The final passage on Charlie Fowler‘s website was typically unadorned in style. On October 3, 2006, he wrote that at the end of the week, "I will be traveling to China and Tibet for a two-month exploratory journey. I will be pretty much out of touch so don’t bother e-mailing me until sometime in December." He might have the chance to post on his blog, he noted, "but even that is unlikely.'
A few days later Fowler boarded a plane with his partner, Christine Boskoff, for the rugged mountains of Sichuan Province on the Chinese/Tibetan frontier.
On December 27, a body, mostly buried in snow, was found at the 5,300-meter level on the slopes of Genyen, a 6,000-plus-meter peak in the remote eastern reaches of Sichuan.
The next day, the body—wearing crampons, blue gaiters and gray plastic boots, and bearing an ice axe with a snapped pick—was determined to be Fowler’s. The disposition and whereabouts of Boskoff is undetermined, though she is presumed dead. A day later the search was called off due to incoming snow and accompanying avalanche hazard.
That Charlie Fowler would meet his end while doing what he loved is no huge surprise given the sheer volume of his climbing. At age 52, he’d racked up three and a half decades of it, and had carried his quiet air of a seasoned survivor from hard rock to the high-risk games of alpine climbing and soloing.
Says Mike Benge, who penned the only profile ever written of Fowler, "Charlie was as close as anyone to the 365-day-per-year climber. He got in more pitches, peaks and trips than anybody I know. He was in the same league as someone like Alex Lowe." (Lowe died in an avalanche in 1999.)
Some of Fowler’s most noteworthy ascents were with no rope: he soloed David Breashears’ technical Eldo scarefest Perilous Journey (5.11d X), the loose Flakes Route (5.10) on the 1,500-foot walls of the Black Canyon, and the 1,800-meter Direct North Face of the Eiger. Fowler’s more conventional climbing resume is mind-blowing—8,000-meter peaks like Everest without oxygen (and without actually using an ice axe), 5.13 rock, hard bouldering, A4 big walls and myriad first ascents: free, aid, ice and alpine.
In April, 1984 Fowler literally took a 400-footer, and lived to tell the tale. He was simul-soloing the North Chimney, a broad gully choked with spring snow, on the Diamond Face of Long’s Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, when his partner Alex Lowe knocked off a large chunk of snow from above. It hit Fowler, and he tumbled to the bottom, landing 50 feet out from the wall. He was overall unhurt and apparently unfazed, later saying, “If you’re gonna fall off, better land in a big pile of snow.”
Fowler first caused a stir in 1977, pushing the limits with climbs such as a solo of the Direct North Buttress (V 5.10) in Yosemite. The insecure mantel crux is legendary for spitting experienced—and roped—climbers off.
Looking at Fowler’s own list of climbing highlights on his website, you’ll notice an emphasis placed on bold climbs rather than the high-end ascents commonly listed by other climbers. For example, he lists solos, such as his 1978 free solo of the Casual Route on the Diamond (III 5.10a), or hard free firsts like Pale Fire (IV 5.12) on Moses Tower in the Canyonlands. He doesn’t note repeats of early sport routes like the thin, sparsely bolted Paris Girl (5.13a R)—which only took him several hours—in Eldorado Canyon in the mid-1980s, or his first ascents of Office Girls Walk the Plank (5.12d), an overhanging gear-protected seam, and Captain Crunch (given 5.13a, now sometimes called 5.13b), also in Eldorado. These routes, though the cutting edge of technical difficulty during that era, didn’t seem to pull much weight in Fowler’s mind.
In 1977, Fowler survived a terrible epic on Gurla Mandhata, a massive 7,694-meter peak in Western Tibet. He was guiding two clients on a new route up the mountain’s technical north face when, five days into the climb, the trio was forced to descend from a point about 500 feet below the summit. They took a huge fall when one of the rope team slipped on 50-degree ice, and slid 1,500 feet, eventually landing in a snowfield. The three, with the worst initial injury a twisted leg for Fowler, eventually made it back to basecamp. All suffered frostbite, the worst by Quinn Simons, who eventually lost his fingers, and his feet at the ankles.
Though Fowler lost parts of five toes and his entire right big toe, in recent years, he adapted and went on to develop hundreds of routes in Southwestern Colorado. Between those, he found time for big alpine routes like the 40-pitch West Face of Cerro Torre, dubbed by Fowler’s partner Jim Surette as perhaps “the best ice climb on the planet,” with hard ice, tricky mixed climbing and a 95-degree crux (the pair reached a point just below the summit mushroom). Fowler climbed the 8,000-meter giants Cho Oyu and Shishapangma as well as Everest.
