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

CALDWELL IS SCREAMING. Clambering up the cliff in seconds, he curls up in a ball and begins gasping, "Holy shit, I just killed a guy."

Rodden reaches him and embraces him. "How can you love me now?" Caldwell sobs. "After I did this?"

"You just saved my life, Tommy," she answers. "I couldn't love you more."

Then Dickey is shouting, "Let's go, let's go!" But Caldwell, the one least likely to have acted on their talk of killing Su, is beside himself.

"Tommy, listen to me," Smith shouts into his face. "We did nothing wrong. We just saved our lives. When we get home we'll say we all did it, OK? But right now we have to get the fuck out of here. Go!"

They take off at a frantic pace, moving diagonally downhill, occasionally pausing to console Caldwell and catch their breath. Then the sound of rocks sliding behind them stops their hearts and they run again, stumbling over scree until, at 1:15 in the morning, they reach the Karavshin.

Beside the river is a well-worn trail that Smith and Dickey recognize from their trek; from here it is 18 miles to the Kyrgyz army camp. They are nearly hallucinating from fatigue, yet they keep stumbling forward. A herd of cows, moonlit in their path, frightens them: They mistake them for rebels. The climbers hug the shadows, running from tree to tree.

Hours later, they cross a footbridge near a bend in the river; now they are just a mile and a half from the army camp and a few hundred yards from a forward outpost. They're on the home stretch. But suddenly three men—rebels—materialize out of the forest, one of them just 15 feet behind them. One shouts something, then the muzzle flash and crack of AK-47s fills the night. Yellow tracers fly past their heads.

Dickey dives behind a bush. Caldwell and Rodden hide behind a rock. Smith starts running, dodging bullets, but alone and in front he suddenly feels naked, and he turns and runs back to the others. The four collide and then run together toward the outpost. It occurs to Caldwell that rebels might be manning that, too, but there is no turning back. Then shots from the front streak over their heads. Shots in front, shots behind. They are in no-man's-land. A figure stands in the doorway of a nearby hut, aiming a rifle at them. Army or rebels? They can't tell. They dive into the dark hut anyway.

Smith is first over the threshold. "Americanski! Americanski!" he shouts, holding his hands high.

All they see are gun barrels. Heaving with fear the four sprawl face-down on the dirt floor. Hands frisk them. Then one of the dark figures detects that Rodden is a woman.

"Oh, madame!" the man says, surprised. He removes his hands from her and steps back apologetically.

"We almost made it," shouts Rodden, confused, thinking Abdul will step forward any moment.

"We did make it, Beth!" Smith cries.

Minutes later Kyrgyz soldiers are thrusting cans of sardines and canteens of water into their hands. The soldiers have turned back the rebels. It is 4 a.m. on August 18. The climbers have escaped.


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