Saturday, August 6, 2011

I'll Call You in Kathmandu: The Elizabeth Hawley Story, by Bernadette McDonald

A character in nearly every Everest book, (who has somehow never even been to Base Camp) Elizabeth Hawley is the subject of Bernadette McDonald's I'll Call You in Kathmandu. Hawley is the de facto chronicler of Himalayan climbing within Nepal, creating files for each climb based on interviews she conducts in Kathmandu. Everest books are filled with stories of climbing leaders arriving in Kathmandu, checking into their hotels, sitting down on their beds or drawing a bath, and the phone rings; when they pick up, it is invariably Miss Hawley calling. She is both feared and respected by Himalayan climbers, as she has the journalistic power to make climbers famous and the wit and wisdom to keep them honest. She is known to be direct, thorough, badgering at times, critical, but honest. Her journalistic accounts generally lack any sort of evaluation of a climb, but she is scrupulous with the details. 

McDonald reveals much in this book that surprised me. Hawley originally emigrated to Kathmandu to report on political and practical matters in a small country in transition caught between both China and India and the U. S. S. R. and the United States. She originally had no concept of climbers or Himalayan climbing and wasn't particularly interested. She worked many jobs to support herself (as she began only as a part-time reporter for Time, Inc), including under Jimmy Roberts at his trekking agency and Edmund Hillary for his Himalayan Trust. She was able to scoop the news on the 1963 American Everest expedition through contacts at the American Embassy and later on a personal ham radio. She didn't begin to focus on climbing news, however, until her Nepalese journalistic license was revoked after a scoop on some sensitive political news.

Hawley's records on climbing in and around Nepal are thorough and exciting (well, at least for the researcher!). Thanks to the partnership of Richard Salisbury, her records are now available on CD-ROM, with updates available for download at the Himalayan Database website. McDonald is careful to frame Hawley's biography around the bigger picture of Kathmandu and to include a wealth of climbers' experiences with her. The book, unfortunately, poo-poos many of the myths about Hawley's personal relationships with climbers, but her humorous comments about these men more than make up for the disappointment. I, personally, appreciated McDonald's compare /contrast of Hawley and Audrey Salkeld. I would take either of their jobs, as chroniclers and historians of high-altitude mountaineering, in a heartbeat, and I was enthralled to read what they think of each other. I hope you enjoy this book---I found it fascinating.

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