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The Mountain of Data

[This Sharp End story first appeared in Alpinist 62, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]

The great Himalayan chronicler Elizabeth Hawley paging through files at her apartment in Dilli Bazar, Nepal, after the 2015 earthquake. [Photo] Alet Pretorius

The great Himalayan chronicler Elizabeth Hawley paging through files at her apartment in Dilli Bazar, Nepal, after the 2015 earthquake. [Photo] Alet Pretorius

PEERING THROUGH EYEGLASSES, a grey-haired woman leans over a desk by lamplight. Within the shadows loom shelves full of books and filing cabinets crammed with notes. Bolts attach these objects, along with her computer, to the walls–to minimize the disruption of an earthquake. For decades (or forever, as it seems to some), in this apartment in Dilli Bazar, she has catalogued ascents that have taken place in the Nepal Himalaya. A driver named Suben Khadgi takes her in a blue VW Beetle to hotels where climbers stay, and she sits in lobbies “grilling them”–as the stories about her often go–for the facts behind their claims. Year after year, the data grows: at first in sheets of paper and then in bytes of digital memory, like an immense mountain, pushed by tectonic uplift, into ever-greater heights.

AT LEAST, that was how many of us liked to imagine Elizabeth Hawley, and how many of her fellow reporters wrote about her. By the time she died on January 26, 2018, at age ninety-four, nearly two years after her retirement, she’d become the most famous chronicler of mountaineering in the Nepal Himalaya. A 2011 Outside article, entitled “The High Priestess of Posterity,” declared: “It doesn’t matter if you’re Reinhold Messner or Ed Viesturs; your summit never happened unless Elizabeth Hawley says it did.”

As far back as the Victorian era, climbers have relied on journals of record to document assertions of first ascents and to try to pin down news that happened far above the snowline and the clouds, often without any spectators. Inevitably, events refract as they are transformed into stories: old mistakes become enshrined in books and perpetuated for centuries; contrasting accounts by different participants remain irreconcilable; distortions arise from shifting memories, altitude-addled brains and subjective views; uncertainties linger amid the confusions of blizzard, night, desire and fog. At times, Greg Child once said, “It’s not like the murder mystery where you finally find the killer–in the end, there’s no smoking gun. You don’t have proof of the truth.”

Hawley, her friends and colleagues say, didn’t consider herself an absolute “authority.” Yet if her iconic status became redolent, for many of her fans, with a sense of power and ritual, perhaps it was partly because of a deep, communal longing that someone, somewhere, might be an ultimate arbiter of elusive truths.

LIKE MANY AMERICAN WOMEN who worked in media during the years after World War II, Hawley had found herself initially stuck in the position of researcher, passed over for promotions that went to men–until she finally quit her Fortune magazine job in 1957 and set off for adventures overseas. All the while, she’d been honing her fact-checking skills, marking careful dots above each word that she had verified with multiple sources. She headed for Nepal in 1959 at a time when the country was on the verge of its first general elections, when mountaineers were attempting the last unclimbed 8000-meter peaks, and when an English-speaking reporter could more readily find work as a correspondent for international editors hungry for news.

Hawley preferred to describe herself as a “chronicler” of mountaineering, not a writer, insisting that since she was not a climber herself, she could not interpret the information she presented. And yet, as she said to her biographer Bernadette McDonald, “If the facts tell the story, then so be it!”

Today, the vast Himalayan Database, a digital archive of the records she and her colleagues collected, contains data related to more than 9,600 expeditions; many of her other papers are housed at the American Alpine Club Library, and selections of her chronicles appear in print journals and books. Pieced together, her accumulated lists and dispatches tell countless narratives: the rise of big commercial expeditions and the increased numbers of local high-altitude staff on Chomolungma (Everest) since the late 1980s; the predominance of Japanese mountaineers in the Nepal Himalaya from 1950 to 1989, when members of that nation made first ascents of numerous 7000-meter summits; and the growing presence of female climbers from 1970 to 2008.

Re-read, now, some of her reports have an unexpected, almost lyrical quality, still vibrant with past time. One of her original telegrams of the 1963 American Everest Expedition seems like a found poem:

Urgent press timeinc…

unsoeld quote when you see that cloud cap sitting up there you know the summit cant be climbed that day unquote/ day picture was taken paren about may eleventh paren there was what hornbein describes as quote vicious unquote wind blowing at well over one hundred miles per hour stop recalls hornbein quote it was like seeing an ocean storm stop there was aye writhing seething mass of clouds and aye roar like an express train unquote para

The figures in her Seasonal Stories become a litany of human lives: names of climbers blown down a mountain by a gust of autumn wind, felled by a slip on a glaze of ice, buried beneath a collapsing serac, vanished amid a murk of falling snow; and statistics that place their individual deaths within larger patterns of mortality on high peaks. In her Spring 1989 report, she recounted the story of the Polish climber Andrzej Marciniak, the only survivor of an avalanche, who huddled alone and injured on Chomolungma for days: “I thought I heard music,” he later said, “I thought I was dreaming, maybe I was hallucinating, when I heard voices. But I went out of the tent and saw some dim figures coming toward me, and they really were people.” The numbers at the end become a catalogue of hope and loss: “The entire trip had taken the rescuers 55 hours…. Marciniak had lost on Everest two teeth, eight kilos in weight–and five teammates, whose bodies still lay on the Rongbuk glacier.”

