Elizabeth Hawley
Hawley at home in Kathmandu

The High Priestess of Posterity

It doesn't matter if you're Reinhold Messner or Ed Viesturs: your summit never happened unless Elizabeth Hawley says it did.

Elizabeth Hawley
Eric Hansen

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

MISS ELIZABETH HAWLEY has little patience for fools. While I thumb through the file cabinets that line her living room, wedged between Buddhist thangkas and primitive masks, the world's preeminent chronicler of Himalayan mountaineering sits upright in her chair. The American expat is 87 and astute as ever, with a slender build and soft skin. She smooths the folds in her tailored khaki skirt as she watches me fumble around in 46 identical wooden drawers.

“May comes before June,” she instructs.

These files are her life's work, containing the largest catalog of man's athletic achievements at the edge of the troposphere. Never mind that Hawley hasn't climbed a mountain in her life. She has interviewed, documented, and, when necessary, investigated nearly every expedition coming through Kathmandu since the country opened its doors to outsiders in the mid 1950s. She's also acted as an archival historian, collecting trip reports from as far back as 1905.

Her files contain detailed information about some 80,000 ascents of roughly 340 Nepalese peaks, including those on the borders of China and India, all of which she can monitor from Kathmandu. Her information is trusted by newswires, scholars, the Nepal Mountaineering Association, this magazine, The American Alpine Journal, European climbing publications, and even a restaurateur: Kathmandu's Rum Doodle offers a free meal to every Everest summiter, but before any meat is thrown on the grill, the manager calls Hawley to confirm the feat.

Over the course of some 15,000 interviews, Hawley has not only recorded history; her research has also sparked and resolved controversies, and she's watched from the front row as the Nepal climbing scene has transformed from tiny cult to mainstream obsession. Though some mountaineers don't savor her interrogations—an expedition's “second summit,” a few have called it—all serious alpinists admire her.

“If I need information about climbing 8,000-meter peaks, I go to her,” says Italian climbing legend Reinhold Messner. “She has everything.”

“She's the queen,” says Beth Heller, director of the American Alpine Club Library. “There is nothing else like her records.”

I finally locate the musty folder I've been looking for, two drawers down in a center cabinet: “Everest from Nepal; Lhotse; Spring '96.” That would be the Into Thin Air year, of course. I'm surprised at how the forms and route diagrams and summit snap­shots make the events of that season's infamous tragedy feel so immediate. Seeing Sandy Hill Pittman's large, jaunty handwriting on a document suggests better than anything I've heard how confident she was before heading up the crowded Southeast Ridge.

Hawley doesn't indulge in such ruminations. “That mess” is all she says.

I point out how thick and heavy the manila file is, a couple of pounds at least, and speculate that she must have reported on the debacle for months.

“Nowadays we have maybe eight folders that size for Everest in the spring,” she says. “You have no doubt read Jon Krakauer's book. Have you read Anatoli Boukreev's?”

AT FIRST GLANCE, Hawley doesn't fit the profile. Chronicler of climbing? Even in her youth she scarcely hiked. “I don't like trekking at all,” she says. “I like to sleep in a comfortable bed, eat hot food in a chair at a table, and move around in the Beetle”—her beloved sixties-era royal blue VW bug.

Hawley earns a modest living by serving as chief executive officer of the Himalayan Trust's Nepal division, a nonprofit started in 1960 by the late Sir Edmund Hillary, a close friend, and occasionally writing for magazines. She also spends a great deal of time responding to research requests from organizations and journalists.

On a typical day, she rises early and gets dressed—”no saris or pants, skirts”—and takes a seat at her dining room table at “dead-on seven o'clock,” where she has a banana and a cup of tea with lemon, “no milk.” After reading three or four English-language dailies, she meets with other administrators of the Hima­layan Trust, which conveniently is located on the ground floor of her building. Just before nine, her Nepali driver picks her up in the Beetle and the real work begins: meeting climbers.

During the busy spring and fall seasons, Hawley or one of her two multilingual assis­tants will sit down with representatives of roughly 250 expeditions. Through her large network of contacts at outfitters, hotels, and Nepal's permit-issuing Ministry of Tourism, she stays informed about who's coming through town and when.

“I make sure I know what flight they're arriving on,” she says. “If it's the Thai flight, which gets in at noon, then at 1:45 I'm on the telephone to their hotel to get an appointment for the next day.”

Veteran climbers know what to expect, but for many her promptness can be startling. “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,'” says Ed Viesturs, the first American to summit all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter peaks. “You're barely putting your bags down.”

She conducts her grillings in hotel gardens or lobbies, a bird-size lady among brawny young men and women. Depending on their level of familiarity, they'll address her as Miss Hawley, Elizabeth, or, after maybe two decades, Liz. Viesturs calls her Liz, but he also makes sure to arrive clean-shaven and spiffed up.

