16-22 February 2018 #897

“Tell me more …”

Liz Hawley said goodbye and thank you, then expressed surprise to be still alive the following morning
Lisa Choegyal
DRIVING MISS HAWLEY: Elizabeth Hawley's trusted driver Suben said: "She loved me more than any of her mountaineers.”

Miss Hawley is hunched over her electric fan heater avidly scouring The New York Times as I enter the austere apartment in Dilli Bazar, her home since 1960. The walls are thick and the floor a cold concrete, and the white painted double doors are secured with awkward metal bolts. The furniture is the same vintage, dark and heavy, with low hard sofas whose cushions do little to provide comfort.

Bookshelves and file cabinets stuffed with her mountaineering collection line the dim sitting room, securely bolted to the wall to avoid their tipping over in earthquakes. They contain her life work, hundreds of files of dusty pages of detailed information about thousands of expeditions in the Nepal Himalaya.

Read also:

From Liz Hawley in Kathmandu, Kunda Dixit

Elizabeth Hawley, Lisa Choegyal

The sprightly 94-year-old is still as sharp as a tack. “Look, the Polish are attempting a winter ascent of K2.” she marvels. “What a feat. A difficult and dangerous mountain.”

On this visit I’m interested in coaxing her to talk about the past, not current affairs. Elizabeth has finally retired from gathering of climbing information, and most of her day is spent reading or re-reading detective novels – Dorothy Sayers is her favourite.

“Tell me more about your friend Micky Wetherall, whom I never knew. Is it true he was the only man you considered marrying?” I nudge her into reminisces. “Oh that was mostly speculation on my part,” she confesses brightly. “I doubt he ever knew. He was splendid, born somewhere like Darjeeling, he started one of the first private construction companies in Kathmandu with Krishna, you know Muggy’s father, Col Jaya Prakash SJB Rana. He eventually married the British Ambassador’s secretary who was Australian, Commonwealth, you see, and they moved there after leaving here – both dead now.” She rolls her eyes.

“Lots of people confuse my long friendship with Sir Ed as romance, and Bernadette’s book was full of wild inaccuracies about others, but the only real fling I had was the Sudanese gentleman on the riverboat in Egypt.”

Liz’s Nile adventure had taken place during her early travels, before first arriving in Kathmandu in 1959, and I reckon the stolen kisses on deck with the married postal worker was the closest she came to a relationship. “What use would I be as a wife? I can’t cook, and I’m not interested in homemaking. I’d be hopeless.”

In a magazine interview in 2004, I had described her “passion” for Nepali politics and for collecting mountaineering facts. “Lisa, please remove that word from your article,” she snapped. “I simply record facts - I am not passionate about ANYTHING.”

I ask her about trekking-founder Col Jimmy Roberts, and Mike Cheyney who worked with him at Mountain Travel. “Jimmy’s life was almost entirely in the Himalaya, first Indian Army then Nepal. He had a couple of aunts in Wales – can’t remember their names and doubt Jimmy could either. He was quite a character and of course never married. If you ask me, I think he was afraid of women.”

In April 2016 I had received a rare summons: “Lisa I have to see you urgently. I need to discuss my future.” The future? At her age? It sounded sinister. My regular visits had diminished from long lunches to regular drop-ins, lending her books, catching up on news, hearing her grumble at my travels, checking her nurses were taking care, and that the Himalayan Trust downstairs was managing her bills. She had a well-ordered life, but I arrived with some trepidation.

A shrinking figure determinedly upright at her table, Liz gestures with irritation to a pile of brown expedition folders at her elbow. “I can’t do it, Lisa. I can’t concentrate and these files of information don’t make any sense to me anymore. My mind goes blank. It’s too hard.” She sighs with dejected impatience at her own frailty. Long anticipating this moment with a backup plan in place and willing hands poised to take over, I touch her pale bony hand and smile encouragement.

“How wonderful, Elizabeth. Finally at 92 years old you have retired. How exciting for you, and many congratulations.” Her worried expression gives way to a cautious smile of relief. “Ah yes, that’s what it is. Retirement.”

Liz’s retirement lasted less than two years as she left us last month, with enviable peace after a short bout of pneumonia in hospital surrounded by people who cared, and with her wits and humour still about her. Ever organised, she said goodbye and thank you, then expressed surprise to be still alive the following morning.

Her death was front-page news in UK, US and New Zealand as well as Nepal. We gave her a fitting farewell, a brocaded Sherpa cremation at Swayambhunath, and a memorial tea party at Dwarikas. “A committed rationalist, she would not have wanted a fuss,” said Kanak Dixit in his tribute. Her favourite nephew came with his wife from Colorado, her nurses were in tears, and her driver Suben claimed: “She loved me more than any of her mountaineers.” Accolades and admiration poured in from household-name climbers, journalists, colleagues and friends from all over the world, her uncompromising exactitude a common theme.

The last thing she had said to me the week before as I left the country on a job was: “I’m in CIWEC with a chest infection but don’t worry, it’s not serious.” She got that one wrong.

Read also:

The Himalayan record-keeper, Tsering Dolker Gurung

The Nepal chronicler, Kunda Dixit

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