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Renowned Climber Visits Northwood with Inspirational Story

How can rock climbing and mountaineering unite people in other parts of the world and initiate social change? Northwood junior Hannah Kessel opened a September talk with renowned climber Emilie Drinkwater with that question. After a morning of climbing with girls at Northwood, Emilie shared her experience in Flinner Auditorium. The stories that unfolded next captivated an audience made up of Northwood students and faculty and many interested members of the community. 

Emilie, a Keene, N.Y. resident, came to Northwood to talk about her work with Ascend’s program in Afghanistan. In 2015, Emilie and other members of Ascend, along with press (HBO and Vice Media) and a security detail, trained and led a group of young Afghani women on a trip that would give them “first ascent” credentials on a mountain in their home country. Her experience led the audience through the trials and tribulations of organizing an expedition with inexperienced climbers and managing risks that included threats of assassination from a nearby Taliban leader. 

Emilie shared, “Afghanistan can be dangerous and scary. The country has been at war for more than three decades and there is active fighting in most provinces. This is a story about taking risks, but it is also about culture. You can’t talk about climbing in Afghanistan without talking about culture and people.”

As an Adirondack native, ski racing was Emilie’s introduction to mountain sports, but she admits she was not a prodigy by any means. Emilie skied all the way through college at St. Lawrence University, where she also started to learn about climbing. Having never received any formal training in climbing, Emilie says she learned climbing from her friends. She quickly grew obsessed with the sport.

“Climbing is physical and mental problem solving,” says Emilie. “Climbing became my priority.” Emilie earned a degree in anthropology from St. Lawrence, but she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with it. She knew she wanted to be outside, and upon graduation she “begged” her way into a climbing instructor position in Keene. “My skills have continued to grow since then. I’ve travelled to Africa, Europe, Kashmir, Alaska, and Canada. I love being in other parts of the world.” 

Emilie talked about the risks inherent in climbing. “Sometimes there is no room for error. You have to learn when you can continue on and when you need to back off. I had to spend the night on a mountain with a fellow climber when we were unprepared for the conditions.” Emilie described the harrowing ordeal and the fact that success in this instance was survival. 

When the opportunity to go to Afghanistan came up, she says she had to go. “I was hired by Ascend Athletics, an American NGO, to help train the first female Afghani climbers. We were to help young Afghan women realize that they are not only capable of mountain climbing, but that they can come together and break barriers. We wanted to teach them to be leaders and role models for other Afghani women. 

Emilie’s expedition would work towards the first ascent of a mountain in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan, where the risks were both those inherent to the sport and those determined by years of conflict and active fighting. Emilie says, “I’m intrigued by countries like this. I spend a lot of time thinking about risk and consequences.” 

Salt Lake City, Utah is Emilie’s current home base, and it shares some remarkable similarities with Kabul. They are at similar elevations. They are both cold in the winter and hot in the summer. In both cases striking mountains rise above a bustling city. But in Kabul, Emilie says, “you have to get used to the amount of firepower and weapons around, everywhere. There are convoys in the streets- constant reminders that you are in a war zone. I was warned that something could happen, any time.” Bombings and kidnappings are common in Kabul, but luckily Emilie’s stay in the city was uneventful. 

The group worked with 13 Afghan girls between the ages of 18 and 22. Some of them were illiterate. Others were college students. They were mostly Pashtun, but some other sects were also represented. Ancient tribal conflicts made growing a team amongst girls with different backgrounds difficult. To participate, each girl needed the support of her family. 

The girls also had to demonstrate a spirit of service in their communities. They had to be involved in service projects in order to be considered for Ascend’s project. And lastly, they needed to be physically fit or willing to train for the expedition. The girls trained for a year, often in a stadium in Kabul that was well-known previously for hosting public executions during Taliban rule. Emilie explained, “there was once a time when there was so much blood on the field that people didn’t think grass would ever grow back again.”

“We also had IED training,” said Emilie. “We had to learn how to identify unexplored anti-tank mines. That was a refresher course for the girls, but all new to me.” She continued, “Our expedition was huge in terms of staffing. We had 25 people and two million dollars worth of camera equipment. That all put a big target on us, too.”

“We left Kabul and headed into the mountains. There are a lot of beautiful places in Afghanistan, and the people there are some of the nicest I’ve met anywhere.” If they wanted to climb anywhere they had to meet personally with that province’s governor. They didn’t have climbing maps, or really any maps to follow. The team studied the expedition paths on Google Earth as much as they could to gain some understanding of the terrain. Sometimes old wrecks of military machinery, like helicopters, interrupted the landscape.

Two hundred and fifty pounds of vegetables and three lambs later, the group made it to the summit of what is now Koh E Sher Doktarone Mir Samir, “The Lion Daughters of Mir Samir.” For a country that is as insecure as Afghanistan and as punishing of women, Emilie was astounded by the girls’ national pride. They rose their flag and sang the national anthem and relished in their accomplishment for over an hour before beginning their descent. Two of the girls headed out again with Emilie not long after the first trek, to summit a more difficult peak. 

When asked about the scariest moment on the trip, Emilie said, “We received a threat on the last night at base camp. A Mullah in a neighboring valley took out an order to have the westerners killed and threatened some of our girls, specifically four sisters. Our security team jumped into action, two of them were former British special forces officers. They had all these inside connections in Afghanistan. We packed up the base camp in the middle of the night and trekked down to a lower location. It had taken us four days to hike in, but we went down in just one day. We didn’t tell the girls about the threat. We needed to move them quickly, without scaring them. Luckily nothing happened.”

At the expedition one of the girls said, “I’ve risked a lot to be here, but this moment means a lot. Afghan women can do things people didn’t think we could do. I hope this trip inspires others not just to be climbers, but to be leaders.”

Emilie Drinkwater’s visit and talk was organized by long-time Northwood faculty member and accomplished climber and guide, Don Mellor ’71.