Written By Andy Dappen
Leaving her Seattle home at 1:30 a.m., Christine Boskoff briefly wondered what she was thinking when she agreed to meet me in Leavenworth, Washington for a mid-October, one-day ascent of Dragontail Peak. She had just returned from Ouray, Colorado where she had been establishing an ice-climbing outpost to her business, Mountain Madness, the mountain-guiding firm she purchased in 1997 from the estate of Scott Fischer. She had a to-do list a rope length long. She had only slept 12 hours in the past three days. Yet here she was driving through the nightmare hours of darkness to make our 4:15 a.m. rendezvous.
The answer, of course, is to climb and a one-day ascent when the day is short, the approach moderate (6-miles), and the route long (grade IV) is her kind of climb.
We’ve not met before so when Boskoff, 36, rolls into Leavenworth and hops out of the Mountain Madness Range Rover, I’m surprised by how small she is– 5′ 3″ and maybe 115 pounds. We shake hands and my paw engulfs hers. Says Scott Morgan, a Mountain Madness client and an occasional climbing partner, “With the blonde hair and thin build, you’d think she was a tennis player, not a big-peak mountaineer.”
But a big-peak climber she is…and by all accounts a darn good one. Although she does not aspire to tick off all of the 8000-meter peaks (nor to be the first woman to do so), she is still regarded by many as the best high-altitude woman climber alive. In the ten years since she took up climbing, she’s scaled high peaks in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Mexico, Africa, Europe, and North America. In the Himalayas and the Karakorum, she’s made the biggest impression by topping well-known lesser peaks like Ama Dablam and six, 8000-meter mountains–Broad Peak (1995), Cho Oyu (1996), Lhotse (1997), Gasherbrum II (1999), Everest (2000), and Shishapangma (2000). No other living woman has climbed as many 8000-meter peaks, and only Polish climber Wanda Rutkiewicz had ever scaled more of the big peaks (8) before she died in 1992 on Kanchenjunga.
During the summer of 2002, she embarked on her tenth expedition to an 8000-meter summit and, along with boyfriend and famed mountaineer, Charlie Fowler, made a self-supported alpine-styled bid on the SSE Spur of K2. Ultimately, a season of poor weather and deep snow kept the two below 6900 meters, but even without K2 in the quiver there is little argument that Boskoff is on top of the ‘A-Woman’s-Place-Is-On-Top’ crowd.
Despite her accomplishments, there’s no bravado, no godly pretenses, as we discuss the plans for the day. Given the cold and the fact we’ve not climbed together, we opt to climb the Serpentine Ridge (grade III, 5.8) rather than the neighboring arete, Backbone Ridge (grade IV, 5.9). We take her SUV to the Colchuck Lake Trailhead, make the last-minute gear decisions, and then lock up the car. The cab light in her Range Rover stay on as the car doors all slam shut. “That OK?” I ask.
“It’s a British vehicle, so none of the electrical stuff works right.” In a former career, Boskoff was an electrical engineer, so I take her word on the lights. We wait hoping the lights will turn themselves off. They don’t. We open the car and try switches. Nothing. “I’m just going to move the car,” Boskoff tells me. I give her a quizzical stare, “Trust me, it makes a difference.” She moves the SUV 40 yards, kills the engine and the light turns off. “I seem to have a lot of electrical issues.”
Only a decade ago, Boskoff was unknown to the climbing world and electrical engineering was her life. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin in 1991, she went to work for Lockheed in Atlanta. She liked the work but was disturbed by the long-term prospects of the job, “I’d look down the tunnel of time and wonder what I’d have to show for this career.”
She quit Lockheed, thinking she’d join the merchant marine academy—a way to travel and work–when a rock-climbing course taken during the summer of 1992 gave her an epiphany of sorts. “Soon as I tagged the top of my first rock wall, something clicked.” She sensed she could travel, explore, and satiate a taste for adventure through climbing. She went back to Lockheed to make ends meet, but devoted her free time to climbing.
