Keeper of the Mountains: The Elizabeth Hawley Story

By Bernadette McDonald; Foreword by Sir Edmund Hillary

I must have heard about Elizabeth Hawley first while researching Nepal. I love books about climbing. While this isn’t exactly a “climbing” book per se, Keeper of the Mountains is the biography of a woman who chronicled the history of climbing in Nepal. Ms. Hawley never set foot in Everest Base Camp after living in Kathmandu for forty years, much less climbed a Himalayan peak. Of course, you don’t need to be a serious climber to have a genuine reverence for the mountains…

“I came to Nepal. I never planned to stay. I just never left.” –Elizabeth Hawley

McDonald chronicles Elizabeth’s curious life. Hawley was born in 1923 to a well-educated and bookish family. She traveled extensively through Europe as a young woman, while always making connections with influential people and working for multiple organizations. In 1957 Elizabeth set out on an around-the-world journey. The biography discusses some remarkable world history of the time as Elizabeth visited and did some work in countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, etc. These adventures give the reader insight into the personality of the apparently enigmatic Hawley.

Ms. Hawley landed in Nepal in 1959, toward the end of her two-year world trip. McDonald discusses how Elizabeth became established with the royals and political elite of Nepal at the time (and subsequently lived through Nepal’s often tumultuous history for the next forty years).


Elizabeth also started meeting climbers in the early 60s. At this time, many Himalayan peaks had still not been climbed. Although Hawley claims to be passionate about nothing, her keenness for the climbing world becomes apparent (at least in the biography, whereas people who have met her may disagree).

The second half of the biography discusses more particulars about the climbs that Elizabeth chronicled. McDonald interviews many climbers regarding their interactions with Hawley. Elizabeth would request photographic evidence and scrupulous route detail, especially for more challenging climbs. Elizabeth frequently found herself in the midst of controversy, especially if she doubted a climber’s claims.

McDonald discusses that Elizabeth had few friends, but the majority seemed to be climbers such as Sir Edmund Hillary and Reinhold Messner. Many climbers (and non-climbers) found Hawley sharp-tongued and downright rude, while others appreciated her contributions to the climbing world and her meticulous record keeping.

At an international symposium for women who had summited Everest, Hawley was asked to speak due to her knowledge of climbing. McDonald writes, “Using example after example, she pointed out that women were not opening new routes or advancing the standards set by men…Her standards were high for men—and for women.” web-hawley-2v2-gettyMs. Hawley never learned the Nepali language, did not do her own grocery shopping or cooking, and was generally detached from the “real world” of Nepal. McDonald writes that Elizabeth was, however, frustrated when climbers did not know their staff Sherpa’s full names and, “she found that only a few climbers were concerned about these details; most just didn’t care about the Sherpas.” Many criticized her for not understanding mountaineering, as she had never climbed (and rarely even trekked in Nepal).

“But most within the mountaineering community agreed that she was a powerful individual. The facts and statistics she gathered might be of little importance to most people in the world, but they were important to mountaineers…”

Elizabeth Hawley seemed to live in her own Nepal—both connected to famous climbers and Nepali royals, but unaware of “regular” life outside her door. McDonald’s writing is uncannily how I would expect Hawley’s writing to be—in chronological order, exceedingly detailed, and not overly emotional. That said, Keeper of the Mountains is a truly well crafted story about an extraordinarily interesting woman.


Guest Contributor

Sarah Sentz loves to get her shoes muddy. She writes more about being a registered nurse, strange adventures to faraway lands, and other random stories on her blog: