Fear of Falling

Shot at and kidnapped while scaling Kyrgyzstan's famed Yellow Wall, four Americans learn firsthand how easily the frontier of adventure can bleed into the frontier of survival. Here, in an Outside exclusive, is the full story of six violent days in August.

Nov 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

IF THEIR ORDEAL took place in a mountainous black hole, the four Americans now step into a whirlwind. A hurried hike with soldiers through the blood-soaked canyon gets them to a helicopter that whisks them to the town of Batken. That morning, the U.S. embassy learns for the first time that Americans have been kidnapped. Dressed in ill-fitting Kyrgyz army fatigues—their clothes are in tatters and they have lost all their gear—the climbers appear on Kyrgyzstan's state-run TV. They are hailed as heroes. They board the private jet of President Askar Akayev. They fly to Bishkek, where they are met by U.S. embassy officials and they make their first calls home. While in Bishkek they learn they weren't the only climbers taken hostage: Six Germans, three Russians, two Uzbeks, and a Ukrainian either escaped or were rescued in military operations on August 16. By September 5, Minister Councillor Nurdek Jeenbaez of the Kyrgyz embassy in Washington, D.C., claims that the rebels have been pushed out of the area by his country's forces. Abdul, Obert, and Abdullah have most likely died fighting or faded back into the mountain passes of the Pamir. No one can say if Su's body has been found.

By August 25, all four climbers are home. When they hit the San Francisco tarmac, they slip back into their lives—or try. Caldwell and Rodden are reunited with their close-knit families, and Tommy is soon back up on the Colorado cliffs with his main ropemate, his father, Mike. Dickey and his girlfriend head to the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. Smith returns to his Chevy van and to his job at The North Face, where he runs the A5 division, which makes high-end climbing accoutrements. And in press conferences, morning TV shows, and interviews, the four friends hedge around discussion of the death of Su. We all pushed him, they insist. That's the pact they had made; they would stick together.

Then one night Caldwell phones me from the Roddens' house in Davis. He has been reticent all along, reluctant to talk. This time, though, he sounds sure of himself. "This is the deal," he says. He takes a deep breath. "I was the one who pushed Su. It was something I wasn't prepared to do, so when I did it I was pretty shaken up. Jason and John said that we would say we all did it. That helped me a lot. I'm still coming to terms with it."

Smith is coming to terms with the experience in a different way. "When we reached the army camp," he tells me as we drive in his van to the Oakland airport in late August, "I said to everyone that if there was a week in my life I would want to relive, then this would be it. To experience every human emotion in such a short time, under those intense, life-threatening circumstances. I would gladly go back."

I have heard war veterans say such things. And I have said the same, in private, about peaks that took friends' lives and that I felt sure had been about to take mine. But veterans of combat and survivors of high-mountain accidents carry a burden that takes time to understand.

In the long run, Beth Rodden may be speaking for all four climbers when she admits to me, three weeks after their return to America, that she has begun having nightmares. "I see Abdul," she says. "I see weird concoctions of battles. My friends are in them, and I'm always running from something."

Greg Child is the author of the climbing memoir Postcards from the Ledge.


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