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November 25, 2009
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Breaking barriers: Breck's Shannon Galpin uses her bike to empower Afghan women

BRECKENRIDGE - Climbing a hill in Kabul, Afghanistan, Shannon Galpin didn't exactly blend in with her surroundings. Sure, her attire was similar to that of the local women - head scarf, baggy tunic, etc. - but there was something that made her blatantly stand out.

Galpin, who's lived in Breckenridge for the past five years, was carrying something that is as common in the Rocky Mountains as snow but as foreign in the Middle East as her white skin; she was carrying her mountain bike.

In early October, Galpin became the first woman to ever ride a set of fat tires in Afghanistan. Though that distinction is neat, it had little to do with why Galpin was there.

"I didn't set out to be the first woman to do that over there, it just happened that we'd Googled it and realized, 'Oh, no one's done it,'" Galpin explained. "It was more a fact of us wanting to gauge the reaction."

As the founder of the Breck nonprofit Mountain to Mountain, Galpin's philanthropic work focuses on women's empowerment in "mountain communities," specifically in Afghanistan.

"Our mission is education, and so it's not a direct plane (to mountain biking), but it does plan into our ethos as mountain culture and working to share our mountain culture," Galpin said, noting that Afghan women don't currently ride bikes of any kind. " ... That's the perception we're hoping to change, that there's no difference between a girl riding a bike and a boy riding a bike. We're trying to show that it's not improper."

After spending 10 years in Europe after high school, Galpin ached for a mountain lifestyle. So, the North Dakota native made Breckenridge her full-time home five years ago.

It was while living in Breck that Galpin stumbled upon the book Three Cups of Tea, which chronicles Greg Mortenson's work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Needless to say, the book had a profound impact on Galpin, and she decided to channel her inner Ghandi and "put my money where my mouth is."

"I had read the book, had my daughter, had a business in town, and I just knew that I had to do this," she said. "There wasn't any logical, rational thought to it. I just was thinking that if you want to see any change in the world, you have to be that change."

And that spawned the birth of Mountain to Mountain.

The first efforts of Galpin's new organization were to partner with Mortenson in fundraising efforts. As the two worked side by side, Galpin began to see the benefits of having Mountain to Mountain branch out by itself. What resulted was a nonprofit that uses the mountain lifestyle to promote its cause.

"I was a trail runner and a mountain biker, and it was a natural segue of fundraising by doing what we know," Galpin explained.

Though coming up with the money stateside has been difficult, Galpin said finding projects in the Middle East wasn't too tough.

"It's this totally corrupt country with a war zone, and yet, people want to rebuild," she said. "They have so much hope to rebuild their country that they'll help connect you to who you need to to solve problems and get the projects going."

Mountain to Mountain, which received its official 501(c)3 status in January, started by implementing computer labs in schools for girls in remote regions.

On her first visits to Afghanistan, Galpin couldn't help but look at some of the area's mountains and hills and yearn for pedals to be under her feet.

In looking at her outdoor-recreation-themed fundraising efforts, Galpin decided to find a way to connect Mountain to Mountain's work in education with the mountain biking and trail running done in Colorado.

Then Galpin decided to do the only sensible thing: Haul her bike overseas. Although, that's easier said than done.

"I was desperately wanting to ride my bike over there, but obviously women don't ride bikes, no one mountain bikes over there - there's land mines and the Taliban," she said. "We decided to give it a shot and see what the reaction would be."

And that's what Galpin did in October.

Donning full female Muslim clothes to be respectful of the area's culture, Galpin started by riding through the remote regions of the country where her organization based its work. Then she worked her way to the local roads and eventually into the villages.

Beyond the risk of land mines hidden near the goat trails on which she mainly road, Galpin had to worry about the reactions of the locals.

"If I were a Muslim woman, I would have been stoned, because it's just not accepted in a lot of areas," she said. "Because I'm a foreigner, I could be looked at as more of a target, but at the same time, I can get away with a lot more. ... The reaction of a lot of locals in remote mountain areas was curiosity, versus any animosity or violent action."

For the most part, Galpin said she was met with curiosity. When her and her team would be pulling the bike out of the trunk of their beat-up Toyota Corolla (there are no bike racks to be found in the Middle East), Galpin said local men and boys would come watch her put it together.

"Most of them talked about how it was no problem and how nowhere in the Koran does it say that women can't ride bikes," she said. " ... Then the question is, well, why don't any of them?"

Well, that was answered pretty quickly for her when she ran into any conservative men.

"The negative reaction that we got was never as negative as it would have been if I were and Afghan women," she said. "It was negative in terms of their look, in terms of their tone, but it was never violent."

Galpin doesn't shy away from the dangers that her work in Afghanistan poses.

"There's suicide bombs and IEDs and there's rocket attacks and violence toward women, but for some reason, I feel comfortable in that country," she said. "If I'm not at a point that I can be as comfortable as I can with the locals and try to break barriers where I can, then I'm not achieving what I want to be."

"I just want to make sure I can come home to my daughter. That becomes the prism in which I measure my risk," she added.

With that in mind, Galpin is looking into organizing a series of rides in Afghanistan for next year. Although, riding her mountain bike certainly isn't the only thing her and her nonprofit have in the works.

Galpin said Mountain to Mountain is building a girls' school in a remote area of the country in March, a school for the deaf and a women's journalism school. Also, the organization is starting a literacy program for children in women's prisons. (Children are regularly forced to stay with their mother if they are sent to prison.) Mountain to Mountain is also working on offering medical training to Afghan women.

Stateside, Mountain to Mountain is looking to recruit mountain bikers, road cyclists and trail runners for its fundraising efforts.

For now, Galpin chalks up her riding in Afghanistan as a "small accomplishment" on the way to something bigger.

"We want to show women over there that they can do this," she said. " ... The end result is women's empowerment - women and girls getting power in Afghanistan."

For more information on Mountain to Mountain or to help in its fundraising efforts, visit www.mountain2mountain.org.


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The Summit Daily Updated Nov 25, 2009 09:40PM Published Nov 25, 2009 09:38PM Copyright 2009 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.