TRAILS ARE A FORM OF COMMUNION — in the process of traveling from here to there, they tunnel you into the soul of a region. And if you talk as you walk, they tunnel you into the soul of a companion. Which is what happens as Boskoff and I walk through the blackness of a cold autumn morning following the narrow beam of our headlamps. I get the six-mile version of the Boskoff Story.
I get the word on the young years (three older brothers made her tough and athletic), the school years (University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee), and some of the current gossip on what attracts her to Charlie Fowler (adventurous, multi-talented, passionate about climbing, committed to his beliefs, gentle, non-materialistic). I pop a trite question about what it’s like being a woman in a man’s world (most men accept her at face value because she’s strong enough to keep up). I ask her how long she can continue climbing 8000 meter peaks (at least into her late 40s, probably into her 50s if she wants…and if she’s still alive). Will she try to bag additional big peaks (possibly–the west ridge of Makalu beckons). Is she in the game to climb all of the 8000-meter peaks (no—she’s now drawn to lower, unclimbed peaks in Asia).
I delve into why she was interested in purchasing Mountain Madness (to build a lifestyle around climbing) and how she got the courage to purchase such a company when it was outside her business expertise (you’ve got to pursue your passions passionately to make them happen).
Although Boskoff is forthright with me, she tends toward introspection. She seems unwilling to reveal too much too quick. Which makes me unwilling to ruin what is shaping into a very good day by asking questions that are too personal. Questions like, “What happened to Keith?”
Keith, Boskoff’s husband, climbing partner, and business partner when Mountain Madness was purchased, was a driven man some 18 years her senior. He was upbeat, enthusiastic to the extreme, and well-loved by almost everyone who knew him. Clients say he was impossible to say ‘no’ to, friends use words like ‘awesome’ to describe him, guides reported that they never saw him down. Still, almost everyone who knew him agree that the word ‘manic’ pegged him. “It’s hard to believe that anyone who was so high didn’t have times when he was equally low,” says one of his former guides.
Apparently he did have his lows and during one of them in 1999 he took his life. It shocked everyone. “There was a sense of shared guilt… we wondered what we missed and how we could have helped him,” another former guide reports.
I wonder how a spouse recovers, moves on, from such an incident. How does such a loss galvanize or destroy one emotionally? Friends like Constance Smith, who Boskoff lived with for six weeks after her husband’s death, says Boskoff ultimately grew from the experience, becoming more sensitive, more concerned about friends and family. Boyfriend, Charlie Fowler, says it made her reassess her life and how she interacted with others, “But it’s a very private thing…she doesn’t discuss it.”
Through all the talk, I notice that while Boskoff is not at any moment unusually fleet, she just keeps going. If I stop so much as to pee, I feel the angst of whether I can catch up, which then fuels worries about whether by day’s end Boskoff will be mopping the walls of this mountain with my male pride. Others have felt this angst. Scott Morgan, who runs ultra marathons and considers himself a strong aerobic animal, describes a car-to-car, 16-hour, climb of Mt Rainier’s Kautz Glacier. “She kicked my butt—she’d have done it 14 hours if I hadn’t been holding her back.”
Piotr Pustelnik of Poland, a climber with eleven 8000-meter peaks to his credit and the leader of the unsuccessful 1998 Makalu expedition Boskoff had joined, describes hauling gear around the Makalu base camp. “Chris grabbed one of her duffel bags and took it to the tent. I wanted to be a gentleman so I took the other bag and tried to lift it. No way. The bag is so heavy I stand there like a fool. She comes back and throws it on her back like it has no weight.”
Charlie Fowler, has been on four 8000 meter peaks with Boskoff and says her experience and her understanding of her body excel at altitude. And so does her strength. “She and Peter Habeler raced up the Khumbu Icefall in 45 minutes—it takes most acclimatized climbers three hours to move through the area.”
