Christine Boskoff: Making It Happen

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Chris was born and raised in Appleton, Wisconsin, and spent her childhood years keeping up with her older bothers. In high school she excelled in sports. She put herself through the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where she was one of a very few female engineering students.

After graduating, she was hired by Lockheed in Atlanta at age 24. “I began climbing the wall at Lockheed,” she laughed, “and then realized that I could climb the walls at the indoor gym in Atlanta.” There, she met Keith Boskoff, an experienced climber, successful architect (and 15 years her senior) who cherished her. Keith took her to Ecuador, where they climbed on the country’s high-altitude volcanoes. Shortly thereafter, Chris quit her job, married Keith, and committed to climbing full time.

I met Chris in 1997, just after the Boskoffs purchased Mountain Madness. At that time, “The Madness” was in dire financial straights. It took a ton of money and tenacity to get the company up and running again. Then, in 1999, just as Mountain Madness was beginning to turn around, Keith Boskoff suddenly died. It was a tragic death and it shook Chris to her core. His death changed Chris in profound and positive ways, but it required tremendous introspection.

Before Chris went missing, Mountain Madness’s success and her personal relationships were the best they’d ever been. Ironically, when Chris died, she was as happy, confident and as balanced as she’d ever been. Her emotional maturation was mirrored in her climbing – she began to feel, on a deep level, a synergistic mind-body connection, and it inspired her to be the best person she could be in all areas of life. There were many other things that drove Chris to climb, including the beers afterwards. However, moving through life with grace, gratitude, humor, and humility had become Chris’ greatest commitment. Without these things in place, Chris understood she would hold herself back. Chris was many things to many people, but if nothing else, Chris defined “Make it Happen”.

Interview with Christine Boskoff

By Robert Hauptman and Frederic Hartemann On July 7, 2006, Bob Hauptman and Fred Hartemann filmed and recorded an interview with Christine Boskoff, lost in China that following November with Charlie Fowler apparently as the result of an avalanche. Boskoff, an electrical engineer, mountaineer, alpine guide, co-owner of Mountain Madness, and one of the world’s most respected alpinists, sat down with the pair at the Seattle Mountain Madness headquarters, to share her thoughts on the state of the sport and her life as a climber. The following interview will also appear in Hauptman and Hartemann’s upcoming book Grasping For Heaven: Interviews with Mountaineers. The pair also authored The Mountain Encyclopedia (amazon.com/Mountain-Encyclopedia-Compendium-Concepts-People/dp/1589791614/sr=1-1/qid=1169665657).

"What do you do for a living?" one [climber] asked her as she limbered up a 5.10 line. "Oh," said Boskoff, who had recently topped out on Mount Blanc and the Matterhorn, "I run a travel business."

— Bruce Barcott

RH: Thank you for talking with us; we appreciate it. I know something about mountaineering: its practice, practitioners, and history. I am stunned by your accomplishments. You began climbing just a few years ago, and someone recently called you the greatest female mountaineer ever. Another commentator insists that you are “One of the greatest mountaineers of all time.” How did you manage this extraordinary feat?CB: Well, I started climbing in 1992 and I think what it was, was I found my passion in life and I think what you are going to see with all of these people you interview is that we all have a passion for climbing, the outdoors, adventure, and once you find your passion, you become driven, you become focused and that’s all you want to do. ... I took a two-day rock course and when I climbed to the top I just knew that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. And now I just love every aspect of climbing, and every day I go out, I try to improve, I try to get more experience and for me it’s not even just the summit or to climb real difficult peaks, but it’s the people I get to climb with, and just the whole experience of culture when you go to a different country. And then when you just love a sport so much or a lifestyle like this, you try to be the best, and I am a very driven person and I put everything into it. There are some things that I do better than others, for example, high-altitude mountaineering; I am very strong at [it], because my body adjusts very quickly, so I was able to progress really quickly versus something like ice climbing. I am not as strong as I am with maybe rock climbing. But it is mainly finding your passion and when you find your passion, you become good at it.RH: But you also have to have an inherent skill; my passion might be mountaineering, but I don’t have the ability; I could never do what you have done at the lowest level. ...CB: Well, I think my success is because — and if you ask my mother she would say I am hardheaded — when it came to mountaineering I knew I had to train a lot; I’m really driven when it comes to exercising. When I trained my first time I went to Everest, I would get up at three o’clock in the morning and drive up to one of the local hills just outside of Seattle [in the] pouring rain; I would be carrying a heavy pack and I would do it three or four times, with a 10,000-foot elevation gain, or I would run up Mt Sy — it’s a three- or four-mile run — and I’d do it three times. You’re looking at ... 18 miles for a workout. ... I really work at it. And it’s not like it just comes naturally: I roll off the couch and go and climb. I put a lot of time and dedication into it, and a lot of pain, just having the discipline to get out of bed at three and go and train.