Given his record, his smarts and his toughness, the thing that’s most shocking is that Fowler appears to have died under innocuous circumstances.
“It was some sort of unexpected accident,” says Steve Johnson, a longtime friend and climbing partner of Fowler’s, and an attorney in Telluride. “Given their experience level, something unforeseeable must have happened. They found Charlie with his right glove missing, no harness, and carrying an empty video camera bag.”
Johnson is one of the organizers of the Fowler Boskoff Search Committee (FBSC), formed on December 12 after Fowler and Boskoff failed to show up at the airport on their scheduled arrival date, December 4. The effort was a rapid and remarkable showing that speaks as much to the close ties within the Telluride climbing community as to the respect and affection Fowler garnered over the years. The FBSC, headed by Keith Brown, Damon Johnston, Steve Johnson, Arlene Burns and Daiva Chesonis worked virtually around the clock for a month to organize, fund and direct the search. Mountainfilm, in Telluride, immediately agreed to establish a Fowler Boskoff Search Fund under its non-profit umbrella to accept tax-deductible donations for the search effort. Enough money was raised in a single day, thanks largely to a donation from Dr. John McCall, a longtime client and friend of Fowler’s, to start the initial search effort.
Mountain Madness, the Seattle-based guiding service owned by Boskoff, paid for a Central Asia-based guide, Ted Callahan, to supervise the field operation. Later, Mountain Madness agreed to reimburse FBSC for half the search expenses to date, and it has committed to jointly funding the continuing search for Boskoff this spring.
The FBSC also hired the Chinese-speaking Jon Otto of Blue Sheep Travel and the Chengdu-based Kara Jenkinson as search coordinators. It was one of Otto’s search teams, with Ted Callahan acting as field coordinator, that found Fowler.
Stevenson says, “The body had head injuries, and contrary to initial newswire reports, was not buried in avalanche debris,” but simply snow. “It looks like they were scouting for an advance basecamp.” The camera has not been recovered.
The likely subject in that camera’s tape was Christine Boskoff, 39. The 5’3” ex-Lockheed electrical engineer was, according to Andy Dappen in a 2004 feature in Rock and Ice, “regarded by many as the best female high-altitude climber alive.” Never one to blow her own horn, Boskoff was modest despite her success in virtually everything she did. Extremely driven and tough in both the mountains and in managing her business, she had by autumn 2006 climbed the so-called “Seven Summits” and participated in 12 8,000-meter expeditions. She’d summited Lhotse, Shishapangma, Broad Peak, Cho Oyu, Gasherbrum II and Everest (twice). After quitting Lockheed, Boskoff in the early years of 2000 seemed well on her way toward tagging all 14 8,000ers. Then something changed. By 2004 she had turned her back on that game, becoming more attracted to Asia’s lower, unclimbed peaks, which, coincidentally or not, was the path her boyfriend, Fowler, had been quietly pursuing for over 15 years.
Boskoff’s and Fowler’s years of experience in the high mountains and their training as high-altitude guides also seem to make it unlikely that an avalanche killed them. The ability to assess hazardous terrain is an intrinsic part of their profession, and neither was goal-oriented to the point of recklessness. Boskoff said in the Rock and Ice interview, “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.”
Johnson says, “Charlie had a pile jacket around his waist and was wearing light layers, so it was probably mid-morning when the accident occurred.” That makes sense, because at that time of day, when the sun loosens snow and ice, objective hazards increase. “The fact that Charlie had an empty camera bag and an ungloved right hand makes us think he was filming when the accident struck.”
This notion is supported by the fact that Fowler’s sunglasses were missing, though his sunglass case was found in his pack. He was wearing a big pack indicating load-carrying, not a summit push.
Callahan says, “Despite a search for a basecamp near where Charlie’s body was found, none was discovered.”
Fowler and Boskoff probably set out early that day to establish a high camp. The mountain face towering above them was cased in snow and ice and ribbed with black rock. They were climbing ropeless over moderate terrain to well above the 5,300-meter mark between two of those ribs, in a gully that eventually joins a fluted summit ridge. In Fowler’s pack were the rope, food and stove. We can assume that Boskoff carried the rack and their tent, which would be the notoriously frugal Fowler’s Wal-Mart kid’s tent with its green camo tarp. After the two had climbed for a few hours, the sun came out and in the morning light, Fowler filmed Boskoff. They were probably in the bright glaring sun, as the shade at that altitude is frigid cold, even during daytime. He took his right glove off to work the camera. He wore no helmet, so his glasses might have been perched on his head while he looked through the viewfinder. The beautiful symmetrical summit of Genyen would be a mere 800 meters above—a day, maybe two of climbing for the fit pair who’d already bagged a coveted peak just shy of the 6,000-meter mark in an adjacent valley.
