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

SOMETIME AFTER 3 P.M. the shooting starts. The band of guerrillas and prisoners has stumbled downhill, across the bridge, and up the east side of the Ak Su Valley onto a steep, forested slope covered in boulders. The rebels have then split the hostages into two groups and hidden them under sprawling junipers. Another young rebel named Abdullah has joined them and the fighters have taken up positions among the rocks, laying, Dickey figures, an ambush. Everybody waits.

More soldiers are advancing up the hill, shouting to one another, when Abdul gives the order to fire. Within minutes two Kyrgyz soldiers are felled. Adbul's firearm is a cannon, a fast-action AK-74—more like an M-16 than the other rebels' AK-47s. Rodden, Caldwell, and Turat hunker behind a tree trunk, shielding their faces from the flying shell casings, ricochets, and rock chips. Ten minutes into the firefight Abdul scurries to the boulder and calls Turat's name. Turat is calm, Caldwell notices—"the toughest man I've ever seen," he'll say later—though it is clear the soldier is about to be executed. Caldwell has his arms around Rodden. She is weeping and shaking.

Turat turns to Rodden and, in the mix of words and hand signs with which they have learned to communicate, he tells her, "You, don't cry. I don't cry, and I am the one who will die."

Then he stands and walks toward Abdul, and the two disappear behind a car-size boulder 200 feet up the hill. The climbers hear two quick reports of a pistol, and then silence.

The battle continues, as Kyrgyz soldiers outflank the rebels. Abdul announces that everyone must move up to the boulder where Turat was taken. Dickey takes the lead, shouldering his pack and sprinting. The Kyrgyz soldiers draw a bead on him. Shots thump around his feet as close as nine inches. He sloughs off his pack and dives toward the boulder. The pack, lying on the ground, is riddled with bullets.

Smith runs to the boulder next; then Rodden. When she arrives, he twists her head away from Turat's corpse. Caldwell arrives last, chased by rifle fire, and wraps himself around Rodden like a shield. Behind the boulder now are the four Americans, Abdul, Su, and Abdullah.

"Abdullah was sitting against Turat's corpse," Smith will later recall. "He picked up Turat's arm and dropped it. Both he and Abdul laughed. Then Abdul kicked Turat's legs aside so he could make room to do his evening prayer. Bullets were raining over his head and he was kneeling, praying."

It is 4 p.m. when the first mortar round whistles in, exploding against the front of the boulder. The climbers huddle together in a ball of arms and legs. Heavy rifle fire zeroes in on them. When they look up they see Kyrgyz soldiers in positions 100 feet from the boulder. The whup-whup-whup of a helicopter, spotting overhead, adds to the noise. Smith is crouched over Turat's legs, wondering if he should pull the body over him and his friends. But the head wound is grotesque.

A third mortar round explodes 80 feet behind them at dusk, and Abdul makes them lighten their loads, ditching the packs and taking just a small sack with a few articles of clothing, credit cards, Turat's sleeping bag, a dozen PowerBars, and a handful of candy. This will be the total rations for six people for the next four days. At nightfall they run uphill, from tree to tree, through random fire. They march roughly four miles, heading north, downstream toward the Karavshin. They climb high on the rugged hillside to outrun the creeping light of the waxing moon, which backlights a skyline of shark-tooth peaks.


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