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

AUGUST 13, 3 A.M. The climbers have been moving for 18 hours. They shuffle forward like zombies. Abdullah has vanished into the night on another mission, and it is just Abdul and Su. At dawn the rebels stop beside a fast-flowing tributary of the Karavshin and order their hostages to crawl into two small caves.

Singer and Caldwell take one, with Su bedded down, gun in hand, at its mouth. Rodden and Dickey, with Abdul on guard, take the other. At first Dickey cannot believe that Abdul is serious when he motions them into "a small-ass little hole with a mud floor." The cave is 18 inches tall at its highest point. It is cramped for Rodden, who is five-foot-one, but Dickey, at six feet, can only lie with his knees to his chest. Spooning with Dickey, Rodden cries on and off all day. "Do you think anyone knows where we are?" she asks. "They're not gonna kill us, are they?" Dickey is as terrified as she. In the early afternoon, sun-warmed glacial melt swells the river, and the stream pours into the cave. Wallowing in four inches of ice water, in thermal undershirts, Dickey and Rodden shiver for 17 hours.

They emerge as the moon creeps over the opposite ridge. The food in their stomachs is long gone, replaced by lonely cramps; their captors are as hungry as they are. The rebels intend to cross the river, but fording it is out of the question—the rapids are Class IV. So Abdul and Su try to maneuver a log over the foaming torrent. They push the log halfway across; then it jams.

Suddenly Smith kicks off his shoes and wades into the waist-deep water. The current nearly overpowers him and the rebels call for him to return, shouting and gesturing, "danger, danger." Smith ignores them. He muscles the log toward the opposite bank, crouches atop a slick boulder, and steadies the log. Shouting above the roar, he motions for everyone to cross. Dickey goes first.

"What the hell was with that?" he asks.

"We gotta get out of here," Smith says.

Watching the rebels bungle the river crossing, Smith and the others realize that there are a lot of things they can do to help themselves. As Smith will put it later, "One: They should think we were 100 percent behind their cause. Two: We should show them we were tough as nails because for all we knew they might eliminate the weak; somebody twists an ankle, they would kill them. Three: It would help if we were super-cool and helpful to them, because that would lead to... Four: They could trust us."

And indeed, as Abdul balances across the wobbling log he pauses at the final hop onto the boulder. Smith extends his hand and—to his astonishment—Abdul hands over his rifle. Smith passes the weapon to Dickey, then grips Abdul's hand. There is only one moment to react: Smith must kick the log out from under Abdul and send him into the rapids, and Dickey must flip the safety on the automatic and drop Su. If the idea works they are free; if not, Su will kill them. But the moment passes and Abdul reaches the bank.

The guerrilla smiles and praises Smith's courage. "You soljah?" he asks.


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