The Powerful Women of Pakistan
by Kelly Pokharel, Director of Operations
The stone path crunched under our feet as we quietly placed one foot in front of the other. I worked to steady my breath and willed my legs to keep climbing higher, my stomach rumbling to tell me it was time for lunch. We were close to our destination, a small village of narrow mud walkways, houses stacked on top of each other, and boulders as big as the homes surrounding the town. Four hours earlier, our group of ten unloaded from the winding, rain-soaked drive to our starting point, donned our rain gear, and started up the path to our destination for today’s hike. My company for the day, as it had been for the past few weeks, were the Ascend Pakistan instructor trainees and participants; the young women undergoing intensive training to become leaders for the Ascend program.
I met these amazing women a few weeks earlier when I first arrived in Pakistan and accompanied them on a local bouldering trip just outside town. They had spent the last two months working with their Master Trainer, Taryn, acquiring the skills to rock climb, belay, set and clean anchors, rappel, and someday safely lead others on similar adventures. I was
floored not only by their skill after such a brief time but also by their enthusiasm for learning and thirst for personal growth. They approached each “project” on the boulders with determination and grit, cheered on by the enthusiastic support of their teammates. Each girl provided safety checks, helped uncover hidden holds, and offered unwavering shouts of encouragement. It was clear from day one these Ascend girls were not in this for themselves alone, they were in it for their teammates and for all the girls yet to come.
The gradual upward slope of our rainy hike was not extreme but it was persistent and a few of the girls began to tire. The hike leader, a young woman whose family was from the village where we were headed, took note and offered breaks, rotated leads, shared stories, and provided encouragement. Her encouragement was echoed in the words and actions of the others as we stuck together as a team, suffering and celebrating as one.
As we hiked, each girl took pride in talking about the environment of northern Pakistan, their families and the villages they come from, the hard working Pakistani people, and their own dreams for the future. I was struck by their deep knowledge and approbation of their homeland; Pakistan should be proud of its young women and their representation of the country as ambassadors for other women seeking leadership and opportunity in the outdoors.
Throughout the hike we talked about our upcoming camping trip. This trip, I hoped, would be the pinnacle of my time in Pakistan, not for myself but for the Ascend trainees and participants, nearly all of whom had never camped overnight anywhere prior. We discussed the basics of camping, from selecting a campsite to cooking a meal, from how to dress to building a fire and fire safety. In a few days time, we’d pack up our gear and, with family permission in place, head to the nearby hills for a night camping. I could sense the girl's excitement, and maybe a little apprehension about the unknown. It reminded me that the opportunity to be outside and experience the great outdoors is not easily available to all and these moments of self-discovery should not be taken lightly.
After a picnic smorgasbord in our destination village, the hike down to our pick-up location was filled with excited chatter and thoughtful discussions about being a woman in Pakistan and about the doubts others had for their abilities. The trainees and participants each noted the changes they had begun to see in themselves after joining the Ascend program. Before Ascend they admitted they were timid about how much food others saw them eat. Now, after working hard each day hiking, climbing, working out and learning, they are unashamed by their hunger knowing they are fueling healthy bodies capable of great feats of strength and endurance. They spoke about staying up late, spending too much time on their phones, and only going out for shopping before Ascend; now their new interests (bouldering, trekking, and yoga) have them going to bed early, forgetting their phones and spending time out in nature rather than in a shop. A key tenant of the Ascend program is young women realizing their potential, their power, their abilities and new interests, and internalizing those discoveries to add to who they know themselves to be. It was incredible to witness the self-realization of these amazing women first hand.
A few days after the village hike, and after practice setting up tents, taste-testing MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), and reviewing and packing gear, we found ourselves standing on a hill ringed by snow-capped peaks discussing the best location for our tents for the evening. Each girl seemed both excited and at ease, effortlessly dealing with challenges as they arose, as if camping were second nature. Truth be told there is something primal about being outside and adapting to the natural environment, tackling issues and basking in the accompanying sense of pride at what you accomplished through wit and grit.
The girls collected firewood, taking in the beautiful and expansive surroundings as they went, arriving back at camp by the light of the headlamps. Dinner was prepared and cleaned up and while the fire took light, the familiar Pakistani milk tea was prepared. Throughout the night there was dancing, singing, and star gazing with the occasional exclamation at seeing a shooting star. As darkness settled in and the fire died out our group gathered in a circle and one by one each girl spoke to her experience. They shared that this was the first time they had ever been away from their homes and their families at night. They noted how large the night sky seemed and how they felt right at home underneath it. They echoed each other's sentiments of feeling free as if the world and all its opportunities were open to them. They said that in this moment, and maybe for the first time ever, they finally felt powerful.
