24-30 May 2013 #657

The Himalayan record-keeper

At 90, Liz Hawley is still chronicling climbing expeditions, a work she started with the first American Everest expedition in 1963
Tsering Dolker Gurung

The joke in climbing circles is that if Liz Hawley hasn’t certified that you climbed a Himalayan peak then you haven’t climbed it. Actually, it’s not a joke.

At 90, the top chronicler of Himalayan mountaineering has such a formidable reputation in alpinist circles, that she is admired and feared in equal measure. Her meticulous archives of climbing information from the last 55 years and her search-engine brain makes her verdict on a climb final.

Hawley, who has documented nearly every expedition that has ever climbed in the Nepal Himalaya since the 1960s, has never set foot on a mountain herself.

“It is crowded up there,” Hawley said during an interview this week, “I prefer the comforts of my home, sleeping in my bed, eating hot food at my table, and driving around in my car.”

And home for the past 55 years has been a bungalow in a quiet compound tucked away inside the hustle and bustle of Dillibajar. Hawley used to work for Fortune magazine in New York as a researcher and quit one day to travel around the world. When she got to Kathmandu in 1959, it was still an unpolluted green valley with terrace farms, and she never left.

In 1963, she got to report on the first US expedition to Mt Everest for Time-Life and Reuters. Since most of the news from Nepal in those days was about mountaineering, she started interviewing climbers before and after expeditions. Those records are now a treasure trove of mountaineering history. Miss Hawley, as the climbing fraternity knows her, continues to interview, record, and document expeditions the same way she did six decades ago.

The spring and autumn climbing seasons are her busiest period. From a large network of contacts at trekking agencies, airlines, hotels, and the Ministry, she keeps track of who’s coming and when. The interviews are in hotel gardens and lobbies and are usually so gruelling that mountaineers call them ‘The Second Summit’ because of Miss Hawley’s intense grilling. The information then goes into digital files of the Himalayan Database, a company she started with a friend.

As the Kathmandu-based correspondent for Reuters, she also had to follow the politics. Most western diplomats relied on her insider knowledge of goings-on in the royal palace and government.

Hawley was on the same plane as BP Koirala when he was returning from Bangkok after treatment in 1982. “I spent the entire flight writing the story for Reuters and kept checking with BP and Girija to make sure I got all my facts correct,” she recalls, “later that evening, I got a call saying BP had died. It was a sad moment, because he was one of the few remarkable men that we have in Nepal and one political leader who stuck to his beliefs.” The story made it to the front page of the New York Times.

When she’s not busy driving around town in her trusted sky-blue VW Beetle that she bought from Prince Basundhara in 1965, Hawley is busy in her role as the chair of the Himalayan Trust-Nepal which was set up by Edmund Hillary in 1960 to build schools and hospitals in the Khumbu. “I don’t think the first ascent changed Khumbu,” says Hawley, “what changed Khumbu was Sir Edmund Hillary.”

For someone who has followed the annals of mountaineering so closely, Hawley wasn’t surprised with the news about the brawl between Sherpas and western climbers on Everest last month.

“It was a result of badly bruised egos,” she says, “the Sherpas felt that they had lost a lot of face after seeing these alpinists who have never used fixed ropes or oxygen in their lives…that got them very angry and they resorted to extreme actions.”

The big change in mountaineering has been due to commercialisation in the early 1990s, she says, it gave an easy pass to those who lacked the skills and passion to climb mountains. “People who had never climbed a mountain before started buying slots on Everest expeditions because it would look good on their cv,” she says.

Asked if climate change is changing climbing, Hawley gives a characteristically sarcastic reply: “Maybe, but it could also be that the climbers are not as good as they used to be.”

A second edition of the book on Liz Hawley, I’ll Call You In Kathmandu, and a documentary called Keeper of the Mountains, are being released next month. Asked if she would ever go back to the United States, Hawley replies matter-of-factly: “I am still here 50 blooming years later. I will retire when I die and I don’t have any unfulfilled wishes. I am happy as I am.”

To watch a trailer of a documentary about Elizabeth Hawley click here


Follow @Everest1953 for live reenactment of the 1953 ascent of Everest on Twitter

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