THE FIRST SHOT HITS THE CLIFF at 6:15 a.m. The sun is rising over Central Asia, sending shafts of daylight through the gaps in a ridgeline of craggy summits, brightening the steep, shadowy Kara Su valley of Kyrgyzstan's Pamir Alai range. Deep in sleep, their two portaledges dangling 1,000 feet off the ground, the four climbers barely react to the thump of lead hitting granite. But when the second report echoes through the gorge, Jason "Singer" Smith bolts upright.
"What the hell was that?" he shouts, donning his helmet instinctively, assuming the rifle crack is the clatter of rockfall.
"We're being shot at, Singer!" Beth Rodden calls out in alarm from the other portaledge.
"That's irrational," Smith replies. "It's probably local hunters."
Then the third bullet hits right between the two platforms. Rock chips fly out of the crater, spraying the climbers.
"That was definitely for us!" Rodden shouts.
The climbers are bunked high on Mount Zhioltaya Stena, a 12,000-foot peak in this rugged former Soviet republic. It is August 12, day two of a planned four-day ascent of the 2,500-foot Yellow Wall, and they are making their way up to a sheer headwall, looking forward to sinking their hands into a highway of cracks splitting the face. The quartet represents a remarkable pool of American climbing talent, friends from years on the rock-wall circuit out West. A self-assured 22-year-old Utah native, Smith lives in his van in California. He has made a slew of notable ascents, including a 14-day solo of the 4,000-foot big wall of Mount Thor, near the Arctic Circle on Canada's Baffin Island. His nickname, Singer, is derived from his penchant for stitching up kitschy clothing on an old sewing machine. Lying beside Singer is Texas-raised John Dickey, the team photographer. Bearded, lanky, and at 25 the old man of the group, he's a seasoned world traveler and, since he moved to California six years ago, a frequent backcountry climber in the High Sierra. Rodden is a diminutive blond 20-year-old from Davis, California, with an angelic face that makes her look five years younger. Her appearance belies her toughness, however; she is one of the very few women—and the youngest—to have climbed at the top 5.14 rating of difficulty. Her soft-spoken boyfriend and bunkmate, Tommy Caldwell, 22, is from Colorado. Built like a cross between a pit bull and a greyhound, he has laid claim to what is possibly America's hardest sport route, Kryptonite, a pitch near Rifle, Colorado, rated 5.14d. The group helicoptered into the Kara Su Valley from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital, two weeks ago, and they've got another good month of climbing to go. After they set up a base camp, Rodden and Caldwell began putting in this new route up the Yellow Wall while Smith and Dickey spent four days trekking down valley in an unsuccessful search for a telephone, to call about a lost duffel. Their journey had taken them past a Kyrgyz army camp and over a 14,000-foot pass, where they met yak herders who'd never seen foreigners.
The climbers peer over the edges of their portaledges and in the gathering light spot three men on the rubble-strewn slope below. The men wave their hands, gesturing that they should come down. The Americans yell to them to cease fire. Still sitting in their sleeping bags, they stare at each other with stunned expressions. Among them they can cope with any horror the mountains might dish out: avalanche, rockfall, stormy weather; surely this situation can somehow be worked out, too. Hanging here they are sitting ducks, so they start to draw straws to see who'll go down first to meet the guys with the guns.
Dickey steps up to the plate. "I'll go," he volunteers.
They tie their ropes end to end and Dickey clips his rappel device onto the nylon strand. He eases over the edge of the portaledge and swings into the void, carrying down a Motorola two-way radio. As he departs he blithely suggests he'll offer the gunmen a cigarette, a gambit that the laconic Californian has found useful in the Third World for defusing tense situations.
The climbers can't figure out what the trouble is. The area they are in—a complex of high valleys dubbed the Ak Su region—has been visited every summer for 20 years by scores of Russian, European, and American climbers. Renowned for its huge sheets of tawny granite, the Ak Su has been called the Yosemite of Central Asia. All that is required to climb here is a frontier permit from the government of Kyrgyzstan, which the Americans have.
Dickey spins slowly as he rappels down. Twenty-five long minutes pass before he reaches the slope. Through a 200mm camera lens, Smith watches the handshakes between Dickey and the gunmen, sees them reject the proffered pack of cigarettes. Then Dickey radios up.
"These guys want you to come down. They just, er, well, you better come down. They want to go back to our base camp for, er, breakfast." Smith knows Dickey well enough to glean from his quavering tone that something is seriously wrong.
Smith clips his rappel device to the rope and slides down. On the ground he is confronted by two men—the third has left the scene. They are young; they wear fatigues and sport long black hair and beards. The men are packing Kalashnikov assault rifles, grenades, sidearms, and sheathed knives. Smith nervously shakes hands, and they trade names in a patois of gestures and the odd common word of English, Russian, and local dialect. The gunmen are Abdul, who seems to be the commander, and Obert. Smith sees that one is wearing a black Patagonia Gore-Tex jacket under his camo vest and a high-tech rucksack with a German label. Clearly these items were not mail-ordered; at the very least, the Americans figure, they are in the clutches of bandits. But Dickey also remembers seeing a short news story about Japanese geologists taken hostage here in 1999 by a group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the gunmen appear to fit the bill.
Rodden and Caldwell rappel down, and the gunmen indicate that everyone will head to the climbers' base camp, a mile down valley. Their tone is more matter-of-fact than menacing. They even smile occasionally. Yet there's no doubt who's in control. Half out of optimism, half out of a desire to suppress panic in the rest of the team, Dickey coolly reiterates that the gunmen just want some breakfast.
But when the climbers arrive in base camp they see that their tents, which they had sealed by tying the zippers together, are slit open at the walls. The third gunman—Isuf, or Su for short—is posted in the grassy meadow of camp, his weapon at his hip. He's wearing some of their clothing. A fourth man sits against a rock.
At first the Americans mistake this man for another bandit, until Caldwell and Rodden recognize him as Turat, a young Kyrgyz soldier who was friendly when he checked their permit a few days earlier. He's wearing civilian clothes now, and his face is stern. The Americans sit beside him, and when the gunmen aren't looking, Turat starts gesturing and scratching numbers in the sand. He manages to explain that he is a prisoner—taken off-duty, they judge from his dress. Next he holds up three fingers. Then he sweeps his hand across his throat.
"It wasn't hard to figure the math on this one," Smith tells me later. "There were three guys and one girl. I thought he meant that they'll take what they want from camp and then shoot the men."
"Nyet, nyet," Turat insists when he sees the Americans' stricken faces. But the story he eventually gets across is hardly more encouraging: Yesterday he and three fellow soldiers were captured; the rebels executed his comrades, and they are keeping Turat alive as a guide. Turat points to his bloodstained pants—the blood of his friends.
Then Abdul summons Smith and Dickey to their big, yellow main tent. Inside, he and Obert are raiding the larder. They want to know the contents of each can and packet. A strange game of charades begins: When the rebels hold up a can of chicken meat, the climbers cluck "bok bok bok." When they point to a strip of beef jerky they intone "moo."
What the rebels don't want is anything that smacks of "oink oink." And, as Dickey has learned, they are not into tobacco. Turat warns them in a mix of Russian and English not to offer them vodka, either—the Muslims don't drink.
The rebels order the climbers to stuff four packs with about 30 to 50 pounds each of cans, candles, sleeping bags, and clothing. Then they confiscate their four two-way radios. As he packs, Dickey turns to Singer. A crooked, nervous smile contorts his lips.
"We're hostages," he says flatly.