Elizabeth Hawley

26th Jan 2018

Elizabeth Hawley

I was initially attracted to climbing and mountaineering by its simplicity.  You see a piece of rock or a mountain and have a go at getting to the top.  Of course, there are the additional benefits of being in stunning locations, the team work and the physical and mental challenge but, in essence, climbing is still really about childlike and unregulated freedom.  

Of course, as I got to understand the sport more I realised this was a very simplified view and the reality was definitely more complex.  Access requirements, bolting issues, local restrictions and land management questions - to have our freedom to climb needs people and organisations fighting for that freedom.  In many parts of the world, with Nepal being just one example, there are additional tiers of regulation where access to mountains may require a permit or entry fee.

Running alongside these layers of regulation and restriction I have also learnt, over the years, about the behaviour of climbers.  Just as access may be jeopardised by people who break the rules, in other circumstances problems have been caused by people making false claims about their achievements.  The climbing community has tended to work on the basis of taking the word of people who claim they have made an ascent, but there have certainly been claims that have been suspect and some where evidence has shown them to be fake.

Our sport is old and diverse and, like many things that have grown organically and over a long period of time, there hasn’t been a centralised system in place for recording ascents. We’ve had localised systems like the classic new routes books sometimes kept in cafes or shops near a climbing venue (which then informed the next guidebook content) and nowadays we have online logging systems like the UKClimbing logbook - but ultimately many systems are still either regional or require the input of the individual climber.

In parts of the world like Nepal, where mountaineers need a permit, it can be easier to record ascents more formally and this is where one legendary person makes her entrance.  Miss Elizabeth Hawley has been, for many decades, the Nepalese based recorder of Himalayan ascents and the reason for writing this blog post is because, after her tireless years of dedication to this cause, she has just passed away in Kathmandu at the age of 94. She is one of the unsung heroes of the climbing world.

Elizabeth, or Miss Hawley as she was commonly known, lived in a small apartment in Kathmandu after moving to Nepal in 1960.  By the mid 60’s she began recording Himalayan ascents while working for Reuters and soon teamed up with another American to create the Himalayan Database.  She continued to log and record ascents in the intervening decades and, alongside this, developed a wealth of knowledge about Himalayan climbing.  She also used her knowledge to sometimes confront mountaineers who made false claims.  In a recent interview for National Geographic she was asked about how some saw her as putting order into an otherwise unregulated community.  Her response was simple and direct; “I frighten them. I do—I frighten a lot of people”.

I met Miss Hawley just once during a trip to Nepal and talked to her with a mix of fascination and fear.  She was a lovely person but certainly had an air of intimidation. I was intrigued about how one person had rooted herself in the bustle of Kathmandu and committed, with such dedication, to undertake this recording task.  It was a brief meeting but I did ask her that question and she brushed it aside with a look that showed me she didn’t want to be asked more about it.  Fortunately, in the interview with National Geographic she was more forthcoming.

The interview was conducted not long before her death and, when asked what had kept her in Kathmandu all these years, she simply said it was inertia.  She started the database, people found it useful and she kept doing it.  That was, apparently, it.  A typically brisk answer and yet I think she did get considerable pleasure from meeting expedition members and also from her encyclopaedic knowledge of expedition history stretching back to some of the early days of exploration.

I also wondered why such a role would suit someone with no particular interest in being in the high mountains herself.  She had such a wealth of knowledge of the Himalayas and the politics of Nepal, but none of it came from being in that environment herself - the highest peak she had climbed was Mount Mansfield in Vermont which, at 1,340 metres, is closer to sea level even than her Kathmandu home. I imagine she was one of those people who could still appreciate the draw that took mountaineers to the high mountains without feeling the need to do that herself.  

Elizabeth Hawley will be remembered for her contribution to world mountaineering and I hope, for the sake of all past and future climbers, someone comes along and takes over her work.  I also hope her tireless contribution is in some way remembered or celebrated.  That is my hope and yet I don’t think she would have considered this of any importance.  In 2014 the Nepalese government named a peak after her and she wasn’t impressed.  In the National Geographic interview she was asked how she felt about it and said, “I thought it was just a joke. It should be a joke. It’s got a perfectly good name and mountains should not be named after people, whether living or dead … I think it’s crazy”.  

Rest in peace Miss Hawley.  The mountaineering community needs people like you and, whether happy about it or not, you will indeed be missed.

Posted by Paul 

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