Back from the Edge

Three years after a notorious kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, new evidence and big changes emerge from Central Asia

Jun 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

K-Team: Garth Willis (in blue) with Kyrgyz soldiers at the Forward Military Post in the Karavshin, October 2002    Photo: Irena Mrak

IN THE 1990's, AFTER THE FALL OF COMMUNISM and the opening of Central Asia, the Karavshin region of Kyrgyzstan's Pamir Alai range—an area full of El Capitan-size big walls and untouched new routes—was fast becoming an international climbing destination.

That all fell apart three years ago, thanks to one of the most infamous incidents in recent mountaineering history. During 1999 and 2000, fighting between Kyrgyz troops and Taliban- and Al Qaeda-associated guerrillas of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) began to make the area unacceptably risky. In August of 2000, this was dramatically brought home with the kidnapping of four American climbers by IMU forces. The capture and subsequent escape of Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden, John Dickey, and Jason Smith, which I wrote about in Outside (see "Fear of Falling," November 2000) and in my 2002 book Over the Edge, quickly dried up the tourism business.

Now the Karavshin appears to be opening up again. A major factor was the November 2001 disappearance of IMU leader Juma Namangani, who is believed to have been killed by American forces during U.S. operations in Afghanistan. In the aftermath of the IMU's collapse, new evidence has emerged that sheds light on the persistent controversies surrounding the climbers' account of their ordeal, which has been dogged by accusations and second-guessing from the start. Foremost among the critics have been writers John Bouchard and Nancy Prichard, a husband-and-wife team from Oregon who charge that the climbers fabricated significant details of their story, a theme Bouchard and Prichard say they'll explore in a book they plan to publish in spring 2004. But recent developments in Kyrgyzstan have corroborated the climbers' version of events so thoroughly that there's really only one thing left to say: Case closed.

In August 2000, Caldwell, Rodden, Dickey, and Smith were in the middle of a first ascent of the 2,500-foot Yellow Wall, in the Karavshin's Kara Su valley. On the morning of the 12th, the climbers woke to the sound of bullets peppering the rock around their portaledge camp, 1,000 feet up. The shooters, three IMU rebels, ordered the Americans to rappel to the ground. They were taken hostage and marched at gunpoint through the mountains for six days, surviving a firefight between their captors and Kyrgyz soldiers, during which the IMU contingent executed a fellow hostage, a sergeant in the Kyrgyz army named Turat Osmanov. The four eventually escaped when Caldwell pushed their guard, Ravshan Sharipov, off a cliff. They fled to a Kyrgyz army outpost. A few weeks later, just after my Outside story went to press, there was startling news from Kyrgyzstan: Sharipov survived the fall and was captured by Kyrgyz soldiers.

Two details in particular have been the source of controversy. First, critics charge that the guerrillas' assault rifles lacked the range to reach the portaledges, so their shots couldn't have "forced" the climbers to descend. Second, it has been claimed that Sharipov was drugged by the climbers rather than pushed, and that the climbers changed their story to sound more heroic.

The first argument took a beating last year when climbers began returning to the Karavshin after a two-year absence. Two teams—one Czech, one American-Slovenian—traveled to the Yellow Wall in the summer and fall of 2002. Among other missions, they wanted to look at the gear the Americans had left behind.

"That gear was a hot topic all over southern Kyrgyzstan," says Pavel Kopacek, 28, a member of the 11-man Czech team that visited the wall in July. "The locals thought the haul bags would be stuffed with American dollars." In fact, what the team found was a pair of portaledges in tatters after being used as target practice for two years. Bullet casings and shrapnel from grenades littered the ledges and ground, as did bullet-riddled chalk bags, sleeping bags, propane containers, and shattered CDs. A second team, which included Garth Willis, an American climber who has lived in Kyrgyzstan off and on for the past eight years, pulled down the rest of the gear and portaledges in October. So much for the argument that bullets couldn't reach that high.

THE MORE SERIOUS CHARGE AGAINST the Americans—that they lied about their escape—grew out of the confusion surrounding Sharipov's reappearance and his conflicting statements following his capture. Sharipov told journalists and FBI agents—who'd traveled to Kyrgyzstan to investigate—that the Americans had somehow drugged his water and escaped when he fell asleep. In spring 2001, Smith, Dickey, and I went to the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, to meet with Sharipov in his prison cell. At the meeting, Sharipov recognized his former captives and started to revise his version of events, speaking clearly about falling and being knocked unconscious.

Meanwhile, Dateline, the NBC news program, started its own investigation. In May and June 2001, Sharipov was tried and sentenced to death for terrorism and taking hostages. At the end of the trial, Irena Balakina, Dateline's Kyrgyzstan-based stringer, was permitted to tape a courtroom interview. When asked by Balakina if he'd been pushed or had fallen asleep, he answered, "They pushed me." It was an unambiguous, independent confirmation that the climbers had told the truth, and it dealt a stunning blow to their critics.

Although Dateline secured this interview ten months before the publication of Over the Edge, Sharipov's admission was kept secret until the show's broadcast in April 2002, after the book came out. This preserved Dateline's news scoop, but it also prolonged the skepticism surrounding the Americans' story.

Remarkably, despite the new evidence and the independent corroboration by Dateline, Bouchard, a retired climber turned writer with whom the former hostages have never agreed to an interview, and Prichard, a publicist and freelance writer, continue to question the climbers' story. According to a recent article in Sports Illustrated, Bouchard and Prichard said that their forthcoming book, a project they've spent more than $30,000 of their own funds researching, will expose exaggerations and half-truths in the kidnapping saga. Bouchard conceded that "there is no question [the hostages] went through a horrible experience," but maintained that their tale still contains "too many discrepancies."

These days, the remaining members of the IMU are in hiding; Sharipov remains on death row; and the former captives have more or less put the ordeal behind them. But is it really safe for climbers and trekkers to return to Kyrgyzstan? The organizers of the Raid Gauloises think so—the 12th running of the adventure race will be held there starting June 10. (The exact location had not been disclosed at press time.) Still, geopolitical instability remains a serious concern. Though visitors to Kyrgyzstan may be emboldened by the 1,500 or so U.S. military personnel sent in 2002 to Bishkek, a four-day drive from the Karavshin, there are no guarantees that Islamic guerrillas, rumored to be regrouping in Afghanistan and attempting to infiltrate Tajikistan, won't turn up in the Karavshin again.

"There is little protection if Tajiks and Uzbeks want to kidnap more tourists," warns Willis. "As soon as people return in numbers, there will probably be more troubles."

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