Striking photos show Afghan women climbing mountains and shattering norms
Ascend Athletics teaches leadership skills to aspiring female climbers in Afghanistan.
From the Hindu Kush to the Pamir Mountains, towering mountain ranges cover Afghanistan. Although the country’s rugged topography attracts climbers from around the world, few Afghan women scale these mountains. Ascend Athletics is working to change that.
Founded in 2014, the nonprofit builds young Afghan women’s leadership skills and confidence through athletic-based leadership training, particularly mountain climbing. Each year, they recruit a team of Afghan girls ages 15 to 24 for a rigorous two-year programme that involves fitness training, climbing, backcountry skills, civic engagement and mountaineering. The modules challenge participants both physically and mentally in order to build their resiliency, independence and confidence.
After participating in Ascend Athletics’ programme as a student at age 15, Shegufa Bayat now works at the organisation as a programme assistant and passes along her expertise to younger climbers. In the photo essay below, the 19-year-old shares more about the organisation’s work.
Posing for a photograph with my colleagues on our weekly hike (I’m in the middle!). The program assistants and I lead the weekly activities. International mountain guides and mountain leaders who visit Afghanistan provide us with skills training and we pass that on to the participants.
Hanifa Yousoufi, a program assistant at Ascend, leads second-year participants on an expedition in the mountains of Panjshir province.
A second-year Ascend participant enduring the harsh conditions of the Afghan winter in Panjshir. By facing and overcoming such suffering, the girls build a strong sense of self-confidence that allows them to face challenges in their everyday lives.
Miles away from the nearest bit of civilization, an accident in the Afghan mountains could be fatal. Throughout the two-year program, the girls learn the importance of teamwork and how to help others.
First-year participants embark on their first hike of the Ascend program. For many of the girls, this is their first time in the mountains. As girls doing any sort of exercise is often frowned upon and sometimes forbidden in Afghanistan, the new participants must begin to build muscles they have never used.
On 10 August 2018, as part of an Ascend expedition, Hanifa Yousoufi became the first Afghan woman to summit Afghanistan’s highest mountain, Mount Noshaq, at a height of 24,580 feet. Fiercely proud of her heritage, she holds her country’s flag whilst posing for a photograph.
The Ascend program relies heavily on international volunteers coming to Afghanistan and dedicating their time to teaching the girls new skills. Camille Fiducia, an American sports model, climber and volunteer, leads a handful of first-year students in one of their first-ever yoga sessions.
For many of Afghanistan’s young women, being able to leave the house for anything other than school is rare. Being part of the Ascend program allows the girls to not only climb mountains, but also build lifelong friendships. Pictured above is a first-year and second-year participant flying a kite together overlooking Kabul.
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About the author
19-year-old Shegufa Bayat joined Ascend as a participant when she was 15. She now works as a Programme Assistant and helps pass on her training and mountaineering experience to younger climbers.