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On Highest Authority

Sept. 19, 1994
Sept. 19, 1994

Table of Contents
Sept. 19, 1994

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SI 40th Anniversary
Buck O'Neil
Perspective
Point After

On Highest Authority

Elizabeth Hawley is the woman to visit for information on the Himalaya

In her office on Durbar Marg, hard by King Birendra's palace in the bustling heart of Katmandu, Nepal, Elizabeth Hawley is seated below a huge photograph of Mount Everest, ruminating on her favorite subject. "Professional Himalayan mountaineers have a tremendous determination," she says. "Sometimes you have to be practically masochistic to get on with your climbing."

This is an article from the Sept. 19, 1994 issue Original Layout

Hawley can talk with such authority about the men and women who climb the highest mountains in the world because when it comes to the Abode of Snows, as the Himalaya are known in Nepal, she is the authority. Since 1962 Hawley has kept meticulous files on every Himalayan climbing trip within and along the borders of Nepal. In compiling this mountain of information, Hawley, 70, an American expatriate, has created the only complete archive on Himalayan mountaineering.

In Hawley's time more than 2,000 teams of climbers have set out for the summits of Everest, Annapurna, Machhapuchhare and the other Himalayan peaks. From each team she has elicited the basic facts of the climb, such as the location of the base camp, the names of the Sherpa guides, the proposed and actual climbing routes, how high the team got if it didn't make it to the peak and, sometimes, how many members were evacuated or killed.

Besides gathering these essential details, Hawley usually engages a team's leader in a written or spoken discussion of the climb, and it is these accounts that lend her archives a rare perspective on the sport. They have also led to her friendships with some of the most accomplished mountaineers in history: Reinhold Messner of Italy, Jerzy Kukuczka of Poland and New Zealand's Sir Edmund Hillary, who is both Hawley's good friend and the first conqueror of Mount Everest.

Hawley was born in Chicago in 1923. Thirty-four years later she was working in New York City as a researcher at FORTUNE magazine when she quit her job and set off to see the world. She rode the Orient Express from Vienna to Istanbul for Christmas and was in the U.S.S.R. when Khrushchev took over. She arrived in Katmandu in Katmandu in January 1959.

Nepal was a place stuck in time, and Hawley was fascinated. She spent two weeks there and then, when her money ran low, headed home. She got as far as San Francisco, where she sat down at the counter in Blum's, ordered a sundae and, as she ate, decided: This is all grand, but this isn't the way the real world lives. A few months later she was back in Nepal, where she worked as a stringer for Time Inc., and then as a writer for Reuters.

"Early on I realized that an important part of covering Nepal was covering mountaineering," she says. "Since then I have met every expedition that has come to climb in Nepal." In time she was so much the locus of Himalayan climbing information that many climbers were coming to her to keep abreast of their spoil. Among them was the man who had conquered Everest in 1953.

Hillary met Hawley in 1961, and over time she grew close to him and his family. A long-standing interest of Hillary's has been to help the Sherpa people who live in the shadow of Everest. He set up the Himalayan Trust, which has built 27 schools and numerous footbridges and hospitals in Nepal and helps fight deforestation in the Himalaya. Hawley now administers the trust for Hillary. When Hillary's first wife, Louise, and their daughter, Belinda, died in an airplane crash in Katmandu, it was Hawley who broke the news to him. Hillary has remarried, and whenever he and his wife, June, visit Nepal from Auckland, they stay with Hawley. Certainly this is in keeping with her station. The New Zealand government has named Hawley its honorary consul in Nepal.

While Hawley has willed her unique files to the American Alpine Club, she is still fit and looks as though she would be happy walking up wooded trails, if not quite grasping at snow and ice with crampons and an ax. Nothing doing—Hawley never climbs. "I could climb the normal route of Everest if I had the strength and the youth, I know so many steps of the way by now," she says. "But I wouldn't want to. You have to be driven by ambition to get up those big ones, not caring about the misery of it all. I'm happy to listen to them talk about it."

PHOTOGOPAL CHITRAKARIn Katmandu, Hawley confers with climbers Brad Johnson (center) and Adrian Bvergees.