Afghanistan’s Climbing Girls Spark a Revolution: The Lion Daughters of Mir Samir

Ascend Athletics - Lion Daughters of Mir SamirIn 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.

Ascend Athletics - Lion Daughters of Mir SamirThis 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.

Ascend Athletics - Marina LeGreeAfter 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.”

Ascend Athletics - Lion Daughters of Mir SamirThe 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.”

Ascend Athletics - Lion Daughters of Mir SamirBut 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.”

Ascend Athletics - Lion Daughters of Mir SamirBut 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.”

Ascend Athletics - Lion Daughters of Mir SamirTime 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.

Ascend Athletics - Lion Daughters of Mir SamirOnce 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’.

Ascend Athletics - Lion Daughters of Mir SamirThe 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.

Ascend Athletics - Lion Daughters of Mir SamirBut 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.”

Ascend Athletics - Lion Daughters of Mir SamirZuhra 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.”

Ascend Athletics - Lion Daughters of Mir SamirSince 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.”


Ascend is a U.S.-based 501©3 and sup­port­ed by dona­tions. To learn more go to www.ascendathletics.org. You can also fol­low the project on Face­book and Insta­gram.