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High Drama for U.S. Mountain Climbers in Kyrgyzstan

September 01, 2000|PETE THOMAS

Four U.S. climbers are happy to be home and even happier to be alive after escaping Uzbeki militants--by pushing one to his death off a cliff--who detained them for six days earlier this month in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic.

Jason Smith, 22, John Dickey, 25, Beth Rodden, 20, of the San Francisco area, and Tommy Caldwell, 22, of Estes Park, Colo., were scaling granite cliffs that dominate the region when the rebel forces--trying to seize control of an area where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan converge--announced their presence by peppering the cliffs near the climbers with bullets.

On the sixth day, one rebel was left in charge of the climbers while the others went to scrounge for batteries in the climbers' camp. He was told to take them up a small mountain, and it was on one of the ledges that the climbers seized their opportunity, rushing their captor and shoving him off.

"The whole way up the mountain we were talking about pushing him off," Smith, 22, a Utah native, told the Salt Lake Tribune. "We couldn't believe how stupid [the other rebels] were to send him up there alone with four experienced climbers."

They then ran for about 18 hours until finding a government outpost. The government troops took them in, fed them and ultimately arranged for their trip home.

So the story goes, anyway.

During their time in the hands of the rebels, the climbers say they heard their captors execute another hostage, a Kyrgyz soldier. They survived on rations of energy bars and were fed yogurt balls dipped in yak butter. They were forced to lie still for up to 17 hours a day in near-freezing temperatures and were occasionally covered with brush and trees so government forces in helicopters could not detect them.

The incident has put the climbers in a media spotlight unlike any associated with their many previous expeditions. Smith even went so far as to hire an agent in hopes of getting the most out of his story.

But such a story prompts one serious question: What were these people doing in such a hostile region to begin with?

"The warnings we found on the Internet gave this region very mild warnings. If you compare them to warnings in other countries, it was very minor," Rodden's father, Robb, also an avid climber, told reporters at a news conference last week in Davis, Calif.

Jill Pagliaro, a spokeswoman for The North Face, an outdoor gear company that sponsored the expedition, added: "Climbers tend to favor such remote, hard-to-reach areas for expeditions because they feel [that's where] they can make their marks in athletic achievement.

"The North Face was impressed by the team's spirit of exploration and agreed to provide the team with equipment and transportation to help them climb safely. [We] regret that any expedition would end in such a manner, but we are relieved that now they're all home and safe."

And, hopefully, conducting Internet research on more trustworthy sites.


On the other side of the planet, in a remote jungle encampment on Jolo Island in the Philippines, six Western hostages were recently released and seven remain in the hands of Muslim rebels seeking, among other things, an independent Islamic state in southeast Philippines.

"I'm over the moon," South Africa's Carel Strydom told reporters this week after being freed a day after the release of his wife, Monique.

The Strydoms were among 21 tourists and staff abducted during an evening raid April 23 at a scuba diving resort on Malaysia's Sipadan Island. The Muslim separatist group Abu Sayyaf then took them to nearby Jolo and tense negotiations have been underway since.

Also involved in the four-month ordeal are tourists from France, Germany and Finland. One of the six Westerners still in the hands of the terrorists is Oakland's Jeffrey Edwards Craig Schilling, who was abducted Monday in the southern Philippine city of Zamboanga and taken to Jolo.

Schilling's captors say he's an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency and are demanding the release of three terrorists jailed in the United States. The U.S. says he is not a CIA agent and that it will not make any deals.

Meanwhile, Libya, of all nations, has been instrumental in winning the release of the six European tourists, reportedly by paying $1 million in ransom per person.

The Libyan government denies paying ransom and dismisses allegations it is using the situation simply to improve its international image. It calls its mission purely humanitarian, but it's probably no coincidence that four of the six hostages were taken home by way of Tripoli, where they were given a series of pro-Libyan speeches and taken on a tour of places decorated with anti-American and anti-British slogans.

In any event, scuba divers planning their next vacation are probably wondering whether it's safe to visit Sipadan, a tiny island off the northeast coast of Borneo, with turquoise waters that are world renowned for their beautiful coral and colorful fish.

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