The Push,

An ex­cerpt from Tommy Cald­well’s grip­ping, new me­moir


For the first time, Tommy Cald­well tells the story of his group’s capture in Kyr­gyzs­tan in 2000 in his own words, ex­cerpted from his grip­ping, new me­moir.

On Au­gust 11, 2000, four young Amer­i­can climbers—Tommy Cald­well, Beth Rod­den, Ja­son “Singer” Smith, and John Dickey— were forced down at gun­point off a for­ma­tion called the Yel­low Wall, in the re­mote Ak Su Val­ley of Kyr­gyzs­tan. (Cald­well and Rod­den were a cou­ple at the time.) Their cap­tors were mem­bers of a mili­tia called the Is­lamic Move­ment of Uzbek­istan (IMU); they’d been led to the lo­ca­tion by a Kyr­gyz army sol­dier named Tu­rat, who’d been pa­trolling the val­leys in this alpine bor­der re­gion and knew where to find the climbers. The Amer­i­cans were held hostage for six days, sur­viv­ing on stream wa­ter, scraps of en­ergy bars, and sheer grit. They were fer­ried around the moun­tains as the rebels—among them Ab­dul and Sharipov (Su)— en­gaged in fire­fights with the Kyr­gyz army. On the first day, the IMU ex­e­cuted Tu­rat within earshot of the Amer­i­cans. As the days wore on, the climbers be­gan plot­ting their es­cape. Though their story has been told be­fore, and Cald­well is now a house­hold name thanks to his 2015 first free as­cent of the

Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) of El Cap­i­tan with Kevin Jorge­son, this marks the first time Cald­well has writ­ten about their capture and sub­se­quent es­cape in the first per­son.

We hud­dled be­side Tu­rat’s body as it grew cold. A pool of blood had spilled from his head, and as the hours passed the ma­roon color lost its sheen, leav­ing only a dark stain on the sandy soil. He lay with his limbs twisted, his fin­gers curled. I tried not to look, but found my eyes drawn to him. Tu­rat’s was the first dead body I’d seen. I willed strength into my legs to keep me from wob­bling.

I turned to Beth, ex­pect­ing to see my own ter­ror re­flected in her ex­pres­sion. As if Tu­rat’s strength had in­fused Beth the mo­ment she saw him dead, she spoke to me calmly, enun­ci­at­ing ev­ery word: “Keep your eyes locked on mine. Do not look away no mat­ter what.”

Rock dust rained onto us as bul­lets con­tin­ued to ric­o­chet off the boul­ders. The noise rang in my ears. I shut my eyes. When I opened them again, the evening alpen­glow shone on the hori­zon. How could some­thing so lovely oc­cur si­mul­ta­ne­ously with such hor­ror? Sud­denly, an­other whis­tle. We flinched as an ob­ject sailed over­head. Ab­dul snatched an ap­ple from the sky and stuffed it into his mouth. The rebel who had tossed it re­sumed fire. Ab­dul ad­justed his weapon. He let the ap­ple fall from his mouth into his hand. He stood and munched away, as if he was at home watch­ing tele­vi­sion.

The fire in­ten­si­fied, both sides try­ing harder to kill in the day’s last light. What seemed like hours passed in min­utes as the sun dropped, and Ab­dul and the other three rebels laid down their guns and rolled out mats. An­other rock­et­pro­pelled grenade ex­ploded on the hill­side. The four of them turned to­ward Mecca, knelt, and be­gan to pray.

Once the sky turned black, the shoot­ing stopped. Along with our cap­tors we fled, leav­ing Tu­rat’s body. Later that night, two of the rebels left, search­ing for a goat to slaugh­ter for food. They never re­turned; we would later learn that they were picked off by Kyr­gyz forces. Only Ab­dul and Sharipov, whom we would know as Su, re­mained. Su was 20 years old, the same age as Beth. A prom­i­nent mole pro­truded from his up­per lip. Hair sprouted from be­neath his wool cap, and stub­ble tried to take hold on his chin. At times he looked fright­ened, had that wide-eyed look of some­one lost and dazed.

