'Over the Edge: The True Story of Four American Climbers' Kidnap and Escape in the Mountains of Central Asia' by Greg Child
By Adam Mazmanian, a New York writer Monday, June 10, 2002; Page C04
Though "Over the Edge" is billed as a harrowing tale of adventure and danger in the mysterious high-altitude hinterlands of Central Asia, its exotic locales and riveting action are overshadowed by a bizarre last act that is unmistakably American. The subtitle provides an adequate summary of the bulk of the book's contents but omits any mention of the struggle for control of the story itself, or the unorthodox pecuniary relationship between the author and his subjects. Greg Child, a contributor to Outside magazine and a big-wall climbing enthusiast himself, becomes a major player in the back story that emerges in the wake of the action. More on this later.
Big-wall climbing is an extreme sport, expensive and dangerous to undertake, and requires a power-to-weight ratio that few athletes can muster. A big wall is just that -- a sheer face that defies mortal attempts to scale it. An example is a route up Smith Rocks in Oregon, described by Child as having "no hold larger than the width of a pencil in its 120-foot length." There are very few places in the world to attempt such perilous ascents. High up on this short list is the region known to climbers as the Karavshin, comprising several mountain ranges on the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border.
In August 2000, four young Americans were taken prisoner by Islamic militants while climbing in Kyrgyzstan's Pamir Alai mountains. For six grueling days, tired and half starved, they were marched at gunpoint through dangerous terrain. With death looming, one took advantage of an unguarded moment to topple one captor off a cliff, presumably to his death.
Let's stipulate that the blow-by-blow account of the kidnapping, and even much of the establishing material on the climbers' personalities, the sport of big-wall climbing and Islamic militancy in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia is compelling and well written. What's more interesting is what happened when the climbers came home to the United States and their story quickly morphed into a media event.
For a while, when facing the media, the climbers stuck to their original story that they had collaborated in their escape. When it emerged that it was just one man who impulsively did the pushing, their credibility began to diminish. The controversy heated up when it turned out that their captor was still alive -- and talking to competing reporters. But the climbers refused to discuss these revelations with journalists because they had promised Child and his publisher an exclusive on the story. In return, Child agreed to share money from his book and movie deals with the climbers. This is called "checkbook journalism." Child is being kind to himself when he characterizes the arrangement as a mere "embargo" and "a simple matter of business common in publishing."
Even now, attempts are being made to outlaw the practice in Britain.
In one respect, it's hard to reproach Child for his actions: It would be unfair if the victims in this affair went begging while a reporter cashed in on the story. But Child is trying to have it both ways. He attempts to discredit the work of others who, deprived of access to the principals, investigate independently whether their story is true.
One reporter, John Bouchard of Climbing magazine, visited Kyrgyzstan on his own to work on the story. Child's narrative follows Bouchard's trip, relying to a great extent on the account of Garth Willis, an American living in Bishkek. Willis told Child that Bouchard told him that this story was "his big chance to make it as a writer." If ambition is the seed of bad conscience, as Child seems here to insinuate, then his own motives are just as shaky as Bouchard's.
For Child, too, this story signifies the chance to make it as a writer. It means leaving the ghetto of specialty magazines and book publishers and graduating to the mainstream, where advances are measured in six and seven figures. The adventure-book category is capable of generating enormous sales and minting name-brand authors in the process. Child's admission of "respect" for rival reporter Bouchard's "conviction" is a debater's trick, allowing him to appear as though he is questioning his own motives and conscience while still characterizing Bouchard as a monomaniacal hack.
Washington Post, June 10, 2002