His Life or Theirs

updated 09/11/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/11/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As one of the world's professional rock-climbing elite, Tommy Caldwell is used to facing danger in some of the planet's most forbidding places. But one thing he had never encountered, until just after dawn last Aug. 12, was the roar of gunfire as it echoed off the sheer granite wall to which he was clinging 1,000 feet above the ground in the central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. "We were sitting ducks up there," Caldwell, 22, part of a four-member American climbing expedition, recalls thinking calmly, "so we had no choice but to go down and see what was up."

What Caldwell and his climbing colleagues found on the ground was enough to make the high-altitude risks of their sport seem relatively benign by comparison. Waiting below on the valley floor were four heavily armed members of an Islamic extremist militia who spoke no English but made it clear that Caldwell and the other Americans—Beth Rodden, 20, Jason Smith, 22, and John Dickey, 25—were being held captive. It was the beginning of an ordeal that would last six harrowing days and nights, ending only when the young climbers boldly turned on their guard, pushing him to his death from a high mountain ledge. "It's so hard to think about that now," admits Beth Rodden, now safe at home in Davis, Calif., of the group's drastic decision to take a life, "but we were afraid we wouldn't survive."

Yet if any group should know how to survive, it would be these four adventurers, experts in a style of mountaineering known as free climbing, in which minimal use is made of equipment. "Survival is something you train for," says Caldwell's father, Mike, 50, an elementary school teacher in Loveland, Colo., who introduced his son to climbing at the age of 3. Among them, the four climbers had made successful ascents in China, Europe, Africa and the Arctic and had known each other from years of competitive climbing on the same circuit. Together, Rodden, the daughter of a college administrator and an elementary school vice principal, and Caldwell, her boyfriend, had become the first to free-climb the Yosemite Valley's El Capitan using the daunting route known as Lurking Fear earlier this summer.

In hindsight that grueling 3½-week climb served as a mere warm-up for the ambitious six-week expedition to Kyrgyzstan, a rugged republic once part of the former Soviet Union. Their trip, financed in part by the North Face clothing and outdoor equipment company, was joined by Jason Smith, a designer for North Face, and John Dickey, a photographer hired by the California-based company to document the climbers' exploits. The team arrived in Kyrgyzstan's Kara-Su Valley by helicopter on July 27. There, between taking joy rides on yaks and teaching valley residents how to throw a Frisbee, they spent several days planning new routes up the basin's 2,000-ft. granite walls.

Two weeks later, on Aug. 12, the group had completed a day of tough climbing and were sleeping on portaledges—lightweight cots suspended from the rock face—when the shots fired from below suddenly woke them at 6:15 a.m. Dickey, the oldest climber, rappelled down the rock face in 30 minutes and discovered that the guerrillas, anti-government Islamic extremists from the neighboring state of Uzbekistan, who have been active in several countries in the region, had already ransacked the climbers' base camp and helped themselves to their shoes, jackets and food. Convinced that the rebels meant business, Dickey radioed his friends on the mountain to hurry down to the valley.

At first the climbers were concerned that the rebels might sexually assault Rodden, the only woman in their group, but the deeply religious guerrillas kept a respectful distance. "They didn't beat us," says Smith, a Utah native who now lives in San Francisco. Yet their treatment of a Kyrgyz soldier whom the rebels had also taken captive was savage. Just five hours into the hostage ordeal the rebels led the man behind a large boulder and shot him as the Americans lay nearby. Then, during a subsequent gunfight between the guerrillas and Kyrgyz troops, the climbers were forced to take shelter behind the boulder, where one of them, Jason Smith, had to sit on the dead man's body to avoid being caught in the crossfire. "They just seemed really cold-blooded about that," says Rodden, a tiny woman who lost 15 lbs. during the ordeal.

Two of the rebels disappeared without explanation one evening, leaving just their commander and a 20-year-old guard named Usuph. Together the pair ordered the Americans to hide under piles of brush during the day and marched them over harsh terrain toward the Uzbekistan border during the frigid nights. Until the rebels raided a hut on day four and returned with yogurt balls and a 20-lb. slab of yak butter, the entire group subsisted on six energy bars, which Rodden happened to have stashed in her jacket on the day she was captured, and drank muddy water from puddles. The climbers never gave up hope of a rescue, but as the days passed, the men in particular began to see escape as their only option. Says Smith: "I figured we had to do this ourselves."

Finally, at midnight on Aug. 18, after the commander had set off in search of fresh batteries for his radio, leaving just Usuph to mind the four captives, the Americans took action. What exactly happened is a matter that all four insist is still too painful to discuss, except to say that they pushed Usuph off a cliff. (Kyrgyz officials won't confirm whether a body was recovered, but Mycaev Aibek, a press aide to the country's president, believes the climbers' account is true.) Rodden will only add that the killing might have had disastrous consequences. "When we did that," she says, "I thought, 'Wow, we shouldn't have. If they find us now, they won't be merciful.' "

On that point, all of the climbers were in full agreement. Having scouted the region prior to climbing, the four promptly set off running in the direction of a Kyrgyz military outpost some 18 miles to the north. They arrived there four hours later, after narrowly dodging bullets fired by another group of rebels at close range. "We were really flying on the wings of angels," says Rodden. Finally, their ordeal was over; soldiers at the base provided warm clothes and food—"They were just awesome," says Rodden—and the following day the Americans were personally greeted by Kyrgyzstan's president, Askar Akayev, who flew them to the capital city of Bishkek aboard the Kyrgyz equivalent of Air Force One, a Yak-40 jet.

Today, none of the former captives holds anyone to blame for their ordeal, which they call an example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. "I don't think you can predict this kind of thing," says Jason Smith. Indeed, the attention focused on the climbers may well lead to corporate sponsorships that will make even more exotic expeditions a possibility. In which case, says Smith, they will all do well to remember the key to their survival. "When you go up on a rock with other people, you put your life in someone's hands," he says. "We had our lives in each other's hands."

Patrick Rogers
Maureen Harrington in Davis and Eileen Finan in London

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