RH: In Ascent on G2, the wonderful film that traces your climb of Gasherbrum II, you speak briefly with Alex Lowe, considered, before his untimely death, the best all-around climber in the world. What was he like? And did you climb with him? CB: I didn’t climb with Alex Lowe. My climbing partner has quite a bit, and the things I’ve heard about Alex — he was a very nice person. I just met him for a minute; we did an interview together, but he was a very nice person. I’ve always heard good things about him.RH: Someone in the film speaks of the pain involved in climbing. Have you suffered much physically or psychologically in the mountains? Peter Habeler remarked that you suffer quietly, without complaining. Just knowing Lowe briefly and then learning of his death is a painful experience, is it not? And every other woman who has tried the 14 8,000-meter peaks has died. This too must be painful and frightening.CB: You do suffer a lot. I think some of us — that’s why we’re in the sport, especially high- altitude mountaineering: it’s cold; sometimes you have a headache. It’s not a very pleasant experience vs. rock climbing on a sunny crag. But I think that’s why a lot of us are drawn to it. I enjoy that hardship, the physical challenge; the more I push myself and the more I have the pain, I enjoy it, and when I look back at it, I feel like I really accomplished something. And that’s me.RH: That’s amazing. You quote a Japanese climber who exclaims, “Either summit or die!” How do you feel about this attitude?CB: That came from … a really good climber, Hector Ponce de Leon [of Mexico]; and he said that once on Aconcagua: This Japanese climber [in a] storm, and they said, you better turn around, and the Japanese climber looked at him and said, “Summit or die.” So that was always kind of an ongoing joke that we used on that expedition. But for me personally, I think everybody in the mountains, they have to take responsibility for their actions, and when people push themselves so much, you kind of sit there and go OK, I might not come back, and that’s your preference. But when you bring other people into the picture for a rescue, I think that’s very selfish. These other people might get hurt because you’re up there at 8,000 meters needing help. So I think ... when you climb you need to take responsibility for your actions. RH: I am sure you know that in certain cases, especially with Japanese and Korean climbers, they set out with the a priori supposition that we will get somebody to the summit of our group and if someone dies that’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make. Whereas for the most part European and American climbers do not set out with that; they would say, we’d love to get someone to the summit but if it’s a matter of someone dying, we, I hope, would stop and rescue the person, despite what just happened on Everest, which was quite horrible.CB: Yes, I see that with the Korean culture. We’ve helped out Koreans on Makalu. ... I think some of that is starting to change. [That] is what I’ve heard, that they’re getting a lot better trained and more experienced when they go to the mountains, but I am not sure where that all stands anymore. ... I’ve seen it with inexperienced Europeans, Americans too. So it’s not just one country. RH: Well, we have a mountaineering ethical obligation and we also have a human obligation to help people who are in trouble. Fred, when he climbed in the Alps, 20, 25 years ago, told me that guides in the Alps from Chamonix have an obligation, even when they are guiding, to stop, have their clients stand still, while they climb down and rescue a person who is calling for help. And I think that that’s a good attitude even though the client might suffer, maybe not make the summit, but it seems horrible to let someone purposely die when you could help. Sometimes you can’t, and I don’t know what the outcome would have been on Everest, if some of those 40 people had stopped and tried to help, but that’s a very unpleasant situation. For people who aren’t mountaineers, it gives them a bad perspective on what we do. CB: I don’t know all the circumstances on this last Everest thing so it’s hard for me to speculate, but I have helped people already and have had to put my clients ... and tie them off on something and help somebody else that was in trouble, but that’s just part of the game. As a guide, you’re a role model, and you need to show your clients the proper etiquette when you’re in the mountains. And, of course, not just for the clients; you should help other people. ... RH: Brent Bishop (who is one of the few son-father pairs to summit Everest) was one of your fellow climbers on G2. What was it like climbing with him? I was amazed that he tore his head open with an ice ax. CB: Well, Brent is a character for sure. Really, the only time I ever climbed with Brent was on the Gasherbrum II expedition. He’s a funny guy; he’s very nice.RH: What happened with his head?CB: I think what he was doing was he put his ice ax into a serac to push himself up, and it popped out and hit him in the head. RH: Was it bad?CB: It wasn’t bad — he didn’t need stiches or anything like that.

