1. FIRST CONTACT
Kara Su valley, Kyrgyzstan August 12, 2000
The first shot hits the wall at 6:15 a.m.
Its echo fills the air as sunlight pours through the gaps in a jagged ridgeline of the Pamir-Alai Mountains of Kyrgyzstan and brightens the deep canyon of the Kara Su River.
Deep in sleep, bunked one thousand feet off the ground on the side of a cliff in two portable cliff tents, called portaledges, the four climbers wake instantly at the ping of lead hitting granite somewhere on the wall beside them. Instinct tells them that it’s the sound of a stone falling down the cliff, or the clunk of a boulder being pushed along in the roaring, glacier-fed river below, but when the second bullet strikes thirty feet below them, and the rifle report that follows it echoes through the gorge, they all sit bolt upright.
“What the hell was that?” Jason “Singer” Smith shouts the question as he dons his climbing helmet to protect his head from rockfall.
“We’re being shot at,” Beth Rodden calls from the portaledge adjacent to Smith. Beside her is her boyfriend, Tommy Caldwell.
“That’s irrational,” Smith replies. “It’s probably local hunters.”
The explanation sounds reasonable enough. The valleys below—the Kara Su, where the climbers’ tent camp is located, and the adjacent Ak Su—are the herding and hunting grounds of seminomadic Kyrgyz shepherds. Ibex, the large and woolly breed of mountain goat, and even the rare snow leopard are sometimes their quarry in these hills.
Then the third bullet hits the cliff twenty feet above the twoportaledges. Rock dust flies out of the crater, spattering the platforms on which the climbers are camped.
“Shit! That was definitely for us!” John Dickey shouts, reflexively curling into a fetal position. He’s lying in his sleeping bag, next to Smith.
They are bunked on the Yellow Wall, a vertical facet of the twelve-thousand-foot Mount Zhioltaya Stena. It is day two of their climb, and week two of their monthlong rock-climbing expedition in this former Soviet republic. Like many destinations on the international climbing circuit, the region they are in—located near Kyrgyzstan’s mountainous border with Tajikistan, and known to climbers as the Karavshin, after the area’s main river—is remote. Being eighty miles from war-torn Afghanistan, it’s also in a volatile part of the world. Yet to these climbers it doesn’t seem so far off the beaten track. For two decades the fortresslike granite towers of the Karavshin have lured an international scene of Russian, European, and American climbers.
Up on the wall, the four Americans ease their heads over the sides of the portaledges and peer down into the gathering light.
“There—on the rubble straight below us,” Smith says. “I see three men.”
“What the hell could they want?” Caldwell asks. He and Rodden have been dating for five months, ever since they fell for each other in Yosemite Valley in California that spring. Based on Caldwell’s native Rocky Mountain time, today, August 12, is his twenty-second birthday. Among the gear and food they have hauled up to their cliffside camp, Rodden had secretly packed a candle and an instant chocolate pudding to celebrate.
“Maybe they want to rob us,” she suggests, recalling a trio of comically light-fingered local shepherds who over the past few days have been blatantly pilfering from the base camps of the expeditions camped in the valleys below. “But if they wanted to do that, they’d just go to base camp and steal all our stuff, right?”
“Maybe it’s a surprise birthday party for Tommy,” Smith quips in his signature sardonic tone.
“No, dude, it’s gotta be the airline trying to tell us that they’ve found our lost bag,” Dickey says. He and Smith have a habit of trying to outdo each other with wisecracks. Dickey is referring to the hike he and Smith made several days ago, to search for a village with a phone so they could contact their Kyrgyz travel agent about a lost duffel bag. The bag had gone astray somewhere between San Francisco and Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, and it was loaded with climbing gear.
“That’s really funny,” Caldwell says, nervous and deadpan. “I just hope they’re really good shots and they’re only trying to scare us, rather than really bad shots who are trying to hit us.”
“They may not even know we’re camped up here,” Smith says. “They might be shooting at our portaledges for target practice. Hell, maybe this is just how the locals get your attention around here.” Since arriving at their base camp they had been visited by many shepherds and soldiers, most of them armed with shotguns or rifles.
“Well, they’ve got my attention,” Caldwell says.
Smith waves his arm and calls down, “Hey, don’t shoot! We’re up here!”
The men on the ground shout back. Drowned out by the white noise of the river, their reply is unrecognizable. Smith grabs Dickey’s camera. A two-hundred-millimeter lens is mounted to it. Smith’s bunk site gives him a better view of the ground, and he aims the camera at the men below.
“One of them is waving at us. It looks like he’s telling us to come down.”
A hush falls over the bivouac as the climbers digest the observation. Sitting side by side in their sleeping bags and their nylon fleece jackets, they exchange worried looks; Rodden and Caldwell clasp each other’s hands. That they are being sucked into a vortex of danger is apparent.
“Someone has to go down, to see what they want,” Caldwell says.
“Go down?” Rodden says, alarmed by the suggestion. “Are you sure?”
“Okay. Tommy, John, we’ll throw for it. Even draws. Odd man out goes down.” Smith leaves Rodden’s name off the list of contenders.
“I’ll go,” Dickey says, settling the issue.