We were hostages, but in a way so were our cap­tors, hunted by the Kyr­gyz mil­i­tary. We bolted through the night; I shad­owed Beth. The fran­tic pace and ter­ror had over­whelmed us, leav­ing me numb, shocked, and puls­ing through a sur­real ex­is­tence. At sun­rise, we hid. To keep us weak, Ab­dul split us into two groups. He took Beth and Dickey, and sent Singer and me with Su. When we knew what was hap­pen­ing, Beth and I turned to each other. “We’re go­ing to be OK,” she said. “Just do what they ask.” “I will.” “Prom­ise me? Noth­ing stupid, OK?” “I’ll see you soon.” I feared I would never see Beth again. I had vowed to stay with her, to pro­tect her, and in that I had found pur­pose, a shred of hope. But our fate no longer be­longed to us.

For the next 14 hours, while the sun shined out­side, Singer, Su, and I sat stuffed in a damp hole, cov­er­ing our heads with reeds and branches, 30 feet from the mist of a fast-mov­ing

river. Our clothes soaked up the mois­ture, adding to the chill. Our suf­fer­ing warped time. Al­most a day had passed since our last sip of wa­ter or bite of food. Com­pla­cency washed through me in waves. Min­utes felt like hours, hours like days of bon­er­at­tling cold.

When the sun set again and we emerged from our hid­ing place, we milled around as stiff as old men. But when I saw Beth, I straight­ened and felt re­vi­tal­ized. She was alive, stand­ing in front of me. She even man­aged a smile. We stood on the bank of a river, the wa­ter roar­ing so loudly that we couldn’t talk un­less we shouted. So we hugged. Then we looked each other in the eyes un­til we knew we were OK. I wanted to hold her for­ever.

Soon af­ter, un­der cover of dark­ness, we ate our daily meal—one Pow­erBar split among the six of us. Away from the river and able to speak, I learned how much worse the day had been for Beth and Dickey. Ab­dul had forced them un­der a river­side boul­der. Dur­ing the mid­day swell, the wa­ter had come into their cave, soak­ing them. The river­banks had eroded, and they wor­ried that the boul­der would col­lapse on them. Beth would later tell me that Dickey was like a fa­ther fig­ure, hold­ing her shiv­er­ing body tight to keep her warm.

We con­tin­ued mov­ing, Ab­dul in the lead. We crossed small rivers, as we did each night, which pro­vided our only op­por­tu­ni­ties to drink. Silty liq­uid left sand grind­ing in our teeth, but each sip gave us en­ergy. As the days wore on, Singer and Dickey in­sisted on de­vis­ing an es­cape plan. They ar­gued we were four, they were two. We could over­power them, take their guns. We had to act. When the east­ern sky bright­ened, we would hide from our pur­suers, our po­ten­tial saviors—the Kyr­gyz mil­i­tary—and then, un­der cover of dark­ness, move to­ward a bleak fu­ture.

The Kyr­gyz army con­tin­ued its pur­suit. At times, we could see them from our day­time hide­outs, hear their he­li­copters. The skir­mishes less­ened, but spo­rad­i­cally flared up with gun­fire ex­changes. Like con­stant re­minders, we could hear dis­tant rounds—clashes be­tween the army and nearby IMU mil­i­tants. The nights wore on. Some­times I stopped car­ing. The army had herded us off. We were mov­ing in a cir­cle north of the Ak Su and Kara Su val­leys.

While we were hid­ing, Singer droned on, plot­ting. In­side some hellish hole or be­neath thick bushes, he spoke in a low voice, “When Su is sleep­ing I will grab a rock and bash in his skull, then I’ll grab his gun—the safety is just be­hind the trig- ger on the right side. We can shoot Ab­dul be­fore he even knows what is hap­pen­ing.”

I could hear him talk­ing to Dickey dur­ing safe mo­ments when we came to­gether. Beth re­mained res­o­lute: Bet­ter to spend months in cap­tiv­ity than re­sort to the evil that per­son­i­fied the IMU. But Singer wouldn’t stop. I willed him to shut up. He kept go­ing. I stared at him with cold eyes. We couldn’t kill. Killing is wrong. Killing is what sep­a­rates us from them.

But we were wast­ing away, los­ing en­ergy. Los­ing our will. Beth’s an­gelic face was hol­lowed and drawn. She’d lost 15 pounds. As our bod­ies grew weaker, I won­dered if Singer was right. If we were to live, we might have to kill. In one way, we had the up­per hand. We were in a for­eign land, but as the mil­i­tary forced us onto steep­en­ing ground, we had to guide our cap­tors up the rocky ter­rain. We even put our hands on their backs and spot­ted them. I would hear Singer talk­ing with Dickey about throw­ing them off. When? Now! Do it!

