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In Afghanistan, hardly anyone climbs a mountain for sport. And that made it extraordinary when a group of Afghan women set out to climb one of that country's highest peaks. These female climbers were trained by an American group called Ascend. As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, this expedition faced obstacles and barriers often far more daunting than any mountain.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The Norfolk, Va.-based NGO had a goal this past year - to send a team of young Afghan women up their country's highest peak. That is, until expedition leader Danika Gilbert went on a scouting trip last May to that peak, called Mount Noshaq.
DANIKA GILBERT: I am definitely feeling pressure that it's - you know, Noshaq is what we said we would do and this is where we have to go. And, you know, I'm not sure it's the choice I would make as a guide.
NELSON: The veteran mountaineer from Ridgway, Colo., wondered whether her novice Afghan team with no training at high altitudes or in snow could handle the nearly 25,000-foot mountain. Villages in the area also had a few supplies needed to support such an expedition. But the biggest obstacle was the Taliban, which had effectively cut off the region the mountain is located in from the rest of Afghanistan. So when the charter airline that was supposed to fly them there was grounded, Gilbert settled on an alternative place - the Panjshir Valley, a place she'd never been to.
GILBERT: It was really kind of comical to try to plan an expedition from Google Earth.
NELSON: Gilbert scrambled to familiarize herself with a province much closer to Kabul that has more manageable mountains and no Taliban.
GILBERT: I actually sat down with Google Earth and pored through all the American Alpine Club journals and other climbing reports that I could get from the area since, you know, the early 1900s to figure out what's been climbed, where, and what our options were.
NELSON: It took a while for the team to warm to the switch, says member Zahra Karimi Nooristani.
ZAHRA KARIMI NOORISTANI: (Speaking Dari).
NELSON: The 18-year-old, who is one of the better climbers, says she and her friends even thought about quitting. But Gilbert assured them they would still get to climb challenging peaks on the 16-day expedition - possibly even the legendary Mir Samir, a jagged, cliff-packed mountain that is technically more difficult, if lower, than Mount Noshaq.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Dari).
NELSON: The hike up the valley toward Mir Samir this past August proved more difficult than Gilbert predicted. Her Afghan charges struggled on the narrow and precariously steep trail. Many of them twisted and sprained ankles and suffered from altitude sickness. The young women also experienced extreme homesickness. Few of them had ever spent the night away from their families before. Given the nearest cell phone signal was days away, climber Shopirai Otmonkhel says they phoned their families on Gilbert's satellite phone.
SHOPIRAI OTMONKHEL: (Speaking Dari).
NELSON: The 20-year-old says she cried during her short conversation with her mother, who was very sad. Her mom also told her, you are very strong and can do anything. It was the kind of encouragement the young mountaineers needed to keep going, especially after Gilbert and fellow guide Emilie Drinkwater decided against taking the 13 young women to Mir Samir. The Americans say it would have been extremely difficult, even for them, as veteran mountaineers. Instead, last August 15 the American guides lead the Afghan climbers from base camp across glaciers and bedrock to another nearby peak.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).
NELSON: The unnamed mountain becomes the team's crowning achievement.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Laughter).
NELSON: Seven of them make it. They take turns cramming onto the narrow summit and unfurl Afghan flags. They sing their national anthem.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing in Dari).
NELSON: They ask if they can call the mountain The Lion Daughters of Mir Samir. The name recognizes Panjshir, which translates to five lions and how they feel about themselves. Gilbert has asked the Panjshiri government to make the designation official. At 16,500 feet, Lion Daughters' Peak is higher than any U.S. mountains other than in Alaska. In the days that follow, Nooristani and Otmonkhel scale a somewhat lower but far more difficult peak in Panjshir, which, for Drinkwater, was a highlight.
EMILIE DRINKWATER: They did great. They climbed smoothly and carefully.
NELSON: She says she helped the two young women make the technical ascent up loose rock largely with hand gestures.
DRINKWATER: And this was all completely new and unfamiliar to them. So it's a bit of a learning curve that they both picked up really quickly.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Cheering).
NELSON: The young women were elated at having managed the difficult climb.
OTMONKHEL: (Speaking Dari).
NELSON: Otmonkhel says it proved to her that Afghan women have enormous potential but too few opportunities to prove it. These young women, who often clashed during their many months of training, have learned to be there for one another, especially during harrowing moments.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Dari).
NELSON: Like when 17-year-old teammate Diba Azizi takes a nasty fall off a boulder as the team begins its descent for the trip back to Kabul.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Dari).
NELSON: A male coach scoops the slight girl into his arms and rushes to a clearing, where he lays her down. Diba's teammates comfort her as Drinkwater wipes blood off the injured girl's face.
DRINKWATER: Keep breathing, keep breathing.
NELSON: Diba ended up needing stitches on her forehead and a bandage for a sprained ankle but was able to rejoin the other young women for the bus ride back to Kabul. These days, she is no longer a member of the team. She became engaged and was forced to quit by her future in-laws, says Marina LeGree, who heads the NGO that organized the expedition. Most of the other team members still dream of summiting Mount Noshaq - so do 20 new Afghan schoolgirls. They were inspired by the expedition to join the program and are training to summit Afghanistan's highest peak, LeGree says.
MARINA LEGREE: I mean, it's out there. Like, the mountain needs to be climbed, and everybody wants to go do it.
NELSON: LeGree says for now, that's the plan - to select a handful of the best climbers to scale Mount Noshaq next year. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.