Elizabeth Hawley: The Sherlock Holmes of the Mountaineering World

The formidable chronicler of the Himalayas passes away at 94.

Elizabeth Hawley was one of a kind. Born in Chicago in 1923 Ms. Hawley has been the unofficial authority on Himalayan records for over 50 years. She first visited Nepal in 1957 during a round the world trip and was inspired to make a permanent move there in 1960.

There she worked as a journalist for Reuters news agency, covering a string of mountaineering firsts, including the first successful American expedition to Everest in 1963. Living in a modest flat in Kathmandu she developed a reputation for being a meticulous record keeper, and dedicated investigator. Despite never reaching Everest base camp, Ms. Hawley was one of the worlds leading authorities on the world’s highest mountain.

Her creation of the Himalayan Database, which she had continued to manage till just five years ago, is an incredible archive, covering more than 9,600 expedition teams. It has recently been made freely available online and the link can be found at the end of this article. However perhaps her greatest achievement has been to keep mountaineers honest, subjecting them to rigorous interviews to ensure that their achievements are valid.

We caught up with climber, and author of “The Holy Mountains of Nepal”, Damien François to learn more about her famous interview techniques and how she will be remembered.

Q: Ms. Hawley had a quite fearsome reputation when it came to interviewing climbers. As someone who has experienced these first-hand can you tell us a little bit about how she went about these?

Damien: Ms. Hawley was very meticulous and asked precise questions, even about climbs on mountains that have been repeated hundreds of times. Although she was not a traditionally “warm” person, she seemed fascinated when conducting her interviews about new peaks, or new routes.

In 2012, I went on a rather unique expedition with Phil Crampton’s Altitude Junkies. We were aiming Ganesh I (7.461 m) in Nepal, also known as Yangra. It was an exploration expedition in the beautiful and remote Tsum Valley and I have fond memories of Liz Hawley’s interviews regarding the climb, which, unluckily, was unsuccessful.

Facts! Only facts! That’s what Miss Hawley was after, and what I believe we should be most grateful to her for. No matter if you were a professional or an amateur climber, she didn’t want any psychology, she was a “chronicler”, interested in facts. That’s what she will always be remembered for, and she would love it!

Q: What is your strongest memory of Ms. Hawley?

Damien: I first met her in 2009, I think, the first time I went to Ama Dablam. I visited her in her Dilli Bazar office every year until 2015, in early May, between the two big earthquakes. I conducted an interview with her in 2011 (this interview will be published in French Montagnes Magazine shortly). She was surprised, but especially fond of, a picture I had framed for her: I had been able to photograph the one and only “Yeti Kangchenjuna Sherpa”. Even the great Reinhold Messner had not been able to do it! Liz really loved that creature!

Ms. Hawley passed away in Kathmandu on Friday aged 94, a week after picking up a lung infection. The former President of Nepal’s mountaineering association, Mr. Ang Tshering Sherpa, released a statement over the weekend addressing what Ms. Hawley has meant to the climbing community there.

“Today, the world’s mountaineering community lost a great friend, but her memory will live on in the legacy she leaves behind in the form of her life’s work; the Himalayan Database. Our sympathy and condolences to her bereaved family members and friends. May her soul rest in peace.”

Previous / Links:

The Himalayan Database

The Holy Mountains of Nepal

Happy Everest Day: Commemorating the People Behind the Mountain

Anna Summit Push