For Afghan Women Mountaineers, Uphill Battles Begin Before The Climb : Parallels Scaling Afghanistan's tallest mountain will be difficult enough. But Afghan female climbers and their American guides also face civil war, red tape and cultural taboos.
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For Afghan Women Mountaineers, Uphill Battles Begin Before The Climb

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For Afghan Women Mountaineers, Uphill Battles Begin Before The Climb

For Afghan Women Mountaineers, Uphill Battles Begin Before The Climb

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Over the next few minutes, let's hear about a group of young Afghan women preparing to do something no Afghan woman has ever done before - climb to the top of their mountainous country's highest peak. For months, they've trained intensely in secret to protect the young women and girls from the Taliban and other threats. The American women organizing the expedition say the Afghan team is close to being ready. And as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, the climb could prove a lot easier than getting to the mountain.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE ENGINE)

NILOOFAR NOORISTANI: (Foreign language spoken).

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: As the pilot turns on the engine of the small turbo prop, Niloofar Nooristani grips my hand. It's her first time in a plane, and I try to reassure her. Like many Afghan women, the 21-year-old has never spent a single night away from her family. But she is determined to put on a brave face for the sake of her dream to climb the close-to-25,000-foot Mount Noshaq. There are too many Taliban hotspots between Kabul and the province where the peak is located to go by road. Even planes aren't always safe. The flight before this one was shot at twice, but this scouting trip can't be delayed if the formal expedition is to go ahead.

Nooristani is flying with Marina LeGree, who founded an NGO called Ascend that is behind the effort, and mountain guide Danika Gilbert, who is to lead the young Afghans to the top. They say they need to see the terrain firsthand, so they can better ensure everyone's safety. LeGree says the trip will also give them a chance to see how Nooristani and fellow climber Soheila Hamidi perform at higher altitudes.

MARINA LEGREE: They're about to get a giant reality check when we fly by that mountain.

NELSON: The young women shouted as they spot the snow-covered peak poking through the clouds.

NOORISTANI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Nooristani says, "it's marvelous. Look how clear it is. Imagine if we'd climbed it already." But the group soon discovers how difficult it will be even to get to Mount Noshaq. Besides the dangers presented by Afghanistan's lingering war, there are extremely few flights available to the area, and those are often canceled. There's also a serious lack of mountain equipment and expedition know-how among the local guides and porters, which means a lot more work for Gilbert, who already has her hands full with the climbers.

DANIKA GILBERT: Well, when I look at it, I'm like - Afghanistan right now is, like, 30 years behind most of the other places that people are climbing.

NELSON: Local officials also alternate between welcoming and stalling female visitors to Mount Noshaq, which is on the border with Pakistan. It takes a full day filling out forms in the Afghan town of Ishkashim for the group to get the required permits to go to base camp. Those are promptly rejected by the elders of nearby Qazideh, who demand they start the process again with their district government, a day's drive away.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: The head of the 20 mile trail that leads to the mountain is in Qazideh, and its elders control the porters needed for the women's expedition. A short while later, the team heads out without the elders' blessing, although they do agree to provide a few porters.

Gilbert is the fittest and fastest on the challenging trail, although Nooristani is eager to prove herself and keeps up with the guide. A medical condition that's left the Afghan woman with one eye out of alignment happily doesn't affect her balance, Gilbert says. She marvels at Nooristani's transformation from one of the teams most unlikely members, although she is concerned about how much the Afghan struggles with her self-image.

GILBERT: And another thing that really is hard for me - like, I heard Niloofar say she's half-boy, half-girl. And I tried to communicate to her, and I think she understood. I'm like, you know, I'm strong, I can climb mountains, I'm very capable, I'm smart, and I am a woman.

NELSON: Gilbert is less impressed with the other climber, Hamidi, who sprained her ankle a week earlier and keeps complaining about it. The 20-year-old is a tae kwon do medalist and taller and stronger than Nooristani, yet hands her backpack to the porters. She occasionally leans on local guide Malang Darya during her ascent.

MALANG DARYA: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: When the group sets up camp for the night, Hamidi climbs up on a rock to watch.

SOHEILA HAMIDI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: She asks Darya, who is a distant relative, "should I help?" He tells her no. That annoys Gilbert and LeGree, who lecture the local guide.

LEGREE: The point is everyone does a job on expedition (laughter). But mainly, everybody takes care of their own business and not expect somebody...

DARYA: If I have a small group - (unintelligible) - I make cooking. I make organizing and talking to the people. I do a good job.

NELSON: So then why are you saying to her she shouldn't work?

DARYA: She is my relative.

(LAUGHTER)

LEGREE: We have to make her tough.

GILBERT: Nay.

DARYA: I'm joking.

GILBERT: Nay. I know, but it's not OK.

LEGREE: We have to make her tough.

NELSON: When Hamidi continues to act helpless the next day, Gilbert yells at her to get serious or go back. The admonishment gets the young woman's attention, and despite her sprained ankle, she is the first one down on the return trip.

HAMIDI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Hamidi redeems herself the following day in a presentation to local schoolgirls about the budding female climbing team. She encourages the students to pursue their dreams, even in male-dominated feels like the law and politics.

HAMIDI: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: LeGree is amazed at her and Nooristani's poise and confidence, given this is their first time speaking in public. In the meantime, their physical and classroom training continues. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, in Ishkashim, Afghanistan.

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