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There and Back Again: Chapter Two

After being kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan, I suffered from nightmares and loads of mistrust in the world. I went to see a therapist a few times to try and rid my sleep of nightmares, but my therapy and focus on mental healing stopped there. I felt that therapy was a sign of weakness and that I should be tougher than that. When writing this piece, it was the most I had thought about the situation since I had been kidnapped. Christian Beckwith, the editor of Alpinist, urged me to dig deep, to go into the uncomfortable feelings that surrounded the experience. It was distressing, but cathartic at the same time. Perhaps one day I’ll try and heal fully. This article was as close as I got to a meaningful therapy session.–Beth Rodden, July 8, 2015

Members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), July 25, 2000, in a video taken by IMU guerrillas as they made their way from Tajikistan over mountain passes into southern Kyrgyzstan. The guerrillas split into at least three groups; Ravshan Sharipov, in the center, comprised part of the group that captured the Americans. The American climbers knew Ravshan as Su; he was the man Caldwell pushed off the cliff on the final night of their captivity.

[Photo] Greg Child collection

Most local Yosemite climbers preferred to talk about climbing rather than actually climb. They spent their days telling stories, moving from the cafeteria to the deli to the Mountain Room Bar as they debated style, routes and climbers. They knew everything and could climb anywhere… but I soon found out the biggest talkers rarely climbed.

It took a week or so before I found a partner. Jason “Singer” Smith was one of Kevin’s friends. Five foot six with light brown hair, he was renowned for his offbeat remarks. He also had the face of a middle-schooler, which gave our combined age an appearance of twenty-four. I convinced him to guide me up the Rostrum.

In Madagascar, Lynn, Nancy and crew had taught me “safety first”: equalize your protection, use three points at the anchor, etcetera. Jason climbed in a swami belt, placed a piece or two of gear each pitch, and a single piece for belays. I did not tell my parents about my first Yosemite climb.

“Um, shouldn’t you put in another piece here?” I asked shyly at one of the belays.

“Does my piece not look bomber to you, little girl?” Jason shot back. I wasn’t used to his sort of protection, but it wasn’t as if I were leading, so who was I to challenge him? I was a puny little sport-climbing kid who had been guided in Madagascar and didn’t know a hand jam from a sloper. Jason, on the other hand, had soloed the Rostrum, even down climbed it. I was psyched he was just taking me up the thing. “They make this gear to hold the weight of cars,” he said. “It looks to me like you weigh no more than an air bag, so I think we’re good to go.” He then scampered up the pitch.

Jason’s climbing style was very different from Nancy’s smooth, controlled movements. It looked as if he were wrestling the rock. I had trained hours upon hours in the gym learning good technique; it was tempting to yell up some pointers. Knowing if I did, he would probably leave me in the middle of the Rostrum and solo out, I opted to remain silent.

I wanted so badly to say “up rope” when I started climbing, but I knew that Jason would feed out even more slack. I carefully placed each hand in the crack, flexing my thumb as hard as I could so I didn’t fall. I held on tighter than I ever had; my whole body began to shake with exhaustion. The whole-body-climbing style of offwidths was foreign to me. I had always been taught that using knees was bad form, but now my knees were bleeding. The tops of my toes throbbed from being shoved in and out of the cracks, and the back of my hands were cut from torquing and twisting in the rock.

I reached the top of the Rostrum panting and quivering from exhaustion, but I couldn’t wait to do it again. Now I just needed to find someone else to take me climbing.

Trips followed: to the Sierra, where I learned the fine art of simulclimbing, and to Indian Creek, where I discovered the nuances of crack climbing. Slowly, I built my lead-climbing skills, skills that I yearned to take onto another wall. But the onset of winter weather sent me back to my old routine: six hours a day in the gym, climbing lap after lap. As I burned out on the greasy, plastic holds, I began pestering a man who has the Nose memorized: Hans Florine.

“When can we go?” I asked Hans again and again.

