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.
This valley, these mountains, this country: It is all remote, but it was widely believed to be safe. As Lonely Planet's guide to Central Asia encourages, "Most travellers vote Kyrgyzstan the most appealing, accessible, and welcoming of the former Soviet Central Asian republics," touting the incredible peaks of the central Tien Shan and Pamir Alai ranges. Tourism, the book continues, "is one of the few things Kyrgyzstan has to sell to the outside world." Certainly Rodden, Caldwell, Dickey, and Smith had been welcomed warmly here, and their expedition, backed in part by The North Face (which sponsors Smith and Rodden), had not ventured far off the beaten climbing path. In fact, I had climbed here myself in 1995, on an earlier expedition sponsored by The North Face, with Lynn Hill, Alex Lowe, and Conrad Anker. We found a pastoral scene of verdant meadows and a scattered population of seminomadic Kyrgyz—Islamic subsistence farmers who come here in summer, tending yaks and cows. We also found a slew of virgin routes on the stupendous walls of Peak 4810, Peak 3850 (so called for their heights in meters), and Russian Tower. Two Russian teams and another American group were also there, having helicoptered in from Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, and none of us encountered any hostility.
The next four years were equally calm, and Kyrgyzstan gained a reputation as Asia's hottest mountain playground. As recently as August 1999, the outfitter Mountain Travel–Sobek took trekkers to the same base camp where the climbers were kidnapped. But the frontiers of adventure, those last undiscovered and unspoiled places, are often the frontiers of political instability and civil conflict. They are often unspoiled not only because they are geographically remote, but also because they were historically frozen in place—for more than 50 years in Kyrgyzstan's case—by the geopolitical dictates of the Cold War. And now, as former outposts of the Soviet empire become hot zones of regional tension, they can also become dangerous to travelers. Fearing trouble, Mountain Travel–Sobek canceled its Ak Su trek this summer. And as Lonely Planet Online does warn adventure travelers heading for the boondocks of Kyrgyzstan, "There's a great temptation to hop off the bus in the middle of nowhere and hike into the hills, but this is not recommended if you value your life."
Indeed, Central Asia is a political powder keg—so much so that U.S. State Department officials refuse to even discuss the remote border regions of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan on the record. But one official lists a Balkans-style litany of troubles: a five-year civil war that has killed 50,000 in Tajikistan; a weak Kyrgyzstan army; a repressive Soviet-style Uzbekistan government whose policies inflame the fundamentalist Islamic opposition. The most unstable element in this cauldron is war-torn, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, now the world's greatest narco-state, churning out 4,600 tons of opium last year—even more than the Golden Triangle. Afghanistan is widely believed to be where militant groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan—the climbers' captors—get their training. Funding is handed out in the form of heroin. Rebels sell the drugs through pipelines to China, Russia, and Europe, and use the proceeds to buy arms from Russian, Chechen, and other sources. Much of this contraband is funneled across Central Asia's porous mountain borders, through high valleys like the Ak Su and Kara Su.
“The climber scrambles up the cliff, grabs the rifle slung over his captor's back, and pulls. Falling, the rebel arcs through the circle of the moon, pedaling air.”
The IMU is a 1,200-man "cross-border, multinational fighting force," says Ahmed Rashid, author of the recent book Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Mostly Uzbeks, the group's ranks include Afghans, Tajiks, Chechens, Pakistanis, emissaries from Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden, and Filipino revolutionaries. The IMU, its Sunni Muslim membership having been repressed first by the Soviets and now by Uzbekistan's president-for-life, Islom Karimov, seeks to overthrow Karimov, who has detained up to 50,000 Muslim men from the country's Ferghana Valley. The ultimate goal is to create an independent Islamic state in the valley—one that, like Afghanistan, would adhere to the strictest eye-for-an-eye Sharia religious law. Led by Juma Namangani, an Uzbek warlord, the IMU operates out of the high mountains of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which embrace southwestern Kyrgyzstan from north and south. The Ak Su lies between their mountain stronghold and Ferghana, the object of their desire.
On August 23, 1999, IMU guerrillas poured over Tajik passes in the Pamirs into southwestern Kyrgyzstan, attacked Kyrgyz soldiers, and seized four Japanese geologists. The hostages languished in Tajik camps for 64 days until their release. The Japanese and Kyrgyzstan governments claim that no ransom was paid, but as sources in the U.S. State Department and the independent Central Asia Institute confirm, several million dollars may have changed hands.
