The moment on top of an Afghan mountain peak was one of bittersweet triumph for 20-year-old Shopirai Otmonkhel and her friend Zahra Karimi Nooristani, 18. The budding mountaineers from Kabul beamed with pride as they held up the Afghan flag after climbing to heights no Afghan woman had ever reached.
Nooristani — a shy athlete who earlier this year would blush and mumble when asked a question — spoke eloquently about how she'd discovered women can learn to do or be anything, whether it's mountain climbing or becoming a physician or teacher.
The sheer joy they felt during the difficult climb was a first, Otmonkhel said. She realized during the expedition that Afghan women have limitless potential — but too few opportunities.
The pair were part of a 16-day expedition in August with 11 other young Afghan women, trained by a nonprofit called Ascend, based in Norfolk, Va.
Nooristani and Otmonkhel scaled two peaks, including a 16,500-ft. mountain — taller than any in the continental United States. They were among seven Afghan team members who made it to the top of that peak.
They named it "The Lion Daughters of Mir Samir" — a nod to the mountain's scenic province of Panjshir, which translates to "five lions" — as well as the legendary, cliff-faced mountain in the distance that has daunted even veteran climbers and was the subject of a classic 1958 memoir, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, by British travel writer Eric Newby.
The young Afghan women's jubilation was tempered by the fact that neither peak they scaled is the highest in Afghanistan. That one, which they'd originally planned to climb, is 24,580-ft. Mt. Noshaq, in the far northeast along the border with Pakistan. But the plan had to be abandoned because of security concerns.
Ascend founder and director Marina Kielpinski LeGree, whose program teaches leadership skills through athletics, says her experience this past year showed that empowering Afghan women in their war-ravaged, ultra-conservative, patriarchal country is far more difficult than summiting any mountain.
The young women's families, for example, were uneasy at the prospect of their daughters traveling without male guardians, given the presence of male porters who accompanied the expedition. Ascend worked intensively with the families and made sure they got to know the program's male trainers and managers, who ended up serving as guardians.
"It just reinforces the fact that we have to be flexible," LeGree says about the exhaustive preparations and sudden shift from Mt. Noshaq to the lower range in Panjshir. But, she emphasizes, "the program isn't about climbing the mountain. It's about the experience on the way."
It's also about keeping the girls safe, LeGree says.
Panjshir, the province where they ended up climbing, has a government loyal to Kabul and is in firm control of its districts, which are free of the Taliban. Even so, the entire expedition there had to be conducted in secret, with an armed police escort for the young women's safety.
The Afghan team's leader in Panjshir, Danika Gilbert, a professional guide from Ridgway, Colo., and fellow guide Emilie Drinkwater, of Salt Lake City, became surrogate mothers for the girls, helping them through homesickness as well as injuries — including sprained ankles and cuts — and altitude sickness.
Drinkwater and Gilbert said they'd never seen so many injuries on expeditions they've led before. Both believe the high injury rate had to do with the girls not understanding the consequences of moving carelessly or too fast.
Many also had never spent a night away from home. Plus they had no training or experience in snow or at altitude.
But many moments were rewarding. Drinkwater says a highlight was helping the two strongest team members — Otmonkhel and Nooristani — on a technical climb on loose rock, with much of the communication via hand gestures because of the language barrier.
"They did great," Drinkwater says. "They climbed smoothly and carefully, and when they arrived at the next big ledge system, we switched into a different style of climbing where I had them both at the end of a rope — so, six feet apart from each other climbing on one rope. And this was all completely new and unfamiliar to them, so it was a bit of learning curve that they picked up really quickly."
The Ascend team included accomplished athletes. Half of them are also on Afghanistan's national women's taekwondo team and relied on a martial arts training regimen to keep fit during the expedition.
Using donated and purchased crampons brought from the U.S., the girls crossed glaciers and learned how to climb in snow.
But the highlight of the expedition came when they reached the summit, a moment captured by an HBO/VICE film crew.
The young women, who often clashed with each other and their trainers during their year of training, also learned to be there for one another. Nooristani carried her year-younger sister, Rabia, after she injured her knee during the expedition.
When teammate Diba Azizi, 17, lost her balance and took a nasty fall off a boulder on the way down from base camp, a male coach scooped her up and rushed her to a clearing. Diba's teammates gathered around and urged her to be strong as Drinkwater wiped blood off the teen's forehead.
"It's okay," Drinkwater encouraged her. "Breathe, keep breathing, keep breathing."
Azizi suffered the expedition's worst injuries and had to be carried off the mountain on horseback. She received stitches on her forehead and a bandage for a sprained ankle at a Panjshiri hospital.
For many of the young women, the difficulties of the expedition were mitigated by the beauty of the Panjshir Valley, where they'd never been before. It was the home of Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, who opposed the Taliban and was assassinated by al-Qaida operatives two days before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
But they were eager to reunite with their families, even as many worried about returning to Kabul. An hour before they arrived in the capital, a suicide bomber struck the capital, dampening their excitement about going home.
A few of the climbers worried that their communities would not accept them back because they'd spent nights on the mountains without mahrams or male guardians from their families.
Others — including Diba Azizi, who became engaged — dropped off the team.
Since the expedition, some team members have visited schools in the Panjshir Valley and Kabul to lecture about their experiences. Their presentations have sparked so much interest that scores of Afghan schoolgirls have asked to join the Ascend program. But LeGree says she only has funds and staff to handle 20, who she's since signed up.
The new girls are now training with 10 of the original expedition members, LeGree says. She plans next year to select the best few to scale Mt. Noshaq, the peak that eluded the team this year.
"It's out there and the mountain needs to be climbed," LeGree says. "And everybody wants to go do it."