In the annals of great climbing stories, Afghanistan isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But amid the Panjshir Valley in the north-central region of the country, protected by the western-friendly Northern Alliance, a group of young women, led by an international group of guides and mentors, are challenging culture norms and stereotypes to create what would have been unheard of under Taliban rule: Afghanistan’s first all-female climbing team. Coming from different backgrounds, tribes, beliefs, and social classes, the girls have banded together in a series of first ascents, to prove that women can climb, not as Pashtuns or Hazaras, nor rich or poor, but as Afghans.
This is their story, told by the women who led them.
In 2009, Marina LeGree was working in the Badakhshan Province of Afghanistan, in the shadow of Mt. Noshaq, at 24,580-feet, the highest peak in the country. As she spent time in a nation that had been rocked by over eight years of war, a French climber, Louis Meunies led the first Afghan men to the top and flew the flag from the summit. Almost immediately, LeGree was inspired, and proclaimed that if men could climb, then women could do the same. “That was the inspiration to see that it was climbable,” said LeGree. “If men could do it, then women could do it too.” Marina’s dream was not only to see an all-female team summit Mt. Noshaq, but also to grow a generation of young role models and leaders who devote their time to community service and bettering their country.
After several years of planning, LeGree founded Ascend Athletics in 2014, and brought on climbers Danika Gilbert and Emilie Drinkwater as guides and mentors for the girls. The first member of the team was a protégé of Meunie’s, and her four cousins. She was one of the only members who had mountaineering experience. Several other girls were selected from the National Taekwondo Team because of their advanced fitness. To join the team, the girls had to adhere to three main requirements: the first, they had to be in good physical shape; The second, they had to have the full permission of their parents; and the third, they had to give back through community projects.
To get permission, LeGree visited the families in each of their homes, and while all were accepting of the project, some had their reservations. “We had a couple of parents who weren’t so sure and they became convinced over time.” She says. “They saw how much their daughters were growing and benefitting so they changed their minds.”
The girls, many of whom had no mountaineering or climbing backgrounds, trained six days a week on physical and leadership training, and spent the rest of their time working on their self-selected community service projects. Special training involved team building exercises, conflict resolution, and even learning how to recognize and deactivate mines as there over ten million across the country. The girls had to train away from Kabul, as the city was not welcoming or secure. With little equipment and no facilities, the group flew the girls out to various provinces where it was safer to train and they could get out into the mountains. “We have to protect the girls from boys who hang around. We have to promise the parents the girls won’t be victims of harassment.” Says LeGree. “If we set patterns and people who have extremist views can follow us, we’d be a real easy target, so we’d have to move around.”
But not all the challenges that they faced came from outside the group.
Many of the girls were born, and grew up, shortly before the outbreak of the war in 2001. “To grow up in nothing but war and uncertainty, it changes the way that people behave.” Says LeGree. “To have people put their community first and think about the future is tough when the future is uncertain and things happen every day that impact the girls.” As part of their training, the girls worked with a psychologist and a counselor to express their anger and frustration. “For anyone growing up in Afghanistan, especially Kabul, it’s so stressful. People are in repeated trauma and they don’t have a way to deal with it. It impacts the way people choose not to trust each other.”
But despite their psychological hardships, in their training, the girls began to find courage and trust.
Danika Gilbert, a guide based out of Ridgway, Colorado, worked closely with their training and helped the girls listen to each other and define their own success. “We spent a lot of time talking about: what is our real goal? What do we want to call success?” Says Gilbert. “It was mostly that the team as a whole would be able to reach an objective. Ideally, it was the peak, but really it was that we all went out and came back safely, and could show that women were capable of doing this. For them, it was a really big deal that an Afghan woman can go away and into the mountains, climb a peak, and take care of herself.”
Time for their first expedition.
After months of training, the girls were ready for their first expedition, and while the dream was Mt. Noshaq, deterioration in security left the group looking for an alternative objective. Having planned an expedition solely using Google Maps and issues of the American Alpine Journal, Danika and the team decided on a peak in the Panjshir Valley, adjacent to the 19,058-foot peak, Mir Samir. The peak, located in the Hindu Kush, one of Central Asia’s most revered valleys, was an intimidating objective for the group who had only just learned how to climb, but was also safe. “It’s one of the only valleys the Russians and Taliban never invaded,” says Gilbert.
