All photos by Miya Tsudome
It’s late July and I’m hiking up Glacier Canyon toward Dana Plateau, just outside the eastern border of Yosemite National Park. The bubbling creek I’m following is full of little waterfalls, and it’s so loud that I need to lean in closely to hear what Sughra’s saying. She tells me that August 15, 2021, started out as a normal day. She woke up and went to work in Kabul, Afghanistan. “Then,” she says, “everybody received calls from their families that the Taliban had captured the city.”
The Taliban had been making small territorial gains across the country since May, coinciding with the US military’s withdrawal of troops. The Taliban assaulted a number of provincial capitals, and by August 13, they had captured Herāt, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah. On August 14, seven more provincial cities fell. Though things were escalating in rural parts of the country, Sughra says that life in Kabul remained much the same until President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. On August 15, the militant group entered Kabul, and the next day a spokesman announced that the war was over; the Taliban had won.
Though Sughra Yazdani spent much of her childhood as a refugee in Pakistan, she and her family moved home to Afghanistan in 2018. She had always loved sports, and climbing immediately piqued her interest when a friend told her about an organization called Ascend that was teaching girls how to climb and hike. Sughra had led a relatively independent life for an Afghan woman, but climbing in the mountains was still far outside the realm of normal for girls like her. “It went against our families’ expectations,” she told me. At first, Sughra tried to hide it from her father and had her sister sign her release form, but after her second trip to the mountains, she couldn’t keep it from him anymore. He eventually came around, and now he’s proud of where climbing has taken her. “Every time I climb, I feel stronger,” said Sughra. “I feel like I can fight anything if I can climb this big mountain.”
When Marina LeGree founded Ascend in 2014, she wasn’t a climber. After receiving her master of arts in international affairs and conflict resolution, and then spending 10 years in Afghanistan working on stability projects with NGOs, NATO and the military, she returned to the US for graduate school with a dream of empowering a new generation of Afghan women to be leaders. As she reflected on her experiences hiking in the mountains there, she realized that climbing was an obvious venue. Climbing, she told me, is “a show of strength and determination. If you’re going to be an Afghan girl who pushes boundaries, you better practice being tough.” Two years later, she graduated from Harvard Kennedy School with a master’s in public administration and returned to Afghanistan. By the spring of 2021, Ascend was building a new sports center and enrolling dozens of young women each year. Since Ascend’s founding, more than 200 women have taken part in its programs. But soon, Ascend would see its progress crumble.
By the summer of 2021, the time for toughness had come for Sughra. If the new Taliban regime was anything like their previous one, she knew she wouldn’t be allowed to do any of the things she loved. She and all women would be less free under Taliban rule. She wanted to climb, ride her bike, go to school and go to work. By the end of the month, she knew she couldn’t stay. Panicked, Sughra reached out to Marina and told her everything: She and her family had been hiding in their homes for over a week, scared to go outside, and they wanted to leave.
Now, on the fourth day of Sughra’s trip to Yosemite, even though we’re a world away from the high peaks that surround Kabul, she’s comforted by being in the mountains. The deep valleys, rocky peaks and lingering snow of the High Sierra remind her of home.
The Taliban’s swift rise to power surprised Ascend. “We knew we’d have to make some adjustments if the Taliban played a significant role in the government,” Marina told me. “What we did not anticipate was a total takeover—and certainly not as suddenly as it happened.” Marina feared that the women’s expression of their independence through climbing would make them targets of violence. Not only could the women be killed, but if they survived they could be sold into marriage, ending their academic and athletic dreams.
The only way Sughra and the other Ascend participants would be able to leave the country was with the help of an outside organization like Ascend, and Marina and her small team worked around the clock to figure out how. For this small organization, the sudden shift from planning climbing trips and athletic programs to navigating complicated immigration processes was dizzying. “It’s not what we do. It’s not what we want to do,” said Marina, “but we made a quick decision when it was clear how bad the takeover would be. The reaction of our girls is what did it for me.” Marina scrambled to get Ascend approved by the US Department of State and communicate next steps to the women. Hoping to activate the climbing community, her team reached out to Alpinist magazine, which published an online article in August about the dangers the women were facing.
Even with Marina and her team’s help, there was no guarantee that Sughra or any of the other Ascend women would be able to leave. Marina knew that the women would have better luck if they traveled alone. “Getting out of Kabul or out of Afghanistan was so difficult,” says Sughra, “because the Kabul Airport was in the hands of the Taliban, and they were not letting anybody get in.” After a dangerous bus ride to Mazār-i-Sharif, unsure if they would be stopped by Taliban who would see that they were traveling without male family members, Sughra and some of her Ascend teammates spent a month trying to get into the airport. At times, she wondered if she should give up and go back. But then the flights started, and she finally made it to a US air base in Qatar where tens of thousands of other Afghan refugees were hoping to be resettled. Ascend helped evacuate 134 of its group—participants, staff and a few family members—wherever they could find amenable immigration programs: Chile, Ireland, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Kazakhstan, Canada and the US. After a month of waiting in Qatar, Sughra landed in the US in October 2021, though it took until September 2022 for the last of Ascend’s participants to finally be resettled.