The Pakistan program began training Instructor Trainees in May 2023. These young women are undergoing intensive training in all 5 of Ascend’s program pillars in order to become Ascend’s Lead Trainers, delivering all aspects of the program to young female participants beginning in March 2024. This approach means local women will be trained, empowered and employed to inspire and lead the young women of Pakistan going forward.
This approach gives the opportunity for change and growth to happen at many levels. We invite you to be a part of this change by offering your financial support for these girls and all those who will come after them. Click the link below to become a change-maker.
Afghanistan in Focus: Q&A Session
You are invited to join Ascend on Tuesday, August 15th for a live update on Ascend's program in Afghanistan followed by a Q&A with Marina LeGree, Ascend's Founder and Executive Director. Much has happened in Afghanistan in the past two years, including the relaunch of Ascend's program in Kabul. We are excited to share with you the progress being made and what is needed to continue.
Please choose between two available time slots:
Registration is required. Please click below to register.
Brooklyn Patagonia Film Screening August 19
BROOKLYN friends -- August 19th -- Join us for an epic World Climbing Day celebration with our friends Patagonia for a special Ascend film screening featuring Ascend Afghanistan alumni and Q&A session.
Don't miss a chance to meet Ascend board member & alpinist, author and educator: Phil Powers!
We are thrilled to partner with Patagonia to present "Patagonia Ascend," a breathtaking film that beautifully captures the essence & spirit of the global climbing community. A story that goes beyond the cliffs as it tells a remarkable story of hope for the Ascend girls who fled Afghanistan.
RSVP TODAY at https://worldclimbingparty.splashthat.com/
Have more time to spend at the Patagonia store? Stop by earlier in the day and meet some local climbing organizations: Asian Climbing, Paracliff Hangers, The Gunks Climbing Coalition, and BIPOC Climbing Collective all doing great things in and around New York.
Partnering with Foundations/Businesses Who Share Our Values
Ascend is interested in partnering with local and family foundations, businesses, and corporations to put the financial power behind our unique programming. If you know of or have a foundation or business that shares Ascend’s values of empowerment through leadership and challenge, reach out to Ascend today.
When girls take positive risks and learn leadership skills, they can feel a powerful sense of agency and accomplishment. Those same girls become leaders who bring transformative change to entire communities and to the world at large. Together, let us be that change.
Making a Difference
Petzl Foundation, Aclima Help Drive Ascend Pakistan Forward
A big shout out to the Petzl Foundation (and company, a top manufacturer of climbing gear) for their generous grant to support Ascend’s program in Pakistan. The Foundation came through with a cash grant that will help with general operating costs for the program launch in Pakistan this year.
Norwegian based and family-owned textile producers recently donated 20 pairs of ladies base-layer clothing to the Pakistan program to help our trainees and participants stay dry and warm as they hike, climb, and take on the world. In addition, Aclima generously sponsored athlete Vibike Sefland’s volunteer visit to Pakistan where she trained the Trainees in first aid, cold weather camping, and backpacking.
Acend Alumna Fareba has been attending university in Kazakhstan for several years and this spring she became a graduate! Congratulations, Fareba.
Shakila, little sister to Ascend Alumna Sohila (Canada), graduated from secondary school this spring. For the graduation, both women wore traditional Hazari-Afghani dresses. When not studying and working, both women like to climb at their local gym.
Roya, another Ascend Alumna in Canada, recently completed several trainings including the Empowering Women for Employment Program, the ASCEND program (no relation this Ascend, but a cool coincidence), and the Ready to Rent program, all designed to help immigrants and refugees find success in their new homes.
Ascend Alumna Yalda, one of the last evacuees from Ascend to arrive in the US, has settled in Utah where she attends high school, interns at an architecture office, and is practicing to try out for her school’s volleyball team. She recently shared her story with Ascend.
“I arrived in Utah in February 2023. In the beginning it was hard in a new city. Then I went to school and it felt like a big challenge but day by day it became easier and I did well. My teachers were so nice and they helped me a lot. In the summer, I am practicing for Volleyball tryouts at my school and I have an internship. I’m an intern in an Architecture office that designs houses for disabled people. This summer I did gardening and it was so fun. Now most of the vegetables that we planted are ready and it’s a very good feeling to see it. Two weeks ago I attended a leadership conference at Utah State University in Logan. It was fun and I did a lot of activities and met many new people. Living in the dorms for two nights was another feeling of accomplishment. It gave me the feeling of going [to] college. Next year I will be a senior and I’m very excited for my senior year. I don’t know yet which college or university I will go to but I’m very excited. I’m practicing bicycling after several years and I’m very happy [to] travel around the city on my bike. Thank you at Ascend for helping me get started on this journey.”