CF Flavour, a devoted Ironman competitor who helps Boskoff train for her Himalayan adventures says, “At the peak of her training she’ll sometimes do three laps of Mt. Si (3700 vertical feet up per lap) with a 50- to 60-pound pack.” He too has made flash ascents of Rainier with Boskoff, climbing 9500-vertical feet from car to the summit in as little as six-hours. While Boskoff is not abnormally swift at sea level, Flavour says, “Elevation just doesn’t seem to faze her. I hold her back when we’re up high.”
Boskoff is harsher on herself in describing her sea-level performance—“I suck,” she tells me of her efforts to hang with the likes of Flavour in oxygen-rich environs. “But I seem to have the genetics for climbing up high, I acclimatize well, I feel good, and relative to others I’m fast.”
Clients believe her attitude (even-keeled and positive) as much as her genetics contribute to her strength up high. “I’ve never seen her have a bad day in the mountains,” says Julio Bird, a cardiologist who has climbed under Boskoff’s guidance on several big peaks and who made it to the top of Everest with Mountain Madness in 2002, “She just truly enjoys being out there… I’ve yet to see her physically or mentally down.”
Today, Boskoff is apparently her typical self. She’s enjoying the cold October air, the world of color birthing from the blackness of night, the ice plates bordering stream edges, the kinesthetic pleasure of moving light and fast. She doesn’t, however, seem all that enamored about talking about herself. She doesn’t commandeer attention in the way I’d expect of a promoter selling 800 to 1000 people on Mountain Madness trips each year, an entertainer giving four or five slideshows each month, a speaker motivating people to dream big, or an employer managing the strong personalities of 15 to 20 guides. Rather than spewing a Taj Mahal of self promotion she just lays out the facts—it’s only when you put it all together that you see it as a Great Wall of accomplishment.
The last time I climbed one of the technical routes up Dragontail Peak was 20 years ago and the sight of its 2000-vertical-foot walls today triggers uneasy memories. The upper third of the North Face route I climbed then was so chaussy that, in one particularly heinous corner system, my partner was making deals with greater powers to be delivered from evil. Those deals account for why his interest in biking blossomed after that climb.
Boskoff doesn’t put much stock in this kind of deal making or in fate. After surviving close calls of her own, however, she does believe judgment is powerful insurance. “You learn to pick routes wisely. You listen to your body and inner voice. You don’t climb if conditions aren’t right. You suppress summit-or-nothing attitudes. You learn when to break the rules. For example, sometimes I sacrifice security for speed by leaving behind the Ten Essentials and climbing with food and water alone.”
I ask her how difficult it was to return from K2 last summer without the plum. Charlie Fowler had said K2 was an aggravating experience for Boskoff. “She was focused on summiting and the Liaison Officers forced us to leave the mountain in August as a good-weather window was settling in. She hated this militaristic, rule-by-decree system.”.
Boskoff admits the defeat stung, but it would have stung more in bygone years. “I used to feel I had to make the goal; I pushed and pushed. Over time, I’ve started to back off because so many friends and acquaintances have died climbing. I’m learning to listen when things aren’t progressing right.”
Boskoff also believes that part of surviving so many expeditions to 8000-meter peaks—peaks where, on average, one person dies for every eight who summit–boils down to climbing as a free agent. Corporations do not pay for her expeditions; manufacturers don’t donate much of the gear. “This alleviates tremendous pressure—I don’t have to deliver if conditions are stacked against me.”
This modus operandi has kept her from becoming the media darling of The North Face or the hard woman of Mountain Hardware—a situation suiting her just fine. “She just isn’t in this for the recognition, she doesn’t want to be a poster girl,” says close friend and one-time climbing writer Jane (Bromet) Courage. Courage comments that Boskoff is quite disdainful about the whole image side of climbing. “She is a good looking woman—she could dress herself up in hot, sporty outfits; pluck her eyebrows; use some lip gloss and attract a lot of attention. But she won’t buy into that. She inspires women to be true to their own image—not society’s image. She teases me if I worry about brushing my hair.”
