peaks

This photo illustration shows the newly named Fowler and Boskoff peaks.

(Photo courtesy of Steve Johnson)

Deep in the rugged Wilson range of the San Juans, linked together by a toothy ridgeline, sit two mountains.

The taller one, at 13,498 feet, is steep, formidable and remote, with a striking couloir gashed across its east face. The shorter one, which rises to 13,123, is symmetrical, picturesque, with easier scrambles to its apex.

Up Until this year, they were among the scores of unnamed mountains in Colorado. But thanks to a herculean years-long effort spearheaded by Telluride lawyer Steve Johnson, that’s no longer the case. The mountains were christened Fowler and Boskoff Peaks by an act of Congress this spring to commemorate Charlie Fowler and Christine Boskoff, the Norwood-based alpinists who died in a 2006 avalanche while climbing in China.

The task of getting the peaks named was its own kind of summit attempt. The odds of success were slim, the hurdles many. It required the kind of patience, doggedness and obsession that most people don’t possess. There were stops and starts, trips back to the drawing board, even thoughts of retreat.

“During all this time I thought, ‘what would Charlie think? Would he even want this?’” Johnson recalled. “Ultimately, I thought that his family would, and the mountain tribe would, so I kept at it.”

It paid off. From here on out, the peaks will carry the memories of two climbers who made incredible contributions to their communities, and who left indelible marks on those who knew them.

And, Johnson said, “This doesn’t just honor Charlie and Chris. It honors the whole American mountaineer community and those who love the outdoors.”

HUMBLE, DRIVEN

AND PASSIONATE

Charlie Fowler wasn’t a showy guy. Sure, he was internationally famous in the climbing world for his bold exploits — such as his jaw-dropping first free ascent of the Diamond on Long’s Peak, his solo of the north face of the Eiger or his ascents in places like Patagonia and Yosemite.

But many of his neighbors in tiny Norwood didn’t know his name was synonymous with cutting-edge alpinism. He didn’t tout himself. He just climbed. And climbed. With anyone who was game, no matter how novice. And on any route that looked like it would go.

“He was so in love with climbing that it didn’t matter who he was doing it with,” said Joel Coniglio, a Norwood resident who was Fowler’s climbing partner for years. “He just enjoyed doing it, period. If you were excited to climb, he was excited to climb with you.”

In a world defined by big egos and scorecards, Coniglio said, “that was rare.”

Fowler’s passion for exploring began early, his sister Ginny Fowler-Hicks said. As a kid growing up in Virginia, he was always wandering off trail, bushwhacking, scrambling around.

“What I remember is that Charlie was always being told: ‘get back on the trail!’” she recalled. “That kind of set the stage for the kind of climber he became.

He learned how to climb with the Boy Scouts, and at the age of 16, got a job building trails on Mount Rainier, where he experienced his first taste of big mountain climbing.

“At that point, he was hooked,” Fowler-Hicks said.

Fowler found his way to Telluride in the late ‘80s, drawn by the mountains and high elevation, and settled in Norwood in 1992, where he bought a tiny cabin.

By then, he was well known in the climbing world for his accomplishments, and he was often gone for long stretches on international expeditions. But when he was home, he spread his love for climbing through writing guidebooks, extensive route development, publishing magazine articles, hosting slideshows and efforts to build local climbing walls for youth.

What Coniglio remembers the most is Fowler’s willingness to share a passion that many guard closely.

“He was very egalitarian about climbing,” Coniglio said.

Fowler met Boskoff at a climbing trade show in Nevada in 1999. One of America’s leading female alpinists, she was hugely impressive in her own right, having summited peaks in the Andes, Himalaya and North America. The Wisconsin native was the first North American woman to reach the summit of Lhotse, ran the prominent guide service Mountain Madness, and had climbed six of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks.

“She was very driven,” Coniglio said. “She did some massive things in big mountains around the world.”

Fowler and Boskoff began climbing together constantly, and Fowler’s friends quickly realized this was a special romance. Boskoff, who resided in Seattle, eventually moved to Norwood, where she and Fowler shared a life defined by climbing, expeditions and exploring the unknown.

AN UNEXPECTED LOSS

When Fowler and Boskoff failed to return from a climbing expedition to China in December of 2006, friends sprang into action. A search was launched to find the pair, who had not left behind a clear itinerary. Ultimately, it zeroed in on Mount Genyen in the Sichuan region. Fowler’s body was found amid avalanche debris. Boskoff’s body, which was buried, would be recovered months later.

