Climbers Escape Islamic Militants

ByABC News

D A V I S, Calif., Aug. 25, 2000 -- American climbers held hostage for six daysby Islamic militants in Kyrgyzstan say they escaped by pushing aguard off a cliff before making a harrowing 18-mile trek tofreedom.

“It is so hard to think of that now, but we were afraid wewould not survive,” Beth Rodden, 20, said Thursday.

Rodden returned to California with fellow climber Tommy Caldwellof Estes Park, Colo., on Tuesday, four days after fleeing Uzbekimilitants in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic.

The other climbers, San Francisco Bay area residents JohnDickey, 25, and Jason Smith, 22, were expected to return today.The foursome went to Kyrgyzstan on an expedition sponsored by TheNorth Face, a sports gear company.

Soldiers Fire Shots

On Aug. 12, the day after Caldwell’s 22nd birthday, the climberswere plotting routes on the steep walls of the Kara-su Valley whenrebel soldiers began shooting. All four were taken hostage and putunder guard.

“They buried us under rocks, put brush on us, basically hid usfrom helicopters during the day and sometimes we moved at night,”Caldwell said.

The militant forces, seeking to take control of the remote,rugged area where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan andUzbekistan converge, were stepping up fighting efforts againstgovernment troops. In the first hours of captivity, the climbersheard their captors execute a fifth hostage, a government soldier.

Forced to lie still up to 17 hours a day in “teeth-chatteringcold,” Caldwell said, the climbers survived on half-portions ofenergy bars and slabs of butter.

When the walkie-talkies the guards took from them ran out ofbatteries, one guard went back to the climbers’ camp to get more.That’s when the climbers say they pushed the other armed guard offa cliff and fled, dodging bullets as they made the 18-mile journeyto a military post.

Soldiers Offered Fatigues

Government soldiers welcomed them and offered them fatigues. Theclimbers were told the troops knew of their capture but couldn’tsave them without risking another battle.

“They knew where we were the whole time,” said Caldwell, whodoesn’t fault the troops for staying back. “They were doingeverything they could.”

During a meeting with the four climbers Saturday, PresidentAskar Akayev said they had been hiking in an area frequentlytraveled by the Islamic militants.

Rodden and Caldwell, both among the nation’s top-rated climbers,said they were terrified by their experience but might want toreturn to the country if the fighting stops.

“You never know what is going to happen when you go somewherelike that,” said Rodden’s father, Robb, also a mountain climber.

“The warnings we found on the Internet gave this region verymild warnings,” he said. “If you compare them to warnings inother countries, it was very minor.”

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