We reach the foot of the climb where we don helmets, harnesses, and rock shoes before third-classing several hundred feet of exposed rock. Occasionally our heels hang out over lethal exposure. Though we climb as partners, the guide in Boskoff has her worrying about my welfare. “You OK with this?” she asks several times. Eventually we reach a broken corner system delivering solid fifth-class climbing. We’re on the same wavelength—“Time to rope up.”
Once geared, Boskoff moves confidently up the ice-cold granite, quickly and competently sliding in pro every 15 to 20 feet. She doesn’t profess to be a top technical climber, saying she’s comfortable leading traditional rock in the mid 5.10 range and grade 4 water ice. She does, however, joke “I pull up on gear along with the best of them.”
Friends profess this is classic Boskoff understatement—or perhaps a statement of what she’s willing to guide. On rock Jane Courage knows she can lead well into the 5.11 range while on ice Scott Morgan says she leads WI 5.
The swirling wind has her chilled by the time I reach the belay ledge. Before I lead out on the next pitch, she slides into her down coat and slips a hat under the helmet. “I hate being cold.” It’s a curious confession from a mountaineer who voluntarily seeks out many of the globe’s coldest, windiest environs. But I understand. On a far lesser scale, I too love the wildness of inhospitable mountains– even though I’m not fond of shivering.
Several roped pitches later, the angle of the ridge kicks back and Boskoff suggests we 3rd class. It’s this easy but unforgiving terrain where she spends a good deal of her existence. The scree covered ledges, friable ramps, perched boulders which present little concern 10 feet off the deck can turn technically superior rock specialists into bundles of nerves 100 stories up. She moves smoothly and confidently exhibiting a cultivated form of relaxed focus. Occasionally we confront fifth-class impasses that threaten to require a rope. Then, looking for the path of least resistance, Boskoff suggests I explore options to the left while she wanders right. Repeatedly we find lines upward that circumvent the obstacles and save us time.
Very near the summit, the surrounding walls all steepen. The gully confining us becomes solid fifth class and is also a conduit for debris falling off the sunlit ridge above. A ledge system heading right dead ends. “Let’s go way left,” she suggests, pointing to an upward trending seam that turns a corner some 150 feet away. I’m pessimistic and am all for pulling out the rope and attacking the walls head on, but I humor her. We climb delicately upward, turn the corner, and in the time it would have taken me just to ready the gear, we are cruising along the sunlit summit ridge.
“Imagine guiding all that,” she says looking down on the shadowed face. For a guide, the upper 1000 vertical feet of this climb would be a test of short roping and short pitching—techniques that when used properly move a client quickly and safely through such terrain, but techniques recreational climbers are clumsy or unfamiliar with. We’ve been talking about the American Mountain Guiding Association (AMGA) and the certification courses Boskoff will be taking over the coming year as she attempts to pass the stringent standards required of certified guides. This climb with its combination of technical pitches, route finding, and exposed scrambling would demand a full quiver of tricks to guide safely and efficiently.
Because Boskoff believes the AMGA certification earmarks guides who have demonstrated a particularly high degree of professionalism, she is helping subsidize her employees who are willing to subject themselves to the time-consuming courses and the ego-deflating exams. And she is paying those guides who have been certified higher day rates, upping pay from about $130/day for her experienced guides to about $200/day for certified guides.
This talk flies in the face of former employees who criticize her. The critics, mainly guides she inherited from the Scott Fischer era, accuse her of not respecting them, reducing payments that had been agreed upon, pinching costs relentlessly, and possessing the emotional warmth of a block of wood.
