On August 10, 24-year-old Hanifa Yousoufi became the first female Afghan climber to summit 24,580-foot Mount Noshaq, Afghanistan’s tallest peak. It is a stunning accomplishment in a culturally conservative country where there are almost no resources for women to get into mountaineering.
Yousoufi was part of an expedition put together by a nonprofit called Ascend Athletics, which empowers women through training in climbing and leadership skills. The organization’s founder, American Marina LeGree, started the organization in 2014 after years of development work in Afghanistan. LeGree assembled a group of Afghan women to train for the climb in 2016. Three of the women were on the Noshaq expedition, but due to unexpected conditions on the mountain, Yousoufi was the only one who made the full ascent.
“To see Hanifa standing up there, and to be able to show the world what Afghan women are capable of doing, feels incredible,” LeGree says. “She and her teammates have worked for years toward this expedition, showing up every day to work with the Ascend program, volunteering in their communities, studying and practicing not just mountaineering but also leadership. Their efforts will make a difference.”
The expedition was led by mountain guide Emilie Drinkwater, an accomplished climber and skier who is one of only nine American women with the coveted IFMGA guiding accreditation. Because of decades of unrest during the Soviet invasion, civil war, and Taliban rule, Noshaq was closed to trekkers and climbers for nearly 30 years, opening back up in 2009. Only three other Afghans have summited—all men. The day before the Ascend group was due to fly from Kabul to the nearest airstrip to hike to Base Camp, the Taliban attacked a nearby district. LeGree quickly arranged for the group to fly to a safer village in order to continue with the climb.
“The danger is real,” LeGree says. “Each woman that is part of Ascend takes a risk. So does her family. There is a lot of extremism in Afghanistan, not to mention the daily hazards of life in Kabul. The country is still dealing with an active insurgency. Our expedition was very close to delay or cancellation because the Taliban shot down two Afghan National Army helicopters in the neighboring district the day before we were set to fly to the mountain. So we flew to a different airstrip, a 13-hour drive away from Noshaq.”
Yousoufi, who was married at the age of 15 and is now divorced, had never done a sit-up three years ago. Now she has made history and wants to serve as a role model for other women in her country. “I did this for every single girl,” Yousoufi told LeGree after the climb. “The girls of Afghanistan are strong and will continue to be strong.”
American photojournalist Erin Trieb, who was on Outside’s May 2017 cover, and Berlin-based writer Theresa Breuer were also on the expedition. They will be producing a story about Yousoufi and the climb for Outside and plan to make a documentary film.
“I have photographed war and conflict for ten years, but this expedition was the most difficult project I have ever worked on,” Trieb says. “None of us realized how treacherous Noshaq is, because so little is known about the mountain. That the Taliban attacked the area the day before we were due to fly had all of us feeling very nervous. Despite all possible odds, Hanifa reached the top. I’m incredibly proud of her and of the entire climbing team. What Hanifa did for women in her country will have a ripple effect for women everywhere. It was a monumental physical and mental effort of true grit, and I can’t wait to tell the whole story.”
Meanwhile, LeGree has future climbing plans for other Afghan women on the Ascend team. “We’re not stopping with this expedition,” she says. “Afghanistan has a lifetime of great climbing to do, and we’re just getting started.”