Aliakbar Sakhi is used to climbing the high peaks on the outskirts of his native northern Baghlan Province. His family are farmers, and being around mountains makes him feel right at home.
“Afghanistan is the best playground for mountaineering because more than 75 percent of its territory consists of mountain ranges,” Sakhi told RFE/RL Gandhara. He is the founder of HikeVentures, a nonprofit organization that supports and organizes hiking and mountaineering expeditions across Afghanistan and which has about 200 members -- a large percentage of whom are women.
“I wanted to encourage the youth, both girls and boys, to take up mountaineering,” he said. But aside from Sakhi’s personal passion for scaling the peaks and leading missions, he says he has a larger purpose in mind: to create an alternative livelihood for the residents of remote and often-neglected villages and districts through local and foreign tourism.
When the group travels to remote areas, he says, they spend time with the locals and introduce them to what they do. As a way to support rural communities, the climbers rent horses and donkeys from villagers, stay in local accommodation, and buy food and other resources from residents.
The most recent expedition cost $25,000, which Sakhi raised by contributions from team members. “All of it went to the local people,” Sakhi said. “They don’t have access to much, so we try to find a way to be beneficial to them.”
He hopes to show that Afghans can organize anything, even with limited resources. “We have proved that a mixed-gender mountaineering and hiking group, the first in the country’s history, can execute sports events independently,” he told RFE/RL Gandhara. “We are a nonprofit run by Afghans, for Afghans, and we want to share the real face of Afghanistan with them.”
Afghanistan’s unique geography nestled between South Asia, West Asia, and Central Asia, along with its being home to some of the highest mountain ranges in the world, gives it an advantage for outdoor enthusiasts. From green plateaus to snowy ridges, the country’s natural beauty rivals that of European Alps and Nepal.
Afghanistan shares its mountain ranges with neighboring Pakistan and Tajikistan, where mountaineering is an established sport attracting professional and amateur expeditions from around the world. But unlike its neighbors or European countries, Afghanistan is riddled with conflict, and the Kabul government has given little priority to supporting the infrastructure for sports.
Jawed Amiri, a businessman in Kabul, is a devotee of mountaineering and other outdoor sports. He says that lacking government support, Afghan climbers must take matters of safety into their own hands.
“When planning a mission, we first reach out to demining companies in the area to make sure the mountains are free of land mines and are safe to hike,” he said. “We then contact local government officials and local police, so they know what we’re planning. They let us know whether the area houses any insurgents, since they often hide out in the mountains.”
Following decades of conflict, Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries, where the bulk of landmines come from remnants of the Russian occupation between 1979 and 1989. While significant demining progress has been made in urban areas, remote passes and mountain trails are still risky.
But despite all the work that goes into safety clearances, Amiri says each trip is a worthwhile experience. For him, mountaineering is not just a hobby but a way to learn your strengths, overcome your fears, and challenge yourself.
“Mountaineering humbles you like nothing else,” he said. “You learn life lessons such as respecting other ideas, teamwork, working under pressure, and so much more. No academic class or professional work can teach life lessons like that.”
Amiri says there are few options for hobbies among Afghan youth. They often struggle with the likes of unemployment and poverty, leading many to gravitate toward drugs or other harmful activities.
“Most of our climbers are students or workers who are passionate about this in their free time. Nowadays, both men and women count mountaineering as their latest hobby,” he said.
Amiri says Afghanistan's spectacular landscape has an unrivaled allure. “Afghanistan has many green and luscious regions such as Salang, Panjshir, and Bamyan, and many Afghans are using this opportunity not only to explore these stunning places themselves but also to spread the word for the world to see.”
Mountains have always played an influential role in Afghanistan, both in terms of geography and as a symbol for all aspects of life, including climate, water sources, trade routes, and tourism. But few Afghans have dared to tackle the mountains head-on as a form of leisure.
In August, HikeVentures made national history when a team of nine members successfully climbed Mount Noshaq in the Hindu Kush Mountains.
The highest peak in Afghanistan, Mount Noshaq, in the northeastern province of Badakhshan, has an elevation of about 7,492 meters (24,580 feet). Few mountaineers have dared to climb the rugged range because of its extreme remoteness, logistical difficulty, and decades of conflict in the region, all of which have kept the mountain virtually untouched. The jagged peaks were first climbed by a Japanese expedition in 1960, followed by a Polish expedition in 1973, but later became difficult to access during the Taliban regime, leaving it untrodden for years.
This year, HikeVentures decided it was time for an all-Afghan team to conquer Mount Noshaq, all while coronavirus was still at a surge.
One of the Afghan team members on that successful mission was Khyber Khan, a filmmaker and new mountaineer. He started the sport because of his love for nature and his desire to explore his home country.
“I have only been hiking for about eight or nine months. The first time I tried it, I liked it. The second and third time, I liked it even more, and my bravery increased. It's hard to explain, but you become braver and braver when you continue. You forget about the risks and dangers,” Khan told RFE/RL Gandhara.
He says climbing Mount Noshaq was scary at times, as the team lacked oxygen and other resources. “We went with an Afghan mentality, to conquer the peak, but from a foreigner’s perspective it was a deadly mission. Our style is very different,” Khan said.
The historic mission included women as well, including Fatima Sultani, 18, the youngest member in the group who made headlines for her bravery in a highly patriarchal society.
She says she’s ready to take on the taboos that come with practicing sports in Afghanistan as a woman. "When I got into sports, I knew I would face some problems. For example, maybe the Taliban will hinder sports for women. Still, I'm ready to face the challenge," Fatima said.
For the team at HikeVentures and others who mountaineer in Afghanistan, the sport is an escape from the war around them and an opportunity to highlight the best natural beauty that the country has to offer.