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Cold Mountain

By the time she died, LSA alumna Elizabeth Hawley was the authority on climbers and Himalayan expeditions, documenting ascents, descents, accidents, deaths, firsts, and everything in between.
by Lara Zielin

This is an article from the spring 2019 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.


On December 8, the Beach Boys  release their first single, “Surfin.’” On December 11, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn receives the first acceptance of a fictional piece that will become the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And on December 31 — New Year’s Eve — at a glittering gala at the Royal Hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal — explorer and climber Edmund Hillary is introduced to Elizabeth Hawley (A.B. 1944, M.A. ’46). The year is 1961.

Less than a decade prior, Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had successfully summited Mount Everest for the first time. Now, here was Hillary, fresh off a new climb in search of a Yeti (as in Bigfoot) and claiming to have found the mythical creature’s hide. (Spoiler alert: It was a bear skin.)

That night, as champagne glasses clinked and music played, a whip-smart and sharp-tongued Hawley held her own with Hillary. Hawley was on her own in Kathmandu, patching together a living as a stringer for Time, Inc., reporting on Nepalese politics. But as Hawley’s time in Nepal wore on, her world became more and more intertwined with the world of climbing. Newspapers abroad couldn’t get enough of the bold new adventures happening in this part of the world.

Something in the steep peaks and larger-than-life climbing personalities called to her. It may have been that she herself shirked conventional boundaries so often that she couldn’t help but connect to that same inclination in others. She had traveled the world, lived for long stretches of time overseas, and was at the beginning of a remarkably successful career as an archivist and journalist. She spent her life elbowing her way again and again into male-dominated arenas. She was a feminist, a pioneer, and an unparalleled archivist. 

To be fair, she never would have said any of that herself. She might even chastise you for suggesting it.

Peaking Early

Elizabeth Hawley was born in Chicago on November 9, 1923. Her grandmother and mother were both college educated, and Elizabeth grew up with a firm sense that education led to opportunities. In high school, she refused to take typing or shorthand. Whatever she became, she knew it wouldn’t be “someone’s secretary.” These and other stories about Hawley’s life and career are collected in biographer Bernadette McDonald’s book I’ll Call You in Kathmandu: The Elizabeth Hawley Story

In 1941, Hawley came to U-M, where she discovered her love for history, all while struggling socially. She rushed several sororities, but none chose her. She became president of the Post-War Council, only to be demoted — twice. 

Academically, however, she excelled. Her honors work in history proved to her that “she could work independently, do her own research, and come to her own coherent conclusions,” writes McDonald.

In 1946, Hawley took her newfound skills to New York City and became an editorial researcher for Fortune magazine, but found little opportunity for advancement in the role due to gender discrimination. At Fortune, all the researchers were women and all the bylined writers were men. Hawley lived simply, saved her money, and traveled whenever she could. 

By 1956, Hawley was ready for an adventure that didn’t lead straight back to a desk job. She cashed out her profit-sharing funds from Time, Inc., and went on an around-the-world journey alone. 


By February 1959, she found herself in Nepal as the country made its first steps toward democracy and instituted its constitution. Hawley raced to the Time, Inc. bureau in Delhi, India, and asked the correspondent there if he wanted her to do some on-the-ground work for him in Nepal. He agreed, and suddenly Hawley had paid work in a country she’d fallen in love with nearly on sight. She was determined to make Kathmandu her long-term home. 

By 1960, Hawley was in Kathmandu full time working two jobs: one as a stringer for Time, Inc., and one writing reports for the Knickerbocker Foundation, a nondescript nonprofit that some suspected was a cover for the CIA. No matter to Hawley. She was exactly where she wanted to be. Her work introduced her to Nepalese royalty, diplomats, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, Mother Teresa, and, of course, the climbers there to tackle some of the most dangerous ascents in the world. 

Descents, Derring-Do, and Databases 

By the mid-1960s, trekking had become a full-on enterprise in Nepal, and mountaineering was a growing part of Hawley’s reporting. “She began meeting all the expeditions coming into Kathmandu and keeping files on them,” writes McDonald. “This work, and the personalities involved, became a bigger part of her life each year.”

There was Hillary, who would become Hawley’s close friend and with whom she would help run the Himalayan Trust, which built roads and schools and more across Nepal. There was Reinhold Messner, who made the first Everest ascent without oxygen, and Andrzej Zawada, who made the first winter ascent. There was Junko Tabei, the first woman to climb Everest, and Erik Weihenmayer, the first man to climb Everest blind. She met them all. She talked to them all. She recorded it all.

Her research and attention to detail made her a formidable investigatory force. Did the climber reach the summit? How did they know they had reached it? What did the terrain look like? Did they have evidence? Chris Bonington, who led a successful summit of Everest’s southwest face in 1975, called her interviews “very intense.”

In 1992, Hawley teamed up with climber and University of Michigan computer analyst Richard Salisbury (M.B.A. 1968, M.A. ’70) to put all of her reporting into the Himalayan Database, which records details of every single known expedition into the Nepalese Himalayas. The database is a massive trove of information including records of climbs from 1903, and draws on hundreds of detailed interviews done by Hawley over the course of her professional career. “It was a major effort to organize and enter the massive amount of information that she had collected, all in paper format from her files,” Salisbury says.

In 2004, the Himalayan Database was published by the American Alpine Club as a commercial CD. The information in the database became downloadable for free in 2017, when the Himalayan Database became a nonprofit. Salisbury says that in its first year, the data were downloaded more than 3,400 times. 

Salisbury, who retired from U-M’s Computing Center in 1998, still works on the database for a few hours every day.

By the time she died in 2018 at the age of 94, Hawley was the preeminent authority on climbers and Himalayan expeditions, and her dedication to detail leaves behind a wealth of information about climbers and their world.



Top inset image by Claudia Lopez
Release Date: 04/25/2019
Category: Alumni
Tags: History; LSA Magazine; Social Sciences