Only now can I see Singer’s strate­gic bril­liance, even if it tears at me. Th­ese weren’t nice men. They weren’t hold­ing us un­til some fairy-tale mo­ment, when they would set us free. What were we wait­ing for? Were the Navy SEALs go­ing to res­cue four climbers in the Kyr­gyzs­tan moun­tains? We would have been hostages un­til the ends of our lives. For all my un­cer­tainty, I had con­fi­dence in one el­e­ment: my abil­ity to en­dure. I seemed to be hold­ing up bet­ter than the oth­ers. And I didn’t fear death. I fear los­ing the peo­ple I love, but death it­self, my own death, leaves a blank spot in my mind.

I came to ac­cept that the vi­o­lence I de­tested was our only way out. I came to an­other re­al­iza­tion: No­body else was go­ing to do it.

You feel star­va­tion first in your stom­ach, a nau­se­at­ing pain low in your gut. Your breath­ing be­comes la­bored and your body slows. Your face turns solemn. Any move­ment seems like too much bother. Your mind goes next. In­dif­fer­ence takes over, emo­tions dull. I still don’t know how it hap­pened or where it came from, but as every­one else grew weaker, I felt stronger.

I no­ticed my night vision im­prov­ing. Lines be­came crisp. By the sixth night, I was aware of ev­ery sound, ev­ery move­ment. I felt a light­ness, a vi­tal­ity, as though I could race straight up­hill with­out my heart rate ris­ing. The oth­ers stum­bled ev­ery few feet. Delu­sional or not, I saw my­self as a war­rior.

With my con­fi­dence came ac­cep­tance. Singer was smarter, but I was stronger. Singer could be the com­man­der; I was the sol­dier. Clar­ity over­took me. I willed my heart to harden.

On our sixth night, our cap­tors hatched a plan. They, too, were starv­ing and cold, so Ab­dul would re­turn to our base­camp to scav­enge any re­main­ing food and clothes. The rest of us would as­cend a 2,000-foot moun­tain­side, a mix­ture of talus fields and cliff bands. To us it was easy ter­rain. Ab­dul, af­ter gath­er­ing more ra­tions, would come up a less treach­er­ous way. For the first time, we were alone with Su.

The moon plays tricks in the dark­ness, cast­ing shad­ows that dance across the cliffs. A jum­bled mess of stone dis­ap­pears be­low. Black­ness. Far in the dis­tance, stars il­lu­mi­nate the jagged spires and snow-cov­ered moun­tains.

Su’s feet skid and he lets out a pained grunt. I watch as Singer guides him, point­ing out footholds and hand­holds. The plan had been for Beth and me to stay above, out of the fall line.

We climb higher. Su wob­bles again and I hear the clat­ter of rocks tum­bling down the nearly sheer dropoff. Now. Now. Silently, I’m urg­ing them to do it. Will­ing them to do it. Dickey and Singer re­sume their guid­ing. More spots pass where Su is ex­posed and in­se­cure. I try not to think about what it is that I’m wish­ing they would do.

As the top nears, Su gains con­fi­dence and scram­bles ahead of them, us­ing his hands to keep his bal­ance. At a dif­fi­cult sec­tion just 50 feet from the top, but 20 feet to our right, he slows. Singer and Dickey are still be­low. I glance down. Our eyes meet. They nod.

I look at Beth. “I’m go­ing to have to do this,” I whis­per. “It has to be me.”

She trem­bles. Shad­ows cross her face. Her lips open slightly, but no sounds es­cape. For a mo­ment, we stare at one an­other. She dips her head.

I know.

The strength has been grow­ing into a mon­ster in­side me, emerg­ing from nowhere, from ev­ery­where, un­like any­thing I’ve known. I ac­cel­er­ate with the swift­ness of a moun­tain goat, stay­ing silent though the shad­ows. Fif­teen, ten, five feet away and still Su doesn’t see me com­ing. The bar­rel of his ri­fle glis­tens un­der the stars. I see the out­line of the mole on his up­per lip. My foot dis­lodges a chunk of rock.

He piv­ots to­ward me. Our eyes lock. I lunge for the strap of the gun slung around his chest. I pull as hard as I can and push his shoul­der. His body arches back­ward through the black­ness, out­lined by the moon. He cries out in sur­prise and fear. His body lands on a ledge with a sick­en­ing thud, and then bounces to­ward obliv­ion.