“Well, Steve Schneider just did it in a day last weekend, but he said it was freezing,” Hans said, all six feet plus of him and bleach-blonde hair. “We should wait until the weather turns better, then you can check it out for free climbing too.”

“No way–let’s go. It can’t be that cold,” I said. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt in the heated gym.

“Suit yourself. We can go next weekend.” Hans had climbed the Nose more than thirty times. He almost sounded as if he knew something I didn’t.

Ever since I met Hans when I was fourteen, he had been telling me that I should go free the Nose. Now, finally, I had convinced him to take me up it. And his wife, Jacky, was coming with us.

Jacky had been a supermodel in the 1980s; she looked almost too pretty to be a climber. With her perfect complexion and perfect hair, I couldn’t imagine her going more than eight hours between showers. But here she was on the Nose, five months pregnant and hiking the Stove Legs.

“This is great!” Hans joked as he belayed. “You and Jacky are putting the ropes up for me.”

“Really? You want me to lead?”

“That’s the deal: I haul, you guys lead.”

“Uh… have you seen my leading skills?”

Craning at the 2,500 feet of granite yet to come, I imagined us still up here, three weeks later, me leading half a pitch a day.

“You’ll be fine. Just don’t wear yourself out for the Great Roof.”

Jason “Singer” Smith, Pitch 7, The Rostrum (IV 5.11c, 7 pitches) on the day he and Rodden climbed the route. The climb was one of Rodden’s first in the Valley; Smith had previously soloed it. Smith would later join Rodden, Tommy Caldwell and John Dickey on an expedition to the Ak-Su Region in Kyrgyzstan’s Pamir-Alai mountains.

[Photo] Dan Patitucci

Pretty soon it was my lead: a 5.9. Jacky put the ten-pound rack on me; the cams hung below my knees. Helmet on, lead line and haul line clipped to my harness, with a rack of every size and color cam, I started up. Each hand and foot movement seemed to gain me half an inch. The cams made it impossible to see my feet. The aluminum dug into my back when I chimneyed. At this rate, it would take me two days to climb sixty feet.

“Good job, Beth! Isn’t it fun? You’re leading on the Big Stone!” Hans shouted up from the belay.

“Fun?” I thought to myself. “This freaking blows!”

I reached the belay. Remembering what Nancy, Lynn and Kath had taught me, I set up an equalized anchor, clipped in directly, fixed the rope and prepared to haul. The image of Lynn hauling came to mind. I set up, brought my feet flat against the wall even with my chest, and tucked my hands and arms close to my sides. Summoning all of my energy, I sprung off the wall, spread-eagled. A nanosecond later I crashed back into the wall, ramming my knees against the jumble of cams and hitting my head against the glacier-polished granite.

“What was that?” Jacky and Hans yelled up in unison, laughing.

“I tried to haul,” I replied with embarrassment.

“You didn’t budge the haulbag!” Jacky managed between laughs. “Just wait till Hans gets up there. He’ll help.”

“Man, how did Lynn do it?” I asked myself. Not only was I struggling on the 5.9 pitches that she had breezed in the video, I couldn’t even haul.

With dark gray clouds billowing into the Valley, Hans took over most of the leading. He was fast: He even tied into the rope in record time. Like Nancy, he climbed as if choreographed. He knew exactly where to place his hands and feet on each pitch. He led almost faster than I could feed out rope–so fast, we barely had time to think about how cold it was.

But at night, I froze. I slept in my Gore-Tex jacket inside the haulbag with my helmet on for extra insulation, but I still shivered all night long. The sweat from the day’s work made it impossible to get warm. Why on earth had I talked Hans into bringing me up here? I was exhausted from jumaring pitch after pitch, and downright petrified of how high we were. Cars looked like Cheerios, the two-lane road was no wider than a pencil, and the trees appeared to be weeds. I never wanted to come back here again.

“OK, Beth, this is the Great Roof,” Hans said cheerily the next morning. “Now remember, it’s only 5.13b. You’ve climbed way harder than this.”

