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By Brittany Wilmes (’09)

After the pressures of studying for the bar exam, this felt like his dream. In the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains, 15,000 feet above sea level, the views dazzled. The snow lay untouched, sugary and pristine. Nick Pontarolo (’02) could hardly believe he was skiing in Afghanistan.

This trip had been long in the making, though, and there he certainly was. Joining his childhood buddy Casey Johnson, Pontarolo flew to Kabul in March after completing a four-year apprenticeship to practice law in Washington. Johnson and Pontarolo explored Italy together as undergraduates in the Gonzaga-in-Florence program, and they were ready for a new adventure. The two spent a week in Bamiyan Province, staying at a United Nations fortress-turned-guesthouse and spending all day, every day, on their skis.

“The experience is phenomenal,” Pontarolo says. “Afghanistan has tremendous skiing. It’s hard to sit in an office these days.”

An avid skier and Spokane native, Pontarolo set his sights on Afghanistan after stumbling upon a guidebook and researching Bamiyan’s little-known but jaw-droppingly impressive skiing terrain. Johnson, living in Kabul as a contract worker with the U.S. Institute of Peace, helped piece together the details, and soon they were realizing an incredible dream.

The only tourism organization in the region outfitted the travelers with lodging, guides and food. Chairlifts don’t exist in the Bamiyan Himalayas, so skiers in Afghanistan have to enjoy traveling uphill by their own power, Pontarolo says. He and Johnson ate kebabs for lunch, made that morning, wrapped in newspaper and eaten on the slopes.

“Everywhere I went, people were awesome,” Pontarolo says. “I didn’t blend in at all. I always had a camera, and people knew I was some sort of tourist. They were outgoing and really nice. I don’t think I’ve ever been invited off the street in the States to join someone for a cup
of coffee or tea.”

Despite the language barrier, Pontarolo learned a lot from the locals in Bamiyan and Kabul. “It was right before their first democratic elections, and everyone was incredibly informed about politics. I tried to do the same, and it was amazing to go into these people’s homes and learn what they believed and why,” he says.

Now back in Spokane practicing law, Pontarolo anticipates he’ll head back to Afghanistan before long. “It was the best money I’ve ever spent in my entire life,” he says. “This experience set the bar high for me to be inspired to continue to adventure.”

He’d love to take others with him, too, to introduce them to the rich culture of the Afghan people. “There’s a lot of fear-mongering about Afghanistan, but I didn’t feel unsafe at all in my travels. I think in future years, I’ll be going back with a group of people. It was a mind-blowing experience.”

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