American rock climber Tommy Caldwell gets to make a few impressive claims. In 2015 he completed what has been hailed as the most impressive freeclimb of all time, on the Dawn Wall of Yosemite National Park. It took 19 days, involved a lot of falling and trying again, and Caldwell managed to make history despite being a digit down, after losing a finger in an accident with a saw a decade before.
But before any of that, in 2000, he escaped capture from jihadists by pushing one off a cliff.
It’s a story he’s recently relived when writing his memoir, The Push, and one he tells us today...
I was 21 when I went to Kyrgyzstan. I’d climbed a lot in Yosemite, and was looking for a place that was kind of like that but a bit more remote and wild. Kyrgyzstan has both big walls and good weather, which is a pretty rare combination, so off we went. The four of us – me, my then-girlfriend Beth and two other guys, John and Jason – showed up in the van to an area that people had climbed in before, but we were doing some climbs that hadn’t been done. We spent a week climbing, and it was all pretty blissful.
But then, on our seventh day, a rebel group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan showed up at the base of the wall we were climbing on. We were about 2,000 feet up when they spotted us, and they shot at us, made us come down and took us hostage.
Right after we’d been taken captive, the Kyrgyz military showed up and fought them, which seemed even crazier to us, because we thought we were in a remote part of the mountains. This whole insane war broke out. We were being shot at by machine guns and mortars. We saw a Kyrgyz soldier get executed, point-blank, right in front of us. We were in the middle of this big battle, but in the night our captors managed to escape it, taking us with them and leaving pretty much all of our food and warmer clothes behind.
It wasn’t entirely clear what their aims were in abducting us. I think we were partially human shields, making them less likely to get shot at as they sneaked over the border into Uzbekistan, but we were also American tourists with expensive climbing gear – we figured we’d be imprisoned there and eventually ransomed.
But nothing was certain. A lot was going through our heads. It all seemed pretty touch and go, we felt like we could just get shot at any moment, and we were 11,000 feet up in the cold and at constant risk of hypothermia. From the beginning we felt like we had to stay strong, because we’d become a liability to them if any of us didn’t.
We spent six days up in the mountains. We were split up into two groups during the day, hiding in these dank holes in daylight hours, places so miserable that the Kyrgyz military wouldn’t think to look in there.
Pretty early on in the experience, Jason came up with the idea that if we let our captors believe we were on their side, that would help our chances of escape. They were in a pretty dire situation themselves, with very little food or equipment.
But at the same time, the scheming began. The focus of our conversation became what we were going to do and how we were going to escape. The four of us were split on the matter. The two other guys were very much into the idea of overcoming our captors and escaping. The guy I was most frequently paired with, Jason, would go into really gory details about what we needed to do. He’d talk about how we would rip out their jugular veins and bash their heads in with rocks. He was kind of a violent guy. I was pretty shocked by that, because we’d just watched people get murdered point blank, and that was horrific, and I didn’t want any part of that. My girlfriend felt the same, so as a group we were torn down the middle. The two of us thought we should just try and outlast our captors. We were climbers, so we were in good shape and used to being in the mountains, so it seemed pretty likely that we could just stuck it out longer than them.
On the sixth night it all came to a head. Two of our four captors had disappeared – we think they got captured by the Kyrgyz military – so by this point it was just the four of us, our two captors, and their machine guns. We’d all lost a lot of weight, and the leader of the captors, the more authoritarian one, decided to go back to base camp to get some food, so we were left with just one rebel guarding us. We were to head up this 2,000 ft mountainside, and he’d meet us at the top with the food.
So we were going up this steep slope with just this one guy, a mercenary who wasn’t a climber, he was in army boots with a big heavy machine gun and was really uncomfortable in the terrain. It was dead obvious that this was our chance to escape.
The plan became that Beth and I would stay up front and the other two guys would look for an opportunity to push him off the mountain, but it’s not an easy thing to do. It felt like we were passing up one opportunity after another – I think they were afraid that if they didn’t pick exactly the right time he’d land on a ledge and shoot us, or he’d pull them over the edge with him. It just wasn’t an easy thing to make happen.
As we were nearing the top, it looked like it was going to rain, and I was worried that if it did we’d all end up freezing to death. I looked over to my girlfriend and told her that I thought they were right, that this was our only chance for survival. I said “Are you okay for me to do this?” and she didn’t say anything, which I took as her blessing.
So I just made it happen. I ran over behind him, grabbed his gunstrap and pulled him over the edge of the mountain into the blackness.
Immediately afterwards, I panicked. I ran up to the top of the mountainside, which was only about 50 feet away by then, and collapsed, distraught, rocking back and forth and crying. It was a bit of an out of body experience. I’d made this decision in the moment, but once it was done I was like, oh my god, I’ve killed somebody. That was a place I never wanted to go. I’m a shy, meek person, and I didn’t even see him as evil. He was a victim of circumstance really, and over the six days we’d almost become friends in a weird way.
I was forced to calm down very quickly, because there wasn’t time to dwell on what had just happened. Our other captor was on his way to meet us all with food, and I’d just thrown his buddy off a cliff.
We ran about eight miles down the mountain to a military outpost we knew the location of. As we were approaching that we were shot at again – we still don’t know who by, whether it was rebels staking out the outpost or the Kyrgyz military mistaking us for rebels or what – but we started yelling that we were Americans and ended up safely inside this base. The next day they walked us through the valley where the massacre had happened a week before, and there were still bloody clothes all over the place. It wasn’t until we were in a helicopter on our way out of there that we actually felt safe – it felt as though we’d been in the middle of a battle for that whole week.
The events traumatised me in certain ways and it was hard for a while, but eventually it helped me build confidence in knowing I could react in the correct way under pressure. It was such an intense situation – we were starving to death, we were under an immense amount of stress.
Three months later, I found out that the guy I’d thrown off the mountain had survived. That was an absolute shock – I figured it was a reporter lying to me to try and get a story, but it turned out that he’d hit a ledge somewhere down below and ended up surviving. My parents say that when I learned that I came back to life, but what had upset me was what was inside of me rather than whether he’d actually died or not.
Something about the whole experience ultimately helped me understand is that I experience fear in a very logical way. It’s served me well as a climber. I’m not too emotional about fearful situations. It probably has a lot to do with how I was raised – I grew up in the mountains, and was always in a lot of thunderstorms and loose rocks, and I’ve been around a lot of risky, scary stuff. This meant that when I decided what had to be done had to be done, I was able to do it. I can carry it with me for the rest of my life that when things are really bad, I have it within me to react.
The whole thing was a coming of age experience in a lot of ways. I went into it a kid, just driven by angst, and came out a man.
The Push by Tommy Caldwell is out now, published by Penguin