The legendary Himalayan historian Elizabeth Hawley died on January 26 at the age of 94 in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her remarkable life has had several distinctive chapters, but the mountaineering community will remember her most as the chronicler of Himalayan climbing.
I first met Elizabeth at her apartment in Kathmandu, in 2004. I was hoping to write her biography, and I’d planned ten days of interviews with her. She was skeptical, and I was nervous. Almost everyone who knew her warned me that she had no patience for anyone who was unprepared, that she insisted on being called Miss Hawley, and that she was very appreciative of gifts. I had done my research, and I came laden with whisky and chocolate, but I was late. “Did you get lost? Don’t worry, everyone does.” were the first words out of her mouth.
She was smaller than I expected, and she appeared a bit frail. Still, her eyes were clear and dark and her gaze didn’t waver. I sensed in her an innate curiosity, a confident intelligence, and a no-nonsense approach. And I was definitely aware of a good “looking-over” on her part. Thank goodness for the whisky and chocolate. Imagine my relief when, after just thirty minutes of conversation, she suggested that I call her Elizabeth.
There was much to admire in her. Born in Chicago in 1923, Elizabeth was a go-getter from an early age. When asked by a high-school teacher what she might want to be when she graduated, she replied that she had no idea, but she was sure that she didn’t want to be somebody’s secretary! She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1946, and departed with much more than an honors degree: she had immersed herself in American history and international affairs and was drawn to lengthy discussions about social philosophy and the meaning of freedom.
She accepted a job at Fortune magazine as a researcher and fact-checker, but her curiosity led her far beyond her New York apartment. By living frugally and saving her money, she was able to launch a series of solo voyages that took her to the United Kingdom and to Central Europe, where she observed the ravages of the Second World War. She gambled in Monte Carlo and rode the Orient Express to Trieste, Italy. Gaining confidence, she ventured farther afield, meeting up with foreign correspondents in Belgrade, Macedonia, Finland, Georgia, Poland, Morocco, Sudan, Nepal and Japan. She was clever. She was curious. And she was alone. As such, she stood out, and she met an endless number of interesting and sometimes powerful people. Her weekly letters to her mother documented her travels, leaving a fascinating trail of wonder and adventure.
She arrived in Kathmandu in 1959 with the plan of staying a couple of weeks. It didn’t work out that way. In her words, “I didn’t plan to stay. I just didn’t leave.” For Elizabeth, Nepal felt remote, less affected by the rest of the world. It was also on the cusp of its first general election in history. In her words, it was “a place where you can see what the world is becoming.” Elizabeth wanted to be part of that experience.
She worked at various jobs, reporting for Reuters and helping a new adventure travel company organize trips. She served as New Zealand’s Honorary Consul in Nepal, and she played a key role in the New Zealand Himalayan Trust. Some of her first stories as a journalist were about climbing expeditions in Nepal, including the 1963 American Mt. Everest Expedition, which, through some clever skulduggery, she managed to scoop. Although she socialized regularly with royalty and the most powerful politicians in Nepal, it was climbers, and their exciting and dangerous expeditions to the highest mountains on earth, who captured her imagination.
She eventually became a fixture in Kathmandu as she motored around town in her baby blue Volkswagen Beetle, tracking down expedition leaders in order to learn of their plans or to document what they did or didn’t accomplish in the mountains. She became skilled at sleuthing the truth about climbs, and she rarely erred. Climbers trembled in fear of this alpine detective’s prodding questions. “I don’t mean to frighten people,” she said, but then she added that a little fear might help in ferreting out the facts. She could appear brittle and hard-nosed, but she wrangled the biggest egos in Himalayan climbing into submission. Many of them became her dearest friends.
Anyone who knew Elizabeth has vivid memories of her unique character. One of her closest friends, Sir Edmund Hillary, once described her as “a bit of a terror.” But he freely admitted that her friendship was gold standard–one that lasted a lifetime. Reinhold Messner called her a “first-class journalist.” Kurt Diemberger described her as a “living archive.” Together with Richard Salisbury, Elizabeth transformed her vast archive of climbing data into the Himalayan Database, which remains one of the most comprehensive databases of mountaineering history in the world and a priceless resource for climbing historians.
As the numbers of mountaineering expeditions increased in Nepal, it eventually became clear that Elizabeth could no longer handle all of the work without more assistance. Respected historians came to help her chronicle the climbs and document the facts. One of those was Billi Bierling, from Germany. Over the years, their professional relationship grew into a deep friendship. In Billi’s words, upon learning of her passing: “I cannot put it into words how much this amazing woman has meant to me, how much she has taught me and how much I will miss her in my life.”
My lingering memory of Elizabeth was of her standing at the top of her stairs with a slightly lopsided smile, waving good-bye, after our first intense ten days of getting to know each other. We had laughed and cried, debated dates, searched through files, and drank a lot of tea.
Elizabeth Hawley: a feminist before her time, a pillar of society in Kathmandu, an icon in the mountaineering community, a fiercely independent woman, and a dear friend to many. She is survived by her nephew, Michael Hawley Leonard, his wife, Meg Leonard and their children, Molly Elizabeth Leonard and Matthew Leonard.