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

AT AROUND NOON ON AUGUST 12, Abdul orders his five captives to dismantle the base camp. When Turat tugs a long, sturdy aluminum tent stake out of the ground, he feels the pointed end with his finger and catches Smith's eye. It is clear that Turat wants to use the stakes as daggers. Earlier, he furtively signaled that he will try to kill the rebels if he can, and that there are 15 Kyrgyz soldiers in the valley and 17 rebels. Fighting is imminent.

Seeing the desperate look on Turat's face, Smith scans the ransacked base camp and decides that the odds are not very good. The three men carrying assault rifles are alert and wary. "No way, Turat," Smith whispers, shaking his head. "No way."

The climbers pack their leftover gear into duffel bags, and the rebels conceal these under pine boughs. Abdul indicates to them that they should carry their passports in their pockets. That's a good sign, Dickey thinks; it means they want us alive. Still, as they prepare to move out, they are terrified; their teeth are chattering. Rodden, as the only woman, is particularly apprehensive, her mind racing, thinking, "What'll these guys do to me?"

As they pack, Abdul comes across a photo of a smiling Beth and Tommy, arm in arm. He points to the young couple, and in sign language asks if they are together. "Yes—married," Dickey says instantly. If the rebels think Rodden is married, he reasons, maybe she'll be safer.

Then the radio squawks—a message from Su's nearby position on the small rise. Abdul orders everyone to scramble under trees, and seconds later the windy roar of a Russian-made Mi8 gunship fills the valley. The climbers watch as the dronelike helicopter flies toward the Yellow Wall and rises until it is level with the deserted portaledge camp. Abdul sees that Rodden is distraught; he shakes his finger at her and smiles, signing, "Don't cry." The chopper hovers long enough to see that the platforms are abandoned and then retreats down the Kara Su Valley, seemingly in the direction of the Kyrgyz army camp, 25 miles away, that Smith and Dickey had seen on their trek.

Abdul barks orders, and they quit base camp hastily. It is clear they are going on a long walk—probably, Turat is indicating, all the way to Uzbekistan, 50 miles north. About a mile from base camp they near the confluence of the Kara Su and the Ak Su, at which point the two rivers form the Karavshin. Scouting for soldiers, the rebels creep from one boulder to another along the riverside trail. Suddenly the helicopter makes another sweep and the climbers are ordered into the bushes. Leveling his rifle point-blank at Dickey, Abdul screams that anyone who attracts the attention of the helicopter crew is dead. Again the Mi8 departs.

As they walk, Smith tries to reassure Rodden. "Your concern is no longer Beth," he tells her. "I'm thinking about Beth from now on. All you are thinking about is whatever these men tell you to do. If you see a helicopter I want you to play James Bond and jump headfirst into whatever tree these guys tell you to jump into. This is just a big giant video game and we are gonna turn it off in a couple of hours."

Quaking, Rodden nods.

The group traverses along the slope of a hill separating the Kara Su and the Ak Su Valleys. At this point Obert marches off down valley. At about 1 p.m. they stand 200 yards uphill from a mud-brick farmhouse. Beyond it a footbridge spans the Ak Su as it crashes downstream. Two Kyrgyz soldiers are outside the house, talking to the farmer. The rebels order their prisoners to sneak uphill through the trees; then Abdul urges them to run. When Rodden starts lagging under her pack, Smith grabs it. It is bright orange, a certain target. Twenty minutes later the group crests the hill. Gasping and sweating, they rest. Turat sits among the climbers, with the rebels watching from a few feet away.

"Over there," he signs to his fellow captives, pointing across the river. "Over there they kill me."


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