Danika Gilbert traveled to Afghanistan for the first time in 2015. The Ridgway mountain guide had one goal: to teach young women from Kabul how to rock climb and mountaineer in remote mountain regions with the organization Ascend Through Athletics.
Over the span of four years, she led dozens of adolescent girls on mountain expeditions. She also taught them much more than mountain skills — she helped them become leaders in their conservative culture.
Last summer, Gilbert found herself helping dozens of young women she had met over the years in a new way as they navigated to safety following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“If you told me in 2015, that this would be what I was going through with the girls right now, I’d never believe you,” Gilbert said. “I really had hope early on that things were getting better — and so did most of the girls.”
It all started when Gilbert was on a flight to Germany last August. After pandemic restrictions loosened, she planned a vacation to visit three young women she instructed in Afghanistan. All three had relocated to Europe a few years earlier as tensions escalated in their home country.
During the flight, Gilbert had a sinking feeling that Kabul might fall to the Taliban. Her instincts weren’t far off, and a few days after she landed in Germany, Kabul erupted into chaos. Gilbert and the three young women immediately shifted their energy to helping other young women and families who were trying to flee Afghanistan. They worked around the clock for 10 days taking short breaks to sleep three to four hours a night. They communicated by phone and WhatsApp, wired money and relayed information they confirmed from outside sources.
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“We were helping people in real time on the ground in Afghanistan making choices,” said Gilbert, describing how she sent girls money and helped them find the right bank using thermographic images sent from a helper on the ground in Afghanistan showing where Taliban were checking all passers-by.
More than a year after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, most of the young women’s dreams of climbing mountains in Afghanistan have disintegrated. But Gilbert continues to provide support to many young women and their families in any way she can. Whether it’s supporting them as they navigate their lives in new countries, providing emotional support to those who remain in Afghanistan or helping those who remain passionate about climbing find a way to get outside in the mountains near their new countries.
“There’s 10 of them that call me mom,” Gilbert said. “And there’s a wider network now, there’s about 40 that I’m actively supporting — Afghan men and women.”
After 10 days in Europe, Gilbert returned to her home in Ridgway. She immediately started an email newsletter to everyone in her network. She provided step-by-step instructions on how to call congressional representatives to advocate for Afghan refugees. She also directed her readers to organizations supporting Afghans on the ground so they could provide financial support or volunteer.
She also raised her own funds through Western Colorado Friends of the Himalayas. The money directly supported Afghans who were evacuating and resettling. She reserved some of the funds for those who are hopeful they might be evacuated in the future. Nearly a month after returning to Colorado, Gilbert found a new way to help four of the young women she helped evacuate by creating a website to sell their artwork.
So far, she’s raised thousands of dollars and she distributes funds based on the requests she receives. To date, she’s sent money for food, passports, visas and hospital bills.
“So I have all these donations that have come in,” Gilbert said. “And right now they’re focused on helping Afghans restart their lives wherever they are.”
She sent a computer to a young woman who sat stuck in a refugee camp in Abu Dhabi. With a degree in computer science, she used the computer to help stave off boredom and maintain her technical skills. Another young woman based in Canada started seeing a therapist to talk through her trauma.
“I got the sweetest email from her not that long ago,” Gilbert said. “She’s like, ‘You literally saved my life, I was so depressed and suicidal, and I reached out to you and you got me connected.’”
Prior to the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, Gilbert established a nonprofit called Hamdeli, which translates to “with heart.” The goal was to offer “graduate level” training in climbing and mountaineering to the young women who wanted to continue beyond the basics they had learned through Ascend.
In addition to teaching more advanced skills, Gilbert hoped Hamdeli could connect girls and women mountaineers across Asia.
“So the plan with Hamdeli was to bring together girls from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan and Tajikistan to do first aid training and climb mountains together,” Gilbert said. “And the goal was to build community.”
While the original vision of Hamdeli remains on hold, Gilbert still provides smaller mentorship opportunities to several of the young women so they can continue to build their technical mountain skills.
Shogufa Bayat was a student of Gilbert’s through Ascend starting in 2016. Last August, Gilbert spent hours on the phone with Bayat as she navigated violence at the Kabul airport with her husband and sister. She eventually fled the country, and after eight weeks in a refugee camp, she finally settled in Germany with her entire family: her grandmother, mother, father, two brothers, two sisters, husband and nephew.
Bayat is 22 and her goal is to become a mountain guide like Gilbert. Since Bayat settled in Germany, Gilbert has helped her connect with alpine clubs and climbers as she adapts to her new life in a new country. Over the past year, her main focus has been on resettling, taking language classes and looking for work. These responsibilities have left little time for climbing and hiking. But she’s grateful that Gilbert continues to offer her support and direction.
“I think I’m very lucky having Danika in my life,” Bayat said. “Right now she knows that these girls — their heart is broken, she knows that we want to become a mountaineer, and she is putting all of her energy to do something for us.”
In April, Gilbert offered Bayat the opportunity to work as her assistant guide on a trek to Everest Base Camp. It was difficult for Bayat to leave her family in Germany so soon after they arrived, but the opportunity created the space she needed to focus on her career goals. A longtime client of Gilbert’s, Eve Arias, footed the bill for the trip.
Arias saw supporting Bayat’s journey as a way to give back — much like she’s seen Gilbert do countless times over the years. “I just thought it inconceivable all they’d been through,” Arias said. “I think one of the reasons for taking her was that it kind of shows her that leaving Afghanistan wasn’t the end, and she could still continue with her dreams.”
Bayat learned that guiding clients in the mountains isn’t easy. “You have to have more patience,” Bayat said. “You have to think about each single thing, you have to prepare a lot of things, you have to be ready for any issues.”
The group trekked for 18 days through Nepal’s high-altitude mountains. When they arrived, they celebrated by standing on the massive rock that towers above base camp while waving the Afghan flag. Gilbert said she is 99% sure Bayat is the first Afghan to make the trek to Everest Base Camp.
In addition to learning the ins and outs of guiding a high-altitude mountain trek, she also found inspiration for a new adventure. Bayat wants to return with Gilbert and a team of Afghan girls to climb Everest. If they make it, they’d be the first Afghans to climb the world’s tallest mountain.
Gilbert said although she’s not motivated to climb Everest on her own, she is interested in helping Bayat and the other girls achieve this goal.
“People have always asked me about Everest,” Gilbert said. “If the right opportunity comes up where I’m needed, and I can be a value, I will gladly climb it — and this could be it.”
Gilbert and Bayat plan to assemble a team of roughly five or six girls with the goal of getting one or two to the summit. Gilbert recognizes it’s a lofty goal — many of the girls are busy looking for work and navigating their lives as refugees. But, she thinks it’s possible with dedicated physical and mental preparation. She knows the girls are tough enough and determined enough to make it to the top.
Gilbert continues her work from Colorado supporting Afghans. Many remain in Afghanistan, including two young women from Gilbert’s first mountaineering expedition with Ascend in 2015. And while she hopes Hamedeli can someday return to its original vision, for now, she’s directing her time and energy where it’s needed most.
“Right now what I feel like I’m doing is just like holding out my hand,” she said. “Let me sit with you or let me lift you up for a little bit and give you a chance to breathe — because life is so hard.”