RH: Once you reached base camp, the climbers did the entire route to the summit without any aid from high-altitude porters. In the film, I noticed some fixed ropes. Did you put all those up before the filming began? What was it like climbing and setting up camps completely unaided?CB: It’s a lot of hard work. On that expedition, I was telling you, we didn’t have any porter support, and so a few of us ended up doing most of the work. ... The fixed lines were already up. There were a few expeditions that had already been there before us and they already had rope up earlier that season, so we just used it. We might have put in some extra rope in certain sections. God, that’s a long time ago, in 1999.RH: On summit day, you had a long, difficult climb to a tent that someone had left high on the mountain. Then you continued without a rest to the summit. The narrator mentions that you still had eight hours to go. And of course you had to get back down. Can a person who has never done this sort of thing (at 26,000 feet) really comprehend what it feels like?CB: No. That summit day was probably the hardest summit day I have ever had in the mountains. I was completely exhausted. I remember, we started out at nine, ten o’clock at night and we climbed up all throughout the night, and before that we had already attempted the summit twice before, so we were pretty tired. The expedition was now well over 60 days, and we were ready to go home, so it was really hard for us. And I remember getting up to a point and I could kind of see the summit, and I said, We’ll be up there in an hour, and this was eight o’clock in the morning, and it wasn’t until one we topped out and it was so hard, and then we had to get all the way back down again. I think we got back down to camp by five. And that day was probably the hardest day I ever had in the mountains. RH: It was amazing.CB: It was amazing, yes. RH: Weren’t you truly astonished to learn that while you were high up on the dangerous mountain, an avalanche inundated basecamp far below, wreaking destruction and forcing you, as expedition leader, to return briefly to assess the damage? Normally, you would think the avalanche would happen up high …CB: We had so many things happen to us on that expedition. We had our basecamp wiped out by an avalanche; and thank god all the local staff went down to Concordia to visit some other friends, just by chance. I think they were playing cards down there. So, it was lucky for us nobody was hurt, but our kitchen tent, everything, was wiped out. We lost several tents. And what had happened was some freak avalanche from the mountain about a half-mile across the glacier — a huge serac came down and just went all the way across that glacier and wiped out our camp, and the Korean camp got wiped out and one other camp.RH: That ‘s so unusual. Normally basecamps are safe from those types of inundations.CB: Yes, you would assume. In this case, it was just a freak occurrence. And then on top of it we had several big storms hit us that completely. ... we had snow and snow, and it collapsed our kitchen tent again.RH: Was the basecamp at around 18,000 feet?CB: It was 5,000 meters, 5,200 meters [ca. 17,000 feet]. RH: The narrator in Ascent on G2 says that mountaineering is a solo sport? Is this true?CB: On the bigger peaks, it’s probably, in some ways, solo, because if there’s fixed line you’re moving independently. However, it’s a team effort. And a lot of times in the mountains its just you and another buddy, and it’s you two. It’s not a solo sport. RH: 1995, on the descent from Broad Peak’s summit, you got disoriented in a blizzard. Were you alone? How did you find your way back to camp? During this same storm, the great British climber Alison Hargreaves was killed nearby on K2. CB: Yes, that was a big experience for me. That was after I sumitted my first eight-thousander. That’s when I first met Scott Fisher. He had his own expedition, which was on the mountain at the same time. What had happened was I was the only person in my expedition (there were four of us … ) who went to the summit that day, and when I was coming down, I was kind of following Scott Fisher’s group. They were about an hour in front of me. And that’s when that huge storm came out from the north, from China, and as I got farther away from the mountain, the winds picked up, and I couldn’t see their tracks anymore. The sun was just going down, and all I kind of remembered is the contour of the glacier. I was trying to remember that from the way I came up; I was actually heading right off a cliff, and for a brief second, the wind let up and the sun was in between the clouds, and it came out just for a brief second. I saw a dark patch and I said, “That’s Camp 3,” and I headed right toward it. I was so happy to be at camp, because I looked and I was headed right off that ice cliff. ...RH: I am happy for you. It’ such a horrible feeling to not know where to go, get a little lost....CB: You can get lost anywhere in the mountains; its not just the big peaks. Yes, to spend a night alone or out alone. ...RH: Were you prepared to bivouac?CB: I had a sleeping bag with me.RH: It would have been unpleasant.CB: It would have been unpleasant. ... I would have survived the night, probably. The next day it was a beautiful blue day, crystal-blue day. We didn’t hear about the K2 incident until we got back down to basecamp. There was a Canadian team there, and they were listening to the dispatches on K2, with Jeff Lakes trying to make it down; Peter Hillary was talking on the radio, saying, “You’re almost there Jeff, you’re almost there.” Then we went over to Scott’s camp ,and they had this huge telescope and they were watching what was going on in the mountain. That’s when we realized Jeff must have died, because they were digging a grave for him; it was really sad; and we heard about Allison and Rob Slater and all those folks, and it was really sad. It was the first time that I experienced so much death in the mountains. I never thought of mountaineering as — somebody could die. For me, in that way, it was a good lesson to be learned that day.RH: A hard lessonCB: A hard lesson, yes.

