Climbers Recount Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan

In 2000, rock climbers Beth Rodden,Tommy Caldwell, and companions traveled to the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan for an ultimate climbing test.

To elite rock climbers such as Beth Rodden and Tommy Caldwell, the sheer cliffs of Kyrgyzstan are the ultimate challenge. And in 2000, that fearless pair traveled to the former Soviet republic on the border of China to test their climbing skills.

But what was tested for Rodden, Caldwell, and their climbing partners was their ability to survive. One early morning, as they camped on a rock face they were ascending, gunfire shattered the dawn. Beth, Tommy, and their companions were taken hostage by armed rebels at war with the Kyrgyz government. During the six days that followed, these American climbers would be pushed to limits they never dreamed possible.

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Although they are in their mid-twenties, they look much younger … like teenagers … as they walk into my studio. It is hard to imagine them, strapped into portable sleeping ledges, a thousand feet in the air …

Beth Rodden: We were woken by three gunshots that came very near to where we were sleeping.

Tom Foreman: People at the bottom of the mountain were shooting at you and motioning for you to come down.

Tommy Caldwell: We were looking through our camera lenses, and we could see them waving to us and they kept shooting at us. And they were getting pretty close, so John volunteered to go down.

Tom Foreman: You had two other people with you—John and Jason.

Tommy Caldwell: John volunteered to go down and see what was going on.

Tom Foreman: And in short order, he radioed back up …

Tommy Caldwell: He sounded very serious and just said, "I think you guys need to come down here."

Tom Foreman: When you got to the bottom, tell me what you saw.

Beth Rodden: There were three men in army fatigues, they had full beards, and rifles and grenades and handguns and knives.

Tommy Caldwell: They were friendly. We shook their hands. But they were scary looking, so we knew that we had to do exactly what they said.

The rebels forced the hostages to lead them to their main camp, where the rebels ransacked their belongings and ate their food. Beth and Tommy thought the ordeal might end there. Then they met another prisoner: a captured Kyrgyz soldier.

Beth Rodden: And through charades he communicated to us that these guys had killed many Kyrgyz soldiers, and they were taking us captive.

Tom Foreman: And so you started moving, playing hide and seek with these government helicopters and patrols that are sweeping the valley—obviously looking for rebels like this?

Tommy Caldwell: Yeah. When a helicopter would fly over, they would point their guns at us and tell us to hide in the bushes. And at one point, in the bushes one of the rebels pointed the gun directly at John's head and said, "If you move, you're dead."

Beth Rodden: We hid under boulders, under trees, covered in pine boughs—anywhere that seemed really unlikely for people to be.

Tom Foreman: Despite all this, a fight eventually broke out between the rebels and some of the soldiers who were looking for them?

Tommy Caldwell: We crossed this river and started heading up the side of a valley, and while we did this, the Kyrgyz Army started to show up on the side valley that we had just been in and this huge battle broke out. We were just hiding in bushes, and there was bullets going through the bushes, so our captors told us to run up to this rock. But first they told the Kyrgyz soldier that was with us to run up there and after he got behind the rock, we heard two pops and they had executed him.

Tom Foreman: And that told you, as you were hiding there next to his corpse, bullets thumping all around you, that this was a very serious, very serious situation and that they wouldn't hesitate to kill you.

Tommy Caldwell: Right. So, you know, we made sure that they trusted us.

Tom Foreman: What were you surviving on?

Beth Rodden: We had taken a toiletries kit and filled it full of power bars, enough for everybody to have a half a power bar a day. We shared it with them.

Tommy Caldwell: The situation was getting extremely desperate. Jason and John would talk a lot about ways of escaping; about ways to try and overwhelm these guys.

Beth Rodden: I didn't want anything to do with it. I thought it would backfire, and then they would definitely kill us.

All the scheming comes to nothing, until at one point three of the rebels go away leaving a lone man in charge of the captives as they climb a steep ridge. Then, near the top …

Tommy Caldwell: Our captor sees that the hillside is easing off and he starts to run ahead. He has been really scared this whole time on this cliff because he's not a climber. So I asked Beth if she thinks I should do this.

Beth Rodden: And at that point I just thought that this was our best opportunity.

Tommy Caldwell: So I ran up behind him and grabbed him by his gun strap and pulled him over the edge. We were probably about 2,000 feet (610 meters) above the river, but it's a cliff that is pretty sheer. We saw him fall 20 feet (6 meters), bounce off this ledge, and then fall basically into the black abyss below. I totally panicked. I broke down. I couldn't believe I'd just done that, because it's something that I never morally thought I could do and I never wanted to do. And Beth came up and, you know, gave me a lot of comfort as well as Jason and John.

Beth Rodden: I told him he'd just saved our lives and now we had this opportunity to run and hopefully find the Kyrgyz Army.

Several miles and several hours later, exhausted and frightened, the hikers finally stumbled into an army camp and safety. The man Tommy Caldwell thought he had killed, survived the fall, only to be eventually captured by Kyrgyz soldiers and sentenced to death.

Tom Foreman: How hard has it been to leave what happened to you behind?

Beth Rodden: For the first six months, I had nightmares, and actually didn't enjoy climbing at all. I related climbing to being kidnapped. But through time and patience, I've learned to love climbing and enjoy it again.

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