The story about Edge of the Map is as intriguing as the narrative itself.
First, the many ways in which Christine Boskoff’s family was intertwined with Johanna Garton’s family–including parallel/coincidental stops in Wisconsin, Colorado, and China.
And how many non-fiction books out there were started by a parent and finished by one of their children?
Even without those factors, Johanna Garton’s Edge of the Map is riveting in its own right–and the backstory about family interconnections and how the book project got started are all downplayed in favor of shining the spotlight as much as possible on an extraordinary athlete.
Johanna Garton was kind enough to answer a few questions by email. A full review of Edge of the Map follows.
Question: Lots of questions about Christine Boskoff coming right up, but what was it like to pick up a project your mother started? Did she have a narrative approach already in mind? Any initial chapters drafted? Did your mother consult with you after the baton was passed?
Johanna Garton: A mix of emotions, from sadness that she’d no longer be able to continue herself, to exhilaration knowing that I was now holding onto a story which I could craft into something unique within the mountaineering narrative genre. She had intended to write a book that would have read more like a traditional biography, while I was more interested in writing an adventure story. She hadn’t drafted any chapters, though had done a ton of research that took many months to sort through. After I began writing, I consulted with her occasionally when I needed advice on direction or character development. She was able to read the final, published version of the book when it was first released six months ago.
Question: I read books about mountain climbers who go into extreme situations and I start each book thinking, maybe this time I’ll understand the appeal. It all comes down to “why?” I admired Christine’s repeated interest in getting to know foreign cultures and distant lands, but it still comes down to wanting to put your body into those brutal conditions and, of course, risking your life. Did you have a good sense of those motivations going in? Did you understand them better at the end?
Johanna Garton: I had very similar questions when I started, and this is one of the reasons I found the project so compelling! I wanted to understand the motivations and drive, and though I think this is a timeless question that can be answered a hundred ways, I do feel I understand parts of this mentality better now. It’s become clear to me that, like a passion ANY of us may have, the desire to climb high peaks is something that makes mountaineers feel most alive. Such that it is truly the opposite of the death wish that it’s perceived to be by outsiders. Because there’s this elevated level of risk or perceived risk, I think the sport draws people who feel entitled to criticize choices climbers make in a way that the passions that the rest of us have rarely ARE. That became a source of frustration for me, as I think it can be for climbers/mountaineers. Quite simply, they believe that without climbing, they wouldn’t be living their authentic lives, just as the rest of us would feel if we were not pursuing more conventional passions such as parenting, fostering animals, worshipping God, traveling the world, etc. Certainly families and children add a complicating factor, but I do believe most climbers take into consideration those in their lives when weighing what level of risk to accept within their sport.
Question: Did your own trek to the Lenggu Monastery make you want to climb higher, or was that enough? Did you consider putting yourself into the narrative or including the story of your own trek as part of the book itself?
Johanna Garton: That was plenty! I am ten times LESS likely to try to summit Mount Everest now than I was before writing the book. I just know far too much! I briefly considered putting myself in the story a little more, but it felt so rich with characters already that I decided it best to include just a small portion of my trek in the Author’s Note and leave the rest for discussion after the book was released if there was interest!
Question: What would you ask Christine if you had the chance?
Johanna Garton: I’d ask her why she and Charlie continued on that final ascent of Genyen. There were a number of questionable factors and it seems a wild convergence that was atypical for their usually-conservative judgement.
Question: What do you think you brought to the story as a female writer profiling a female mountaineer?
Johanna Garton: Prior to Edge of the Map, almost no books existed in the category of mountaineering lit which focused on an American female mountaineer. In addition, it was very clear to me that most books in this genre are written by men. I knew that what I wanted to write was going to have humanity and depth of personality, something I think can be lacking in other mountaineering narratives.
Question: Why hasn’t her story been told in book form until now? It’s kind of hard to believe. Do you think that’s an extension of her humility?
Johanna Garton: It IS hard to believe! I call it the greatest unknown story in modern mountaineering and absolutely it’s an extension of her deep humility. Some of it may have to do with the fact that she was at the top of her career when men, too, were in the heyday of 8000 meter peak expeditions and tending to be much louder about their accomplishments. And then of course I believe that ultimately the story was waiting for me. Many people had considered writing it, but hadn’t for various reasons. It seems clear to me now, and to readers, that it landed in my lap for just the right reasons.
Question: How much did your first book, Awakening East, help you prepare for this one?
Johanna Garton: I was well-versed in the process of putting the pieces together once the manuscript was written. I knew things would always take longer than I hoped. But in terms of the actual writing, it was a completely different process, involves scores of people and a ton of research. A process much more grounded in my journalist roots.
Question: What did you feel you needed to do to prepare to write Edge of the Map? What did you want to do differently, given that there are many books in this vein?
Johanna Garton: Often times writers come to a project like this with a framework that they’re very attached to before they start talking to others or doing research. I was quite the opposite. I had a few threads I knew I wanted to cover, but I very much let the research and interviews drive where I decided to go. My outline was written in pencil, not pen, shall we say! And aside from weaving in more humanity as I mentioned above, it was also critical for me to write in a style that would feel accessible to people who love adventure stories, but NOT all the technical details that sometimes accompany these
Question: What are you working on next?
