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I'll Call You in Kathmandu: The Elizabeth Hawley Story

I’ll Call You in Kathmandu: The Elizabeth Hawley Story.

Bernadette McDonald. Foreword by Sir Edmund Hillary. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2005. 24 pages of black & WHITE PHOTOGRAPHS, 2 MAPS. 256 PAGES. HARDCOVER. $24.95.

For nearly five decades Elizabeth Hawley has played a stern, albeit meticulous, Boswell to the Himalayan mountaineering community’s Samuel Johnson. Given the prominence of her name among alpinists, it may come as a surprise to learn she has never climbed a peak or even expressed any interest in doing so. “I am too lazy to walk the mountains,” she once joked in an interview. “Besides, I value good food and a warm bed too much. I like to look at the mountains.” Lucky for mountaineering aficionados, she also likes to interrogate—some might say catechize—those who do climb the peaks. Since the early sixties her practice has been to debrief all Himalayan climbers as they pass through Kathmandu, both coming and going, and to record the details pertaining to their ascents. Then she cross-references and authenticates the information in order to render a judgment on the veracity and significance of the claims. Her diligent efforts resulted in an extensive expedition archive that serves as the basis for the American Alpine Club’s Himalayan Database. Although she is the world’s most knowledgeable person about Himalayan climbing, little in the way of biographical information has been available until now. Bernadette McDonald's biography fills a significant gap in the cultural history of mountaineering.

In a flat but surprisingly effective prose style, McDonald presents her readers with Hawley’s life and personality. The figure that emerges is as striking—and as formidable—as the mountains themselves. Elizabeth Hawley was born into a reasonably well-to-do family in Chicago in 1923. She attended the University of Michigan. After graduation she obtained work in New York as a researcher for Fortune magazine. At age thirty-four, after eleven years on the job, she found herself “a little bored,” so she quit Fortune and embarked on wandering around the globe, making her living as a journalist. Along the way she visited Kathmandu and liked what she saw. In 1960 she returned to stay. At first she supported herself as a stringer for Time, Inc. and by providing reports on the political scene in Nepal to the Knickerbocker Foundation, an organization suspected as being a cover for the CIA. In 1963 Hawley made a major scoop, thanks to her connections at the U.S. embassy, by breaking the news that the first American expedition on Everest had not only summitted but made the first ascent of the west ridge as well as the first traverse of the peak.

At this point—just shy of her fortieth birthday—she became the amanuensis of Himalayan mountaineering. According to McDonald, “Elizabeth was always careful to ask detailed and pointed questions of climbers when they returned to Kathmandu, and she was vigilant about recording and reporting the truth.” Kurt Diemberger refers to her “the living archive.” And Reinhold Messner recalls with affection: “When I came with crazy ideas to Kathmandu, she was listening—she never said it was impossible.”

The second half of McDonald’s biography reads like a dance card of climbing celebrities—Hillary, Bonington, Tabei, Babanov, just to name a few—and we encounter them off the mountains, not so much “behind the scenes” but in the very foreground where history is written if not made. And yes, as with any story involving Himalayan climbing, it isn’t long before death makes its appearance. In the latter part of the book, every turn of the page seems to bring another report of a mountain fatality. You get the impression that the Grim Reaper is the most successful of all Himalayan climbers. But rest assured, when he comes down from the mountains even he will have to make his report to Elizabeth Hawley.

Despite its abundance of information, McDonalds book does have limitations: to view the history of Himalayan mountaineering singularly through the lens of Elizabeth Hawleys life does entail significant vignetting—a falling off of light around the edges of the picture. One comes away from I’ll Call You In Kathmandu with the nagging sense that a great many interesting and important stories—some involving Hawley herself—remain hidden in the shadows. In the final analysis, however, Hawley’s life story serves as an admirable counterpoise to the bravado and bluster too often encountered in mountaineering literature and history. While she is notoriously shrewd at ferreting out the truth in climbers’ claims, she can also provide the occasional psychological insight, as when she describes a certain climber infamous for his falsehoods as “a complicated man, as so many climbers are, and I have the feeling that he really believes his claims. I really think he is a Walter Mitty type. He lives in a world of fantasy and he believes he was successful.” Yet on a certain level isn’t this true of anybody who sets out to climb a dangerous peak? All climbing accounts are the stuff of dreams and heroic imaginings. In the rarefied air of the world’s highest peaks, a human being might sometimes, forgivably, be inclined to continue the ascent beyond the actual summit into the realm of fantasy. Fortunately, Elizabeth Hawley has been around to bring us all—climbers and readers alike—back down to earth.

John P. O’Grady