Elizabeth Hawley: How an American Journalist became Everest’s Record Keeper

One of the most interesting women involved with Mount Everest never climbed a mountain in her life, and never even reached Base Camp. But without Liz Hawley’s seal of approval, you hadn’t climbed the mountains you just claimed you had.

Elizabeth “Liz” Hawley became the Kathmandu-based chronicler of all the Himalayan expeditions that came to Nepal, and her Himalayan Database is the definitive record of the mountains climbed and by whom.

Being interviewed by Liz Hawley became part of the ritual of Himalayan climbing, and she provided a vital service to mountaineering that you might have thought to have been provided by the Nepali Tourist Board.

Those of us who knew Liz Hawley will remember her blue 1963 Volkswagen Beetle chugging out of the traffic into the hotel compound in Kathmandu. A diminutive figure would then hobble into the hotel lobby, then quiz you about your recent expedition, examine the summit photos, then ask more questions: duration, weather, fellow mountaineers on the peak, and demand more photographs. Several climbers told me they found Liz’s interviews more terrifying than the climb itself. “She’s the second summit” one of them remarked.

Sir Chris Bonington, who led a successful climb of Everest’s southwest face in 1975, amongst many other climbs remarked that her interviews were “very intense.” And Sir Edmund Hillary, who was one of her closest friends called her “a bit of a terror.” (source: Alpinist.com)

“I don’t mean to frighten people, but maybe I’ve acquired this aura of being the arbitrator. It might scare them into telling me the truth and that might be useful.”

Liz Hawley
Graham Hoyland, David Hempleman-Adams and Malcolm Walker with Elizabeth Hawley in 2011
Graham Hoyland, David Hempleman-Adams and Malcolm Walker with Elizabeth Hawley in 2011

Who was Elizabeth Hawley and Why was She in Kathmandu?

Elizabeth Hawley was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1923 (just when George Mallory was travelling around the US on his poorly-attended lecture circuit). She studied English, then, having visited Nepal in 1957 she moved to Kathmandu full-time in 1959, giving up her job as a researcher on Fortune magazine in New York. Soon she was working as a correspondent for Time magazine, then she joined the Reuters news agency in 1962.

These were interesting times in Kathmandu. Not only was the Golden Age of Himalayan climbing taking place, with most of the 8,000 m peaks being climbed, but also the CIA Tibetan Program was active, creating a paramilitary force of 2,000 anti-Chinese rebels on the Nepali border.

By February 1964, nearly $2 million US dollars a year were pouring in through Kathmandu. And Liz was writing reports for the Knickerbocker Foundation that may or may not have been a cover for the CIA (source: lsa.umich.edu)

Liz lived in the same bungalow in the Bhandari Compound in Dilli Bazar for fifty years, and it was here that she kept her records of the thousands of climbers she had interviewed. She met Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, Nepalese royalty, diplomats, Mother Teresa, and, of course, the world’s top climbers, there to risk their lives on some of the most dangerous routes in the world.

She would try to interview them twice, before and after the expedition. Later, an assistant would help her cover some of the ground. But it wasn’t always interesting:

“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.”

Liz Hawley

(source nepalitimes.com)

I met Liz three or four times and I have to say I immediately warmed to her. She was sharp-minded and incisive and loathed waffle, lazy thinking or lying. She was a remarkable archivist, a feminist, and a pioneer.

In her early days in the country, Nepalese women were rarely seen in public. A single, foreign woman in her thirties living alone in Kathmandu was regarded as an oddity.

Did You Climb it or Not? The Disputes

Trying to have a climb registered on Liz Hawley’s database sometimes led to disputes. She ruled in 1997 that Sergio Martini and Fausto De Stefani’s climb of Lhotse, the mountain next to Everest, was “disputed”. Martini reclimbed the mountain in 2000, but De Stafani refused.

She also forced the American climber Ed Viesturs to re-climb the true main summit of Shishapangma before he was allowed to claim to have climbed all the 8000 metre peaks.

Many climbers claim to have reached the summit of Shishapangma when in fact they reached the lower central (west) summit at 8,013 m (26,289 ft), which is still two hours climbing from the 14-metre-higher (46 ft), true summit of 8,027 m (26,335 ft).

Liz Hawley wasn’t having that, and her Himalayan Database will not accept the common practice of ascending the central summit of Shishapangma and claiming a full ascent of the mountain.

old lady writing

Hawley’s enquiries into the disputed 2009 ascent of Kangchenjunga by Korea’s Oh Eun-Sun, hailed as the first woman to have climbed the 14 highest peaks had a profound impact on the climber’s reputation. Hawley said that she would continue to mark the climb as disputed unless Miss Oh gave definite proof that she was on the summit.

“The only picture that anyone has seen shows Miss Oh standing on bare rock. But Miss Pasabán (who was on the mountain at the same time) showed me a picture of her team on the summit, and they are standing on snow.”

“I think it’s likely that Miss Oh’s climb is going to be disputed for the rest of her life,” she said. “I’m sorry that I seem to be the arbitrator of this.”

Oh later admitted that she had stopped a few hundred meters before the summit of Kangchenjunga (source: wikipedia). Once again Hawley’s nose for the truth had served her well. There were other disputed claims, but these give a flavour of the woman. I was present at one of her disputes and I would say she was persistent rather than inquisitorial.

Liz gave up her political reporting for Reuters after her reports on the 1985 bomb blasts angered some in the Nepali government (source: nepalitimes.com). But she still reported on mountaineering and wrote for climbing journals. She also managed Sir Edmund Hillary’s charity, the Himalayan Trust, and served as the Honorary Consul for New Zealand in Nepal.

Elizabeth Hawley died in her adopted home in Kathmandu on January 26, 2018 at the fine old age of 94, another example of the remarkable people you meet when you travel to Mount Everest.

About Graham Hoyland

Graham was the 15th Briton to Climb Mount Everest. He has spent over two years across nine expeditions to the mountain and is the author of Last Hours on Everest, the story of Mallory and Irvine's fatal ascent.