Expedition Diaries - 'Zahra'

Updated: Mar 3, 2019

In the first instalment of our 'Expedition Diaries' series, we hear a firsthand account of Zahra's experience on the recent Panjshir winter expedition, with special guest, Jason Fox.

Zahra, a second year participant at Ascend. © Ascend/Daniel Wheeler

Day one

We woke up at 6am and we prayed, put on our hiking clothes and loaded our bags on to the bus. I slept on the bus on the way to Panjshir. When I woke up, Mariam, Marina and Daniel went to meet the governor and the rest of us went to the toilet and then had lunch.

On the final part of our bus journey, we got stuck going up a steep hill as it was too icy. I was disappointed because it meant we had further to walk and we might not get to the campsite before dark. Luckily, one of the film crews 4x4s pulled us up the hill a bit further but then got stuck. At this point we got off the bus and continued on foot.

As soon as we got off the bus, the film crew started to ask questions and film us. This was my first time meeting Jason Fox. He is a presenter from the UK and stars in a show called 'SAS: Who Dares Wins.' He seemed really nice and he made us feel comfortable. My bag didn’t have a belt strap on. I didn’t realise until I got off the bus. Jason and the film crew made us walk slowly and my feet and hands were getting cold and I wanted to get to the campsite.

I brought walking poles with me which helped me keep my balance, as I was always worried about falling over in the snow and getting even more cold.

The guards that were with us told us to go up a steep hill which was icy and looked too dangerous. Mariam went to see the way and assess whether it was safe. In the end, we decided to go a longer way, which was less dangerous but had very deep snow.

The snow covered mountains of Panjshir, Afghanistan. © Ascend/Daniel Wheeler

At some points, I was walking in snow up to my knees and I kept falling over. I tried to walk in the footprints of the person in front of me but sometimes I would sink further into the snow because of the weight of my bag. I felt unstable and it was difficult.

At some points, I was walking in snow up to my knees and I kept falling over.

My boots got wet in the snow. This expedition, I learnt to always check my kit before I leave and to wear more suitable footwear to reduce the risk of frostbite.

My shoulders were hurting because of the weight. I kept wanting to take a break and because of the film crew, this was possible.

Jason Fox walks behind Zahra in the Panjshir mountains. © Ascend/Daniel Wheeler

Marina told Neki to stay with me and to help me. Daniel and one of our guards also waited behind for me.

At one point, Neki swapped bags with me and for the next mile or so, it was a lot more comfortable and I started to enjoy the view and move much quicker. Jason also kept checking if I was ok.

Eventually, Hanifa, our expedition leader told us we had arrived to the camp site. I wanted to scream out in celebration. When we set up camp, we had to dig the snow from the ground. At this point, we were all very cold and most of us were shaking. None of us spoke to each other and we just concentrated on getting the tent up. My hands were so cold and I was very thankful when it was set up.

When we made the tent, we started to set up our sleeping bag, we all got in to warm up,. Before we went to sleep, we told each other some stories. Some happy stories to keep our mood up.

After a few minutes, Jason came to check on us and say good night with the cameraman.

Day two

I didn’t sleep very well that night because I had pain in my feet and I was cold.

No one had their phone in our tent so I’m not sure what time I woke up. Hanifa was already awake. The C4 film crew came to say goodbye and Jason and his team walked off through the snow.

Zahra sips a cup of chai to warm up after a days hiking in the snow. © Ascend/Daniel Wheeler

We had breakfast. I ate some cheese, bread and tea.

Hanifa then gathered us all around and told us what the plan for the day was. I prepared my lunch and packed a small daypack. I was happy that I didn’t have to carry the big bag all day again and I was excited to explore the mountains.

Ascend participants receiving a pre departure briefing at the campsite. © Ascend/Daniel Wheeler

We followed a small river up a hill and hiked in the snow. It was a lot easier without the bag. My feet were still wet but I enjoyed the day. We stopped and had lunch.

I learnt that I had to eat a lot of food in the mountain to keep up my energy and stay warm.

After lunch, we took some selfies and then we walked back to camp.

When we got back to camp, some of the girls made a sled out of a plastic bag, but I got in my sleeping bag as it was starting to get cold and my hands were very cold.

We made some dinner and had noodles and chai. We ate it in our tent and it was nice because it helped warm us all up.

When it began to get dark, everyone got into the same tent and Daniel gave us a lecture about hypothermia. It was very interesting and I learnt a lot.

After the lesson, I went back to my tent and Hanifa fell asleep. Neki and I stayed up and talked about our families. Finally, we fell asleep but I had a nightmare and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I didn’t want to wake anyone up so I just lay there. Day three

A participant looks out to check the snow from the previous night. © Ascend/Daniel Wheeler

The night was very snowy, and in the morning, one of the girls began to shovel the snow from around our tent. We were due to leave early that morning so we could meet our bus. The bus couldn’t get up the hill so we had to walk all the way down. The route was difficult and it snowed the entire time.

Although we were all cold and wet, we didn’t want to return to Kabul because this place was so beaufiul and peaceful. We wanted to stay here and live in the mountains instead.

Zahra walking through the knee deep snow. © Ascend/Daniel Wheeler

The final part of the journey, to meet the bus was very difficult. My shoulders were in pain and I was so wet and cold. Despite the discomfort, I was still sad to leave Panjshir.

I didn’t want to be late getting home so I moved very quickly.

We finally met the bus, by now I was exhausted and grateful to sit down in the warm bus. We stopped to get some lunch on the way back to Kabul and I fell asleep straight away.

We arrived back in Kabul when it was dark so we had to stay sleep at the office.

I was very cold on the bus journey home but Hanifa gave me an extra jacket and Daniel put a foil blanket over me.

The exhausted participants catch up on sleep during the journey back to Kabul. © Ascend/Daniel Wheeler

It was very difficult and the first time I had experienced walking in the snow. It was very interesting. I learnt to take more socks with me and more trousers. And I learnt how to walk in the snow.

When I got home, I told my family how much snow there was. My family asked why I didn’t go to a province that was warm. I explained to them that it was important to gain experience in diffierent weather and environment.

My family were surprised when I showed them photos of the snow. My father was nervous and is a bit overprotective and he tried to call me but my phone was off. He was very worried because the weather was so bad. My family said to me now you are strong, now you are an athlete.

This was my third expedition with Ascend. This was the most difficult expedition I have been on because of the extreme conditions.

I was very happy that I got to experience this and go on the trip. Before, I was afraid of the snow and the cold but now I feel confident that I can survive in these conditions.

About Zahra Zahra is 21 years old and is a student midwife. Before joining Ascend, her family didn't like her going to her friends house or leaving the house for anything other than school. When she started the program, her family didn't like the idea of it and every day, they would tell her not to go. Zahra stood up to them and insisted that this is what she wanted to do. As she enters her second year of the Ascend program, her family now recognise the benefits of the program and are supportive of her attending.

Zahra, who was very quiet in the beginning, she gained the confidence to speak out. The first time she had to speak in front of the group, she cried but the girls on the ascend project told her you are strong and gave her the confidence to continue. She has four sisters and she is the first sibling to go on a trip without her family.

You can support Zahra and girls like her by sponsoring a girl today. To find out more, please visit https://www.ascendathletics.org/sponsor-a-girl

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