If ransom was paid, then the climbers who flock to the Ak Su would represent an irresistible cash crop. And since the Japanese incident, the State Department insists, it has posted explicit warnings on its Web site about fighting and kidnapping risks in the area. When Smith, Dickey, Rodden, and Caldwell left the States on July 25, the site displayed a "Public Announcement" dated June 15, 2000, and, as it does for every country, a "Consular Information Sheet." Dated November 17, 1999, Kyrgyzstan's sheet cautioned U.S. citizens "to avoid all travel west and south of the southern provincial capital Osh." But these alerts stopped short of a full-fledged "Travel Warning," which advises Americans to avoid a country completely. The climbers read some, but not all, of this advice, and they interpreted much of it as outdated. They did not contact the U.S. embassy when they landed in Bishkek. Their Kyrgyz travel agent, Ak Sai Tours, made no mention of danger, nor did the helicopter crew that flew them to the Ak Su, nor did the Kyrgyz soldiers who checked their permits.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
Before a storm, climbers always sense tension. The changing weather charges the atmosphere with a last-chance sort of feeling. On August 17, the sixth day of captivity, clouds fill the sky. The temperature is near freezing, the air damp. Something's brewing. Before dawn Abdul returned with two stinking, greasy 40-pound sacks. One contains salty yak butter, the other balls of congealed yogurt—Abdul and Su, as desperate and starving as their charges, start in on the provisions, most likely taken from a farmer. The Americans each force down one or two of the rancid balls. In his bivvy cave Smith sits on the suitcase-size slab of butter, insulation against the cold rocks. For the first time in a long time, Caldwell prays.
At dusk they get under way again. Abdul explains that they must climb the rugged west side of the Kara Su Valley to a plateau 3,000 feet above. There they will rendezvous, waiting several days if necessary, with Abdullah and Obert—who the Americans think must be dead, judging from their radio silence these last two days and several distant bursts of fire. Eventually they will be taken north, to Uzbekistan, the hostages are told.
Then Abdul turns away, signing that he will catch up after he heads up to the Americans' base camp, where the stashed duffels hold fresh radio batteries. It is 10 p.m. From where they stand, at the foot of a perilously steep climb that they'll have to tackle without ropes, it is an hour to base camp, an hour back. Su is now their only guard; the hostages will have most of the night alone with him. As they begin to climb the succession of slabby cliffs and steep grassy slopes, Dickey turns to his companions and says, "We gotta whack this guy, tonight."
Stifled by rain clouds, the now full moon rounds the mountainside and bleeds onto the group as it reaches a point 2,000 feet above the river. The Americans and their guard climb a moderately difficult rib, a series of 5.2 pitches, flanked by glacier-carved cliffs. Smith and Dickey shadow Su the whole way, openly talking about finding a place to push him off. But they are each burdened with the heavy bags of butter and yogurt balls, and Smith has Turat's sleeping bag draped clumsily around his shoulders, like a shawl.
"We had all been talking about killing someone for days," Caldwell will remember, clearly uncomfortable with the memory, "but Beth had said to me she just didn't think I could emotionally handle it. So I was staying out of it."
"Alpinista!" Su orders Smith to the front. He waves his hand at the cliff as if to ask, "Which way?"
Smith heads up the 60-degree face, pointing out the handholds to Su, urging him on like a guided client. Su slings his AK-47 over his shoulder and scrambles up. A shove here would be fatal, and Smith steps into position to body-slam Su off the ledge. But the rebel skirts around him, oblivious, and starts up another step of rock.
"OK, this is it," Dickey says in a trembling voice. He hands Smith the sack of yogurt balls and climbs into position, just below Su.
"Come on, do it, John," comes a collective murmur out of the night. But Su moves beyond Dickey's reach. It is now midnight. They are near the top of the last cliff. Somebody has to do something.
Caldwell is thinking his friends might not do it. And he starts worrying about how they would survive a storm up here, worrying about Beth, wondering what will happen to them all in Uzbekistan. He turns to Beth and asks, "Do you want me to do it?" She doesn't say anything. Then he starts moving toward Su.
Fueled by a wave of adrenaline, Caldwell scrambles across the ledge and up the cliff. He reaches up, grabs the rifle slung over Su's back, and pulls. A faint breath of surprise, a sound like whaaa, escapes Su's lips. He is falling.
The rebel arcs through the circle of the moon, pedaling air. The climbers see him hit a ledge 30 feet down with a crack. Then Su rolls off into the darkness, over the 1,500-foot cliff to the river below.
Caldwell is screaming. Clambering up the cliff in seconds, he curls up in a ball and begins gasping, "Holy shit, I just killed a guy."
Rodden reaches him and embraces him. "How can you love me now?" Caldwell sobs. "After I did this?"
"You just saved my life, Tommy," she answers. "I couldn't love you more."
Then Dickey is shouting, "Let's go, let's go!" But Caldwell, the one least likely to have acted on their talk of killing Su, is beside himself.
"Tommy, listen to me," Smith shouts into his face. "We did nothing wrong. We just saved our lives. When we get home we'll say we all did it, OK? But right now we have to get the fuck out of here. Go!"