The group started from Kabul at 6,800-feet and travelled over three days to camp at 14,000 feet. Even when asking the local villagers, they realized that just camping in the valley was the highest that any Afghan woman had previously gone. On the snowfield, they learned how to use an ice axe, glissade, and learn snow skills training. “We let them take trash bags and slide down the hill out of control and play. They’d never gotten to do that,” Gilbert remarked.
Once the group was trained, they chose a 16,000-foot subsidiary peak to Mir Samir. The climb involved moderate technical skills, including glacier travel, talus, and rock climbing up an exposed ridge. To Gilbert’s surprise, “I was terrified because it dropped off to one side and they didn’t seem to notice the exposure. It didn’t faze them like other people.” After enduring the climb, the group pulled their way to a narrow two by two foot summit. They held their flag high and sang the national anthem. “I’ve never had a summit be so emotionally moving for me. I broke down sobbing and on the summit and I reflected on why I am so emotional over this,” says Gilbert, the sound of pride ringing in her voice. “I realized that I’ve spent my whole life having people encourage me and say ‘sure you want to do that, go for that.’ These girls had the opposite. They were told ‘That’s not what girls do’, ‘You’re not capable’, ‘You can’t do it.’ This was just so huge for them.”
But the summit wasn’t the only source of pride for the group. “There was no sign on top that anyone had been up there before,” says Gilbert. “I turned to the girls and said ‘You know we have this tradition in climbing, if you climb something that it appears nobody else has climbed before than you can give it a name.’ They named it ‘The Lion Daughters of Mir Samir Peak’, a testament to the fierceness and respect for the Panjshir Valley or ‘Five Lions Valley’.
The spirit of these Lion Daughters cannot be quenched.
The fierceness of the girls is best represented in the undaunted spirit of two members of the original 13. Shaperai and Zuhra. Shaperai came from a conservative Pashtun family and was a member of Afghanistan’s national Taekwondo team. She joined the group with a few hesitations. While at first she didn’t seem overly enthused, she fell in love with climbing during the snow skills training, and wanted to prove to the group her skill and willingness to climb. Unfortunately, on her way down from a training day, she slipped on talus and pulled her hamstring, having to rely on the guides to help her walk back to camp. When the decision came to determine who was going to make it to the summit, Shaperai was heartbreakingly cut from the summit team.
But undeterred, she chose a smaller peak nearby and told Gilbert that she was going to hike to the top and prove she would be able to make it. Shaperai, who had only just been injured, muscled her way to the summit of the peak and proved to the group that she could make it to the top. She was reinstated to the summit team. Even after the ascent, as most of the girls were homesick or tired, Shaperai and Zuhra chose to climb a second, more technical peak with mid 5th-class and low 4th-class moves. “They reached the summit of the peak and were ecstatic. They had dreamt of this themselves and that trip transformed them.”
Zuhra was the second oldest of four sisters and one brother from a poor family. They fled the fighting in Jalalabad and moved to Kabul to live with their uncle, their father’s younger brother. After the trip, the uncle told them not to return to the family compound, and considered them despicable and worthless. The father, having seen the transformation of his girls, stood up to his brother and told him his girls were going to do what they wanted. “Four of the girls used to get heckled and harassed,” says Gilbert. “After the expedition, people in the neighborhood now say ‘Those are the Mountain Climber Girls’, don’t pick on them.’”
Zuhra and Shaperai were asked to speak at a press conference Ascend arranged with local leaders following the expedition, and with newfound confidence, had the room crying, laughing, and moved. Shaperai now holds a prominent place in her family. “Since this trip, when her family has a meeting, they ask for her opinion,” says Gilbert. “They ask for her voice, they value her as an adult in the family. It’s someone who has an opinion.”
Since the expedition, the girls have found new confidence and pride.
Some will soon be starting hiking clubs at their schools and sharing what they have learned.
One of the biggest effects of the project has been seeing people from different tribes, such as Hazaras and Pashtuns working together. The conservative Pashtun historically persecuted the open-minded Hazara, and interaction was rare. The girls, despite conflict, have been able to put their differences aside and work together. Gilbert describes the change. “They’re now talking about Afghan issues and Afghan problems and they’re now bonded together as Afghans: Afghan women fighting for a better future.”