John Bouchard can't find the right map. He is fumbling through
dozens of burnt-yellow papers rolled up like scrolls in the
office of his Bend, Ore., home, searching for a specific map of
Central Asia. Not the one he bribed a Kyrgyzstan official $300 to
get. Not the one on which Kyrgyz military officers sketched a
battle plan. Not the one a captured terrorist had carried through
the Pamir Alai mountain range and which the soldier who killed
the terrorist gave to Bouchard.
This is an article from the March 17, 2003 issue
No, he is looking for a different map, and having trouble finding
it, so his wife, Nancy, makes small talk. "You know, John had [a
friend] shoot at him with a semiautomatic rifle so he would know
what it sounded like to be shot at," she says matter-of-factly.
"John hid behind a rock and had him shoot at him."
John, 51, who was one of America's greatest Alpinists before he
retired from the sport in 1998, admits there is little he and his
wife haven't done in service of a curiosity turned hobby turned
obsession that is in its third year, has drained their bank
account of more than $30,000 and has so consumed their days that
Nancy often wishes they could "have a life again." But they
can't. Not when they are writing a book that they say will expose
one of the most talked-about episodes in modern climbing--the
August 2000 kidnapping of four American climbers in Kyrgyzstan
and their harrowing escape--as a haul bag full of half-truths and
exaggerations. "There is no question they went through a horrible
experience," John says. "But there are just too many
discrepancies. Just ... too much."
Of course, "too much" is a phrase that could also be applied to
the Bouchards' investigative zeal. The couples' allegations have
ruffled feathers and stirred debate throughout the close-knit
climbing community. After all, the Bouchards are questioning some
of the most respected and beloved figures in climbing today.
Tommy Caldwell, 24, and Beth Rodden, 22, the first couple of the
sport, are among America's finest male and female free-climbers.
Jason (Singer) Smith, 24, is a cutting-edge solo climber, and
John Dickey, 27, is a noted outdoor photographer.
Here is their story: On Aug. 12, 2000, while on an expedition in
the Pamir Alai range in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan,
the four were sleeping in two portaledges high on Mount Zhioltaya
Stena, a 12,000-foot peak, when they were fired upon by members
of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a terrorist group linked
to al-Qaeda. The climbers made their way down the slope and were
taken hostage. For six days they were walked by their captors
through the mountains as the terrorists dodged Kyrgyz troops
while looking for a route back into Uzbekistan. At a moment when
only one terrorist was guarding them, Caldwell pushed him off a
cliff, and the group made a frightful nighttime dash to a
military post, dodging bullets along the way.
The story, in the eyes of publishers and producers, would be the
next Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's 1997 best-selling account of a
disastrous expedition on Mount Everest. A book deal was being
negotiated before all the climbers were back in the U.S., and in
December 2000, Universal Pictures and producers Kathleen Kennedy
and Frank Marshall paid a reported mid-six-figure sum for the
movie rights. (The film is in development with no set production
The Bouchards jumped into the fray after reading news accounts of
the ordeal. Nancy, a climber herself and a veteran freelance
writer, signed a contract with Playboy to write what she calls "a
simple heroes story." But two weeks into her reporting, a contact
in Kyrgyzstan handed Nancy a bombshell. Russian newspapers were
reporting that Ravshan Sharipov, the terrorist Caldwell pushed
off the cliff and who was presumed to have died, had been
captured alive. The Bouchards saw that news as a crack in the
climbers' story, and they have spent the 2 1/2 years since trying
to widen that crack.
Says Duane Raleigh, editor and publisher of Rock and Ice magazine
and an acquaintance of the four climbers as well as of the
Bouchards, "There are very polarized sides and then this group in
the middle, the climbers, who just want it all to go away."
It won't, because the Bouchards won't let it. There are many
theories as to why they have fixated on the Kyrgyzstan saga.
Depending on who's talking, the Bouchards are 1) upset that
writer Greg Child and not the two of them signed an exclusive
agreement with the climbers and landed a book and movie deal; 2)
protecting the integrity of climbing; or 3) zealots with too much
time on their hands.
"John has always been an honest person, and he hates to see
people get away with dishonesty," says climber Mark Twight, a
friend of the Bouchards' (who believes that the four climbers
embellished their accounts of what happened in Kyrgyzstan). "I
know he is fascinated by that part of the world, and I think he
is a bit of a conspiracy theorist. Also, Alpine climbers don't
age well. Having retired from climbing at a high level to be a
father, [he is facing] a void. This is how he has chosen to
expend his energy."
While Nancy, 42, tends to the couple's three daughters (Lili, 3,
and nine-month-old twins Cora and Alice), John moves from room to
room in their home overlooking the Deschutes River, showing
photos of military officials he questioned during two trips to
Kyrgyzstan and screening a videotape of a jailhouse interview
with Sharipov during which the terrorist tells John he did not
fall from a cliff but fell asleep, allowing the climbers to
escape. (In an interview with Child that aired on NBC's Dateline
last April, Sharipov said he was pushed.) John has dissected the
climbers' stories as told in Outside and Climbing magazines and
in Child's book Over the Edge. One example: In the Outside story,
written by Child, the description of Sharipov's fall from the
cliff includes him arcing "through the circle of the moon." John
obtained moon charts, and, he says, "given where the moon was
that night, that could not have happened."
Such ephemeral details aside, the Bouchards have raised some bona
fide questions about what went on in the Pamir Alai. The climbers
say they ran 18 miles after escaping from Sharipov, but the
valley is not that wide. According to Bouchard, Kyrgyz military
officials say they never mistook the climbers for terrorists and
did not fire on them, as the climbers said. But not even Oliver
Stone would bite on some of the theories the Bouchards have
embraced, such as one growing out of a report in The Times of
London (refuted by friends of the climbers) that one of Rodden's
favorite books is The Secret History, the 1992 Donna Tartt novel
in which a group of students cover up a killing in the Vermont
woods. Says John, "This has been printed. This isn't made up. So
what does that tell you?"
What indeed? Had the climbers entered the flap (they haven't
spoken to the Bouchards in a year and a half, and this week
Dickey said of the couple, "They are a little out there, and we
don't even care to have anything to do with them"), they might
have pointed out that the four of them were scared, starving,
dehydrated and freezing during those six days in the Kara Su
valley, and thus some miscalculation on the height of a cliff or
the position of the moon could be expected. After reports of the
Bouchards' investigations began to appear in the press and the
controversy became fodder for talk in climbing bars and
portaledges, Child attempted to address the Bouchards' concerns
in his book, dedicating nearly five chapters to their doubts, but
the Bouchards have not been persuaded. "There have been a lot of
ridiculous allegations," says Child, "but no apologies when those
allegations prove to be untrue."
The Bouchards are not about to apologize. Their book, to be
published by McGraw Hill in early 2004 and tentatively titled
Dark Side of the Mountain, will cover the struggle between rebel
groups and government troops in Central Asia, the history of the
area and the region's significance in the fight against
terrorism. But the climbers' tale is the juice, and John knows
it. He is like a copyboy chasing his first scoop. It is, of
course, going to be bigger than Watergate. John, says Nancy, "is
like a dog with a bone."
And he keeps chewing. Last week Rodden and Caldwell were climbing
in France, Smith in Southeast Asia. Dickey was at work in San
Francisco. John and Nancy Bouchard were poring over maps,
watching videotapes of terrorists in training and reviewing
Russian news reports. In a strange way, all were doing what they
"I want to solve this puzzle," John says. "Before we didn't have
all the pieces. Now we have them. It's just a matter of making
them all fit."