Only 13b! What was he talking about? The “5.9s” up here were harder than To Bolt.

As I liebacked the finger crack at the bottom of the pitch, I lost feeling from the tips of my fingers down to the base of my hands. Water seeped out of the crack, making the sticky rubber on my shoes feel like cardboard. My forearms filled with lactic acid, and my breathing quickened. Usually trying hard felt good to me, but now I longed for my jumars and aiders. I made it only partway up the 11c beginning of the pitch before I gave up. There was no way I’d free climb El Cap. I wanted off, as soon as possible.

Eight more miserable pitches later, we reached the summit. I had trouble lifting my feet on the walk down. All I could think about was a hot shower and hot food. I had loathed the last three days. The shivering until my bones ached, the fear of looking down farther than my feet and the pure exhaustion of climbing 3,000 vertical feet had put me in a wretched state.

“I’m going to boulder for the next ten years,” I muttered to Jacky as we descended.

But by the time I had had my long hot shower and eaten two burritos, I was already wondering whom I could convince to drag me up El Cap again.

The next spring, I found myself sitting in the Camp 4 parking lot, unable to find anyone willing to leave the cafeteria-deli-bar routine and go climb El Cap with me. I was minutes from hopping in my car and going home for the season when Tommy Caldwell walked up.

“Hey Beth,” he said, grinning. “Got any plans?”

Tommy was one of the most talented climbers in the country. He had a perfectly chiseled body, dirty blonde hair and a smile that had captured me right away. I had had a crush on him for years. We had gone on a few dates in Boulder the previous month and had made tentative plans to hook up in the Valley this season. Now here he was, looking for a partner himself.

“Yeah, if I could find anyone to climb with,” I replied.

“Well, Topher’s wife is sick,” he said. I had known Tommy and Topher Donahue were working on the Muir Wall together, so I figured he was busy for the season.

“They have to head back to Colorado. If you’d be psyched to climb with me….”

The cafe-deli-bar scene was good for something: amid all the talk and slander, Lurking Fear had been mentioned a few times as a possible free route.

“How about Lurking Fear?” I said.

We headed up early the next morning. Jitters ran through my body: my first experience on El Cap had left me a little gun-shy. But I hid my uneasiness as I tried to impress the handsome, single man hiking along beside me.

Lurking Fear is put together like a hard puzzle. Combined with some of the best splitter cracks in the Valley are two slab pitches, the only features of which are small granite edges on the verge of crumbling into oblivion. They would provide some of the most technical and difficult slab climbing either of us has ever encountered.

We spent most of the month on these two pitches alone. From our sandy bivy at the base of the route, we would wake before the sunlight crept into the Valley and jug our lines back to our high point, then take turns balancing our way up the precarious maze of dime edges and razor blades before ninety-degree temperatures and swarms of mosquitoes drove us off the wall.

Tommy climbed delicately, balancing his 150 pounds on the tips of his shoes. As the rubber folded beneath his foot, he would either tumble down the wall or latch on to the next skin-eating hold.

I lacked his physical reach and was often forced to do six moves where he had used one.

“Beth, those are the smallest holds I have ever seen someone use!” Tommy yelled as I inched my way up the pitch.

“They’re big for me,” I blushed, flattered.

“You’re one of the most talented slab climbers I’ve ever climbed with. It’s impressive.” Having Tommy Caldwell compliment me high on El Cap not only gave me confidence in my climbing. It also secretly gave me hope that we might have a future together.

I have never seen someone climb such hot, greasy, painful slabs with multiple bloody fingertips as Tommy did, day after day. The route wore out the skin of our hands as quickly as it did the soles of our shoes. Tommy later told me there were times he was in so much pain he wanted to cry, but there was no way he was going to let a cute girl out climb him. I too pushed beyond my comfort level, but my desire to impress Tommy made me hardly notice my pain.

