Precisely at 9:30, the baby blue VW Beetle pulled into the hotel parking lot. The driver quickly came around to open the passenger door. He gently cradled her elbow as she first put her walking stick out of the car then slid herself out. Standing up with the authority of someone who belongs, Ms. Elizabeth Hawley had arrived.
Before I go on, if you do not know Ms. Hawley, she is, how do I put this? She is a living legend in the world of Himalayan mountaineering. Born in the US, she came to Kathmandu as a reporter for Time Magazine in 1960. She never left. Over time, she honed a purpose and focus with tracking the summits of Nepal’s Himalayan peaks. Now at age 89, she is the definitive judge and jury as to disputes and has the final word on if you summited or not. Simply put, there is no higher authority in mountaineering.
Her decades of knowledge is captured in the Himalayan Database she created along with Richard Salisbury whom I interviewed earlier this year. The book, I’ll Call You in Kathmandu: The Elizabeth Hawley Story is the story of her life.
Phil Crampton moved over to walk along side her as she made her way to the simple wooden chair set up in the Hotel courtyard. We all took our places on the bench in front of her. Ms. Hawley took out her manila folder, and pen as she began the questioning. “OK, you are going to Manaslu. right?” she asked Phil as our expedition leader. “Yes ma’am.” he replied. “At least that is what I told the team.” he slyly added with a grin. Her eyes looked up from her papers though her stylish glasses. Her thin grin betrayed her as she provided a single “harrumph” acknowledging Phil’s attempt at humor.
She continued. Using a form she had used for decades she now directed her attention to me. I straightened my back as I looked at my palms not sure if she had a ruler or not. I smiled weakly. “It says here you are retired.” “Yes ma’am” I offered. “From what? You just can’t say you retired as an occupation. What did you retire from?” she scolded as she now looked through her glasses locking in a piercing look of command over me.
Thus began 10 minutes of me trying to explain what I did for 30 years, the roles I had, and what my company did. “I was a manager, you know attended meetings, asked questions, drank coffee” I offered without success. She did not acknowledge my humor. And on it went for each of us. The only profession she accepted from our team was the title of Psychologist.
Finished with me team she went back to Phil. “When are you leaving? What route, Oxygen? How many Sherpas. When will you summit. Return? Anything special?” By now the mood had relaxed and the jokes were plenty. Ms. Hawley was doing what she did . Upon return, she would once again pepper climbers with questions. “What did you see from the summit? How long did it take? Any problems?” All trick questions to measure the accuracy of any summit claim. Sherlock Holmes could not do it better.
She had just repeated this performance with other teams in Kathmandu the previous day, the previous year, the previous decade, She had more planned for later today and tomorrow and on and on. This is what she does.
With the work complete, she closed her folder and looked up. I took my chance to talk to this incredible person. I wanted to get her thoughts on the changing Sherpa culture, the infamous 2013 fight at Camp 2, Sir Edmund Hillary, the “new” 8000m peaks Nepal had recently named, the future of mountaineering. For the next 30 minutes she politely answered my questions showing an encyclopedic knowledge of the Himalayan peaks, first ascents, routes, conflicts, and history. I sat in utter amazement totally captivated. She sometimes got lost telling a story.
“Well, Ed really created the schools Sherpas go to today. He built 42, or was it 44, of them. You see the way it worked was that the Sherpas who helped them get to the top, You know he was the first? Well anyway, they carried their bags, then they learned a little English. But it was Ed who thought they should go to a real school. So he came here and built the schools.” She continued without taking a breath. ” The original dirt path from Lukla to Phakding to Namche was down by the Dudh Koisi river but it kept getting washed out, so Ed help get it moved to higher ground so the kids could get to school. Then more people used it, the trekkers and climbers. When someone got tired, they would go spend the night at a Sherpa’s house. Well, that became the teahouses. The Sherpas got rich. Relatively, you understand compared to the rest of Nepal. The Sherpa are proud people. They know what they are doing.”
Ms. Hawley was real, authentic; candid and outspoken. Her opinions were based on facts. If she didn’t know, she would give you a look then say scoldingly “How would I know? She was refreshing. The world will miss her one day.
Known to refuse to have her picture taken, I mustered the courage and moved into place. She giggled or sighed as we took few. As I walked her to her Bug, I could feel the energy of this world treasure. I felt tiny and insignificant in her presence. Like I did on the summit of Everest.
As I sat in the courtyard, I felt drained, but there was work to be done on this last day before we left for the trek. I will be “off the grid” for most of the next week as we will not have a reliable internet connection and the sat phones cannot reach the satellites high above due to steep canyon walls. So I will really be on vacation – away from the modern civilization of 24 hour news, instant messaging, Tweets, Facebook, Blogs, emails – you know what I do! 🙂
I took advantage of the remaining hours in Kathmandu to some fake TNF trekking shoes. I hope they last me until next Thursday!! I had my pizza at Fire and Ice in Thamel and walked the streets checking out the shops. But I am here to climb a mountain.
Later, Neil Greenwood came to the hotel to talk us through oxygen masks. I will be using his Summit Oxygen complete system of cylinders, regulators and masks on Manaslu. Yes, I need oxygen on these 8000m mountains. After all, I have a big head, not big lungs!
Seriously, Neil’s masks were used by multiple Everest expeditions this past spring with great success. They claim to be lighter, and more reliable than some previous offerings so I’m excited to give them a try. Phil was so impressed with the Summit Oxygen masks, he bought new masks for our entire team.
I did a post before I left on the history of oxygen masks that lead to our meeting today.
Last night our small team had dinner. An international group, we are from South Africa, Belgium the UK and the US; seven in all. I am impressed with the collective experience. Most have been on 8000 mountains, some Everest, one attempted Manaslu before. All are fit and experienced. The conversation flowed easily covering a multitude of topics, and we just met.
We leave Kathmandu at 6AM tomorrow morning taking a series of land vehicles to the village of Arughat where we will begin a six day journey to Sama Goan on Friday. After three days there we move to Base Camp at 15,750 feet. All in all we gain about 14,000′ before we even get to the mountain!
Some of the other teams climbing Manaslu, and there are a reported 12 permits issued so it will not be very crowded this year, are flying to Sama Goan but I am happy we are walking. It is reported to be one of the most beautiful treks in Nepal following rivers, crossing waterfalls and through stunning forest – a wilderness lost in this modern world. As we get closer to Base Camp, we will enter a region where the Tibetans settled after fleeing Tibet. Their influence is strong and proud. I will be honored to get a glimpse of this living culture.
OK, that it’s from Kathmandu. What a day. Back to Ms. Hawley. As I watched her speak today, I could not help but be in awe of her sharp mind and vivid memories. Ms. Elizabeth Hawley truly represents Memories are Everything.
Memories are Everything