By December, five of the 30 Ascend members that came to the US, including Sughra, made it to the Raleigh/Durham area in North Carolina, where a group of climbers deeply invested in Ascend’s mission formed a sponsor circle. Sponsor circles were part of a newly created government program that allowed Afghans to resettle with small groups of individuals rather than with an official resettlement agency. Since then, Ascend volunteers like Anne McLaughlin and her husband, Tom Drewes, have stepped up for the women in every way: helping them with college applications, guiding them through job searches, wading through health insurance forms with them, and also making sure that they get to the mountains or the climbing gym as often as they can. Anne even coordinated with her local gym to get the Afghan climbers free memberships and job offers.
Meanwhile, around the time Sughra first reached out to Marina for help and months before any of the women had arrived in the US, the Alpinist article about Ascend caught the attention of Jack Cramer and Michelle Pellette, two members of the Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) team. They had seen devastating footage of Afghans clinging to American planes and guessed that some of the Ascend women might also be trying to get to the US. As climbers, maybe there wasn’t much they could do to help … but then again, these women were climbers, too. Michelle remembers Jack saying, “You could invite them to come climbing with you!” “It was as simple as that,” said Michelle. She brought the idea to welcome the Ascend women into the climbing community to Merryn Venugopal, another YOSAR member. And what better place to do that than Yosemite?
Michelle and Merryn’s vision might have been simple, but the next 10 months of planning was not. Luckily, they don’t shy away from hard or complex things. Their willingness—and eagerness—to venture into difficult places to help others is what brought them to YOSAR in the first place.
On a Sunday in July 2022, eight young Afghan climbers boarded planes headed for California. Sughra, Haniya, Batool, Rabia, Mina, Raihana, Raihana’s younger brother Mansoor, and a person who cannot be named to protect their family, arrived in Yosemite National Park in the late afternoon, exhausted from travel but exhilarated by the Valley’s awe-inspiring walls. The wildfire smoke that had threatened the trip for weeks miraculously dissipated, allowing for a stunning view of the Valley from the Wawona Tunnel. Friends of Michelle and Merryn’s gathered to help, including guides, climbing rangers and other YOSAR members. I joined, too, as a former YOSAR member and longtime friend. Planning this trip had consumed them for months, and we were all excited and anxious for the coming days.
Heat is radiating off the Valley’s granite walls, and it’s only 9 a.m. on the first morning of our weeklong trip. The air is sweet with the smell of oak leaves, and the sound of giggling is everywhere. We’re warming up at Swan Slab, a popular roadside crag. The supporting crew of climbers strings up top ropes so that everyone can work on skills needed in Yosemite, from crafting the perfect hand jam to getting the rubber on their shoes to stick to the slick, sunbaked rock. The women here have a range of skill levels, and for some, it’s their first time back on real rock since arriving in the US.
This trip is full of laughter, and Haniya Tavasoli is often at the center of it, telling jokes and getting the group to sing and dance. She doesn’t want to bring anyone down by talking about the difficulties of the past year, and just knowing that the others understand what she’s been through is comforting. Haniya is one of very few Ascend climbers who was able to leave Afghanistan with her family. They’ve since resettled in Minnesota, far away from the rest of the women. She’s excited to start school in Minneapolis this fall, but she doesn’t get to speak her native language often and misses her friends.
Most of the women on this trip are Hazara, an ethnic and religious minority in Afghanistan increasingly threatened under Taliban rule. (After the trip, in September 2022, an educational center that some of the Ascend women attended was bombed.) They speak Dari, the Persian language spoken by most Afghans, but the Taliban only speak in Pashto in their official communications. During their last rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban forced the use of Pashto on Dari speakers, leading many Afghans to assume that their language will be banned again. Watching the women speak and sing in Dari, I realize what Michelle and Merryn have truly created: As much as this trip is a chance for the women to meet American climbers, it is more importantly a reunion, a chance for them to speak their native language and reconnect with friends they haven’t seen in over a year, since their lives were upended.
“Afarin! Good job!” They cheer each other on relentlessly, filling the crag with singing in between routes.
By early afternoon, everyone has had enough of the heat. The dark streaks in the granite are so hot that it’s hard to climb. For Michelle and Merryn, living in Yosemite Valley in July means swimming and lounging by the Merced River. The Afghan women have little experience swimming, but they’re gleeful when splashing in the pools under Yosemite Falls.
We retreat, eventually, to the comfort of the campground, shaded by towering pines. Michelle brings out her guitar, and seemingly out of nowhere, the women form a band. Raihana grabs the guitar and begins to strum; Haniya is the conductor. Even the ravens gather around to listen as the women sing folk and pop songs from their country. This campground sing-along feels familiar, only the Dari reminds us that we’re thousands of miles away from their war-torn home.