For a mo­ment, I hear and feel noth­ing. Then ver­tigo strikes me. I think the sun is ris­ing. Glim­mers of light blur into long, in­dis­tinct streaks, some­how real and sur­real at the same time. Sud­denly, as if a stone has crashed down on my head, ev­ery mus­cle in my body con­tracts and I squeeze my eyes shut as hard as I can. I scram­ble and sprint the re­main­ing dis­tance to the top of the moun­tain where I stand alone, pant­ing. I drop to the ground and tuck into a ball. I rock back and forth, sob­bing. Ev­ery­thing I’ve held in­side floods out of me.

Upon re­turn­ing to Amer­ica af­ter their Kyr­gyzs­tan or­deal, Cald­well faced his trauma and angst head-on; it was an angst he’d soon chan­nel into his climb­ing. Along the way, Cald­well and Rod­den mar­ried; Cald­well ac­ci­den­tally am­pu­tated his left in­dex fin­ger while do­ing home im­prove­ments, yet re­turned to top form none­the­less; and, in time, the two di­vorced. Still, the one con­stant re­mained: Cald­well’s love af­fair with El Cap­i­tan, cul­mi­nat­ing with the Dawn Wall. Through­out the process, he found a new love— his wife, Becca—and started a fam­ily—his son, Fitz, and daugh­ter, In­grid. For Cald­well, the push has stayed with him. A cou­ple of months be­fore Kevin and my fi­nal climb of the

Dawn Wall, Becca, Fitz, and I were play­ing in an area in Yosemite called the Church Bowl. A warm morn­ing breeze flut­tered down from the thou­sand-foot slabs up-val­ley. Leaves blan­keted the ground. Becca and I sat to­gether and watched Fitz, on his eigh­teen-month-old legs, stag­ger over to a short, ta­ble-shaped boul­der in a soft, grassy area. He looked over at us as if to say, “Watch me.” Becca said, “It’s a man­tel move.” “Man-tel,” Fitz im­i­tated. He drummed his hands on the boul­der, then he started to climb—it’s such a nat­u­ral ac­tiv­ity for kids. His feet skit­tered and he stepped back down, and then tried the move again. “Man-tel,” he said, with slight frus­tra­tion. Becca rose and walked over to him, en­cour­ag­ing, “You can do it, buddy.”

“Man-tel,” Fitz said, more neu­trally this time. For a cou­ple of long min­utes he strug­gled, glanc­ing at Becca as if to say, “Help me.” He whim­pered.

“Re­mem­ber, Fitz,” she said, “you’ve got to try hard and fo­cus.” He climbed a lit­tle far­ther, dropped back down, looked around, and cried a lit­tle harder. Becca spoke in a higher, sweeter voice, “Try hard, Fitz.” He took ex­ag­ger­ated, force­ful breaths, a habit he’d picked up from watch­ing me. He com­mit­ted more on his next at­tempt, get­ting half­way over the man­tel. He looked like he was about to fall. “Help,” he said. My heart was break­ing. I glanced at Becca. Becca did not help him. In­stead she en­cour­aged him in her sweet­est voice: “Stick with it, you can do it. You got it, push hard.”

Fitz bore down, grunted through his tears, and kept try­ing. He found his foot­ing and pulled his body half­way over. His feet kicked in the air. He set his knee on the top, crawled for­ward, stood up, and clapped.

“Good per­se­ver­ance,” Becca said, walk­ing over. “Nice man­tel, buddy.”

Fitz glowed. She gave him a high five. Fitz smiled and swat­ted at her hand. “Boom,” he said. My life to­day is much dif­fer­ent than it was two short years ago—the af­ter­math of the Dawn Wall has sur­prised and over­whelmed me. In March 2016, Becca and I wel­comed In­grid Wilde, our daugh­ter, into our fam­ily. My chil­dren en­lighten me to life’s in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties, while caus­ing me to reeval­u­ate the mean­ing of risk. I used to think that ad­ven­ture and risk­ing one’s life were in­trin­si­cally linked. I now re­al­ize that ad­ven­ture might be more about em­brac­ing the unknown. That’s not to say that I no longer feel the call of the moun­tains, but sim­ply that life’s big goals have al­ways felt a bit like thun­der­storms, ap­pear­ing with lit­tle warn­ing and leav­ing me no op­tion but to be­come en­gulfed.

