Who was the first to climb the South Face of Lhotse alpine style? In which year was Dhaulagiri climbed for the first time? Who was Alex McIntyre's climbing partner during his attempt on Annapurna in 1983 in which he died? For answers to these questions and many, many more, just ask Elizabeth Hawley, Nepal's walking encyclopaedia on mountaineering in Nepal.
When she first arrived in Nepal in 1959, five years after the first tourist came to Kathmandu, Liz Hawley never thought she'd stay so long. Forty years later, she has firmly established herself as a legendary chronicler of mountaineering. She has been living in her bungalow in Dilli Bazaar for most of the time here driving her trademark blue 1963 Volkswagen Beetle to and from the airport to interview mountaineers as they flew back from expeditions. It has become a mandatory ritual for most climbers in Nepal to meet and brief her on their expeditions.
Says Liz: "Sometimes it's as boring as hell. If there are 29 teams on Cho-Oyu you get bored with it. But fortunately now, I don't have to meet all of them. New routes, new attempts, something new is always happening."
Word has got around among mountaineers and others in Kathmandu that Liz does not suffer fools. She can be blunt, brusque and impatient. After all, she has a deadline to meet. Today, Liz employs two assistants to meet expeditions, there is just too much happening during the mountaineering season. But at a sprightly 77, Liz still does many of her interviews herself.
Liz Hawley's database of mountaineering is the product of a lifetime of meticulous interviews, reporting and collection. Much of this information, plus original statistical analyses of trends in climbing in the Nepal Himalaya will be published in a book that Liz is working on along with fellow American, computer expert and climber, Richard Salisbury.
"We have no idea when we will really finish-we hope possibly by the end of the year. But I'm not sure, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting," says Liz. She says the growth in the number of expeditions in Nepal is due to a freer political climate in Eastern Europe, the easy accessibility of foreign currency, and to increasingly more affluent societies like Japan and South Korea.
Seated in her study, surrounded by books, journals and reference works on mountaineering, Liz acknowledges the guidance of climber and explorer Colonel Jimmy Roberts, who enabled her to become an authority on the Nepali Himalaya climbing scene without ever setting foot on a mountain. "I like mountain scenery, I think it's great, I just don't need to climb them," she adds. Liz enjoys Kathmandu's climate ("Kathmandu is not under a foot of snow like New York is at the moment") and it's easygoing lifestyle where it is possible to live comfortably and frugally.
When she first came to Kathmandu she had quit her job as an editorial researcher for Fortune magazine in New York and had travelled extensively through Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, the West and South Asia. "I came back on purpose in September 1960 because I thought it would be interesting to see how Nepal was going to cope with the 20th century," she says. A year earlier, BP Koirala had become Prime Minister under a democratic constitution promulgated by King Mahendra. This exercise in parliamentary democracy was short-lived and 19 months later Koirala was put in jail. Writing about it began Liz's career as Kathmandu-based foreign correspondent for Reuters and Time.
Her reporting spanned the Panchayat years, the subsequent political upheavals, the death of King Mahendra, King Birendra's coronation, and through it all hundreds of successful mountaineering expeditions and tragedies on the mountains. Liz gave up political reporting for Reuters after her stories on the 1985 bomb blasts raised hackles in the government. But she still reports on mountaineering and writes for climbing journals in nine countries. She also continues to manage Sir Edmund Hillary's charity, the Himalayan Trust and serves as the Honorary Consul for New Zealand in Nepal.
"Nepal is still experiencing growing pains with parliamentary democracy. Things aren't so rosy but then this kind of problem occurs when you have a combination of great poverty and an enormous number of unemployed youth who have nothing to do but to throw bricks," she says.
In 1994, the American Alpine Club, of which she is a member, presented her its literary award. And in 1998 she was awarded the King Albert Medal of Merit presented by a Swiss foundation to "persons or institutions who have distinguished themselves in some way in the mountain world". The rapid growth in satellite technology and the live coverage of climbing exploits on the web may have undermined her role as a mountaineering correspondent, but it doesn't seem to prevent Liz from always having the definitive last word. "I am getting scooped. But my reports give an assessment, quite often, of the significance of a climb. They put it in perspective."