KATHMANDU (Reuters Life!) - Over fifty years living in the shadow of Mount Everest has made U.S.-born Elizabeth Hawley the unrivalled authority on the world’s highest peak. Not bad for a former journalist who has never set foot on the snow of base camp.
When the 87-year-old Hawley came to Nepal in 1960 as a journalist for Time magazine, she had no idea that she was on the road to becoming the most highly-respected chronicler of mountain climbing in the Himalayan nation, home to eight of the world’s 14 highest peaks.
Today, from her house in Kathmandu, Hawley runs the Himalayan Database, a record of major climbs of the Nepali mountains, and a necessary endorsement for climbers to gain global fame by validating their achievements.
“I never took a conscious decision but it has been an engaging work over all these years,” the short, thin Hawley told Reuters, peering over the rim of her glasses at decades of notes from interviews with climbers stacked on shelves in her study.
Though the database itself is unofficial, it is widely respected by climbers.
Born in Chicago in 1923, Hawley began reporting for Reuters in 1962, nine years after the pioneering climb of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay opened the gates to global tourism in the mountainous nation.
“I very quickly realized that mountaineering will be a very important part of news reporting for an international news agency,” she said, dressed as always in a neatly pressed skirt.
But Hawley, now the unofficial arbiter of climbing-related disputes, has herself never been to Everest base camp from where climbers begin their ascent and which turns into a tent city in climbing times.
“Why go there?” she asks. “I have seen it in pictures. It is crammed and uncomfortable. It is all rocky and it is a mess.”
During the peak March-May climbing season, Hawley is busy driving the maze of Kathmandu’s narrow streets in her iconic light blue 1963 Volkswagen Beetle, as she has done for over 45 years, to meet climbers bound for or returning from mountains.
Still a U.S. citizen, she also doesn’t speak Nepali.
But over five decades she developed close friendships with climbers such as Hillary, Italian Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler of Austria. The last two were the first to climb Everest without bottled oxygen in 1978.
Hawley considers the 1963 American ascent of the 8,850-meter (29,035 feet) Everest summit, via the untested West Ridge route, and the first female ascent, by Japan’s Junko Tabei in 1975, the biggest Everest milestones after 1953.
“Junko Tabei became the first woman to climb Everest long after the first man. This is definitely important,” Hawley said.
Mount Everest is Nepal’s most popular peak and attracts hundreds of climbers every year. A total of 3,145 people have scaled it, and at least 227 people have died there.
“Many people climb Everest because they want to get away from problems back home, take the challenge of how far they can go, and be in a small group of people with a single purpose,” Hawley said.
“This band of climbers will continue to try new routes to Everest, apply new techniques and climb new peaks in the future.”
Editing by Henry Foy and Elaine Lies