Climbers nicknamed her the “living archive” and the “Sherlock Holmes of the mountaineering world.”

Share story

KATHMANDU, Nepal — Elizabeth Ann Hawley, an American journalist who chronicled Mount Everest expeditions for more than 50 years and whose attention to detail and sharp sense of humor inspired fear and respect among climbers, died Friday in Kathmandu. She was 94.

Her death was confirmed by Prativa Pandey, the medical director at CIWEC Hospital, where she was being treated for a stroke and pneumonia.

Ms. Hawley, one of the founders of the Himalayan Database, a compilation of records for all climbing expeditions in the Himalayas in Nepal from 1905 to 2017, spent nearly her entire adult life in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. She moved there in 1960 to work as a correspondent with Time.

Though she never scaled a mountain herself, Ms. Hawley endeared herself to many climbers. To maintain accuracy in her records, she grilled mountaineers before and after summit attempts, traveling to their hotels in her powder-blue Volkswagen Beetle to ask what they had seen at the top and to catch the occasional fibber. She conducted more than 15,000 interviews.

Most Read Nation & World Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“You go to your hotel, and as you’re checking in the phone is ringing, and the man behind the desk says, ‘Hawley would like to talk to you,’” Ed Viesturs, a well-known American climber, told Outside Magazine. “You’re barely putting your bags down.”

Climbers nicknamed her the “living archive” and the “Sherlock Holmes of the mountaineering world.” To those who knew her well, she was simply Liz.

“The Himalayan climbing world has lost one of its most important pillars,” said Billi Bierling, a mountaineer and her longtime assistant.

Ms. Hawley was born on Nov. 9, 1923, in Chicago to Frank Hawley and the former Florelle Gore. Her father was an accountant and her mother a suffragist. In 1941, Ms. Hawley enrolled at the University of Michigan, where she studied history, politics and English. She also honed her sense of humor, Bernadette McDonald wrote in “Keeper of the Mountains: The Elizabeth Hawley Story.”

“Well, hand out the flag and ring all the bells: I’m going to a dance next Saturday,” Ms. Hawley wrote in a letter to her mother. “The gentleman in question is a sophomore, would-be constitutional lawyer from Rochester, Ind. He isn’t too wonderful but he might have a roommate.”

After graduating, she moved to New York, taking a job as a researcher with Fortune magazine. Travel was never far from her mind, and Ms. Hawley spent her savings wandering solo across Europe and North Africa, where she befriended foreign correspondents.

In 1959, Ms. Hawley visited Nepal after reading a newspaper article about the remote Himalayan kingdom, which had recently opened its borders to foreigners. A trip back to the United States later that year cemented her resolve to leave the country for good. “This is a great place, but it’s not the real world,” she told McDonald, recalling her thoughts. “I would like to live a few years in the real world — a world that’s like what most people live in.”

In 1960, Ms. Hawley struck a deal with Time to work as a part-time correspondent in Nepal; she eventually transitioned to Reuters. In Kathmandu, she quickly announced herself as a force, attending lavish parties thrown by Nepal’s royal family and striking up a close friendship with Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand climber who first scaled Mount Everest with Tenzing Norgay.

Hawley loved a good scoop. In 1973, while covering an expedition by a Japanese team that was trying to summit Everest from the Southwest Face for the first time, she enlisted a Sherpa to befriend a runner hired by Japanese news outlets. When the Sherpa found out that the Japanese had successfully summited (from a different face), he sped down a trail while the runner finished a drink at a bar. The information was written down, stuffed in a hospital mailbag and sent by air to Kathmandu, about 90 miles away.

For her sleuthing, Ms. Hawley was temporarily banned from reporting on mountaineering by the Nepali government.

“We got the story!” Hawley told McDonald. “The other reporters complained. … I got chastised.”

Ms. Hawley acquired a reputation as a fastidious chronicler of Mount Everest and other peaks in the region. She also resisted compromise, keeping a strict daily routine that involved waking up “dead-on seven o’clock” and wearing “no saris or pants, skirts.” At night, she placed backup files into a locked tin beside her bed, so she could quickly flee out the back door if an earthquake struck.

In her public life, Ms. Hawley brushed aside honors bestowed on her. In 2014, after the Nepali government named a mountain “Peak Hawley” in recognition of her contributions, she told National Geographic that she “thought it was just a joke.” Asked about the highlight of her life, Ms. Hawley told McDonald, “I haven’t been passionate about a single thing!”

Ms. Hawley also kept many mountaineers at arm’s length, expressing ambivalence about being considered a “friend” to the climbing community and telling McDonald that all she had done was keep “good, accurate records.” Her dry, often cutting humor attracted adulation — or terror — but many climbers said that she was irreplaceable.

“She inspired many different impressions and conflicting opinions, mostly from men,” McDonald wrote. “They respected her, feared her, cared about her, criticized her and vied for her attention.”

Over the years, Ms. Hawley slowed down, though she was a part-time correspondent with Reuters until 2008. A hip injury in 2010 stalled her for a couple of months, and management of the Himalayan Database in Nepal, which was run out of her living room, was gradually passed to others.

Information on survivors was not immediately available. She never married and had no children.

Her indomitable spirit persisted until the very end. When she was admitted to the hospital last week, she brought four books and joked with doctors that she “didn’t die last night.”