Standing a mere 5'1" tall and college co-ed cute, Beth Rodden appears more like the blond beauty next-door than one of the most accomplished female rock climbers in the world. Yet the 24-year-old adrenaline junkie regularly scales dizzying rock faces while you're downing your morning coffee. Rodden's small and, well, quite-tight frame makes for a strong size-to-weight ratio, and her tiny-yet-tough fingers enable her to grab onto holds other climbers couldn't touch.

But it was her courage that drove her to become one of only two women ever to free-climb El Capitan's 3,000-foot-high face in Yosemite National Park.

Though normally fearless, Rodden was scared stiff during the summer of 2000. On a climbing trip with three friends in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, she awoke one morning to gunfire. Islamic Kyrgyzstani rebels took the four hostage, adding them to a Kyrgyz soldier already held captive.

"At first, we were hoping they just wanted our stuff," she says. "But after they executed the soldier, we knew they meant business." Seven days into their captivity, the party finally escaped after they were left alone with a single guard as he led them up a hill. That's when one of Rodden's friends pushed the guard off a 2,000-foot cliff, before the group ran four hours to safety.

Rodden swore off climbing for a year after that experience, until she did an ascent for a 9/11 charity benefit.

She's been climbing four days a week ever since. Currently, she's planning to free-climb another route up El Cap. "You've got to love it, have a lot of drive, be fit and strong, and have a vision for what hasn't been done," she says in a decidedly sweet and perky tone. "It's what sets apart the best from the good"--and Rodden from nearly everyone else.