Johanna Garton: I’m in the process of seeking my next story, and I hope it will be a similar work in terms of a female-driven outdoor adventure story. I’m also actively working to see if I can have Edge of the Map made into a film or TV series, which would be a dream come true!
Johanna Garton’s website.
Watch the book trailer for Edge of the Map here.
The first chapter is titled “Missing.” We have a pretty good idea where this is heading.
The opening scene in Edge of the Map involves finding a way inside two oversized—and locked—duffel bags. The duffels belong to Christine Boskoff and Charlie Fowler from Norwood, Colorado (just west of Telluride).
The search is being led by 32-year-old mountaineer named Ted Callahan. A CNN crew had tagged along with Callahan to cover the effort to find the missing climbers, but the trek to Litang, China led to the crew’s altitude sickness and their departure. Litang is at 12,000 feet. The dread is palpable.
We are given the quick backstories. Charlie is a “superstar” in the climbing community. “Among his greatest feats was walking away from a 1,500-foot fall during a winter climb in Tibet in 1997. The accident left him without several toes, lost to frostbite after he’d crawled for several days to the safety of the nearest road.”
And Christine Boskoff, at 39, “the only woman owner of a major climbing outfitter in the Pacific Northwest.” Not just any “major climbing company,” though. Specifically, the Seattle-based Mountain Madness that was smack in the middle of the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest (covered by Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air). For Chris, training might mean one-day sprints up and down Mount Rainier. “Chris was always laughing, constantly in motion, radiant and down-to-earth. She drew a crowd of admirers everywhere, though she barely noticed.”
At the end of chapter one, Callahan uncovers the pair’s rough itinerary—to climb Mount Genyen, a holy mountain rising to 20,354 feet on the Tibetan Plateau.
So we know how this will end. Nobody goes missing for weeks at extreme elevation and survives.
But we gobble up the pages nonetheless. It’s not about the plot. Edge of the Map is one of this books—and this version is as fabulous as they come—that make us wonder if we can understand the allure of extreme mountaineering and why enthusiasts repeatedly put their lives at risk.
Johanna Garton’s focus is Boskoff. She’s likable, kind, and humble. And smart. A degree in electrical engineering. A job with Lockheed Aeronautical Systems guiding a team “designing software for a lighted control display for the C-130 Super Hercules, a military cargo plane.”
But a drop-in visit to talk about climbing in the Andes leads Christine down a whole new path and soon she is taking a crash course in mountaineering (in Colorado) and then it’s off to Bolivia. Less than a year after taking up the sport, she’s on the summit of 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro.
Garton’s fast-paced narrative places Boskoff’s off-the-radar rise to the top of her sport in the context of all the changes that were happening with climbing—the commercialization of expeditions that led to the 1996 cluster and subsequent deadly traffic jam on Mount Everest. We see Boskoff manage relationships, personal tragedies, and the business of running a high-profile outfitting business. Often, Garton quotes directly from Boskoff’s letters and journals—notes that reveal Boskoff’s gentle spirit and kind view of the world.
But Boskoff was a monster—tireless, determined, and apparently light on her feet. She summited six 8,000-meter peaks. She is the only American woman with that many 8,000-meter peaks (and there are only 14 such peaks in the world). Clearly Boskoff was driven, in her own modest way, to prove that women could accomplish as much as men at extreme elevation. That theme makes for a fabulous undercurrent to Edge of the Map.
Garton recounts several expeditions where discretion and savvy meant turning back. Boskoff survives a major tragedy in her life—and carries on in positive fashion, picks herself up, and keeps doing what she loves to do. The last section of the book, after Christine and Charlie disappear, is a compelling sequence in its own right as Callahan & Co. follow the breadcrumbs to a high monastery.
Boskoff and Fowler tackled Mount Genyen off the radar. That is, they didn’t go through the normal hoops of securing a permit. The lack of a permit meant a longer search for their bodies, but it certainly would not have prevented the avalanche from falling.
Garton looks at the morality of climbing sacred mountains and the “sliding scale of individual logic.” Fowler, for one, believed the mountains to belong to everyone. It’s hard not to think that there are plenty of non-sacred peaks to conquer, but the avalanches don’t care one way or the other.
And the question keeps resonating: why? And why do we read these books when we know the outcome? Because the people inside all that winter climbing gear are all different and all have their own reasons for heading up those peaks over and over again. Edge of the Map is a gripping read (and you might feel your fingers start to freeze as you turn the pages).
Final note: Edge of the Map is a book that was started by Garton’s mother. The Garton family and the Boskoff family had overlapping Wisconsin roots and Johanna’s mother became friends with Christine’s mother after Christine’s disappearance. But Parkinson’s Disease prohibited Johanna’s mother from finishing the book so Johanna, who had her own deep relationship with China and who had trekked the Annapurna Circuit in the 1990’s, picked up the project and completed the book. Despite the deep personal connections, Garton’s eloquent narrative stays in reporter/journalist mode throughout. Don’t miss the Author’s Note on this one!