MISS ELIZABETH HAWLEY has little patience for fools. While I thumb through the file cabinets that line her living room, wedged between Buddhist thangkas and primitive masks, the world's preeminent chronicler of Himalayan mountaineering sits upright in her chair. The American expat is 87 and astute as ever, with a slender build and soft skin. She smooths the folds in her tailored khaki skirt as she watches me fumble around in 46 identical wooden drawers.
"May comes before June," she instructs.
These files are her life's work, containing the largest catalog of man's athletic achievements at the edge of the troposphere. Never mind that Hawley hasn't climbed a mountain in her life. She has interviewed, documented, and, when necessary, investigated nearly every expedition coming through Kathmandu since the country opened its doors to outsiders in the mid 1950s. She's also acted as an archival historian, collecting trip reports from as far back as 1905.
Her files contain detailed information about some 80,000 ascents of roughly 340 Nepalese peaks, including those on the borders of China and India, all of which she can monitor from Kathmandu. Her information is trusted by newswires, scholars, the Nepal Mountaineering Association, this magazine, The American Alpine Journal, European climbing publications, and even a restaurateur: Kathmandu's Rum Doodle offers a free meal to every Everest summiter, but before any meat is thrown on the grill, the manager calls Hawley to confirm the feat.
Over the course of some 15,000 interviews, Hawley has not only recorded history; her research has also sparked and resolved controversies, and she's watched from the front row as the Nepal climbing scene has transformed from tiny cult to mainstream obsession. Though some mountaineers don't savor her interrogations—an expedition's "second summit," a few have called it—all serious alpinists admire her.
"If I need information about climbing 8,000-meter peaks, I go to her," says Italian climbing legend Reinhold Messner. "She has everything."
"She's the queen," says Beth Heller, director of the American Alpine Club Library. "There is nothing else like her records."
I finally locate the musty folder I've been looking for, two drawers down in a center cabinet: "Everest from Nepal; Lhotse; Spring '96." That would be the Into Thin Air year, of course. I'm surprised at how the forms and route diagrams and summit snapshots make the events of that season's infamous tragedy feel so immediate. Seeing Sandy Hill Pittman's large, jaunty handwriting on a document suggests better than anything I've heard how confident she was before heading up the crowded Southeast Ridge.