Light mixed with dust poured through a grimy window in the police station conference room. As more officers crammed inside, standing room became scarce. God, this is too much, thought Ted Callahan. What the hell do they think they’re going to see here?
It had taken more than twenty-four hours for the police to grant Callahan’s request to open the bags, and suddenly it was time. The Chinese Public Security Bureau (PSB) here in far western China initially acted as though his request to unlock Chris’s and Charlie’s duffels had been overstepping bounds. Now, it seemed every desk clerk and janitor in the building had packed into the small space, all waiting to see the bags reveal their secrets.
The buzz from the Chinese police officers collided with the tranquil scene just outside the station. The streets of Litang were home to Tibetan Buddhists, most of them dressed in traditional clothing of richly woven fabrics made from yak hair. Oblivious to the drama inside the station, the locals were focused instead on impending weather systems and the impact to their barley crops.
Two oversize duffels lay in the middle of the room, each secured with a lock. Callahan fiddled with each one, tugging to see if he could jimmy them open. No luck. He’d been operating on wisps of sleep and too much coffee since heading up the search-and-rescue operation a week ago. Or was it a search-and-recovery? The differences muddied his exhausted mind. Setting them aside felt like the only way to move forward.
Callahan had left his academic fellowship in Kyrgyzstan as soon as he’d been alerted to the disappearance of Chris Boskoff and Charlie Fowler by Mountain Madness, Chris’s Seattle-based guiding company. Having solid experience dealing with the Chinese and a grasp of the language, he was a good match to head the on-the-ground operation. Chris was a friend and Charlie was a climber he’d known and admired for years. The couple loved climbing more than anyone he knew.
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At age thirty-two, Callahan was an accomplished mountaineer himself who’d led trips for Mountain Madness and understood the draw of remote peaks in this part of the world. Both the terrain and the people in the area near the Tibetan border had captivated Charlie for decades, and now Chris shared his fascination. It was an area they’d returned to again and again.
This time, no plan had been left to track their whereabouts. No permits had been requested to help aid the massive hunt. In short, nobody knew where the hell they were. Christine, dammit woman, Callahan thought, please tell me you’ve left something in here to give us a clue where you’ve gone.
“Can we get a bolt cutter in here?” he asked. The nearest PSB officer paused for a moment, stymied by Callahan’s Mandarin accent. He tripped over a colleague’s foot as he pushed out the door, heading for the police toolbox.
In the week since Callahan had arrived in China, he’d been mostly holed up in Chengdu, Chris and Charlie’s last confirmed location, following leads. It took a sizable reward to tease out the information needed to land him in this police station in the city of Litang, three days west of Chengdu on the Tibetan Plateau. The air was thin in this part of the country, altitude 12,900 feet.
The caravan leaving Chengdu a few days ago had included a CNN crew. Chris and Charlie’s disappearance had started to grab headlines in the United States. A trio of climbers on Oregon’s Mount Hood had vanished just weeks earlier, feeding the nightly news reports for several days. The Pacific Northwest drew climbers from around the United States, as there was no finer place in the country to prepare for attempting any of the world’s fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. As the drama from the slopes in Oregon turned from a rescue of live climbers to a recovery of their bodies, the story unfolding in China stirred the public’s desire for a happy ending. A Christmas miracle. It was December 23, 2006.
The CNN crew was eager to join the search team as it headed west. But going west meant a gradual increase in elevation. Passing through Kangding at 8,399 feet and on to Litang, altitude sickness hit the journalists in waves, and by the second day, Callahan was shaking their hands as the beleaguered reporter and his cameraman descended to the oxygen-rich air of Chengdu.
“Sorry, man,” Callahan said as they crawled into their getaway vehicle. “I wish we had some better visuals for you guys, but that’s just not how things work in China.”
“Yeah, no worries,” the reporter mumbled. “Just call us if something transpires and we’ll come back up.”
Back in the police station, Callahan’s mobile phone rang as he waited for the tool he needed to open the bags. Checking the caller ID, he saw it was the CNN reporter, no doubt catching word of this development through a leak and upset that he was about to miss some important shots.
A smoky haze filled the room from the cigarettes hanging off the lips of the Chinese spectators. Litang hadn’t experienced anything this thrilling in years—certainly nothing involving Westerners. Officers—all men—wearing pale blue uniform shirts leaned against stark white walls. Each sported a standard-issue navy tie.
“Whose bags are these?” the dispatch officer asked as he joined the crowd inside the conference room.
“Some foreigners who came through here a few weeks ago,” his colleague replied, offering him a smoke.
“Are they stolen?”
“No, they left the bags with a driver and went to climb somewhere.”
“They haven’t come back?”
“Not yet. This guy’s been trying to open the bags for twenty-four hours, but got caught up in all the bullshit at the provincial level and finally made a fuss with the consulate.”
The dispatch officer sized up Callahan, needling his colleague for more details. “What is he? Italian? Swiss?”
Callahan smirked, nodded his head at the unsuspecting officer, and replied in Mandarin. “Neither. I’m American.” The embarrassed officer laughed as his friend shoved him.
Callahan was all muscle, with fair skin, blue eyes, and ginger-blond hair cropped close. He had the face of a schoolboy, but he’d been guiding with Mountain Madness for a few years since being hired by Chris. Never one to stay still for very long, he had traveled the world on various contract gigs, learning languages as he went.
Reaching down, Callahan ran his fingers over the duffel bags again. Yellow luggage tags hugged the straps of each one, imprinted with the name and city of their owners.
Charlie Fowler Norwood, Colorado
Back in the States, friends of Charlie in Colorado had turned their lives into full-time efforts to find him. Charlie was a superstar in the climbing community, and surviving scares in faraway places was nothing new. 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. Now fifty-two, Charlie steered clear of publicity, preferring to quietly explore the desert rocks near his home base outside Telluride.