Pen and notebook in hand, Hawley asks for photos and contacts and drawings of their routes. All members of the expedition, including Sherpas, are accounted for. On trips of three dozen or more members, Hawley privately assigns each person a number to make keeping track of them easier.

Her detailed “On Arrival” and “On Return” forms are the core of her method. They nail down every possibly relevant particular, from who fixed how many meters of rope to the exact elevation and chronology of every camp. Looking at the forms she uses, which are spread out between us on a side table, it's not always clear what kind of answer she's looking for. This, apparently, is intentional. I point at a question on one of the forms, which reads, “Members at end?”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“How many people came back, how many left early, how many died,” she says. “That question produces an answer you wouldn't get otherwise.”

Pawing through the paperwork while Hawley regales me with stories, I get occasional shivers. She describes the route the French took up Annapurna in 1950 as if the 26,545-foot mountain were rising right outside her window. Telling the story of Messner and Peter Habeler's frigid bivouac on the first ascent of Everest, without oxygen, in 1978, she imagines the cold they suffered and beats her hands on her legs to stimulate blood flow.

When the conversation turns to the present, it's evident that she's not impressed by the shenanigans, ill-advised firsts, and catastrophes that have marred the modern Hima­layan climbing era. Still, she's quick to point out that there remain plenty of worthwhile objectives to be accomplished, even on the big hill itself. “Everybody says there's no more unclimbed routes on Everest,” she says. “I say, You go look at the east face, especially the East Ridge.” She waves her hand toward the file cabinets, as if shooing a climber on.

The ultimate feat, she believes, is a multi-day traverse she calls the Horseshoe. The climber would start by ascending the scalloped face of 25,790-foot Nuptse, then traverse a razor ridge on 27,940-foot Lhotse, climb 29,035-foot Everest via the Southeast Ridge, and descend the West Ridge. Hawley thinks it could be done sometime soon—or possibly “never.”

Later, when I mention the Horseshoe concept to American climber Dave Hahn, who has summited Everest 12 times, he chuckles. “It's not calling out to me,” he says. “It would be insanely difficult.”

BORN IN 1923 and raised in a conservative suburb of New York City, Hawley seemed poised for a conventional life in the metropolis. After earning a master's degree in history from the University of Michigan, she landed a position as a researcher at Fortune magazine in 1946. Her curiosity about other cultures left her restless in Manhattan. Living spartanly, she saved enough to travel to England in 1948. This kicked off eight years of vacations to ever-bolder destinations—Western Europe, Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East.

She became hooked. In 1957, she quit her job and left on what would become a two-year around-the-world journey. Of all the places she visited, Kathmandu made the strongest impression, and she vowed to return. A year later, she did, renting the spacious two-bedroom apartment she still lives in today and, eventually, landing a job as a correspondent for Reuters.

Soon she was socializing with Kathmandu's elite circle of expats and diplomats and members of the wealthy Rana family, who ruled the Kingdom of Nepal from 1846 until 1951. She tagged along on one of the king's tiger-hunting expeditions, drove prominent political figures home after parties, and, in early 1961, struck up what would become a lifelong friendship with Hillary, who had just returned from a failed attempt to track down a yeti.

It was a lucky scoop that sparked her lifelong interest in mountaineering. In 1963, Reuters wanted a story about the first U.S. expedition to Everest, a massive undertaking involving 18 Americans and almost 900 porters. Hawley, ever the newshound, worked her connections at the American embassy to gain access to a sideband radio, which allowed her to listen in as the climbers went up. She trumped the three other foreign correspondents in Kathmandu, and she became captivated with high-altitude drama. She'd found her beat.

Over the next few decades, Hawley worked part-time for Nepal's first trekking and travel agency, Tiger Mountain. But mostly she inter­viewed climbers. By the time commercially guided expeditions hit full swing in the mid-1990s, she had become the gatekeeper of altitude. “For a long time,” Messner remembers, “she was one of the most important foreigners in Kathmandu.”

It's a role she's clearly relished, and she has a treasure trove of stories that don't show up in the files. When Hawley tells me how Messner once checked not one but all of the boxes on a form pertaining to his relationship status—”Single,” “Married,” “Divorced,” and “Living with Girlfriend”—a smile creeps across her face.

“I said, 'How'd you get all this?'”

“'In Italy I'm technically still married,' he said. 'In Germany I'm divorced and I am living with a girlfriend.'”

“I said, 'OK, but single?'”

“'I feel single,' he said.”

IN THE AFTERNOON and evening, Hawley often follows up on the loose ends and discrepancies that inevitably arise from her in-person interviews. Long after a climber has descended and flown home, she'll interview the cook, call a climber's wife, meet a trusted trekking agent, dig up an out-of-print Japanese topo map, and otherwise do anything that might help triangulate the truth.

Once she's satisfied, she enters the data on her “perfectly satisfactory” 16-year-old Compaq Presario and files away the paperwork. Expedition packets are grouped in folders according to the peak and season, and each folder is filed in a drawer covering roughly one year, with peaks in the eastern part of Nepal at the front and those in the west toward the rear.

