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The History of the Himalayan Database

The Himalayan Database is the continuation of the work of Elizabeth Hawley, a longtime journalist based in Kathmandu, who dedicated most of her life to archiving expeditions in the Nepal Himalaya. Her detailed archives have been supplemented by information gathered from books, alpine journals and correspondence with Himalayan climbers.

After departing from her editorial job at Fortune magazine in New York in 1957, Elizabeth travelled extensively throughout Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and Asia and first visited Nepal in 1959. She became very interested in the Nepalese and their rapid emergence into the modern world after the restoration of the monarchy. She returned in 1960 to take up permanent residence in Kathmandu and soon began working as a correspondent for the Reuters News Agency.

One of her early assignments was to report on the 1963 American Everest expedition. This task required her to interview the team leader and members and to collect detailed records of the progress reports sent back to Kathmandu by the team.

She continued to interview expeditions that came to Nepal and over time, Hawley spoke to nearly all teams passing through Kathmandu, normally before and after their climbs. Thus, she gained a vast treasure of information on expedition successes, failures, accidents, and deaths. Her home office became lined with rows of wooden filing cabinets filled with the detailed, hand-written notes from her interviews.

In addition to her work with Reuters, Hawley worked extensively with Jimmy Roberts, founder of the original Mountain Travel trekking agency. Roberts, an avid mountaineer, was of great help to her in understanding the world of mountaineering. In 1982, she started submitting expedition reports through Michael Cheney of the Himalayan Club to the Himalayan Journal and the American Alpine Journal. After Cheney’s death in 1988, she assumed his contacts and continued submitting expedition reports to the HJ, the AAJ, and numerous other journals and magazines in Europe, North America, and Asia.

In 1991, American Richard Salisbury organized an expedition to Annapurna IV. When he met Elizabeth Hawley, he was very much impressed by her deep knowledge and notes of expeditions to Annapurna IV. He proposed the idea of transferring her records to a computer database and after an initial hesitation, Elizabeth Hawley agreed. The idea of the Himalayan Database was born and so was the long task of entering the accumulated handwritten notes into a computer. Neeta Karmacharya, a Nepali data-entry clerk, worked from 1993 to 1996 before Namita Shrestha took over and completed the data entry in 2004. The task proved challenging in terms of the amount of data to be entered as well as the effort required to cross-check the data with various published books and journals and the frequent need to contact climbers for clarification. From 1993 to 2004, Neeta and Namita spent more than 1000 hours per year on data entry, totaling about 11,000 hours.

The database design, computer support, and data verification effort by Salisbury has totaled more than 8000 hours during that same period. Thus, the total project time approached 20,000 hours. And this did not include the countless hours spent by Elizabeth Hawley collecting the original data during the previous 40 years!

After the initial data entry phase was completed, the American Alpine Club published the Himalayan Database in late 2004 in a booklet format with an enclosed CD-Rom containing the data and the software to access it.

The published data on the CD covered the period from 1905 through 2003. But the project did not end there. Updates to the data were published bi-annually from 2004 onwards and distributed at no charge through the project website, the allowing the Himalayan Database to remain current as new expeditions climbed in Nepal.

Elizabeth Hawley retired from her mountaineering endeavors in early 2016 and was succeeded by her long-time assistant Billi Bierling. Bierling began assisting Hawley in 2004 and gradually assumed more of the workload in meeting expedition teams in Kathmandu and following up on them via email contacts.

Bierling is now aided by a small team of other assistants: Jeevan Shrestha from Kathmandu who has been working with the project since 1997, Rodolphe Popier from Chamonix, France who started helping in 2012, and Tobias Pantel from Germany who joined in 2017.

In 2017 the Himalayan Database was reorganized into a non-profit corporation, called The Himalayan Database. This allowed for the distribution of the database via the website and is now offered at no charge in order to increase public participation in the project.