In interviewing her critics as well as her advocates, the storm seems to center around that transitional time when Mountain Madness moved away from the seat-of-the-pants management and marginal bottom lines characterizing the Scott Fischer era toward a viable business model that could legitimately support Boskoff and her stable of employees. She streamlined infrastructure, formalized policies, standardized contracts, and upgraded guiding requirements. Over the five years that she has owned the company, she’s chiseled away at expenses while nearly doubling the company’s sales revenues to an estimated $1.4 million per year. Today with its $59,000/person Everest climbs, $3600/person climbs of Kilimanjaro, $3500/person ascents of Elbrus, and its considerably more modest American adventures, Mountain Madness rates as one of the larger houses specializing in mountain guiding.
About this transformation, Jane Courage, now a friend of Boskoff’s but once Scott Fisher’s publicist, says, “Any time you have transition a lot of the old guard is going to be bent.”
Regarding those who are bent, Mark Gunlogson, once a guide for Fischer and now Boskoff’s office/operations manager, says, “Chris isn’t trained as a business woman and she made some mistakes turning things around, but overall the professionalism (among her critics) just wasn’t there.”
Clients like Eugene Rehfeld, a retired restaurant owner who has climbed with Mountain Madness on Aconcagua, Cho Oyu, and Elbrus, gives the company high marks for its professionalism, its personnel, and for its safety protocols. Rehfeld has climbed with other companies and has observed many commercial outfits in operation on the mountains he’s climbed. Despite the fact that Mountain Madness trips aren’t the cheapest, he keeps returning.
High numbers of both returning and new clients means business is good for Boskoff. Good enough that in the depressing year following the September 11 bombings, the company’s revenue saw only a three percent dip. Good enough that Boskoff can be out of the Seattle office four to six months a year guiding company trips, marketing through slideshows, climbing privately, and establishing satellite offices in Colorado—where Charlie Fowler just happens to live.
Life is good too—a point we both agree upon as we top Dragontail and sit in sunlight surrounded by the white granite horns and the blue water tarns of the Enchantment Lake Basin. We take, what is for Boskoff, an interminable break and sit long enough to slam down a few energy bars and slug back half a liter of water. I look to the south over the lower Enchantments where the larch trees are flaming yellow. I can’t help it – I’m flapping about what a golden time of year autumn in the mountains is.
When I put a lid on it, it strikes me that this, too, is a golden time for Boskoff. Her business is running well allowing her to be out of the office doing what she loves—guiding and climbing. A lot. In early November she’ll be climbing privately in Red Rocks, in mid November guiding in Patagonia, December she’s guiding Aconcagua, then it’s back to Colorado for January and February to work with the new ice-climbing program, in late spring she’s taking an AMGA guiding course working toward her certification, then guiding in the Northwest throughout most of the summer, in early fall she’s on Cho Oyu for six weeks, then tackling an unclimbed (and unnamed) peak in Eastern Tibet…
It’s a schedule to drive envy into the hearts of those who embrace all aspects of climbing—rock, ice, mountains. But it’s a schedule demanding movement—lots of movement. The food is down, a few pictures are snapped, and those short, restless legs are moving again. We make a one-stop descent to the cars that spans 9 miles of distance, drops 6000 vertical feet, and beats nightfall by 30 minutes. I’ve got a half-hour drive home and a solid excuse for sleeping in late tomorrow. Boskoff has a 3-hour drive ahead, but she’s excited to get home. I’m thinking it’s because she’s exhausted and is looking forward to some down time, some R&R. She sets me straight—she’s excited because tomorrow is Thursday. That means she’s got a 6:00 a.m. date with the climbing gym.
The story above was written in the autumn of 2003. Three years later, Christine Boskoff and Charlie Fowler were reported missing while on a personal climbing expedition in the Sichuan Province of southern China. A search ensued and eventually Fowler’s body was recovered on December 27, 2006 at about the 17,500-foot level of the 20,354-foot Genyen Peak. Boskoff’s body was not found at that time but she was presumed dead. On July 3, 2007, a Mountain Madness search team found Boskoff’s remains at about the same elevation as where Fowler had been found. It is believed the two were killed by an avalanche.