DAVIS, Calif. -- American climbers held hostage for six days by Islamic militants in Kyrgyzstan say they escaped by pushing a guard off a cliff before making a harrowing 18-mile trek to freedom.
"It is so hard to think of that now, but we were afraid we would not survive," Beth Rodden, 20, said Thursday.
Rodden returned to California with fellow climber Tommy Caldwell of Estes Park, Colo., on Tuesday, four days after fleeing Uzbeki militants in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic.
The other climbers, San Francisco Bay area residents John Dickey, 25, and Jason Smith, 22, were expected to return Friday. The foursome went to Kyrgyzstan on an expedition sponsored by The North Face, a sports gear company.
On Aug. 12, the day after Caldwell's 22nd birthday, the climbers were plotting routes on the steep walls of the Kara-su Valley when rebel soldiers began shooting. All four were taken hostage and put under guard.
"They buried us under rocks, put brush on us, basically hid us from helicopters during the day and sometimes we moved at night," Caldwell said.
The militant forces, seeking to take control of the remote, rugged area where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan converge, were stepping up fighting efforts against government troops. In the first hours of captivity, the climbers heard their captors execute a fifth hostage, a government soldier.
Forced to lie still up to 17 hours a day in "teeth-chattering cold," Caldwell said, the climbers survived on half-portions of energy bars and slabs of butter.
When the walkie-talkies the guards took from them ran out of batteries, one guard went back to the climbers' camp to get more. That's when the climbers say they pushed the other armed guard off a cliff and fled, dodging bullets as they made the 18-mile journey to a military post.
Government soldiers welcomed them and offered them fatigues. The climbers were told the troops knew of their capture but couldn't save them without risking another battle.
"They knew where we were the whole time," said Caldwell, who doesn't fault the troops for staying back. "They were doing everything they could."
During a meeting with the four climbers Saturday, President Askar Akayev said they had been hiking in an area frequently traveled by the Islamic militants.
Rodden and Caldwell, both among the nation's top-rated climbers, said they were terrified by their experience but might want to return to the country if the fighting stops.
"You never know what is going to happen when you go somewhere like that," said Rodden's father, Robb, also a mountain climber.
"The warnings we found on the Internet gave this region very mild warnings," he said. "If you compare them to warnings in other countries, it was very minor."
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