Last sum­mer, my friend Adam Stack, the guy who climbed with me on the Di­he­dral Wall in 2004, called. He had a hare­brained idea to climb a big wall on the north face of Mount Hooker, in Wy­oming’s Wind River Range, car to car in 24 hours. The face rises 2,000 ver­ti­cal feet, and is 15 miles from the near­est road. It gets climbed a few times ev­ery year, and the stan­dard ap­proach is to horsep­ack in, make camp, then spend a few days climb­ing the wall. Typ­i­cally, it’s a week­long out­ing. When Adam asked me to go, In­grid was four months old and not sleep­ing through the night, and I had spent the last year deep in the writ­ing cave for this book.

“I bet if we run I can get you back to the fam­ily in 48 hours,” Adam ar­gued. “You’re not get­ting light on me, are you?” “Sounds like a pretty bad idea to me,” I said. “Yeah, def­i­nitely a stupid idea. I’m so psyched,” Adam said.

We set out from the car at 2 a.m. We jogged through pine forests, head­lamps scan­ning the hoof prints. The steam of our breath pulsed be­fore us. For the first sev­eral miles I felt lethar­gic, and I strug­gled to keep up with Adam, who had been fu­ri­ously train­ing. By 4 a.m., how­ever, my body started to re­mem­ber the flow. At mile 12, we filled our wa­ter bot­tles in an alpine lake, as laven­der and red twin­kled on the hori­zon. We jogged down a steep, dusty hill as day­break il­lu­mi­nated a cirque of pyra­mid­shaped, snow­capped peaks.

Adam was flushed but as happy as I had ever seen him. We scram­bled to­ward the wall through a maze of house-sized boul­ders. My body hummed with en­dor­phins. At the base of the wall, we roped up. Our plan was to simul­climb in 400- to 600foot blocks.

I started up, wan­der­ing be­tween face holds and in­ter­mit­tent cracks. The rock was solid and the gear good. Af­ter 150 feet, Adam let out a “Whoop!” and we started climb­ing to­gether. We judged each other’s progress by the ten­sion in the rope. When Adam slowed, I would put in more gear and keep the rope be­tween us tight. When I slowed, Adam would watch me closely. Through trust and faith in each other’s judg­ment, we moved as if we were one. I thought about how dif­fer­ent this was from the last big wall I had climbed. No cam­era team, no cell phone ser­vice, no ex­pec­ta­tions be­yond our own. I thought about how the Dawn Wall had ful­filled a de­sire to ex­plore lim­its, but had some­how left me long­ing for some­thing deeper.

We kept climb­ing, and I thought of my friends Chris Sharma, Alex Hon­nold, and Corey Rich. I thought of my friend­ships that had been forged through climb­ing. I thought of my mom and dad, and Becca, Fitz, and In­grid. How lucky I am to have been shaped by the moun­tains into a man who can love so deeply.

Five hours later, we crested the top of the wall. We lay our sweaty backs on sun-warmed slabs and shared an en­ergy bar. Look­ing out at the sur­round­ing land­scape, I was struck by what I couldn’t see. No roads, no peo­ple. “Only six more hours of jog­ging and we get to sleep,” I said. “This wasn’t such a dumb idea, was it?” Adam said with a smile.

“We’ll see if we still feel that way when we get back.” I slapped Adam’s arm and pushed my­self to my feet to be­gin the de­scent.

By the time we fin­ished, ev­ery mus­cle and bone in my body screamed. But I was flooded with the con­tent­ment that only deep fa­tigue can bring. It was a hell of an ad­ven­ture. And I never once thought I might die. Em­brace the unknown. Push through the dif­fi­cult mo­ments, work with them.

Just like Fitz on that man­tel prob­lem, when it gets hard is when we grow. Forty-eight hours af­ter I’d left, I walked back into the house, and Fitz ran across the room, latched on to my weary legs, and squeezed them tight.

“Come look at my epic train tracks, Daddy!” He looked up at me with his huge green eyes.

I picked him up and gave him a big squeeze. Becca came out of the bed­room hold­ing In­grid, telling her, “Daddy’s here!” She walked over and gave me a kiss. It was good to be home. Tommy Cald­well is a writer and pro­fes­sional climber liv­ing in Estes Park, Colorado.






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