As our relationship evolved, so did our progress on the route. Tommy was patient, and my slow learning curve never drove the smile from his face. In sharp contrast to my first trip up El Cap, on Lurking Fear I looked forward to each day on the wall. And after a month’s work, we found ourselves on the top of El Cap, having freed a new route and scheming more excuses to spend every moment together.

We signed on to an expedition to Kyrgyzstan not more than a month later. I shared a sponsor with Jason Smith, the same crazy guy who had taken me up the Rostrum; the sponsor had canceled an expedition and had money for us to go on the trip of our dreams. Now all we needed was a photographer.

John Dickey had wild dark hair and grungy clothing that highlighted his unique fashion sense. He had grown up in a family conservative enough that he could recite Bible passages on cue. But he had rebelled at an early age; Burning Man was now a better representation of his beliefs than the Holy Scripture. With John on board, we had a group that would make the trip memorable regardless of the climbing.

We had heard of ridiculous free-climbing potential in the Ak-Su and Kara-Su valleys: 3,000-foot granite walls with a backdrop of huge snowy peaks. On a blistering hot day in late July, we left my parents’ house in Davis, our twenty expedition duffels filling Tommy’s full-size Chevy van and Jason’s Ford counterpart. My parents drove us to the San Francisco airport.

Unlike my journey to Madagascar, there were no real “grown-ups” on this trip. We had no Lynn Hill and no satellite phone. The first time my parents had met Jason, he was blaring Metallica so loud on his car radio you could hardly tell it was music. Their little girl was going to Kyrgyzstan with her boyfriend of six weeks, a crazy guy nicknamed “Singer,” and the eccentrically dressed John Dickey.

Tommy Caldwell, Jason Smith, John Dickey and Beth Rodden in their base camp tent in Kyrgyzstan’s Kara-Su Valley.

[Photo] John Dickey

My mom asked if I had forgotten anything, then, after a short silence, asked again. My dad smiled at our banter, but his eyes looked worried. At the gate, they both kept their fists clenched in their pockets. My dad leaned over to give me a final kiss on the forehead, then paused as if to hold on to me. I broke away and began walking down the corridor.

“I’ll see you in five weeks,” I called over my shoulder. I had no way of knowing it would be sooner than that.

After two magnificent weeks in the Kara-Su Valley, it seemed as if our trip had just gotten started. Gray and white granite walls towered over the lush alpine tundra. Twenty-foot boulders scattered among the talus provided us with rainy-day bouldering. The local shepherds lingered around our tents for hours at a stretch. They opened and closed a carabiner over and over and giggled as they tried on our gloves.

An hour’s walk up the valley from our base camp was a smaller wall covered with lime green lichen. Tommy and I had been working on a route on this, the Yellow Wall, for a week. The yellowish granite was abrasive, quickly disintegrating our skin, but its many weaknesses were great for free climbing. John and Jason had been scouting bigger objectives, including Peak 4810 and the Russian Tower, two of the tallest and steepest walls in the area. They agreed to join us on a five-day push on the Yellow Wall, as we tried to establish the area’s first 5.13, before they attempted some faster pursuits of their own.

“Holy crap–this is a lot of stuff,” I said to John at the base of the wall. Sweat dripped from my brow. We tossed our packs down. As we looked up, the wall grew dramatically steeper, from a slab you could practically run up to a more-than-vertical headwall. We were above 11,000 feet, and there were hardly any trees. The tall brown grass provided little relief from the sun.

“Yep, but it’s good. We’ll be up there in style,” he panted.

“It’s Tommy’s birthday tomorrow,” I said. “I brought some dessert for us tonight.”

It felt like days, not hours, before we got our camp set up on the wall. We had two portaledges and enough food, water and amenities to make it seem like the Hilton. I retrieved the candle and chocolate pudding from my pack as discretely as I could.

“Whatcha doing?” Tommy asked. “Nothing,” I replied, lighting the candle. We had been together for barely two months, but I was already in love. I had memorized Tommy’s face and could picture him whenever I closed my eyes. As I sang him Happy Birthday, he devoured the pudding in a single bite.

