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From The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits by Tommy Caldwell, to be published on May 16 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Tommy Caldwell.
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 rocket-propelled 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.”
“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 bone-rattling 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 trigger 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.
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.
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 pyramid-shaped, 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 600-foot 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.