In her Spring 1988 report, she juxtaposed facts in a way that made a subtle editorial point: a team of four men quietly established a new route on the giant, scarcely explored east face of Chomolungma; a 252-member expedition made a televised traverse of the normal routes; and Sir Edmund Hillary commented: “I’m just glad we climbed Everest 35 years ago when we didn’t have all this hullabaloo going on.” Glimpses of personality appear in other reports such as this one, about a “slightly macabre incorrect claim”:

A well-known bar and restaurant called Rum Doodle provides large plywood boards on which successful Everest climbers sign their names, and they are thereafter entitled free meals…. I received a telephone call from Rum Doodle one May evening saying three people were making this claim and asked me whether it was correct. The names [the caller] gave were those of three… who had been to the top not long before: Pawlowski (yes, OK, I said), Maselko (again yes) and Kudelski (yes, he summited, but he died during the descent and is now unable to sign his name).

DESPITE ALL HER TALENT AND CARE, like any researcher, Hawley couldn’t avoid occasional errors or regrets. Her Autumn 1988 report suggested some initial uncertainties about whether Lydia Bradey had reached the summit of Chomolungma and thus completed the first female ascent of the peak without supplemental oxygen. Later, Hawley gave Bradey her full support and accused some of Bradey’s detractors of chauvinism. Throughout her career, Hawley had critics who disapproved of her lack of firsthand climbing experience. Some advocates of low-impact mountaineering felt that her continued reporting of commercial trips to 8000-meter peaks gave a false impression that these were significant climbs. Others believed that her data on those expeditions made it easier to study their problematic environmental effects and labor practices.

There’s a side of alpinism that has long had an inherent resistance to numbers, tables and records. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as European scientists strove to create universal methods of determining elevations, cultural tensions increased between ideas of approaching mountains as physical objects to be measured and claimed, or as transcendent, spiritual geographies to be venerated and left untrammeled. Amid 2017 debates over how to address disputed summit claims, Cedric Sapin-Defour argued that an over-emphasis on concrete evidence might come at the expense of other qualities, such as mystery and imagination. “Which of these excesses would we prefer?” he asked in Montagnes. “An alpinism of stadiums in which all actions are measured, compared, monitored, validated, archived or an alpinism without rules or constraints?”

The rise of digital media has, in itself, exploded old forms of reporting. Nepali journalist Kunda Dixit recalls that when he and Hawley first worked together, he filed stories “by feeding a punched paper tape through a rattly telex machine” in her living room. “Now there are many sites. Satellite Internet allows instant transmission of climbs and even phone calls from the summit.” On the positive side, once-silenced voices, like those of expedition staff, can share stories directly through social media. But there are also some negative impacts as more-powerful groups can now more easily spread misleading news online. In an age in which branded content is increasingly better funded than independent journalism, Rodolphe Popier–one of the current Himalayan Database team members–points out that fact-checking is at least one means of preventing marketing from entirely dominating the telling of history.

HAWLEY ONCE TOLD her biographer Bernadette McDonald, that paying attention to the “body language” of those she interviewed was one key method of verifying the truth. When we refer to a body of work, a body of knowledge, it’s easy to forget the human bodies that create them. Even in today’s mountaineering world, fact-checking often relies on individual experts, often invisible and anonymous, and on extensive libraries of memory archived in minds that remain subject, eventually, to aging and loss.

Eberhard Jurgalski, sixty-five years old, sits hunched over his computer in Lorrach, Germany, typing ten hours a day with arthritic fingers, maintaining lists of mountain data that he has gathered for more than thirty-seven years, in collaboration with Hawley and others–now housed on There, he keeps the most current measurements of high peaks as well as reports of ascents in Pakistan and a history of record-keepers from around the world. He describes himself as a “map eater” to me: “You cannot explain it better than it’s a passion.” Like so much of journalism, fact-checking has become increasingly undervalued, often expected as a service for free. Without financial support, the work of the chroniclers may one day come to an end.

AMONG THE MANY STORIES about Elizabeth Hawley, there’s the oft-repeated one about the only mountain she ever stood atop: 4,393-foot Mt. Mansfield, barely a hill by Himalayan standards but the tallest mountain in Vermont. High above the rooftops and forests of Jeffersonville, its summit often gleams, dusted with the first and last snows of winter or lit by the dusk into a fleeting, unearthly pink.

But it wasn’t until I’d spent eight years here that I finally hiked to the apex of Mansfield myself. Too preoccupied with the ice flows in the dark eastern notch, I’d forgotten to look higher up. On impulse, I followed the Hellbrook Trail over stones and roots that felt like the bones of the mountain, meandering off the path to scramble up a short cliff still trickling with remnants of meltwater and storm. Below the summit ridge, cold shadows of clouds rippled across green farmlands. The trail rolled over slabs of schist just steep enough in places that a hiker might lean a palm against the stone to balance an unsteady foot. A geologic imagination could easily expand dimensions of this ancient, eroded peak into what they once were, eons ago, when the Appalachian Mountains still rose to Himalayan–or even loftier–heights.

It seems a fitting place to think of her. Hawley believed in the mystery of what was and is, not what might be. And that quest for the fullest approximation of realities, beyond all obstacles, became an ascent of its own, one that could never be finished, that leads to a summit of unearthly heights, with a view that might approach closer, at last, to the divine.

[A GoFundMe campaign to support Eberhard Jurgalski’s record-keeping work and his website can be found here. To contribute to the continuation of the Himalayan Database, people can make donations through the AAC by selecting “Himalayan Database” in the drop-down menu under “Fund”: This Sharp End story first appeared in Alpinist 62, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]