The most intimidating person in Himalayan mountaineering is a 92-year-old American woman with a walker. Elizabeth Hawley (most often addressed as Miss Hawley) has lived in Kathmandu for nearly as long as Nepal has been open to foreigners. She was the first to keep good records of Himalayan expeditions and soon became the de facto authority on all significant ascents in the world’s highest mountain range.
Himalayan summits are high, dangerous, cold, and lonely—and more than one ambitious climber has tried to stretch the truth when nobody else was around to bear witness. These people rarely get past Hawley. Despite never having climbed anything taller than Mount Mansfield in Vermont—which is still a good 200 feet closer to sea level than her home in Kathmandu—she arguably knows more about the planet’s most significant summits, and those who have reached them, than anyone else.
In 2014 the government of Nepal named a peak after her in recognition of her contribution to the mountaineering industry—and Miss Hawley was not amused.
She recently shared a few thoughts with us about mountaineering, Nepal, dead presidents, and Peak Hawley from her home in Kathmandu.
Congratulations on having a peak named after you—that’s quite an honor. What do you know about the peak?
They found a mountain that already had a name—Pota North. It’s 6,182 meters high. It’s north of a mountain that is very well known called Putha Hiunchuli. They couldn’t have worked very hard about finding a name for it; they decided there was no name so they gave it that name—Peak Hawley.
How do you feel about it?
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.
So then when expeditions climb Peak Hawley, will you register their climbs under the local name?
For example, in the United States they have now officially renamed Mount Mckinley, and nobody can talk about Mount McKinley. He wasn’t much of a president anyway. Forget him. Mountains should not be named after people.
That’s a strong statement. Why do you feel that way?
They have perfectly good local names, most of them. For example, the Nepalese government created the name “Sagarmatha” [one of the local names for Mount Everest]—they made it up because they didn’t have a name. Nepalese in those days looked to the Himalaya as the home of the Gods, and you don’t bother the Gods in their home. You do puja [prayers] to it, or them, and you don’t fuss around with it.
Many mountaineers hold you and your work in extremely high regard. You have put order into an industry that wouldn’t have had it otherwise.
Yeah, I frighten them. I do—I frighten a lot of people. But I don’t intend to, of course.
So having a Himalayan peak named after you is not something you’re all that proud of. What are you most proud of?
Helping to create the [Himalayan] Database. I didn’t really create the database. A man in Ann Arbor, Michigan, named Richard Salsbury actually created it. He was with the University of Michigan computer center in Ann Arbor. He saw the records that I had from the 1960s … and he thought there should be a database with all the records that I had. So I agreed. I thought it was a good idea. There should be records. So we put our heads together and created the Himalayan Database. That was in the middle of the ‘60s or maybe a bit later.
You first came to Nepal in 1960 and have been here since. What has kept you here?
It’s just inertia. I started doing this, I started meeting expeditions when I was working for Reuters news agency. It seemed worthwhile or at least part of it did. People do find the database useful … and then you are stuck with it so you have to keep going. All you have to do is live forever.
Is that your goal?
Obviously one doesn’t live forever, but I have been living for quite [a] long time … You get to a certain point, a certain age actually, when you can’t go back.
How do you want to be remembered? Do you have any thoughts about that?
No, I’ve never thought about being remembered.
Many mountaineers would be thrilled to have a mountain named after them …
Maybe they would. I don’t have any ambitions about receiving honors and all that. It’s nice. I appreciate it, but I don’t need it.
Did you ever want to be a mountaineer yourself?
No. The highest thing I ever climbed was Mount Mansfield, the highest in Vermont. But that was just a trek, just to get to the top and have a good view. That’s not the reason you climb Everest, to get a good view.
What is your feeling about the future of mountaineering in Nepal? Is it uncertain?
I suppose [it is]. There are some Nepalis, I think mostly trekking agents, that want to take it over and throw out the foreigners. If you are going to throw out the foreigners the whole thing will collapse. There is a vital role the foreigners are still performing. For one thing, they are finding the climbers.
How has the mountaineering industry changed for the better?
Um, what are ways that mountaineering in Nepal has improved?
Mountaineering in Nepal hasn’t improved. It’s much more organized, of course. It’s also commercialized. I don’t have anything against free enterprise. In one way this has ensured that there would be expeditions.
Are there things the industry could do better?
Better than what? Better than when? What are you talking about exactly?
The earliest climbing that we know about was the British on Everest. Well, that was a fiasco. First of all, they didn’t know what they were doing; they didn’t know where they were going to start with. They didn’t know the mountain; there was no organized assistance like Sherpas. They had a hard time just finding the mountain and surviving the long and horrible trip to the mountain from Darjeeling and back again. It took months. They wasted all of their good weather time on the trek in. So better than what? It’s a difficult question to answer.
For one, over 30 people were killed on Everest in the past two years.
Yeah, well, how many people were killed by the earthquake here in Kathmandu?
Do you think the industry could be safer or more well regulated?
Oh boy, when you start to regulate things in Nepal, forget it. In the first place the people who are supposed to be the regulators don’t know what they are doing. In the second place, who regulates the regulators?