Photo by Jane Courage

Boskoff06-WA-Pass_43

RH: You have made 12 attempts on 8,000-meter peaks, with six successes. How many of them were done without oxygen?CB: Seven. I did Everest twice. No, no. Out of those, Everest I did with oxygen both times, and then I used oxygen on Lhotse. So, I don’t know what that is; so four of them I did without oxygen. RH: Very impressive. When they first started this business back around 1950 and a little before, they didn’t imagine that it could be done without oxygen. it was incomprehensible that it could be done without oxygen. Now, as a matter of course, strong people do it without oxygen and choose to, and they have been doing it without oxygen probably since the middle 1970s. I am a rank amateur, but I manage to do 20 little climbs a season, so it is reasonable that a professional would do many more small mountains as well as some large expeditions. Nevertheless, when I read through your climbing résumé, I am simply floored: You have guided on five continents and six of the Seven Summits, climbed a panoply of high Asian and South American peaks, and established innumerable new rock routes in Colorado. How do you do this? Do you go directly from one big climb or expedition into another? How do you deal with the austerities of three months in a tent over and over again?CB: You just love what you do. I climb at least four times a week. I go to the rock gym, I train ... I go rock climbing. I climb mountains all the time. I’m constantly in the mountains.RH: And being in Nepal for three months, coming home, and then going right back somewhere else doesn’t bother you? You enjoy sleeping in the tent, waking up, and eating the breakfast they prepare, and so on. That’s a good thing for you.CB: That’s a good thing for me. I love it.RH: Boy, that’s hardCB: You look tired just talking to me.RH: Its not so much being tired. It’s the fact that you have lost not merely the luxuries of modern life, but it’s so austere — bathroom facilities, showering, lack of specific types of food like fresh fruit, and on and on through a broad array of things that one sacrifices in order to be on a three-month expedition, in Antarctica, for example. That’s just difficult for most people. You’ve found your chosen profession because you actually enjoy it. CB: I love what I do, but I think [in] our culture, we’re so used to having a toilet, running water, and all that kind of stuff, but if you look around, and the more you travel, you see people without those frilly little things in life, and they’re happy. I think it’s really your frame of mind. ...RH: It’s not a sacrifice sleeping in a tent for you?CB: No, it’s beautiful. Look at the things you wake up to. ...RH: You are an extraordinary woman: an electrical engineer, an entrepreneur, an excellent rock climber, and the premier female mountaineer in the world. I recall that John Roskelley got angry on a climb and said that he would never again climb with women. Have you ever experienced discrimination in mountaineering because of your gender? CB: You do. The thing is you have to understand. ... When I do climb with men, I try to understand them and I try to get a sense of who they are. Some guys, they don’t want any interaction with women and some do. Some are fine with it. So I try to get that kind of sense; especially with my guiding, I have to be real sensitive to their needs. So I try to balance that out versus my climbing partner. I said before, I wouldn’t go climbing with John, if he doesn’t want to be with a woman. I want to be with climbers that want my company; my climbing partner, [whom] I climb with all the time, has 30 years of experience, — a lot more than I do — and we make a good climbing pair. But you do run into that, and it is a delicate way of handling those situations. Like I said, everybody has their own opinion and everybody’s been brought up differently.RH: I have never used a guide in my life for virtually all the different things I’ve done, not just mountaineering; I’ve traveled very extensively, and only when I was forced to because of legal necessities have I taken a tour. ... But if I were to use a mountaineering guide, I would much prefer a woman because, I would presume, she wouldn’t be as strong-willed and macho and tough. ... CB: I think all professional guides, if they aregood guides, they are not going to use their ego or machoness to go and plow [into a storm] and make the summit, even though it’s bad weather or conditions aren’t right. Women might be a little more motherly; but there’s a lot of our guides that are men who also are very motherly and very good as caretakers.RH: What do you have planned for the future and do you have anything else to add? CB: I am just building a great company and making it better; that’s my number one plan, and continuing to challenge myself in the mountains and doing what I love, which is running a guiding company and climbing. I love it all, and every day I go in the office I’m happy and I never say, “Oh I’ve got to go to work today.” I’m the luckiest person in the world....RH: Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us. Thank you.CB: You bet. We dedicate this interview to Christine, and Charlie Fowler, her climbing partner, who, in late November 2006, were lost in China.

— Bob and Fred

Bibliography

Ascent on G2: One Woman’s Journey to the Top. [Videocassette.] Dir. Robert Yuhas. n.p.: Robert Yuhas productions/Travel Channel, 1999. (50 mins) Calhoun, Joshua. “Boskoff Sizes Up K2.” Outside Online http://outside.away.com/outside/news/headlines/20020719_1.html. Dappen, Andy. “The Great Unknown.” Rock & Ice 130 (January 2004): 60-63, 88. Lambert, Pam et al. “Aiming High.” People 52.22 (December 6, 1999).www.mountainmadness.com.