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Afganistan: Ascend trains in the Panshir

Amidst crazy heightened security the HBO/Vice film crew left Afganistan this morning. We've been working with a team of 13 Afghan Girls - ages 16-22 - who have been climbing mountains to build leadership and push social barriers. This is the brainchild of Marina LeGrave with Ascend - It has been a beautiful, inspiring and heartbreaking month and I have very mixed emotions upon departure.

We went to the airport at 6 am to avoid any traffic in what is one of the highest risk areas of ‘unspecified terrorist’ targets: the international airport main drive. Security started a mile away and there were 5 separate check-points. The first 3 while still in our vehicles. Everything in this city is guarded by guns (a lot of them), high concrete walls and barbed wire. Nonetheless, behind the security these measures afford, life goes on. And it goes on beautifully.

Our last night in Kabul we had dinner on a gorgeous carpet atop the roof of a local man’s estate. He’s running for parliament and is our team’s high level fixer. With the moon and calm desert night, it was easy to forget I was in a conflict zone. Such is the peace and hospitality that the privacy of a home can afford. I am sad to leave this magical land, especially since all the locals say this is the worst it’s been in a decade. The man we went to dinner with is overwhelmed with having just delivered the bodies of the locals he hopes to represent back to their people. He told horrific tales of how the Taliban tortured the men before killing them. The taliban and Isis are taking over vast sections of the country yet Kabul remains safe, for now. As is the Panshir and Whakan. I hope they remain so - for I would love to return. Its sad to see the distress building amidst the peaceful people of this country. People just want the conflict and war to end so that they can go on with progress, with education and with living.

I am grateful for the security our local SEPAR team of British ex-special forces guys gave us in navigating this country. And for the welcome we reviewed form the Panshir people in general and the many levels of local security support we had while climbing. I have never had so many men around on a women’s trip - nor so many GUNS! But I loved the SEPAR guys - and Emelie and I joke that we won’t know what to do with ourselves since we will no longer have our own personal Man Chaperone with us 24:7. The SEPAR guys climbed first ascents with me when I had no other partner(one got a crash course in trad climbing at 15,000 feet in Afghanistan), pumped endless hours of water, would make the hard calls on security and tactics in the middle of the night and were in general the best dudes you could imagine having around while in the mountains. A trip like this could not have happened without a thousand hands helping us. All of us were unified in our support and determination to help the girls achieve their goals.

I am both hopeful and worried for the immediate future of these girls. There has yet to be any media about our climb. When it comes out it will put the girls at risk. But media is essential to the success of this project. As many locals and folks committed to change in Afghanistan have told me, change happens by “just doing it”, even if it rocks the boat a bit. So we need these girls’ achievements to hit the news for this is how perceptions of what a girl can do will change. I think of the commonly cited reflection that the Chinese word for Crisis can be loosely translated to mean Danger and Opportunity. I think they realize that the greater risk is that of doing nothing. Its why girls around Afghanistan continue to don the white scarves and go to school - though there is always a risk of a stupid acid attack or bombing. All Afghan girls live in constant crisis and what they risk reveals what they value. So the girls of Ascend value great change and personal growth - so they are willing to take great risks.

But this is a complex and dangerous game. Though each of these girls have family support, they are pushing social and gender barriers at a really high level. As such they risk far more than one might think of in terms of normal mountain risks. Most of the girls are top national Taekwando athletes whose kicks and punches would intimidate most anyone. Even by traveling into the mountains unaccompanied by a Mahram - or male family escort - they were placing themselves outside social norms. Their Taekwado coach served this proxy role and was a man of honor and satisfied their families, but this situation might upset conservative mullas. Now as these girls return to their normal lives I hope and pray that they will be ok - especially the ones with whom I have developed a special fondness.

These girls know that what they are doing is important and they are excited to share. Each girl also fiercely demanded that they all abide by all social and moral rules of islam. They want to lead by example and hope that other girls will be inspired. We visited 2 schools in the Panshir and this was an incredible experience. Though I can not understand Dari - I can understand the universal sparkle in the eyes of a young girl who has just found a new dream. I have never seen so many girls cram into a tiny classroom in order to listen to a speech. They were captivated by the short presentations. Since no men were allowed - I got to run a camera!

I’ll try to put up some more stories and a few photos in the next week on this blog. Here are a few teasers. The film crew took many more that are much better. But we’ll have to wait a year till we get these!

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