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Talking to Johanna Garton about EDGE OF THE MAP; the Christine Boskoff story

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What was the inspi­ra­tion behind the book? How did you hear about Boskoff? Why did you think her sto­ry need­ed to be told?

In 2006 I was liv­ing in Den­ver, moth­er­ing a tod­dler with anoth­er on the way. My son had been adopt­ed from Chi­na and at Christ­mas that year, my moth­er called to ask if I’d heard about two Col­orado moun­taineers who’d gone miss­ing near the area of Chi­na where Will had been born. She described the search and res­cue oper­a­tion that she’d read about in her local news­pa­per. This was of course Chris and Charlie’s dis­ap­pear­ance, and though I didn’t know either of them, nor had I heard about their dis­ap­pear­ance, my moth­er sound­ed part-cap­ti­vat­ed, part-fran­tic as she told me their sto­ry. Chris was an accom­plished climber, hav­ing bro­ken all sorts of bar­ri­ers as a woman in a sport dom­i­nat­ed by men. I was astound­ed that I hadn’t heard of her. She’d sum­mit­ed more 8000-meter peaks than any oth­er Amer­i­can woman, and was there­fore the coun­ter­part to Ed Vies­turs, who was by then a rec­og­nized name and semi-celebri­ty. Though my moth­er was a jour­nal­ist, she had no pre­vi­ous inter­est in moun­tain climb­ing and so I final­ly asked why, hav­ing no back­ground in the sport her­self, she was so tak­en with fol­low­ing the search to find Chris. She sim­ply replied, 

Because Johanna…you went to high school with her.”

Indeed, I had. We were three years apart and had nev­er met in high school, but we were from the same city in Wis­con­sin. Mid­west girls. 

My moth­er began a ten-year deep dive into Chris’s sto­ry and life. She became friends with Chris’s moth­er, as they lived just a few miles from each oth­er in our home­town. Very quick­ly, Mom knew that she want­ed to write a book based on Chris’s life. The research and prepa­ra­tion to write the man­u­script was her life and her pas­sion until she was diag­nosed with Parkinson’s Dis­ease and her health began to fail. At that point, I was like­wise cap­ti­vat­ed by Chris’s sto­ry. It became clear to both of us, I think, that I was meant to fin­ish her work. 

Hav­ing heard bits and pieces of Chris’s sto­ry for over a decade as my moth­er researched, I knew it had all the ele­ments to cap­ture and touch read­ers. Chris’s accom­plish­ments were mean­ing­ful, but it was her relata­bil­i­ty and humil­i­ty in achiev­ing great­ness that was the real gold. She was under­stat­ed and flawed just like the rest of us, and sim­ply prac­tic­ing what she was pas­sion­ate about in the moun­tains. And yes, it irked me to no end that the names of male alpin­ists were well-known, but hers was a mys­tery then and to this day. In short, I felt strong­ly that the world would be a bet­ter place when Chris’s sto­ry was told.

Is there some­thing you hope read­ers take away from her sto­ry or lessons you learned?

Though it’s cer­tain­ly a com­pelling read, I think what I’m most hop­ing is that the book gen­er­ates con­ver­sa­tion. There are many unan­swered ques­tions and issues the book rais­es, all wor­thy of fur­ther explo­ration. The grad­ual shift in moun­taineer­ing from being a male-dom­i­nat­ed sport is an obvi­ous one. The role that women have in the world of out­door adven­ture busi­ness­es is anoth­er. The forces that dri­ve extreme endurance ath­letes. The issue of whether alpin­ists dare climb sacred peaks is anoth­er con­ver­sa­tion I’m anx­ious to hear. And of course, the impact on the lives of sur­vivors of those lost in avalanch­es or oth­er moun­tain dis­as­ters. Hav­ing spo­ken to near­ly 100 peo­ple on all of these top­ics, it’s clear there are pas­sion­ate dis­cus­sions just wait­ing to be had. I think Chris would be hap­py to know that her life was being talked about in a way that per­haps chal­lenged peo­ple to con­sid­er how they approach their own lives and how they view the choic­es of others. 

What was the most sur­pris­ing thing you dis­cov­ered while researching/​writing?

I had always per­ceived lead­er­ship as a gift that was wel­comed, craft­ed and then unveiled in a very script­ed way. What I found through dis­cov­er­ing Chris was the oppo­site. Here she was, in a sport in the mid 1990’s which was prac­ti­cal­ly void of women, and she real­ly had no aware­ness of what a super­star she was. She was sim­ply doing what she was pas­sion­ate about. She didn’t seek to lead and in fact, shied from that until it was hard to hide. Because she’d grown up with three broth­ers and par­ents who told her she could do any­thing she want­ed to do, she nev­er saw her gen­der as a defin­ing fea­ture, rather it was only a small piece of the equa­tion that she man­aged to become a bet­ter aero­space engi­neer, a bet­ter pilot, a bet­ter busi­ness own­er, and ulti­mate­ly a bet­ter high alti­tude moun­taineer. Though she was trail-blaz­ing and shat­ter­ing all sorts of stereo­types, her humil­i­ty is some­thing I came to admire and see as her great­est lead­er­ship trait. 

Could you tell me a lit­tle bit about your back­ground? Are you a climber or a mountaineer?

I’m a marathon­er, so I’d clas­si­fy myself as an endurance ath­lete, but def­i­nite­ly not a moun­taineer or a climber. At first, I thought this might prove to be a dis­ad­van­tage, but I found it actu­al­ly gave me a nice buffer from the per­son­al­i­ties and egos that some­times crowd the sport. I felt able to come to my work with­out too many per­cep­tions about the sport or too woven into the dra­ma and death that can be a very real part of climb­ing and high-alti­tude moun­taineer­ing. Instead I was hun­gry to learn and pass on what I was absorb­ing to oth­er read­ers like me…armchair climbers, so to speak. 

For peo­ple who have nev­er heard of her, why should they pick up the book?

Friends and fam­i­ly of Chris threw their sup­port behind my work to tell her sto­ry, but this book is most­ly for all of those read­ers who didn’t know her. It’s for any­one who’s drawn to a sto­ry fea­tur­ing a strong, ener­getic woman who could be your best friend or your sis­ter. But beyond being the sto­ry of just one extra­or­di­nary woman, it’s for read­ers who would enjoy a col­or­ful cast of char­ac­ters and diver­gent sto­ry­lines that take place in the Himalayas, big cities in the Unites States and in small town Wis­con­sin. It’s an adven­ture sto­ry that reads like both jour­nal­ism and fic­tion at times. It’s full of sus­pense, beau­ti­ful scenery, light­ness and heart­break. It’s for any­one who wants to be trans­port­ed, moved and inspired…and don’t we all need more of that right now?