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Sean’s Mountain Guiding Trip to Afghanistan

Like many climbers, it is the proverbial “Freedom of the Hills” that made the sport my lifelong passion, and not just a passing hobby. I’ve had the distinct privilege of climbing all around the world. I’ve sipped espresso and clipped bolts in Italian beach towns, bushwacked through the jungles of Guatemala to find obscure crags, hitchhiked from Hueco Tanks winter to that beautiful Yosemite spring, and bivvied in ice caves in the French Alps.

But never have I felt further from home, more grateful for the privileges of my own life, or more keenly aware of the freedom and self-confidence that climbing can instill among it’s practitioners, than during my 2019 trip to Afghanistan, to work with 5 young women training to be the country’s first climbing instructors.

Since 1979, Afghanistan has suffered through more than four decades of war, sectarian violence, extremist rule, military occupations, and constant terrorist attacks. Poverty is rampant, precarity is everywhere, and the interactions of all of these factors are mind-bogglingly complex. Women in the country face additional challenges- almost 90% of Afghan women have experienced some form of domestic violence, according to the World Health Organization. Female employment has only just broken the 20% mark, according to the World Bank, and female literacy remains below 30%, according to UNESCO. It’s against this backdrop that Ascend: Leadership through Athletics was founded in 2004, aiming to use climbing as a vehicle for empowerment and leadership development.

Ascend started with a focus on high-altitude expedition mountaineering. They made headlines with several major ascents, including the first female Afghan ascent of Mt. Noshaq, the highest mountain in the country. I’ll include links at the end of this blog to a number of articles and videos detailing these climbs, which you should absolutely check out. The heart of the program, however, is their two-year leadership program for girls (they told me they prefer this term over “women,” as it highlights their unmarried status and independence), providing a unique outlet in a country largely devoid of opportunities. Based in Kabul, the Ascend office functions as a sort of combination after-school program, study space, social center, gym, and base for trips out of the city. Most of all, it’s a safe haven for the dozens of girls who have found a second home there. They work together to plan and implement community service projects, research climbing trips, and practice their skills on the plywood bouldering wall in the backyard. The girls in Ascend’s program have found freedom in the mountains, and have returned to their communities with a newfound sense of empowerment.

High-altitude mountaineering, however, is notoriously fickle, unpredictable, and resource-intensive. These climbs also rely on foreign guides, as there are no trained guides or instructors in the entire country. In recent years, Ascend has shifted focus to single-pitch rock climbing, which is significantly more accessible, and an easier option for larger groups. Marina LeGree, Ascend’s founder, reached out to the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) with an idea- to train the strongest climbers, most outspoken leaders, and most dedicated members of Ascend as climbing instructors. Then they could run their own trips, and train new participants on knotcraft, belaying, and more. The AMGA’s Single Pitch Instructor program seemed like the perfect fit, and an email went out to course providers looking for a volunteer. Less than a month later, somewhat unbelievably, I had booked a flight to Kabul.

A few hours after arriving in Kabul, still woefully jetlagged, I met my students for the next week- Neki, Sawda, Mariam, Shogufa, and Raboba- last names omitted for their safety. Their excitement and energy kept me going, and we tied a dozen bulging packs onto the roof of an aged microbus, packed in, and drove north on a broken highway to the Panjshir region. After several hours, a dozen military checkpoints, and some mountain dirt roads that were better not looked at too closely, we had arrived to our campsite- a walled and terraced garden near the home of our local guide Bashir, overlooking a beautiful creek running down from the mountains above the village. A short hike up the valley, and the creek took us to a beautiful waterfall, and a few stretches of clean vertical cracks rising from the water. I was overjoyed and relieved- we would have routes to climb!

While Afghanistan has a rich history of mountaineering, there are almost no known rock routes, and next to no route development of any kind has been done since the 70’s. So in addition to teaching the course, I would have to, working with Kaisa Markhus, a Norwegian climbing instructor and the Country Manager for Ascend, find and establish new routes to even have a venue for the course. In addition to all my gear and several duffels of donations, I had flown in the bolts, bits, hangers, and other equipment that we would need. On past outings, Ascend staff and participants had scouted this area, but it had never been climbed. Kaisa and I established a handful of fun new routes, and there is potential for dozens more. With time and resources, the girls could turn this area into a fantastic single pitch crag.

Over the next several days, I got to know my new friends, and we dove into the course material. The girls weren’t just looking to improve as climbers- they needed to learn what professional instruction was, how to connect to a global community of climbers, and a slew of technical skills that they would need to keep groups safe at the crag. They all dove in head-first, absolutely crushed each class, and by the time we had cooked dinner each night, they had lists of questions ready for our evening chats. Our discussions about risk management, and how to quantify ‘likelihood’ and ‘consequence’ sparked stories from their own lives. Each of them has been managing risk their entire lives- weighing if it was safe to walk to the market after dark; did they need to ask a brother or cousin for a male escort? Were their clothes sufficiently modest for the trip? What neighborhood? Is it safe for this uncle to know that I climbed a mountain? They were intuitive experts in evaluating and managing risk- but seeing them delve into the nuances of their daily lives armed with new language and tools that would help them do so explicitly was one of the most powerful experiences of the entire trip for me.

This course was one step in a long journey. Each of the 5 course graduates have a lot of work to do before they can make their dream a reality. An exam, where they would have the opportunity to become certified as an SPI, had to be postponed due to COVID. But every step forward is a victory. Climbing is never just about reaching the top of a route, it’s about how the process of climbing changes you, and how you learn to adapt and to succeed. The girls are doing well, and working hard to keep their skills sharp and their spirits high. I know that they’ll continue to uplift and inspire each other, and those of us lucky enough to be a part of their journey.

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