Smith looks at his bunk mate and nods. At twenty-five, Dickey is the oldest among them. He’s the most traveled; he sports a beard, which gives him an appearance of maturity; and his way with people is relaxed and confident. He’s also the scruffiest-looking one of them all, and he figures that might earn points with whoever is doing the shooting. They uncoil the tangle of their five ropes that are clipped to the wall around their portaledge camp and tie them end-to-end to make a single, thousand-foot strand. They lower one end of the rope to the ground, and Dickey connects his aluminum rappel device to it. Then he clips the device to his waist harness and eases over the edge of the portaledge, like a diver rolling off of a raft. Locking off the rope with a firm grip of his right hand, he hangs beside the portaledge, and Smith hands him one of their Motorola two-way radios. Dickey slips it into his pocket.
“Pass my tobacco,” Dickey adds as a parting request.
“It might come in handy down there. Maybe these guys need a smoke. It’ll show them we’re friendly.” He shrugs, at a loss for anything further to add to the surreal situation they have woken to. Elsewhere in his travels the laconic Texan has found the offer of a cigarette to be a useful gambit for defusing tense situations with rough customers. Smith passes the pouch of Drum, then shakes his friend’s free hand.
“Good luck, dude,” Smith says.
Dickey swings into the void. It is 6:35 a.m., twenty minutes since the first shot hit the wall. His descent will take another half hour. He spins slowly as he glides down the nylon strands, pausing to hang on an ascender clamp every two hundred feet so he can disengage his rappel device from above each knot, then reattach it below the knot. He performs the rope maneuvers carefully yet efficiently. In the back of his mind he’s thinking, “We are being shot at, the shooters are ordering us down, I’m descending into a holdup. But what else can I do?” Five hundred feet above the ground the angle of the cliff becomes less steep and Dickey’s toes touch the wall. He comes to a steel bolt, drilled into the rock by Caldwell a few days earlier. The bolt marks the point where the old Diagonal Route, first climbed by Russians years earlier, crosses the new climb that the Americans are bivouacked on. Dickey hitches his rope to the bolt with a carabiner and continues sliding down. When he is fifty feet above the ground he sees the gunmen clearly for the first time. “My heart nearly leaped out of my throat,” he would say of that first encounter. One man clasps a Kalashnikov assault rifle bearing a long banana clip; the other has a larger weapon with a two-pronged support mounted to its long barrel. A third armed man is positioned farther down the hillside in a stand of tall brush. The men wear a hodgepodge of camouflage army fatigues, the ragged sportswear of mountain villagers, and some stylish western mountaineering garments. They are not soldiers, and they are not shepherds. While Dickey hangs on the cliff, looking eye to eye with the gunmen, his radio squawks.
“Hey, John, how’s it going?” Smith asks through the Motorola. “Whaddya see? Over.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Dickey replies in a sharp hiss. Intuition tells him it’s better not to give the gunmen any idea of how many people are up there in the portaledges.
A man with a bushy black beard gestures insistently for Dickey to continue his descent. Dickey sucks in a deep breath and ropes down to the talus slope. On the ground, he detaches his rappel device from the rope. His heart is beating fast while he studies the gunmen. They now number two, the man in the brush having departed minutes earlier. They beckon him to come closer. Dickey strides through sliding gravel, trying hard to appear calm.
“Good morning,” Dickey says slowly, clearly. “My name is John.” He directs his thumb toward his chest to make it understood that he’s introducing himself.
The heavily bearded man steps forward. He’s stocky yet wasp-waisted, and he cradles his rifle close to his chest. A wild outburst of black hair is pressed underneath his camouflage cap. His pants are also camouflage, and the many pockets of his battle vest bulge with cartridge cases, a radio transceiver, and binoculars. On his hip he wears a pistol and a hand grenade. A sheath knife is mounted diagonally across his chest.
“Abdul,” the man says, introducing himself. Months will pass before the group learns his real name; Abdul is his nom de guerre. He clenches Dickey’s hand and shakes it with a bone-crushing grip, then steps back. His features are hawkish, his skin burnished by the sun. His pale-eyed gaze cuts into Dickey’s psyche. The other man steps forward and offers his hand.
“Obid,” this fellow says, pointing at himself and giving away a hint of a smile. Obid is bearded too, and like Dickey he’s solidly built, nearly six feet tall. His black shoulder-length hair tumbles out from beneath a dark, greasy beanie. Dickey notes the leathery, calloused feel of his soot-blackened hand, then he points to the massive weapon Obid holds and mimes the act of shooting up at the wall. The man nods and points at himself. He’s the shooter, and he appears proud of his marksmanship.
“Cigarette?” Dickey asks, holding out the tobacco pouch.
Abdul sweeps aside the offer with an abrupt wave of his hand and shakes his head disapprovingly. Then Dickey notices that Obid is holding a trekking-style ski pole owned by the climbers, which they left hidden at the bottom of the cliff. He also sees that under Obid’s camo vest is a black Gore-Tex jacket bearing the fashionable Patagonia label. On his face are designer sunglasses, and on his back is a high-tech rucksack made by Salewa, a German manufacturer. These items don’t belong to Dickey’s team members, but clearly these men have not mail-ordered the gear either. At the very least, he figures, he and his friends are in the clutches of bandits who’ve been raiding the camps in the surrounding valleys.
Copyright 2002 by Greg Child