They take off at a frantic pace, moving diagonally downhill, occasionally pausing to console Caldwell and catch their breath. Then the sound of rocks sliding behind them stops their hearts and they run again, stumbling over scree until, at 1:15 in the morning, they reach the Karavshin.
Beside the river is a well-worn trail that Smith and Dickey recognize from their trek; from here it is 18 miles to the Kyrgyz army camp. They are nearly hallucinating from fatigue, yet they keep stumbling forward. A herd of cows, moonlit in their path, frightens them: They mistake them for rebels. The climbers hug the shadows, running from tree to tree.
Hours later, they cross a footbridge near a bend in the river; now they are just a mile and a half from the army camp and a few hundred yards from a forward outpost. They're on the home stretch. But suddenly three men—rebels—materialize out of the forest, one of them just 15 feet behind them. One shouts something, then the muzzle flash and crack of AK-47s fills the night. Yellow tracers fly past their heads.
Dickey dives behind a bush. Caldwell and Rodden hide behind a rock. Smith starts running, dodging bullets, but alone and in front he suddenly feels naked, and he turns and runs back to the others. The four collide and then run together toward the outpost. It occurs to Caldwell that rebels might be manning that, too, but there is no turning back. Then shots from the front streak over their heads. Shots in front, shots behind. They are in no-man's-land. A figure stands in the doorway of a nearby hut, aiming a rifle at them. Army or rebels? They can't tell. They dive into the dark hut anyway.
Smith is first over the threshold. "Americanski! Americanski!" he shouts, holding his hands high.
All they see are gun barrels. Heaving with fear the four sprawl face-down on the dirt floor. Hands frisk them. Then one of the dark figures detects that Rodden is a woman.
"Oh, madame!" the man says, surprised. He removes his hands from her and steps back apologetically.
"We almost made it," shouts Rodden, confused, thinking Abdul will step forward any moment.
"We did make it, Beth!" Smith cries.
Minutes later Kyrgyz soldiers are thrusting cans of sardines and canteens of water into their hands. The soldiers have turned back the rebels. It is 4 a.m. on August 18. The climbers have escaped.
If their ordeal took place in a mountainous black hole, the four Americans now step into a whirlwind. A hurried hike with soldiers through the blood-soaked canyon gets them to a helicopter that whisks them to the town of Batken. That morning, the U.S. embassy learns for the first time that Americans have been kidnapped. Dressed in ill-fitting Kyrgyz army fatigues—their clothes are in tatters and they have lost all their gear—the climbers appear on Kyrgyzstan's state-run TV. They are hailed as heroes. They board the private jet of President Askar Akayev. They fly to Bishkek, where they are met by U.S. embassy officials and they make their first calls home. While in Bishkek they learn they weren't the only climbers taken hostage: Six Germans, three Russians, two Uzbeks, and a Ukrainian either escaped or were rescued in military operations on August 16. By September 5, Minister Councillor Nurdek Jeenbaez of the Kyrgyz embassy in Washington, D.C., claims that the rebels have been pushed out of the area by his country's forces. Abdul, Obert, and Abdullah have most likely died fighting or faded back into the mountain passes of the Pamir. No one can say if Su's body has been found.
By August 25, all four climbers are home. When they hit the San Francisco tarmac, they slip back into their lives—or try. Caldwell and Rodden are reunited with their close-knit families, and Tommy is soon back up on the Colorado cliffs with his main ropemate, his father, Mike. Dickey and his girlfriend head to the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. Smith returns to his Chevy van and to his job at The North Face, where he runs the A5 division, which makes high-end climbing accoutrements. And in press conferences, morning TV shows, and interviews, the four friends hedge around discussion of the death of Su. We all pushed him, they insist. That's the pact they had made; they would stick together.
Then one night Caldwell phones me from the Roddens' house in Davis. He has been reticent all along, reluctant to talk. This time, though, he sounds sure of himself. "This is the deal," he says. He takes a deep breath. "I was the one who pushed Su. It was something I wasn't prepared to do, so when I did it I was pretty shaken up. Jason and John said that we would say we all did it. That helped me a lot. I'm still coming to terms with it."
Smith is coming to terms with the experience in a different way. "When we reached the army camp," he tells me as we drive in his van to the Oakland airport in late August, "I said to everyone that if there was a week in my life I would want to relive, then this would be it. To experience every human emotion in such a short time, under those intense, life-threatening circumstances. I would gladly go back."
I have heard war veterans say such things. And I have said the same, in private, about peaks that took friends' lives and that I felt sure had been about to take mine. But veterans of combat and survivors of high-mountain accidents carry a burden that takes time to understand.
In the long run, Beth Rodden may be speaking for all four climbers when she admits to me, three weeks after their return to America, that she has begun having nightmares. "I see Abdul," she says. "I see weird concoctions of battles. My friends are in them, and I'm always running from something."
Greg Child is the author of the climbing memoir Postcards from the Ledge.