Lonely Planet Writer

The legacy of Elizabeth Hawley, the legendary chronicler of the Himalaya

On January 26, 2018, a giant of Himalayan mountaineering passed as she lived, quietly, modestly and without fanfare. Although Elizabeth Hawley never braved frostbite on the North Face of Everest or dodged rockfalls on the Abruzzi Slope of K2, her contribution to the world of Himalayan mountaineering has endured through the decades.

Elizabeth Hawley is described as the chronicler of Everest. Image by Claudia Camila Lopez

American-born, Hawley came to Nepal as a young journalist, when the kingdom first opened its borders to the outside world in the 1950s, and took up residence in Kathmandu, writing on the latest Himalayan conquests for the Reuters news agency. Over the years, as expedition after expedition pushed back the boundaries of mountaineering, Hawley found herself promoted to the role of unofficial chronicler of Himalayan climbing.

For the nearly 60 years, Hawley painstaking maintained the Himalayan Database, a meticulous account of every Himalayan ascent since 1903. The database is still regarded by mountaineers as the bible of Himalayan ascents, and no summit attempt can be considered to be ‘recognised’ until its details are noted and confirmed in the Himalayan Database.

Climbers stay in a camp on Mount Everest. Image by ©Spaces Images/Getty Images

Based on vigorous in-person interviews with members of mountaineering expeditions before and after summit attempts, Hawley’s work is so authoritative that it has been used to challenge disputed conquests, including the 2016 Everest expedition by Indian climbers Dinesh and Tarakeshwari Rathod, whose photos from the summit were later exposed as a Photoshop fraud.

Responsibility for the Himalayan Database has now passed to Hawley’s nominated successor, 49-year-old German journalist and climber Billi Bierling, who has claimed the summits of Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Manaslu, amongst other Himalayan giants. Hawley’s legacy, however, will long live on amongst Himalayan climbers, particularly those climbing Peak Hawley, the 6182m summit named in her honour in 2014.