A journalistic mountain to climb

Week in the Life THE EVEREST WATCHERS - KATHMANDU

TO CLIMB Mount Everest is not enough; it is not even enough to climb Everest without oxygen. On the way down you must also meet Elizabeth Hawley and tell her all about it.

Liz Hawley, mountaineering correspondent for Reuters, American Alpine Journal, Himalayan Journal, Neue Zurcher Zeitung, Yama-kei, etc, arrived in Kathmandu in September 1960, "a refugee," she says, "from the Manhattan rat race". In New York she had worked as an editorial researcher at Time, Inc for Fortune magazine. In Kathmandu she picked up the Reuters string, "and I quickly realised", she says, "mountaineering was an important part of the job".

She has been doing the job ever since: for nearly 40 years she has kept a beady eye on the Himalayas: who's up, who's down, who's up there for good, what route they took, the names of their sherpas, everything. She meets them in Kathmandu before they set off; she sees them again, those that make it down, on their way back. Each time she debriefs them rigorously. She has been described as "the single most reliable source of comprehensive statistics on Himalayan climbing", and has been awarded the King Albert Medal of Merit for her work.

Liz, who is over 70, is assisted in Kathmandu by Heather MacDonald. Heather is an Everest guide - she has reached 28,200 feet (8,595 metres) - who has been taking teams up and down serious mountains around the world for 10 years. She also knows her way around the Internet. Liz has an aversion to computers, and although she once climbed the highest mountain in Vermont, has never ventured far into the Himalayas. "What for?" she retorts. "It's not my cup of tea." They make a formidable team.

And this is their busy time. Since Eric Simonson and his colleagues found George Mallory's body, summiteers have been peaking daily. There are 30 teams on Everest, 16 on Cho Oyu, others on Annapurna, Manaslu, Dhaulagiri and several other slopes. Between the two of them, Liz and Heather must see them all.

On Wednesday they meet over beef stew and rice in Liz's apartment in the middle of Kathmandu, to plot their campaign. Next morning finds them already at work: a Spanish team has just got in from Annapurna (26,540ft). The leader looks a lot like Sean Connery, down to the display of chest hair.

They meet in the lobby of a hotel. Liz, in a frock and with a smear of pink lipstick, perches on the edge of the couch, reading glasses at the end of her nose, and fires off the questions.

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DAY 3, Friday: More Spaniards, these ones on their way back from Manaslu (26,780ft). "A very nice group of men," says Heather. "It was their first 8,000-metre peak, and they acquitted themselves well. One look at them and you know they are not salty veterans of the Himalayas. There is too much hope and light in their eyes. They have not moved enough dead bodies yet."

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DAY 4, Saturday, and a collection of Colombians has returned from Cho Oyu (26,750ft). Over the years, Liz Hawley has honed her interview technique to razor sharpness. The Colombians elicit a demonstration.

Colombian climber: "One team member went home due to mental difficulties."

Liz Hawley: "What do you mean, mental difficulties? Was he not getting along with the other team members? Not climbing well?

CC: "Well, it was not his mountain."

LH: "For God's sake, whose mountain is it? Of course it is not his mountain, now why did he leave?" It transpires that the man was in mid-divorce and had a sudden urge to go home to his wife. Liz Hawley is satisfied.

Liz and Heather drive from one hotel to the next in Liz's blue Volkswagen Beetle, a well-known sight in Kathmandu. They pick up a lot of waves.

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DAY 5: A team of Norwegians is fresh in from Cho Oyu and Shisha Pangma (26,290ft). Heather is deputed to meet them at the Summit Hotel. "It's 10 in the morning and all four of them are on their first gin and tonic," she says. "I say to myself, this is going to be one hell of an interview."

They sit jawing for two hours. "We have many climbing friends in common, and all the old war stories are dragged out and given a dusting." Such as - on their way to the summit of Everest (on a previous trip) one of the Norwegians saw the arm of a good friend of Heather's sticking out of the snow. Another regales the company with tales of urinating at 8,000 metres - his foreskin froze to the can and he had to retreat to his sleeping bag to thaw.

Then there is the old chestnut, how high have you had sex? This is no contest, as Heather's boyfriend is a high-altitude man. "I had every one of those Norwegians beat, and they howled with laughter!"

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DAY 6: Two of the Himalayan elite come through town, Ed Viesturs and Veikka Gustafsson, on their way down from Manaslu and Dhaulagiri (26,790ft). Viesturs, who Heather knows from climbs they did together,is close to clinching one of climbing's headiest goals: he has scaled 12 of the 14 peaks in the world higher than 8,000 metres. If he reaches the remaining two he will be the first American to do so. "He looks like an Olympic athlete ... he is muscle, sinew and one big set of lungs," Heather comments. "He was born to be at altitude."

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DAY 7: an Everest summiteer wants his interview with Liz to be filmed. She tells him sternly that it is a waste of film but he insists. His fingers are purple with frostbite, his glasses are cracked; halfway through someone points out that his fly is undone.

But Heather, too, is starting to lose the plot: at the party in honour of Viesturs and Gustafsson she keeps rolling up to the American ambassador, Ralph Frank and addressing him as "Frank". Eventually Liz pulls her to one side. "What the hell is wrong with you, young lady?" she hisses. "That's Mr Frank to you!"

Peter Popham

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