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