Tommy and I were huddled in our portaledge admiring the stars and the daunting walls across the valley, talking about the routes we dreamed of climbing one day. I felt so lucky being next to the man I loved, planning our future adventures. John and Jason were a few feet away from us in their portaledge listening to Ozzy Osbourne on a Discman with speakers and telling stories. I fell asleep that night totally content, hearing “Crazy Train” again and again.

“What the fuck was that!?” Jason yelled from his sleeping bag.

“I think we’re being shot at!” I said. I quickly sat up in my sleeping bag.

Two more loud bangs echoed through the valley. Rock dust sprayed our portaledges and sleeping bags. A cold, then hot, sensation spread over my body. Tommy grabbed me and sat me upright against the wall.

“What is going on?” I whispered. I was shaking uncontrollably. Four figures at the base of the wall were taking turns yelling and shooting at us.

“I think they want us to go down,” John said with shocking calm.

“No way–they’ll fucking kill us,” Tommy hissed.

John started to put his harness on. “We don’t have many other options,” he said. “I’m the oldest; I’ll rap. Maybe I can clear up the confusion.”

While John rapped, Tommy, Jason and I shot around ideas. Maybe they were bandits and just wanted to rob us. Maybe they were local hunters, messing with us. We thought of every possible scenario except the real one: we were being taken hostage.

The next six days were at one point etched in my mind so clearly that I could recite, on demand and in complete detail, exactly what had happened. I am sure I could do the same today if I tried hard enough, but I no longer want to.

Even writing this account makes my hands sweat and my stomach churn. I spent months with a counselor trying to get rid of my nightmares and my hypersensitivity to fear, cold and strangers. I recounted over and over my worst memories of those six days. It’s not that I don’t think about what happened anymore, but it seems so long ago now that it takes great effort to remember every detail.

We had very little food, only a few PowerBars that we had shoved in our pockets at the last minute. We consumed a total of 800 calories between us in six days. The temperatures regularly dropped below freezing at night, but we had only what we had been wearing on the wall: pants, long-sleeve shirts and two synthetic jackets. I spent every waking moment shivering; my jaw hurt so badly from being clenched that I could barely chew my half a PowerBar. We had no hats, sleeping bags, gloves or water. We were as ill-prepared for this situation as we could have been–but how can you prepare to be held hostage at gunpoint?

Our four captors were Muslim extremists on what we later learned was a holy war against the government of Uzbekistan. The leader, Abdul, was a hardened man willing to die for what he believed in; the other three, Su, Abdullah and Obed, were farm boys who looked as lost as we did, except for their semi-automatic weapons. Abdul and Obed had beards that hid their faces, leaving only their eyes and noses showing. Abullah and Su were still in their adolescence; peach fuzz covered their chins and upper lips.

At sundown each night all four of them would face toward Mecca and pray. Abdul would kneel and shout for the others to join him. With his eyes closed, a look of determination came across his face. The others acted like kids in church, restless with wandering glances. Cold and petrified, we tried not to stare, but they controlled our fate. Our eyes followed their every move.

For six days, we traveled at night, running from moon shadow to moon shadow, as silently and as quickly as we could. One captor would sprint to a rock or a tree, and then violently motion, machine gun in hand, for us to follow.

We became progressively weaker with each passing day. During the daylight we crammed under rocks for fourteen hours at a time amid glacier runoff in holes so small no one in their right mind would ever think a human could fit. Our captors piled pine boughs and branches on us, so many that we could barely see, then wedged in with us to make sure we didn’t move or talk. The presence of a large, bearded man, willing to kill us at any time, spooning right next to me, elevated my fear.

The days were long–too long. They gave us time to think. My thoughts jumped from scenario to scenario–of gunfights, murders, starvation, hypothermia. One day’s battle between our captors and the Kyrgyz army left numerous soldiers lying dead in the brown grass. Our captors executed a Kyrgyz soldier behind a boulder; later, we took refuge behind his body during a firefight. I could not get the image of the dead soldier, limp and pale, out of my mind. Constant fears of being raped, killed or tortured filled my head. I pictured how I would react. Would I scream? Would I fight? I wondered whether it would hurt, or whether I’d be numb to the pain. Each day I could feel my ribs protrude more through my skin. At first it hurt to be so hungry, but then the feeling turned into simple weakness and an overwhelming fatigue.

