Memories Of Captivity Await Climber In Kyrgyzstan

Jun 18, 2011

Eleven years after being held hostage for several days by a militant group in Kyrgyzstan, a professional rock climber is heading back to the Kyrgyz cliffs.

In August 2000, photographer John Dickey embarked on a trek with three other avid climbers. Using minimal equipment, they planned to scale cliffs in the Karasu Valley of southeastern Kyrgyzstan. They were assured that aside from the several-thousand-foot free falls, the region otherwise posed no threats to their safety.

After spending the night on a portaledge (a bed made for climbers that hangs suspended on a cliff face), they awoke to sounds that they couldn't easily identify.

"At dawn the next morning, we heard a ping ... The first thing you think is rockfall. But it wasn't," Dickey tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Rachel Martin. "Another ping, and that really sounded like a gunshot. You look down, and there [are] guys on the ground waving you down."

For the young, adventurous group it was hard to fathom.

"When the first two shots were fired, we thought, maybe there [were] hunters with bad aim or something,'" fellow climber Beth Rodden said back in 2000. "But then when the third one came and sand landed on our sleeping bags, we knew that it was for us."

The climbers were forced down to the bottom of the valley, where they and their Kyrgyz escort were taken hostage by militant rebels. Shortly after, their escort was taken behind a boulder and shot dead as a warning to the Americans.

For six days, the four 20somethings were hidden under brush and rocks during the day and moved stealthily at night. They survived off a few energy bars that were stashed into a jacket before the climb, and some yak butter and yogurt balls that were brought back when their two captors raided the climbers' base camp.

While holding them hostage, the militants engaged in a firefight with the Kyrgyz army.

"[It was] crazy, strange, wild, violent," Dickey says. "There wasn't really any time to have any emotional reaction to 'Oh look, here's a body that's been executed.' All you could really think to yourself is, it's in these rebels' best interest that they keep us alive as hostages."

On Day 6, while being forced up the rugged cliffs, the group agreed that escape was the only option. The climbers took their chance when one of their captors went back to their base camp to get batteries for the walkie-talkies they had stolen.

"Here is this opportunity where we have two rebels with us, and we're going to be left with the one very naive, inexperienced kid to climb up this humungous ridgeline for what the four of us is extremely easy terrain, but for him was very dangerous and difficult terrain. Instantaneously, Tommy [Caldwell] handled the situation. [He] grabbed the gentleman by the gun strap over his shoulder and just threw him straight off the cliff."

They then ran toward a Kyrgyz military outpost — unsure of what, or who, they would find there. On the way, several other rebels jumped out of the brush and began shooting at them, but they made it to the outpost, where the Kyrgyz soldiers took them in. They were later taken to another military base and eventually made it back to the U.S., relatively unscathed.

Now Dickey is returning to Kyrgyzstan to attempt another climb. He'll be in the same province as when he was captured, but this time he'll be scaling cliffs in the Aksu Valley.

"That whole region holds some of the great prizes in climbing," he says. "There's a reason we went in the first place. And we didn't get to have our trip, and I've always wanted to go back. I want to go have this climbing trip."

Dickey admits being scared. "I can't predict how I'm going to react."

But he says he doesn't plan to do anything differently this time around.

"You can build a house and put in the greatest sprinkler system ever," he says, "but that does not guarantee that your house could not burn down someday."

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