In 2014 as part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour, they showed a superb film called ‘The Keeper of the Mountains’ – If you’ve not seen it, I urge you to.
You can rent it on YouTube – here – for about £3.49.
This film was a biographical feature on Miss Elizabeth Hawley, a famous expedition chronicler and archival historian in Kathmandu for over four decades, and so for Mountain Monday this week I thought I would write a small piece on her extraordinary life as she is fascinating.
Miss Elizabeth Hawley
Born in 1923, Elizabeth Hawley grew up in Indiana, before moving to New York City during the Depression.
As a child, she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her response? ‘I don’t know what I want to be, but I know I don’t want to be a secretary’. Her mother was involved in women’s rights groups, and whilst she never joined one herself, she once said that she ‘has always believed that women should be equal to men, and why not?’. She went off to university, read History and then got a job in research for Fortune magazine.
After a while, she said she had become bored with the role, and so quit to travel the world, eventually ending up in Kathmandu in 1959, where she still lives today. At the time Kathmandu had only recently opened up to the world, and was still being referred to as the capital of ‘forbidden Nepal’. She had a number of jobs there in the early years, one of which was as a correspondent for Time, reporting on whether or not Sir Edmund Hillary had found the skull of an abominable snowman. Pretty interesting work, compared to what she was used to in the US.
Her next role saw her as a correspondent for Reuters, where she famously covered the first all US ascent of Mount Everest in 1963. She had a radio in her spare room, which she would use to listen out for expedition updates. When she had them, she would be the first to call the embassies involved, meaning she got the scoop, as it were, on this incredible story.
After this, she began meeting people prior to climbing, interviewing them and also conducting a follow up after descent. Some refer to these interviews as a ‘second summit‘ as they are known to be very difficult.
Especially as the years have gone by and Miss Hawley has learned more about the mountains…
Some people climb mountains to test themselves, you’re pushing your body to the utmost limits, but some people go over these limits… and die. For Everest? It’s bragging rights, but the goal is very simple in mountaineering, and this is why people like it. You focus on one thing and one thing only… Getting to the top. You don’t have the struggles of daily life to contend with’.
Everything she needed to know about mountain climbing, she learned from Lieutenant Colonel J. O. M. Roberts, one of the most famous explorers of the 20th century, with a number of first ascents under his belt, including Annapurna 1, Annapurna 2 and Putha Hiunchuli. When he set up the first commercial trekking organisation in Nepal, Elizabeth Hawley ran everything for him whilst he climbed and guided.She interviews people still, prior to their climb and after, and if she thinks you’re lying, she will make it known. She is said to be very blunt and to the point, almost cuttingly so, and after conducting over 15,000 interviews and archiving over 80,000 ascents in Nepal, she knows the mountains like the back of her hand.
She could tell you the routes, where the crevasses are, the best way to climb, where the dangers lie… but she has never climbed one, saying that she prefers her home comforts.
Expedition files are grouped in folders according to the peak and season, and these are then transferred in to digital files, famously now compiled in The Himalayan Database, where they’re a great source for future expeditions, for interest and for those famous ‘bragging rights’.
If you want to make a first ascent and are unsure if it truly will be the first, you can bet that her records will tell you.
Of note, she has covered the first all American ascent, the first female ascent, the 1996 tragedy (immortalised in the recent film, Everest) and the 1999 discovery of George Mallory’s body, amongst others.
She classed Sir Edmund Hillary as a close friend, and said he was the finest, most honest, modest person she had ever met.
She has received an honorary Queen’s Service Medal for Public Service and it’s safe to say that without her work, we would not have anywhere near as much accurate climbing history as we do today.
Outside Magazine wrote a brilliant article on Elizabeth Hawley – here – and the trailer for The Keeper of The Mountains is below. Wherever you look online to find out about Elizabeth Hawley, you will find quotes by famous climbers about her, and hilarious anecdotes…