It was a heavy blow to the local and broader climbing community — to many, the pair had seemed invincible. Johnson, who had been friends with Fowler since they met in the ‘90s in Telluride, felt inspired to somehow memorialize their lives.

“Through the process, I got to know Ginny,” Johnson said. “We started thinking, is there any way we can commemorate these two?”

They pondered the peak naming option, but soon learned that the task is monumental. It requires a rigorous and time-consuming route through either Congress or the U.S. Geological Survey — and it mandates that five years must lapse following a death to even petition a change.

So they waited. At some point after the five-year mark, Johnson found himself hiking in the Wilson range with forest service representatives while working on a separate access issue.

“One of them said, you know there’s two unnamed thirteeners up there?” Johnson recalls. “A light bulb went off.”

The two peaks, he learned, sit on the border of San Miguel and Dolores counties, in a rugged area Boskoff and Fowler loved. They were right next to one another. It was perfect.

But there was a catch: one peak sits within the Lizard Head Wilderness Area, and the USGS maintains a policy against naming peaks in wilderness areas after humans.

Legislative action was the only viable route.

Johnson, an attorney, climber and long-time access champion, threw himself into the effort. After doing some research, he approached the office of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). It was made clear to him that this would not be easy.

“We advised Steve that in order to do it, we’d have to have a lot of support from top to bottom,” said John Whitney, Bennet’s Four Corners Regional Director. Johnson did just that, painstakingly gathering support from any stakeholder he could think of.

“He went out one by one and got everyone from the Access Fund to Osprey Packs, Mountainfilm, the Colorado Mountain Club and — important for us — he got the support of both Dolores and San Miguel counties,” Whitney says.

Johnson also garnered support from Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) Things were looking promising. But having your state’s legislators on your side is one thing — getting something passed through U.S. Congress is another beast entirely.

A bill to name the peaks was introduced in May of 2017 and passed out of committee before languishing. In 2018, it was repackaged into a broad public lands bills, starting the process anew.

Nearly 10 years and a ton of work had gone into the effort. And then this spring, just like that, the bipartisan bill passed by wide margins. It was signed into law in March.

Whitney said this kind of peak naming is a rarity that only passes when there’s ample evidence that it’s justified, supported and appropriate.

In this case, he said, “I think that what made it succeed was just the high esteem that Charlie and Christine were held in in the climbing community. They were the kind of people who contributed so much to their own community in Norwood and San Miguel County but also internationally. That reputation for generosity was so widespread … that people just lined up to get behind this effort.”

In a statement, Bennet echoed that.

“Passing this bill wouldn’t have been possible without the support and advocacy of so many in this community, and we’re grateful for their tireless efforts in seeing this through.”

A FITTING MEMORIAL

Everyone involved agree that the bill wouldn’t have happened without the most unflagging and dogged advocate of all: Johnson.

“This is just an amazing honor, and Steve gets the credit,” Fowler-Hicks said. “We’re forever grateful to him.”

Johnson said he was fueled by Fowler’s influence and impact — which have long inspired him to give back.  

“There was a dream, and there was hope,” Johnson added. “If there’s anything I’ve learned from climbing, it’s that you’ve got to be persistent.”

He can’t think of a better way to honor his climbing friends.

“The great thing is, it’s got the two mountains together like the two of them,” he said. “It’s kind of right between Telluride and Norwood. It just seemed so fitting.”

Fowler-Hicks is still in a bit of disbelief that her brother’s name is going to forever enshrined on the Colorado map.

“Mount Wilson is named after a president,” she said. “And now in that area there is a mountain named after my brother. For our family, it’s just an amazing honor … I’d be dancing if my knees weren’t so bad.”

And, Johnson noted, “If Charlie and Chris are an inspiration to future generations, this has all been worth it.”

A FAMILIAR RIDGELINE

Years ago, Coniglio and Fowler set off to climb a peak they’d been obsessing about. They got disoriented, went up the wrong ridgeline and ended up on top of what is now Boskoff Peak. The peak they had been attempting to climb? It’s now Fowler Peak. From the summit, they laughed at their mistake, and admired the burly peak that had been their objective. It was an awesome, epic day, and, as it turned out, the last climb the two friends did together.

“I have his awesome panorama from that day of him looking at the mountain … having no idea that that peak that we were obsessing about would be named after him,” Coniglio said.

The serendipity is not lost on Coniglio, who catches a glimpse of the mountain every day from his home in Norwood, where it occupies a prominent place on the horizon.

To Coniglio, there isn’t a more apt monument for Fowler’s memory. “I’m really happy about how that all worked out.”