Elizabeth Hawley, at 94; chronicled Everest climbs
KATHMANDU, Nepal — Elizabeth Ann Hawley, a US journalist who chronicled Mount Everest expeditions for more than 50 years and whose attention to detail and sharp sense of humor inspired fear and respect among climbers, died Friday in Kathmandu. She was 94.
One of the founders of the Himalayan Database, a compilation of records for all climbing expeditions in the Himalayas in Nepal from 1905 to 2017, Ms. Hawley spent nearly her entire adult life in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. She moved there in 1960 to work as a correspondent with Time Inc.
Though she never scaled a mountain herself, Ms. Hawley endeared herself to many climbers. To maintain accuracy in her records, she grilled mountaineers before and after summit attempts, traveling to their hotels in her powder-blue Volkswagen Beetle to ask what they had seen at the top and to catch the occasional fibber. She once estimated she had conducted more than 15,000 interviews.
“You go to your hotel, and as you’re checking in the phone is ringing, and the man behind the desk says, ‘Hawley would like to talk to you,’” Ed Viesturs, a well-known US climber, told Outside Magazine. “You’re barely putting your bags down.”
Climbers nicknamed her the “living archive” and the “Sherlock Holmes of the mountaineering world.”
“The Himalayan climbing world has lost one of its most important pillars,” said Billi Bierling, a mountaineer and her longtime assistant.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Ms. Hawley took a job as a researcher with Fortune magazine. Travel was never far from her mind, and she often spent her savings wandering solo across Europe and North Africa, where she befriended foreign correspondents.
In 1959, Ms. Hawley visited Nepal after reading a newspaper article about the remote Himalayan kingdom, which had recently opened its borders to foreigners. A trip back to the United States later that year cemented her resolve to leave the country for good.
“This is a great place, but it’s not the real world. I would like to live a few years in the real world — a world that’s like what most people live in.” she told Bernadette McDonald, author of “Keeper of the Mountains: The Elizabeth Hawley Story.”
In 1960, Ms. Hawley struck a deal with Time Inc. to work as a part-time correspondent in Nepal; she eventually transitioned to Reuters. In Kathmandu, she quickly announced herself as a force, attending lavish parties thrown by Nepal’s royal family and striking up a close friendship with Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand climber who first scaled Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay.
Ms. Hawley loved a good scoop. In 1973, while covering an expedition by a Japanese team that was trying to summit Everest from the Southwest Face for the first time, Ms. Hawley enlisted a Sherpa to befriend a runner hired by Japanese news media outlets. When the Sherpa found out that the Japanese had successfully summited (from a different face), he sped down a trail while the runner finished a drink at a bar. The information was written down, stuffed in a hospital mailbag, and sent by air to Kathmandu, around 90 miles away.
For her sleuthing, Ms. Hawley was temporarily banned from reporting on mountaineering by the Nepali government.
Ms. Hawley eventually acquired a reputation as a fastidious chronicler of Mount Everest and other peaks in the region. At night, she placed backup files into a locked tin beside her bed, so she could quickly flee out the back door if an earthquake struck.
In her public life, Ms. Hawley brushed aside honors bestowed on her. In 2014, after the Nepali government named a mountain Peak Hawley in recognition of her contributions, she told National Geographic she “thought it was just a joke.”
Ms. Hawley also expressed ambivalence about being considered a “friend” to climbers, telling McDonald that all she had done was keep “good, accurate records.”
Her dry, often cutting humor attracted adulation or fear, but many climbers said that she was irreplaceable.
“She inspired many different impressions and conflicting opinions, mostly from men,” McDonald wrote. “They respected her, feared her, cared about her, criticized her and vied for her attention.”