The tag on Chris’s bag bore a similar address. She’d recently bought a small house on a plot of land in Norwood. Close to Charlie but still allowing personal space. The simple address in a sleepy Colorado town was in contrast to the business cards she attached to her duffels when departing from Seattle:
Owner, Mountain Madness, Seattle, Washington
At thirty-nine, Chris was the only woman owner of a major climbing outfitter in the Pacific Northwest. Mountain Madness had been her life since 1997. The financials had been frightful in those early years, but the company name was strong. Launched by Scott Fischer in 1984, Mountain Madness drew clients from all over the world, taking them to the top of the highest peaks on Earth. After Fischer perished on Mount Everest in 1996, the company struggled until Chris stepped in. Bringing it back to life had been not only a passion but a means to an end.
Chris had started late in the sport of mountaineering, having given up a successful career at Lockheed in Atlanta and risen like a rocket in her effort to create a life that would sustain her need to climb. The bravado that infused the climbing community in the Pacific Northwest failed to affect her. Instead she was modest, remaining understated about her accomplishments even as she made a name for herself.
A “mediocre athlete at sea level,” as she called herself, Chris’s real gift was the ability to breathe the thin air at high altitude with ease. Training in Seattle often consisted of getting out of work on a Friday afternoon, then driving a few hours south to the base of Mount Rainier with a girlfriend. The two of them strapped on helmets, busting past groups of climbers who’d spent multiple days on the ascent. Chris and her friend climbed fast and planned to be home for dinner on Saturday. Leapfrogging groups of climbers, the two women with blond ponytails sticking out of their helmets came out of nowhere.
“Where’d you come from?” climbers would ask. When Chris casually answered that they’d come from the parking lot, the looks on the others’ faces were priceless. By 5:00 a.m., they’d reach the summit, taking a moment to enjoy the view before making a brutally fast descent. Chris glided over rocks and snow effortlessly. Reaching the car, the two friends would enjoy a postclimb snack—Diet Coke and a bag of SunChips.
Chris was always laughing, constantly in motion, radiant and down- to-earth. She drew a crowd of admirers everywhere, though she barely
noticed. Now, when she had vanished in the mountains of western China, the crowd aided the search for her from afar, wanting her back beyond measure. Friends remained awake at night. Mountain Madness rallied their overseas guides and business partners to assist. Her mother, in a quiet Wisconsin city, prayed. This level of attention would have made Chris cringe, yet here it was: unwelcome yet necessary.
The PSB officer returned to the conference room, gripping a bolt cutter. He handed it to Callahan, who turned to Charlie’s bag first. Several officers jostled forward, hoping to be the first to spot clues spilling from inside. The men leaned over one another, their body odors blending in the drafty space. Callahan reached in to clip the lock, his elbow momentarily bumped as the onlookers pushed each other closer. “I need a little room to breathe, please,” he said.
The chatter dimmed. A handful of digital cameras emerged from pockets to document the findings. An officer stepped forward, clipboard in hand to record the contents for the U.S. Consulate. He seemed mildly nervous as he shifted on the cold marble floor.
Snapping Charlie’s lock, Callahan slowly unzipped the bag, feeling oddly reluctant. Disrespecting his hero by rifling through his belongings in a police station in rural China hadn’t been on any Christmas wish list he’d drawn up.
Reaching inside, he pulled out the pieces of Charlie’s life: a sleeping pad, a pair of jeans, a small silver pocketknife, a wall adaptor, watch batteries and instructions for a Timex, a single titanium ice screw, disposable razors, rubber sandals, nine rolls of 35-millimeter film, a bus ticket from Kangding to Litang, a business card for the driver in Litang, a U.S. one-cent coin. Charlie, you eternal cheapskate, Callahan said to himself, smiling.
Charlie wore the badge of “dirtbag climber” unapologetically from day one. Putting together jobs guiding and writing, he did what he could to minimize his consumerism and maximize his time on rocks. Presentable when he needed to be and far wiser than most people understood, this penny in his duffel would no doubt be spent on a necessity of life back in the United States. If I can just get him back there, thought Callahan.
Reward money had been offered to the driver who’d led Chris and Charlie here, but emptying Charlie’s black duffel had left Callahan with nothing more than dirty socks and lip balm. And—aside from the ice screw—no climbing gear: no ice axe, ropes, or crampons. Dammit, he thought, they took their climbing gear.
Littered among the three weeks of searching had been hopeful rumors that perhaps the pair had been abducted or thrown in a Chinese prison. Not a likely scenario, given that all the bits and pieces were pointing to the obvious conclusion: they’d gone to climb.
“What are you looking for?” asked an officer next to Callahan. Clipboard man shooed away colleagues who’d started to touch Charlie’s belongings spread out on the floor.
“Something more than . . . this,” Callahan said. “Something to tell us where they went. Definitively.”
“Are they friends of yours?” asked the officer, nodding to the door, where one of the flyers created by the search team hung, attached with masking tape.
Callahan glanced at it. “Yeah, they are.” Chinese characters spelled out the basics on the flyer:
Charlie Fowler and Christine Boskoff
Last heard from in Litang on November 7
Missed flight back to USA on December 4
If you have seen either or both of these people or have any information regarding their whereabouts, please contact us immediately.
Johanna Garton is a proud Wisconsin girl, writer and cross country coach. Before the publication of her first book, she dabbled in nonprofit consulting, college teaching and had a brief career as a lawyer. Her life experience includes moving her family to China, being charged by an elephant and running 20-plus marathons. She and her husband share their home in Denver with two children who are the inspiration for all of her storytelling.