top of page

January 2024: Ascend News (Issue #2)

Ascend Leadership Through Athletics logo


Spirit of Sisterhood Grows in Skardu

Reflections from Ascend Master Trainer Emily Cavanagh

“In [some] moments there were tears, numb fingers and toes, the desire to give up…In so many other moments, there was grit, bravery, and a determination to face challenges head on.”

Ascend Master trainer smiling while delivering a training in Pakistan

When I arrived in Skardu four months ago to work with Ascend Pakistan as a Master Trainer I was eager to get to know the Instructor Trainees, explore the region, and to find ways to craft a meaningful program together. I had never been to South Asia before and I felt excited to see the ways that outdoor education and recreation translated in this local context. I was inspired by the images of women in headscarves and climbing harnesses, due to the seeming contradiction it presented - the headscarf representative of a slew of expectations around what that girl’s role is in her family, in her society and the spaces she is and is not expected to occupy.

I am a wilderness instructor and mountain guide by profession and have worked with US-American students and clients on long expeditions, in alpine and glaciated terrain, in winter storms and hot desert landscapes. I have witnessed the power of climbing grand peaks, weathering brutal storms and leaning on teammates for support when the challenge of the moment is too much to bear. I believe deeply in the transformative power of outdoor recreation and experiential education, and the ways in which the resiliency fostered in these environments can translate to how we cope with other challenges that come our way.

Ascend apprentice trainer belays fellow trainer in Pakistan

During my time in Pakistan the Ascend Instructor Trainees demonstrated an overwhelming dedication to investing in their own learning and that of their peers. We trained for hundreds of hours on complex anchor building, rescue drills and further development of climbing skills on both rock and ice. There were moments of apprehension and fear in new environments, especially as we began to venture further afield onto glaciated terrain, scree fields and pushing toward higher climbing grades. In moments there were tears, numb fingers and toes, the desire to give up and pleas to not have to face the thing that felt too hard. In so many other moments, there was grit, bravery, and a determination to face challenges head on. Just as I’ve had the opportunity to witness time and again, the natural challenges of snow, of cold, of sharp rock on raw fingers gave the opportunity for each one to bear witness to her own strength and determination.

Offering the opportunity for local women and girls to engage in this type of learning in a town like Skardu is truly remarkable. Without Ascend’s presence, many of the  Ascend Instructor trainees simply wouldn’t have the means to recreate in the mountains that lie just beyond their doorstep. Gear is expensive and not all that readily available. High level technical training is even harder to come by.  Lastly, women are expected to value marriage and child rearing above all else. 

The attitude of local people toward women and girls engaging in outdoor recreation varies from person to person here in Skardu, but with increased visibility in outdoor spaces the Ascend Instructor Trainees are shifting local perception day by day. That being said, this is not by way of rejection of local expectations entirely but rather by finding ways to bridge the gap between familial and societal expectations with what they want for themselves in their own lives.

Ascend apprentice soaks in the joy of climbing

What I find truly remarkable about the Ascend women is their ability to chameleon themselves into these different environments, different roles, different activities without losing sight of their values, belief systems and sense of self. When the Ascend Instructor Trainees ready themselves to climb they simply tie back their dupatas (headscarves) and don their helmet. They tuck their kameez into their harness so it appropriately covers their backside and move on. 

It is with this nuanced perspective that the Ascend Instructor Trainees venture out into the community to invite other women and girls to get to know their bodies, their abilities and themselves in a whole new light. This occurs not only in the orchestrated community climbing days we put on, but also when a passersby stops in her tracks, captivated by our activity at the crag. Each member of the Ascend team has been quick to forego her turn to climb a final pitch in favor of handing her harness, helmet and climbing shoes off to a local girl on her way home from school or a villager carrying wood back to her home to fuel the wood stove for winter, so that she too could have a chance on the wall.

It is this spirit of sisterhood that the Ascend Instructor Trainees bring to climbing. They are honest with each other, they motivate one another and together they work to forge a new path for the next generation of women here in Gilgit Baltistan. 


Sportrock Rio hosting Ascend Film and Q&A

Sportrock Climbing Guides, Sean Taft-Morales and Sarah Yun, volunteered their time and skills in Pakistan leading Ascend’s Instructor Trainees through an SPI related course. The guides packed in climbing, rescue, yoga and nutrition into a full week of learning, helping the trainees boost their skills and certifications to lead the Ascend program in 2024. 

Join Sean, Sarah, and Ascend Founder and Executive Director Marina LeGree for a trip debrief, film screening and Q&A session on Thursday, February 8th at 6:30 pm at Sportrock's newest location, Sportrock Rio in Gaithersburg, MD. While the event is free to attend, all donations will benefit Ascend Leadership Through Athletics. 

Sportrock climbers and Ascend apprentices pose for a photo in Pakistan

Sportrock has been an Ascend supporter for several years, hosting film screenings and fundraisers. Sportrock previously helped send Sean to Afghanistan in 2020 to conduct the SPI course with Ascend and has done the same now for Pakistan. Sportrock is one of the founding indoor rock climbing gyms in the country and has been around for more than 25 years. In fact, Ascend board member Sasha DiGiulian got her climbing career started at Sportrock.

If you are in the DC area, we hope you’ll join us for this unique event and check out the new Sportrock location while you’re at it. Sportrock Rio: 9811 Washington Blvd., Suite 300, Gaithersburg, MD.


Featured Supporter: Compton Foundation

Compton Foundation logo

For 75 years the Compton Foundation has worked to advance peace, a healthy environment, reproductive justice, and a flourishing democracy. Since 2016, as part of their board discretionary funding, Ascend has been grateful to receive an annual discretionary board donation from Compton. 

Recently the foundation chose to spend down their assets and dissolve in an effort to focus maximum financial impact on the areas the foundation is most concerned. With this change imminent, this will be Ascend’s last year of funding from Compton. Ascend is grateful for the generous support and the opportunities this funding has provided to our Ascend community. 

Ascend first came to the notice of Compton board member (and now Ascend board member) Emilie Cortes. Several friends had shared with Cortes an NPR story about Ascend in 2015. Interested in the mission and impact, Cortes (then the owner of a women’s adventure company) contacted Ascend Founder Marina LeGree to learn more and within a year, Cortes found herself in Afghanistan as an Ascend volunteer. Cortes’ deep interest in Ascend led to her recommending discretionary funding be used to support our work. This support has been a constant since 2016. 

If you are involved on a board or company with discretionary funding, a grant process , or sponsorship opportunities, please consider an investment in Ascend and the future of girls. 


112 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page