After our warm-up day at Swan Slab, we head to the high country and Daff Dome, where harder routes await. Tuolumne Meadows is stunning in the summer, and everyone is relieved to escape the heat. The short approach from the car is punctuated with dozens of selfies. From the dome’s east face, we look out to Fairview Dome across the road and Cathedral Peak in the distance. If Yosemite Valley’s towering walls feel imposing, Tuolumne is the opposite: wide-open and expansive.
On Wednesday, we put the rock shoes aside and hike up to Dana Plateau. We follow the creek, stopping often to be awed by wildflowers, and it’s where Sughra begins to tell me about her journey out of Afghanistan. We walk to the edge of the plateau and stand at the top of Third Pillar, a popular climbing route, and the meadow we’ve hiked across suddenly drops away. The precipice is steep and dramatic, the views of Mono Lake dazzling.
Jack is here this week to document the trip he helped originate, and today, he’s got a special trick up his sleeve—or, more precisely, in his pack. Having finally reached our summit point after hours of high-elevation hiking, Jack is grinning like a child as he pulls out a kite.
Immediately, he realizes that one of the kite’s crucial center poles is missing, but we put our YOSAR skills to work and make do with whatever we have. Soon, we’re all looking for the straightest, strongest sticks we can find. It’s not easy on a plateau 11,000 feet above sea level without a tree in sight, except the ones thousands of feet below. But we find a few bushes and tape the meager sticks to the kite as best we can. It looks ridiculous, but we’re eager to give it a shot.
Jack shows Rabia how to feed out slack from the spool of string and gives Sughra the kite to launch. Though anticipation is high, no one really expects our MacGyvered kite to actually fly. But then, the kite is thrown into the air—and to everyone’s amazement, it soars.
On the last day of the trip, our four rope teams take a few different paths to the top of Swan Slab and meet on the summit; for some, this is their first multi-pitch climb. It is a glorious celebration of the week. The rock is hot enough to blister fingertips, but the women are focused and determined. No matter how sunbaked and sweaty we get, they never stop smiling. At the summit, the women sing and dance to Afghan pop music blaring off their phones and gaze out at Half Dome and the Valley below. Though the smoke from last week’s fire will blow back in tonight, in this moment the sky is a deep, clear blue.
Looking around at everyone giggling and dancing, I realize that this is by far the largest group of women I’ve ever climbed with. My climbing experience is still largely male-dominated, and I’ve spent the past few years documenting women’s climbing history in Yosemite, trying to elevate the stories of the women who came before us. I tell all this to the Ascend crew, explaining to them how meaningful it is for me to be surrounded by so many women, on a trip orchestrated and led by women. But then I realize that because they learned to climb through Ascend, their experiences climbing have exclusively been with women. “Climbing is a women’s sport,” they say firmly.
When I first landed a spot on YOSAR in 2018, I mirrored the body language of my male colleagues. I learned to stand wide, arms crossed across my chest, face hiding any hint of emotion. I brought this machismo everywhere I went; for nearly 10 years my climbing was driven, at least in part, by a desire to prove myself. I stopped doing things I thought were too feminine, like painting my nails or wearing jewelry, so that I could be more like a real climber—not realizing that my idea of a real climber was a man.
For the climbers of Ascend, being a woman means a variety of things. It means fighting for their education. It means making difficult decisions between staying with their families or leaving their homes.
It also means being brave and strong. It means being a climber.
The past year and a half has been an incomprehensibly tumultuous time for the women of Ascend. While grateful for their safety here in the US, they miss their homes and are grappling with what it means to be refugees. Some have started college while others are working through the complicated application processes. Some are living with family while others are creating their own, like Raihana, Mansoor and Mina, who just found their own apartment in Raleigh together. All of them are waiting for the next steps in their asylum applications. They were brought to the US in a tenuous legal status known as humanitarian parole, which leaves their futures here uncertain.
While Ascend figures out what its program in Afghanistan will look like from here on out, Marina and her team aren’t losing steam. They’re expanding operations to Pakistan where, after a weeklong trip to meet with local leaders, organizers and climbers, they decided that Ascend’s mission would be welcomed eagerly.
For Sughra, the decision to join Ascend had been a small one at the time. There was no way she could have known that climbing would help her escape the Taliban, or that it would connect her with a community in California over 7,000 miles away from her home mountains. She never could have known that the sight of granite could be a small bit of familiarity in a foreign country.
This trip represented the best of the climbing community. A community that spent hundreds of hours to help bring people like the women of Ascend to Yosemite. It’s donating plane tickets, rental cars, camping gear and food to make everything possible. It’s showing up to belay, carry heavy packs and shuttle cars. It’s sharing favorite crags, “secret” watering holes and hidden sanctuaries in nature. It’s bringing a kite into the backcountry and stringing it together with sticks, just for the sheer joy of watching it fly.
For Michelle, Merryn and Jack, this trip was born out of a simple desire to connect with other climbers, to make them feel welcome. For the Afghan women like Haniya, being a climber has given them a community to connect with despite being halfway around the world from their home. “When I’m in a community, it means I’m not a stranger there,” she told me. “It means I’m not alone.”