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SunLit

SunLit Interview: Johanna Garton stepped up to complete a project begun by her mother

With "Edge of the Map," she also honored the story of a legendary climber from her hometown, part of a Colorado-based mountaineering pair that went missing in western China

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.


Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

The woman at the center of the “Edge of the Map” is Christine Boskoff, who grew up in my hometown in Wisconsin and was so humble that she was virtually unknown, though she’s the most accomplished American female mountaineer of all time. Her story is one of love, loss, mystery and inspiration that felt absolutely essential to share with the world, and it was clear that I was the one to do it.  My mother, who was also a journalist, began work on the book after Christine and her climbing partner, Colorado rock climber Charlie Fowler, went missing in western China in 2006.  When my mother’s health began to fail several years ago, I offered to complete the book for her and help spread Christine’s incredible legacy.  

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

The excerpt is from the first chapter of the book, which opens with a scene taking place during an elaborate search and rescue operation that was launched in the wake of Chris and Charlie’s disappearance. This was around the holidays in 2006 and involved a coordinated effort between officials in China, Chris’ guiding company Mountain Madness which was based in Seattle, and friends of the couple who were in Telluride.  This particular scene focuses on what was happening on the ground in China as rescue crews frantically sought to find the missing pair.  

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

As I mentioned, my mother had become fascinated with Christine’s story and became friends with her mother in an effort to be able to highlight through words and story what a resilient, humble woman Chris was. But by the time I picked up the project, it was clear that the book needed to be more than a biography. I wanted to create an adventure book featuring many of the individuals in Chris’ life who crossed her orbit and had compelling stories of their own. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

This included several iconic rock climbers and mountaineers, her lead Sherpa and her closest friends.  Weaving together all of these pieces in a book that was journalistic yet also a gripping narrative was my goal.  As a reader these are the types of books I’m drawn to, and it’s the experience I wanted to create for my audience.   

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?

Oftentimes writers come to a project like this with a framework that they’re very attached to before they start talking to others or doing research. I was quite the opposite.  I had a few threads I knew I wanted to cover, but I very much let the research and interviews drive where I decided to go.  

My outline was written in pencil, not pen, shall we say! And aside from weaving in more humanity as I mentioned above, it was also critical for me to write in a style that would feel accessible to people who love adventure stories, but don’t love all the technical details that sometimes accompany mountaineering narratives. 

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

Perhaps the biggest challenge was that the story involved writing about several deaths. In each case, these were real individuals who I’d become close to through writing about them for many months, only to have to say goodbye. 

This might be a little easier were I writing fiction, but in my case, I was very aware that loved ones would be reading the book and reliving each of these moments. It was critical to me to spend time crafting those scenes in a way that was authentic, powerful and honored each individual.  

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

Absolutely!  It’s brought up several controversial issues which I think is a tribute to how complicated life can be and speaks to the choices people make in pivotal moments.

Obviously the biggest conversation people have had is around the issue of the sport itself.  As in, why do mountaineers take such risks? Why do they make the choice to put themselves in harm’s way? Is the sport simply for adrenaline junkies? Is it ethical to be climbing sacred peaks? What responsibility do mountaineers have to their friends and loved ones?

I don’t believe there are clear cut answers to most of these questions and my job as an author was to be as informative as I could without drawing any personal conclusions within the narrative. 

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

I typically write during the daytime hours, often before noon when I tend to have the most energy. I usually jump around, not writing chronologically, but rather based on what I’m inspired by on any given day. And of course each chapter goes through multiple rewrites before I’m satisfied.  

What type of reader would enjoy “Edge of the Map?” 

The book is being compared to “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer, and to be mentioned in the same breath as that classic adventure story is a real honor.  

Tell us about your next project.

I’ve just started working on my next book, which I’d like to keep under wraps a bit, but will be in the same vein as “Edge of the Map.” An adventure story with a strong female at the center. The world needs so many more of these stories to be told.


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