Eminent U.S. climbing couple missing in China

Times Staff Writer

On Nov. 9, this message was inscribed in the visitors book of a restaurant in the remote southern Chinese village of Litang: "Great food and people.... The mountains around Yading are awesome. Countryside reminds us of home. We'll be back. -- Chris Boskoff and Charlie Fowler, Norwood, Colorado, US."

Those are the last words that two of America's most prominent mountain climbers are known to have written.

Since Dec. 18, search teams have been hunting for Boskoff and Fowler. On Christmas morning, a renewed team was planning to set out into the mountains in search of the two, following a fresh report of a sighting last month in another village, Lamaya.

In the United States, where climbing websites and blogs have been keeping a close watch on the search, friends and relatives waited for word, knowing that the prospects for a happy ending were growing dim.

"It could have been a rockfall, it could have been an avalanche, it could have been a stream crossing," said Arlene Burns, a friend who is acting as spokeswoman for the search-and-rescue effort. "Or they could be with some nomads, [who are] taking care of them with some bad injuries. All of that is possible. But I think we'll find out in the next few days."

This has been a difficult month for the American mountain climbing community. On Wednesday, an Oregon sheriff called off the search for two missing climbers near the summit of Mt. Hood. A third climber in that group had previously been found dead in a snow cave.

Boskoff and Fowler are well known among avid climbers. Climbing magazine has described Fowler, 52, as "long revered as one of the world's leading climbers." Boskoff, 39, who runs a Seattle-based expedition company, Mountain Madness, has climbed "more high-altitude summits than any other woman in the world," the magazine said. Those included Mt. Everest, Mont Blanc, Ama Dablam and Lhotse.

Although Boskoff's business was in Seattle, the two lived together in Norwood, about 30 miles northwest of Telluride, in southwest Colorado.

The couple were climbing in western Sichuan province, a remote, pristine region where the Himalayas cascade over the Tibetan border in spires of granite and ice. It is a place of jagged, awesome and dangerous beauty, and it is increasingly attracting international climbers. The two Americans had spent the autumn there, climbing virgin peaks and glorying in the experience.

"We're in the town of Litang for a few days ... getting ready for one more trip into the hills," Fowler had written in an e-mail Nov. 7, according to Alpinist magazine. "We just got back from attempting a peak I tried in '96 doing a film. Didn't make it that time due to complications with the film crew. This time ... we got near the top but backed off due to scary conditions -- thin snow over rock slabs. Had a blast climbing as far as we did, though."

The two had said they would return to the United States on Dec. 4. A week later, the president of Mountain Madness announced that they had missed their flight. The next day, friends formed the Fowler-Boskoff Search Committee.

By Dec. 18, four teams were searching areas where Boskoff and Fowler had been seen or might have been climbing. Searchers were not sure what mountain they had set out for, but assumed it was one of several unnamed, unclimbed peaks.

They turned up various reports of sightings of the pair in the early days of November, but nothing credible since Nov. 11, when Boskoff and Fowler were reported to have been taken by a driver from Litang to Lamaya.

Searchers only learned about that sighting on Christmas Eve, when the driver was interviewed by the searchers and local officials. The driver told them that he had returned, as promised, to pick up the climbers Nov. 24, but that they never turned up, according to Lin Li, secretary-general of the Sichuan Mountaineering Assn.

The driver also gave searchers their first concrete tip about the pair's goal. According to Lin, the driver said they were planning to climb 20,341-foot Genyen Peak, which was climbed earlier in the year by an Italian team.

On Christmas morning, Burns said, the four search teams, by then reconstituted into one, planned to head out from Lamaya into the mountains after interviewing villagers and trying to determine what route the two climbers had taken.

Last week, a tantalizing report in the China Daily newspaper reported that the two had been spotted Dec. 10 by a driver who remembered seeing two foreigners walking along a mountain road in the Ganzi district of Sichuan.

"The foreign man looked like an actor in an American film that I watched recently, so I remembered his face," said the driver, Yue Penggui, an employee of the Chengdu branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

But the search committee put little stock in this, noting that the driver had stepped forward just two days after a $4,000 reward had been posted for information about the pair, and that details in his account didn't add up. For one thing, Burns said, he didn't describe the two foreigners as carrying mountaineering packs. For another, she said it was inconceivable that Fowler and Boskoff would have been strolling along a road a week after they were supposed to have been on a flight to the United States.

Lin, the mountaineering association chief, said Monday that he couldn't rule out the possibility that the two had met with foul play, but that he had never heard of a climber having been murdered in Sichuan. Burns said she thought it unlikely that the two were victims of a crime.

Sichuan, a region mostly known in the West for its fiery cuisine, is seeing a slow uptick in visits by international climbers, according to Lin, who said about 300 foreigners came to climb in the region's mountains this year, up from 200 the year before. The area where the two climbers were last seen was once part of Tibet and remains ethnically Tibetan, with several Buddhist monasteries scattered through the mountains.

For Boskoff and Fowler, "this was their idea of the greatest vacation, being with the person you love in this beautiful wilderness," Burns said. "And so for a lot of us, we still hope and think and pray they're going to find them ... but if this is where they last were, it was in the place that's really their sanctuary."

Donations to the Fowler-Boskoff Search Fund can be made at www.mountainfilm.org.

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

Yin Lijin of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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