Six times a week, a Nepali woman enters the accumulated information into digital files, which end up on CDs, part of what's known as the Himalayan Database, a small commercial venture Hawley runs with Richard Salisbury, a retired climber and computer whiz who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“It's not at all profitable,” says Salisbury. “It's a passion project.” To date, they've sold only 900 or so copies of the $70 CD-ROM, mainly to academics and physicians, who have used the data in human-performance research. The sheer volume of facts is almost overwhelming, but Hawley can rattle off statistical nuggets about virtually every subject I bring up: Koreans seem to have the worst safety record among climbers; no matter how much planning they do, two parties ascending different routes will almost never meet at the summit; countries sent mountaineers to the high Hima­laya in the order they recovered from World War II—first the Americans, then Western Europeans, then Japanese, then Koreans, then Eastern Europeans.

It's the potential to mine her archives for trends like this that makes the data so invaluable. “She's the touchstone,” says Maurice Isserman, coauthor of Fallen Giants, an epic history of mountaineering. “One of the first things I did before writing Fallen Giants was get the disc of her Himalayan record, which I would religiously consult.”

While few mountaineers seem to take full advantage of the accumulated wisdom, others could have seriously missed out if they hadn't consulted her. Messner, for example, might not have become the first person to solo Everest without bottled oxygen if not for Hawley. When he met her in Kathmandu in the summer of 1979, he was planning to attempt the historic climb but was having trouble getting a permit from Nepal. Hawley informed him that a Japanese climber named Naomi Uemura was preparing to attempt the same feat. “I changed plans, got a permit from the Chinese, and went to China,” he says.

While Hawley downplays her influence, the research she conducts continues to hold sway. Take the recent controversy regarding who was the first woman to climb all the 8,000-meter peaks, a race involving Oh Eun-Sun, a 45-year-old Korean, and Edurne Pasaban, a 37-year-old Basque and one of our adventurers of the year (see page 34). Oh supposedly won last spring, when she was filmed atop Annapurna, a crew broadcasting her triumph live on Korean television. The celebration didn't last long. People soon began to doubt whether shots from one of her previous expeditions, to 28,169-foot Kanchenjunga, had actually been taken at that peak's true summit.

Indeed, the Kanchenjunga summit photo appears highly dubious: all you see is a down-suited woman standing on rock in a white-out. As Hawley told the BBC, “Summit pictures of other people on the same mountain in the same season show them standing in the snow.” Other minutiae—including the lack of identifying details in Oh's photo—have only raised more questions. Hawley has been in the middle of it, and her suspicions appear to have been borne out: in spring 2010, Oh admitted that, although one of her Sherpas still maintains that they reached the summit, she thinks they actually stopped “five vertical meters from the top.” Until further notice, the climb will be listed as “Disputed” in Hawley's files.

As Hawley is quick to point out, she's not the judge and jury in these matters. She's a reporter. “We record,” she says. “We find out what they did, or what they say they did. Sometimes it's different.”

Many climbers take heed. “There's a lot of times that we go, 'We better be damn sure we go to the tip-top of this mountain, because Liz Hawley is gonna know if we don't,'” says Viesturs. “She'll ask, 'What did the summit look like?' And she knows what it should look like from photos and from talking to other people. If you can't describe it in the right way, she'll know you're making it up.”

THIS SPRING, Hawley will run out of file cabinets. And while she's currently in good health, she knows she won't be able to take care of herself much longer. She has a nephew in Colorado who has offered to share his home, but she hasn't been to the States in 16 years. She feels settled in Nepal, and there remains much work to be done.

There are now so many expeditions passing through Kathmandu each day during the busiest seasons that she's hoping to hire a third assistant. But she hasn't been grooming a successor, and anyway, how could she?

“It's hard to believe that anyone will be able to replace her,” says Jeff Blumenfeld, editor of Expedition News.

“We are of course worried about what will happen when Liz is not working anymore,” says Tom Sjogren, one of the founders of ExplorersWeb, an adventure news site that relies on her info while also conducting its own reporting about expeditions in Paki­stan, in China, and at the poles. Sjogren hopes to carry on Hawley's legacy in Nepal by using Wikipedia-style crowdsourcing but acknowledges that “it won't be easy.”

Hawley's paper files have been bequeathed to the American Alpine Club and will most likely be shipped back to its headquarters in Golden, Colorado, someday. Whatever the case, Hawley can be proud to have pushed as high as she did, and in good style.

Before leaving, I broach the subject of her rumored loves and affairs.

“Hillary?” I ask.

“We were very good friends, but there was no romance,” she says.


“No, no,” she laughs. “He had lots of romances, but I wasn't one of them.”

I look down at my notebook, which contains the names Eric Shipton, Jimmy Roberts, and Don Whillans. Just as I resume speaking, she interrupts.

“Don't work this too hard,” she says, and I stop. Even though I know she wouldn't.