For Chris Boskoff, it was the best and worst of times. Hours earlier, the Seattle climber had triumphantly stood on the summit of Kashmir’s 26,400-ft. Broad Peak. But as she carefully picked her way back down the icy slope, legs leaden and body drained, a ferocious storm sprang up. Gale-force winds and blinding snow engulfed her. “I was getting blasted—I couldn’t see,” says Boskoff, 32, recalling her 1995 brush with death. “I just remember following the contours of the mountain, trying to figure out where I was supposed to go.” A moment’s pause in the storm allowed Boskoff to spy a speck she realized was her camp, and two hours later she stumbled into her tent. Others weren’t so lucky. On neighboring K2, the storm’s gusts—more than 100 mph—blew renowned British climber Alison Hargreaves and four others off the mountain.
“You learn from other people’s mistakes,” says Boskoff stoically when asked how she has been affected by the deaths of Hargreaves and top U.S. climber Alex Lowe, victim of an October avalanche in Tibet. Sitting in the backyard of her west Seattle home, gazing at the snowcapped Olympic range in the distance, Boskoff continues, “It’s risky, but then a lot of people die out there driving. Still, I get into my car.”
Such sangfroid is one reason why in just seven years Boskoff has become one of America’s hottest women climbers. She is the only North American woman to have reached four of the world’s fourteen 8,000-meter (26,246-ft.) summits, a good start toward her goal of becoming the first female to conquer all of them.
Remarkably, she has continued in this quest while coping with the suicide last January of her husband and climbing partner, Keith Boskoff, 48. “Climbing big mountains is all about suffering—and Chris knows all about suffering,” says noted climber Brent Bishop. “She’s very strong and brutally focused.”
That comes as no surprise to her mother, Joyce Feld, who, with her husband, Robin, 75, raised her tomboy daughter—and Chris’s three older brothers—in Appleton, Wis., near Green Bay. “When she’s got something on her mind, look out!” says Feld, 73. “It’s always higher and higher with her.” A licensed pilot by the time she earned a degree in electrical engineering in 1991, Boskoff moved to Atlanta to run a lab for Lockheed. A year later she took on a new challenge—climbing—and dropped by a local climbing club for a slide show. The speaker: an energetic local architect, Keith Boskoff.
“He had vision and excitement—people loved him for that,” says Boskoff of her late husband, about whose death she still finds it difficult to speak. “He believed we could do anything.” The pair were soon inseparable, risking death in the mountains, sharing gourmet dinners cooked by Keith. Married in 1994 in the Himalayas, the couple moved to Seattle three years later to run Mountain Madness, the guide service they had bought from the estate of climber Scott Fischer, who died on the disastrous 1996 Everest expedition memorialized in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.
“They did everything together,” says Boskoff’s friend and climbing partner Constance Smith, 30. “The loss is devastating.” Still, Smith doesn’t think Keith’s death will slow Boskoff down. “I believe she’s going to use it in a positive way,” she says. “I really believe she’s going to take him to the summit of whatever mountains she climbs.”
In the months since her husband hanged himself—for reasons she will not, or cannot, bring herself to discuss—Boskoff has thrown herself into Mountain Madness. She puts in six, sometimes seven days of work each week, going for “nice long runs” to unwind. Three months a year she leads expeditions; she expects to greet the millennium with a group at the summit of Africa’s 19,340-ft. Mount Kilimanjaro and in April to tackle Everest with five clients who will pay $65,000 each. “That’s really why I’m here,” says Boskoff. “Helping people understand what it means to push themselves and make it to the top.”
Johnny Dodd in Seattle