Transcript: Tommy Caldwell on What Are You Up Against? at TEDxKC

Tommy Caldwell

The following is the full transcript of American rock climber Tommy Caldwell’s TEDx Talk titled “What are you up against?” at TEDxKC event.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: What are you up against by Tommy Caldwell at TEDxKC


It had been 6 days since our last meal. What had started out as a climbing trip of a lifetime, had become an entirely different type of adventure, one marked by suffering, and death.

My girlfriend and I with 2 friends had helicoptered into a remote mountain region in southwest Kyrgyzstan 2 weeks before. We spent a week sleeping in hanging tents high on the grand yellow granite walls of the Karasu Valley. On our 8th day, we woke to gunshots — hunters I thought? No. Bullets were ricocheting off the walls around us. We took our long telephoto camera lens, and looked down to see 4 men with machine guns, and rifles waving, making clear their message, descend to the ground, or be shot.

A rebel insurgency called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had moved into the valley on a suspected mission to pave an opium trade trail through the mountains, and a war had erupted. We found ourselves caught at the point of collision, taken as hostage, used as human shields against the Kyrgyz military.

As the battle escalated, we ran. Then numb with terror, we huddled behind a boulder on top of a dead Kyrgyz soldier’s body, as a machine gun, and mortar fire flew overhead. As it got dark, 2 of our captors forced us to drop everything, and run with them. Then for the next 6 days, they pushed us, fleeing.

During the daylight hours we would lie still under boulders, or in damp depressions, covering ourselves with brush. It was clear that if we revealed our location, we would be shot. We had little food, and no water. And starvation is a crazy thing, because at first you feel it in your stomach, but then after a few days, your mind starts to starve, a complacency takes over. At times I stopped caring whether or not we lived.

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But then on our 5th night, something changed. I suddenly felt a surging strength, a survival instinct kicked in. I noticed my night vision improving. Lines became crisp. I was aware of every sound, every movement. I felt a lightness of vitality, and my confidence grew. But at the same time, we were fading away. Our bodies had resorted to metabolizing muscle for energy.

On our 6th night as hostages, we found ourselves left with just one remaining captor, Su, as we knew him. Under moonlight, we negotiated our way up a mountain side, steep scrambling around sheer cliff bands. As we got higher it became obvious that Su was nervous, out of his element. He started looking to us for guidance: “Which handhold should I use? Will it keep me safe?” I looked over at Beth, and she shivered uncontrollably.

For days she’d insisted that we should not kill. Better to spend months in captivity. But now the smell of rain hung in the air. I ran my fingers up and down my torso, and they vibrated off my ribs as if it were a washboard. I knew that if it stormed, hypothermia would surely consume us. I looked over at Beth, and she saw intent. For a moment our eyes locked. Her’s then turned towards her feet, and I knew. My heart raced as I scrambled across a series of ledges, careful to keep silent, and in the shadows.

As I drew near, he didn’t see me coming. Then when I was just a few feet away, my foot knocked off a loose piece of rock, and his head started to turn. I reached out, grabbed the gun strap that was still over his shoulder, and I pulled as hard as I could, and he arched backwards, falling freely. A wheezing thud broke the silence from far below.

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