Deep in the rugged Wilson Range of southwestern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains sit two mountains linked by a toothy ridgeline.
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.
Until this year, they were among the scores of unnamed mountains in Colorado. But thanks to a dogged effort led by Telluride lawyer Steve Johnson, that’s no longer the case. The mountains this spring were christened Fowler and Boskoff Peaks by an act of Congress to commemorate Charlie Fowler and Christine Boskoff, the Norwood-based alpinists who died in a 2006 avalanche while climbing in Tibet.
The task of getting the peaks named was its own kind of summit attempt and odds of success were slim: there are no other known instances of peaks in Colorado named through a congressional act.
As such, it required the kind of persistence and obsession that most people don’t possess. There were stops and starts, trips back to the drawing board and 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.”
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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 solo of what had been an aid route on Longs Peak (it was renamed the Casual Route after his climb), his solo of the north face of the Eiger or his ascents in places like Patagonia and Yosemite.
But many of his neighbors in the tiny ranch community of 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 alpinism.
“At that point, he was hooked,” Fowler-Hicks said.
Fowler found his way to Telluride in the late ‘80s, drawn by the ravishing high-elevation San Juan Mountains. He settled in nearby 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, putting up routes, publishing magazine articles and hosting slideshows.
He was deeply involved in building climbing walls for local youth. And, aided by partners like Coniglio and climber Damon Johnson, Fowler was responsible for an explosion of route development in the remote Montrose County red rock country known as the West End. This includes areas such as Paradox Valley, Psycho Tower and the Dolores River Canyon — once-unknown locales that today are on the radar of contemporary climbers.
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 did not return from a climbing expedition to China in December of 2006, friends sprang to action. A search was launched to find the pair, who had not left behind a clear itinerary. Ultimately, it zeroed in on Genyen Massif, a 20,354-foot peak in the Sichuan Province. 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 ‘80s in Telluride, felt inspired to somehow memorialize their lives.
They pondered the peak naming option, and soon learned that the task entails no small amount of work. The most common path is through the U.S. Geological Survey, which entails a rigorous application process — and mandates that five years must lapse following a death to even petition a change. There is also the little-used option of having a peak named by Congress, but it’s so rare that only a tiny fraction of the country’s peaks have been named in this way.
So they waited. At some point after the five-year mark, Johnson found himself hiking with Forest Service representatives southwest of Telluride in the Wilson Range 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 — essentially, lobbying to have the peaks named through an act of Congress — was the only viable route.
Johnson, an attorney, climber and longtime access champion, threw himself into the effort. After doing initial research, he approached the office of then-U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, and later that of his successor, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. It was made clear to him that this would be no easy task.
“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 delivered, 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, the U.S. Forest Service and — important for us — he got the support of both Dolores and San Miguel counties,” Whitney says.
Johnson kept steadfastly lobbying his pitch, maintaining his message through years of discussions on a proposed wilderness bill and other land-use politics. He reached across the aisle to garner support from Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton, whose district includes the peaks.
A bill to name the peaks was introduced in May 2017 and passed out of committee — only to languish. 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.
According to Jennifer Runyon, a researcher with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, Fowler and Boskoff Peaks are the only known instances of names being established by an act of Congress for peaks in Colorado. (The board’s database was established in the 1970s, and she noted there is a possibility that earlier congressional actions were mistakenly recorded as BGN decisions.) In comparison, Runyon noted, since 1890, some 485 peaks in Colorado have been named by a formal decision of the board.
Boskoff and Fowler Peak are now among only eight known peaks nationwide named by congressional legislation, according to the USGS database. All but one have occurred since 2010.
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. He has seen similar measures pop up, but said they typically fade away because they don’t have the energy behind them.
“I think that what made it succeed was just the high esteem that Charlie and Christine were held 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 agrees that the bill wouldn’t have happened without the most unflagging advocate of all: Johnson.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“I have his awesome panorama [photo] of him looking at the mountain … having no idea that that peak that we were obsessing about would be named after him,” Coniglio said. “I’m really happy about how that all worked out.”
A version of this story appeared in The Watch, a Telluride Newspapers’ publication. Katie Klingsporn is a regular contributor to The Sun.