Fowler had written in an e-mail to a friend on October 25, “We bagged a great peak, Yala—the one Fred Beckey and 10 other expeditions had failed to climb. Chris and I walked in and did it by a great line.”
The two stood on the brink of adding a bonus summit to an already brilliant expedition.
Then something terrible happened.
“It looks more like rock or serac fall—something that fell down and hit one or both of them, maybe knocking the other off,” says Steve Johnson. Current analysis is uncertain as to whether the fall was climbing-related or due to an objective hazard. Regardless, a fall appears to be the cause of death.
“They could have been soloing up the start of the gully system at the base of the mountain when someone fell,” says Johnson, “or was hit by rockfall or crumbling serac.”
Fowler’s body was discovered at the base of a moderate snow slope that covered a talus field.
“Recent snowfall made it tough to evaluate the accident scene,” says Callahan. “But there weren’t avalanche debris, ice chunks or rocks nearby, at least on the surface.” He adds, “Charlie’s position was consistent with falling from one of the snow gullies leading toward Genyen’s summit ridge.”
The body was covered with snow from a recent storm, with legs propped on an exposed rock. It was the legs, backlit against the snow, that revealed Fowler’s final resting place.
His injuries appeared consistent with a long fall.
“It’s hard to tell, but based on where they likely were, Charlie fell about 100 meters,” Callahan says. Though the official autopsy is being translated from Chinese at the time of this writing, the details of the tragedy will probably remain a mystery.
“As my friends can attest, I can be a reticent guy; shy, in fact. Nevertheless, I have strongly held convictions and opinions and will use this blog to express myself when the spirit moves me.”
So wrote Fowler just in the past year . Though he was a fine writer with a degree in environmental science from the University of Virginia, Fowler over the decades published only a few articles. He did write several guidebooks to the rock and ice climbs local to his home in Norwood, an hour west of Telluride.
One of two major articles was “The Sandstone Crucible,” an articulate, impassioned treatise on the state of ethics and bolting in Boulder free-climbing during the mid-1980s. It lauded the values of what we now call “trad” climbing and decried the new-wave sport movement as making “a mockery” of the term free climbing. “Life’s a Beach,” a reflective memoir on climbing in the Canyonlands, spoke poetically of the beauty of the desert climbing experience: “You forget how harsh it can be, you forget how terrified you get,” Fowler wrote. “You remember how beautiful it is, and how high you feel on the summits.”
As for Fowler’s achievements, they cannot be overstated. As Gary Neptune, owner of Boulder’s Neptune Mountaineering and a former employer of Fowler, says, “Charlie had a ton of respect from those who counted. I remember Walter Bonatti coming up to me and giving me a big hug and saying, ‘This is for Charlie!’” The hug came as congratulations because Fowler had soloed the Central Pillar of Freney, a cutting edge climb of the 1960s on France’s Mont Blanc. Bonatti had seen four fellow climbers perish during an epic attempt at the first ascent.
Neptune adds, “Charlie was as good as anyone out there and could have gotten big sponsorship, but always eschewed the limelight. He chose to just go climbing.”
Fowler was, in the words of Mark Wilford during a tequila-drenched session at the recent Ouray Ice Festival, “a true climber’s climber.” Wilford, who with Fowler and Jeff Lowe did the first ascent of Ouray’s classic mixed route Bird Brain Boulevard, in 1985, added, “And Charlie was a true dirtbag’s dirtbag.
“Charlie never really asked for anything, but you couldn’t help giving him a beer, a ride or your breakfast,” says Wilford. “He was, let’s say, as frugal as they get.”
Generous with the spirit of the thing he loved, Fowler spent considerable energy volunteering for Telluride Public Schools, teaching and leading climbing trips for high-school kids. He had a way with children.
As Johnson recalls, “He was really nice and unpretentious. He could talk with anyone. He was able to get these shots of strangers from other cultures. His shots of Tibetan kids are the best I’ve ever seen, and another not-so-well-known part of his legacy.”
Never married, Fowler didn’t settle down enough to buy a house until he was 39. Pete Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond, was once quoted as saying, “He’s been able to maintain the quintessential climbing-bum lifestyle, and I say that in admiration. … He’s not really interested in the material things of society.” Of late, Fowler still put climbing at a premium with a dizzying array of major trips, several per year, to Patagonia, Tibet, Nepal, China and Argentina.
Says John McCall, the orthopedic surgeon from Ontario who knew Fowler for over two decades, “Even by the time I’d met him, Charlie had climbed so much that his hands were permanently fixed in a semi-gripping mode, the ultimate climbing tools.