My only solace was to dream about food. I dreamed about hot pizza, with so much cheese it left a pool of grease on the plate; about burritos, filled with so many ingredients the tortilla shell couldn’t close; about a mug of hot chocolate so big I could swim in it. I pictured myself eating until I couldn’t eat anymore and then getting another serving.

My longings for food passed the time, but not nearly as much as my thoughts about my family did. I thought about my parents, my grandparents, my brother, my cousins. I wondered whether they had any idea how much we were suffering and starving and freezing, how utterly scared we were. I prayed: that they didn’t know what we were going through; that a 200-pound, heavily muscled, black-clad Marine was rapping out of a helicopter to rescue us. I pictured President Clinton coming to Kyrgyzstan after we were rescued.

I cried most of the time. The boys attempted to comfort me by telling jokes or by reassuring me that everything was going to be OK. John conveyed to our captors that Tommy and I were married in the hopes that they respected the institution and wouldn’t harm me. But his efforts didn’t do much good for my state of mind when I could see the guy with the machine gun right behind him.

Abullah and Obed disappeared on Day 2. Either they fell to the Kyrgyz military or got lost; we still don’t know which. In the end, it was not a muscled Marine who saved us, but one of the gentlest, most compassionate men I know: Tommy. John and Jason had been trying to think of a way to escape the entire time. We had talked in code directly in front of our captors, calling them Big Dog, Little Dog, Number One and Number Two–about stealing their guns, clubbing them with rocks or pushing them off cliffs. By the sixth night of our captivity, it was all we could do to put one foot in front of the other. Every few steps, one of us would stumble and fall. The muddy, bug-filled water had done little to quench our thirst; our mouths might as well have been crammed with dirt. Gesticulating, Abdul ordered us to the top of a ridge. Su would accompany us and Abdul would meet us on top.

For the next few hours we scrambled our way up fourth and fifth class terrain, lightheaded from the effort. We climbers were comfortable with the angle, but Su was not. Soon, we were almost guiding him up the ridge. Now in the dominant role, we sensed an opportunity to escape.

We climbed slowly for several hours. As we neared the top of the ridge, Tommy scrambled up behind Su, yanked on his gun strap and pulled him down. Su flew off the cliff. My most vivid memory is that of Su’s body in midair, falling backward in front of the moon. Jason, John and I watched as he fell twenty feet, hit a ledge and bounced off out of sight. A small grunt and exhalation came from somewhere below, accompanied by the sound of cracking bones.

In the five years I have been with Tommy, I have never seen him cry–not when he cut off his finger, not when he took a thirty-foot ground fall, not even when his grandmother died. But now, he was curled up in front of a bush on the top of the ridge and tears flooded down his face.

“What did I just do?” he screamed. “I just killed someone! How could I do that?”

“Tommy, you just saved our lives,” John said.

“I’m evil. Only bad, evil people do that!” Tommy yelled. He was trembling.

“Tommy, those guys were going to kill us. They have no respect for human life. We saw that–we saw them kill innocent people. They were going to do the same to us,” Jason whispered as he rubbed Tommy’s back. I put my arms around Tommy, trying to control his shaking. His shirt was soon wet with tears. His nose was running and I tried to kiss his salty cheeks. A distant noise cut the moment short. Was it Abdul? Adrenaline shot through our bodies, and we took off at a full sprint.

As we tumbled down a scree slope, Jason gasped that an army base he and John had walked to a week ago–before our captivity– lay at the bottom of the canyon. We sprinted in the moonlight and walked silently in the shadows; four hours passed in minutes. Tommy shook constantly. His face looked drained. About a hundred yards from the army base, we kneeled by a stream and wet our parched mouths.

