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

HALF A POWERBAR PER DAY, brown, silty river water to drink, and cold, torturously confined bivouacs take their toll on the hostages as they spend the nights of August 14, 15, and 16 marching around cliffs and steep rubble on the east flank of the Karavshin Valley. On the third night they only get 400 yards before Smith collapses. Rodden sees that he's exhausted, so she takes out their last candy bar, a Three Musketeers—how fitting, she thinks—breaks it into small chunks, and pushes it into his mouth.

They pass no huts, no farmers. None live this far up the steep hillsides, and afraid of both the soldiers and the rebels, the locals give each faction a wide berth. Surreal moments abound. The whole valley, in fact, has turned nightmarish. On August 14 the hostages may have noticed the faint sound of a gun battle far down the Karavshin Valley. Rebel snipers had 30 Kyrgyz soldiers pinned in a crossfire in a narrow canyon. None survived. Later the Americans will pass that way and find blood-spattered rocks and a bullet-riddled field jacket. During the next two weeks the conflict will escalate all along the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. Firefights will claim up to 48 Kyrgyz soldiers, 12 antirebel Uzbek soldiers, and 75 rebels. More foreigners will be kidnapped. Elsewhere in the region, Russian border guards stationed near the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border will clash with rebels, and a passenger on a train leaving Tashkent bound for Kyrgyzstan will be arrested carrying 20 kilos of explosives.

But for all the climbers know, they are alone. Surely, they think, the Kyrgyz army knows they've been taken: Helicopters are ever-present, and one afternoon, as Rodden and Dickey lie hidden beside Abdul at the second bivouac, two soldiers walk to within a yard of them. Rodden's blond hair is visible through the pine boughs. The men say something in Kyrgyz and leave. But nobody moves: Abdul carries a grenade fixed to his belt; if someone makes a move he pulls the pin and everyone dies.

Killing has become the main topic at Smith and Caldwell's bivouac. Bashing in the rebels' heads with rocks, stealing their handguns, pushing them off cliffs, using choke holds and sharp sticks, punching them in the larynx, and strangling them with bootlaces are all discussed. Smith talks; Caldwell listens, quietly taking it in.

"How do you know all this stuff?" Caldwell asks.

"I hung out with thugs at school. I read The Anarchist Cookbook," comes the glib reply. Then Smith pauses and thinks about what is happening to his mind.

"Tommy, when I woke up today I realized I had lost all compassion for these men. I don't hate them. But I'm ready to do whatever it takes to get out of here."

Caldwell nods.

That day Smith begins working on winning Su's trust. When helicopters appear he nudges him awake and helps to camouflage their hiding places with more brush. On the move, he stops to lend his captor a hand on short cliffs, patting him on the back and telling him he's a "good alpinista," much to Su's amusement.

Su clearly defers to Abdul, who looks ten years older than his claimed age of 26. (The climbers doubt he's even called Abdul, in fact, as the other rebels carefully avoid addressing him by name.) But, Smith will say later, "At first Su scared me the most. He had a really blank look on his face. But soon I was doing things like showing him my passport, comparing ages and birth places with him. He told me he was 19 and came from Tashkent."

By the night of August 16, day five, the group descends the hillside back to the Karavshin. To their amazement they start walking upstream, toward their Kara Su base camp. During the five-mile march the rebels shift into battle mode and fan out in front. The Americans consider running, but they know that in their weak condition—they are now out of food—they won't get far before they are mowed down. Yet the rebels are getting lax.

They cross the bridge near the battleground and enter the Kara Su Valley. Abdul gives the order to bivouac—in another set of coffinlike holes in the riverbank—and signals that he'll go ahead and kill some soldiers to get some food. Before he leaves he pulls Dickey's boots off his feet and tries them on. They are too large so he tosses them back.

"You fucker," Dickey sneers.

Then Abdul makes Smith hand over his insulated coat, leaving him in a T-shirt, angry and freezing. But what catches Smith off guard is Abdul's parting message—a mix of words and gestures that clearly means, "Su will protect you." As if he were now one of them.


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