“Charlie was a bit like Peter Pan,” he says. “He was off having fun while the rest of us were doing what we were told was the right thing, i.e., wife, kids, lawnmower, mortgage.”
Fowler once said, “I go climbing to have fun.”
Since his first foray on rock, in 1968, Fowler held true to his passion, doing odd jobs and finally guiding (he was an early AMGA-certified guide), “a profession that,” in his own words on his website, “allowed me to travel the world and pursue my passions.” His travels honed a penchant for other languages: Charlie could get by in several. He spoke good French and a fair bit of Chinese, a perplexing language for the Western tongue.
Wiry, perpetually honed and inscrutable even to his climbing partners, the twangy-voiced Fowler was a notorious bachelor, who had many girlfriends over the years but never seemed to make a relationship stick. That changed after he climbed Shishapangma with Boskoff in 2001.
“I could see that Charlie was in love for the first time in his life,” says McCall.
ohnson agrees. “It was really apparent that he and Chris loved each other. She was probably the most formidable woman Charlie had ever met—and she loved climbing as much as Charlie did.”
On December 11 the alarm bells started ringing. On that day, Mountain Madness president Mark Gunlogson confirmed that the pair was not on their scheduled flight back to the United States. The next day the FBSC was formed and by the 14th, search leaders had a team in Litang, a frontier town with a strong Tibetan flavor.
It was in Litang that the last confirmed sighting of Fowler and Boskoff took place and from which a November 8 e-mail to the U.S. had originated.
Among the factors creating many possibilities were unconfirmed sightings reported for mid-November, rumors of a car accident involving foreigners, and the report of two New Zealanders robbed at knifepoint in October.
By December 19 the FBSC was making concerted efforts to create political support for the search by raising awareness at high levels within China. Letters were sent from Colorado Senator Ken Salazar and Washington Governor Christine Gregoire to recipients all the way up to the Chief of Staff of the Chinese Premier. A reward was offered in the amount of 30,000 RMB ($4,000). By all accounts, the Chinese were very cooperative with the search efforts despite the fact that the American pair was peak-poaching (they had no permit). Genyen was not available for a climbing permit from the official Sichuan Mountaineering Association.
Though there has been no official criticism leveled at them by the Chinese government, we can assume that the undercover-peak-bagging era is effectively over in Sichuan.
By this time the mystery of the pair’s disappearance became daily fodder for the news services. In what the low-key Fowler would have found amusing, Boskoff was referred to as “a top female climber,” with Fowler merely billed as a “U.S. photographer,” or at best, “a well-known climber.” For the most part the news stories helped in shining a national and international spotlight on the search, though it was awkward timing that on the day political support was being sought, CNN ran a story titled, “China: Hopes dim for U.S. climbers.”
Though a last note, signed by Boskoff and Fowler at a local restaurant, was discovered dated November 8, it was finding the pair’s excess luggage in Litang that provided the first clear indication of their whereabouts. The most recent entry in Boskoff’s diary revealed that the two planned to attempt Genyen Peak.
At 6,204 meters high, the symmetrical, dominating Genyen warrants the status of holy mountain to the local Buddhists.
Despite the obvious trespass on the sacred mountain, the monks at the 600-year-old Genyen monastery were not hostile to the rescue teams. On December 26, the monks confirmed Fowler and Boskoff’s passage through the monastery on November 12. The pair had told the monks that they would come through again in four days’ time, but the monks never saw them again. In the early afternoon of December 27, at a point three hours above the monastery, an unnamed Chinese member of the search team spotted Fowler’s body.
Fowler, the ultimate soul-climber and undercover badass, once said in an interview, “I like the possibility of walking off the map.”
Fowler’s life was the dream followed through to a logical end. If he was looking down from the next plane, his only regret might be that he’ll never climb again.
“After the recent spate of deaths in the climbing community, Charlie confided in me that he didn’t want to die climbing,” says Steve Johnson. “That was because, as he told me, he never wanted to stop climbing.”
It was written of Fowler in 1993 that, “Derek Hersey’s recent death doesn’t seem to bother him from a personal point of view, only to sadden him.” Fowler was quoted as saying of Hersey simply, “There are no more [experiences] for him.”
Said Fowler’s sister Ginny Hicks at a memorial celebration of the pair’s life in Telluride, “He would not have changed anything about his life. The only thing he would have changed was that he would come home with Christine.”
Pete Takeda lives in Boulder, Colorado. He is the author of An Eye at the Top of the World: The Terrifying Legacy of the Cold War’s Most Daring C.I.A. Operation, winner of the 2007 Himalayan Literature Award.