“That’s it up there,” John whispered. “If we can get there, we’re in… assuming the rebels haven’t taken it over.”

“But it’s our only option,” Jason finished. He had seen my eyes widen with fear.

We started to walk briskly toward the outline of a house when gunshots sounded and bullets blanketed the earth around us. I dove headfirst into the ground. Almost nauseated with fear, I sprang to my feet and ran to the hut. We’re still uncertain today who was shooting at us, the Kyrgyz military mistaking us for rebels or rebels trying to ambush the base.

We piled into the base. Within minutes we were drinking clean, cold water and eating canned sardines. It’s still the best meal I have ever had.

I spent the next year in shock, fear and depression. I was plagued by nightmares for months. The first thing I asked my dad for after we got home was a home security system. The first time I went into the cold after being held hostage–on a family outing to the Sierra–I began to cry. The first time I left a movie theater after dark, I cried. Any sort of activity that had consequences seemed horrific to me. Especially rock climbing.

While we were being held hostage, I didn’t think about El Cap or hard climbing. I thought about my family. The experience had stripped me of everything else I had known, and they were the only real comfort left. Now, all I wanted to do was spend time with Tommy in the safety of my parents’ home. Each night when I awoke, drenched in sweat from a nightmare, my mom’s soothing voice reminded me that I was safe. I didn’t want to climb, touch rock, or look at a climbing magazine. Pushing the limits of rock climbing seemed trivial compared to the solace of home.

Patiently, with great understanding, Tommy supported my desire to be with my loved ones. At the same time, he dove into climbing harder than he ever had. Rock climbing gave him something on which to focus, something for which to live. It was all he ever knew. The mountains were his comfort and support.

But as the years have passed since Kyrgyzstan, I gradually made my way back into climbing. No longer overwhelmed by fear, I was able to focus on the beauty, the athletic movement and the people who define the sport. Climbing has now consumed my life once again.

2003, El Cap’s West Buttress. I had just watched Tommy lead a grueling offwidth a thousand feet off the ground. Sweat dripped from my forehead, and my eyes stung with sunscreen. I slowly laced my climbing shoes and began to follow.

Sinking a finger lock, I pulled the hold to my thighs. The razor-sharp crimpers felt as though they belonged in my hands. Pinky toe down, I shoved my foot in the crack. As my forearms started to tire, I stopped, breathed and tried to rest. Above me the crack widened. I pulled myself into a kneebar and wedged my hip in the corner. My knees were bleeding. For the next ten minutes I squirmed and wiggled but advanced little more than a few inches. The image of Tommy gracefully moving through this section played again in my mind.

After thirty minutes of grunting and groaning, I slumped onto the rope. I was sore with fatigue. Working this pitch was not an option given our allotted time. I traded in my tight rock shoes for comfortable tennis shoes, stepped onto the security of my jumars, and sprinted up to the belay.

“Are you sure you don’t want to work that out?” Tommy asked. I could see the concern in his eyes.

“It would take me forever to get that thing dialed,” I replied, almost laughing. I looked past him at the sea of granite stretching into the distance. “There’s going to be plenty more of these in the future. It’s all you from here, babe.”

Tommy thanked me profusely, then raced up the next pitch. Hanging at the belay, I stared at the green treetops below me. My eyes wandered to the meadow and then to an adjacent party standing on El Cap Spire. Another party was silhouetted on the Shield headwall on the horizon. A grin crept across my face. I hadn’t thought about kidnappings, hunger or death for at least a week. Looking at the rock above me, I felt an edge of the same wonder and anticipation I experienced on my first big wall in Madagascar.

Tommy’s words snapped me from my reverie. “Rope’s fixed!”

Without hesitation, I clipped my jumars on. We had only a liter of water left, and a broken-down van awaited us in the meadow, but we were headed toward the summit. I had everything I needed.

Rodden reenacting the climbing on the West Buttress (VI 5.13c, 23 pitches) in 2003.

[Photo] Corey Rich