cycle by shutting the door for someone else—I want to break down the door.
"My relationships with mountains have shaped who I am just as much as my relationships with the humans I love have shaped who I am. My goal is to bridge these two worlds whenever possible."
If I’m being honest, traditional mountain partners can leave me feeling empty. When I call my mom after a long day outside, I can’t really share my experience with her. Although I bring my family with me through photos and stories, we can only celebrate my individual joy. This joy feels a bit hollow. The biggest joy I experience is communal. Instead of telling my mom about the time I watched the sun rise on a 14,000-foot volcano, I could share the entire experience with her. Shared joy is so much more profound.
That's why I planned an expedition to create this communal joy. The objective was to bring non-traditional mountain partners to this special place with me. My climbing team included: Sophia, one of my best friends; my mom and dad; Diana and Marypaz, close family friends; Estéban, a friend of a friend; and Juli, a future friend. There were eight of us total, ranging in age from 25 to 60, and ranging in skill level from beginner to someone certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations.
So what's it like to create access for eight people to go to the mountains? That depends on your goals. My relationships with mountains have shaped who I am just as much as my relationships with the humans I love have shaped who I am. My goal is to bridge these two worlds whenever possible.
Couldn’t I just pick an easier activity to share with them? Yes, but there is nothing like watching the morning light paint a glacier pink as you sip your morning coffee. Is creating access for others difficult? Sure. But since when do we as athletes turn down a challenge?
Sharing this experience with my community was incredibly joyful. I shed happy tears as I watched the sun burn through the sky as it rose on the summit of Pico de Orizaba. I shared ear-to-ear smiles with Juliana and Sophia as we made ski turns at 17,000 feet. My mom spent her first night camping by my side at base camp. My dad helped us set up our tents. Diana and Marypaz learned what it means to lead an expedition. Estéban woke up before all of us to capture stunning sunrise shots. We all shared meals, music, and laughter. After the climb, we regrouped to celebrate Dia de Muertos. We all brought home memories of doing something for the first time, together.
"Access to technical mountain knowledge is a privilege. The ability to move strong and fast is also a privilege."
I fundamentally believe everyone deserves access to these spaces. I am proud of myself for summiting and skiing Pico de Orizaba, but I think I am more proud of my entire community for showing up and sharing this experience with me. At the end of the day, my biggest joy lives inside of my community.
All photos by Sophia Schwartz
Vanessa is a mountain athlete and environmental sociologist who focuses on the intersection of people and nature. As a Colombian immigrant and woman of color, Vanessa recognizes the systemic barriers that purposefully keep BIPOC out of outdoor spaces. Taking up space in the outdoor community feels revolutionary. Learn more by following @vanessa_chav