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The 'Sherlock Holmes' of Himalayan mountaineering

Posted: 03 Jun 2014 11:18 PM PDT

KATHMANDU: When a deadly avalanche hit Mount Everest last April, reporters made a beeline for 90-year-old Elizabeth Hawley, the woman Edmund Hillary once called "the Sherlock Holmes of the mountaineering world".

The ice avalanche struck a group of Nepalese guides early on April 18. By 1 pm, nine people had been killed and the toll would eventually rise to 16, making it the worst disaster in the mountain's history.

More than 50 years after the Kathmandu-based mountaineering expert began chronicling the triumphs and tragedies on the roof of the world, recording deaths remains a struggle.

"It's the hardest part...it's just very sad", Hawley told AFP, as she recalled a busy day spent fielding calls from journalists and going through drawers containing her life's work - folders filled with thousands of pages charting every significant Himalayan ascent.

Elizabeth Ann Hawley was born on 9 November 1923 to a Chicago-based chartered accountant and a suffragist.

She attended university in Michigan and promptly moved to Manhattan after graduation in 1946, landing a job as a researcher with Fortune magazine.

Soon, she was bitten by the travel bug.

"I was mostly researching and writing profiles of businessmen or political figures. And I got bored," she said.

She saved money for the next few years, "eating only sandwiches and ice cream for lunch" and took off to see the world in 1957.

Her travels took her through France, Germany, the former Yugoslavia, and eventually to India, where the Time bureau chief asked if she would report for the magazine while visiting Nepal, a Hindu kingdom which had only recently opened its gates to foreign visitors.

By then, she was running out of money and the offer was too tempting to refuse. She arrived in Kathmandu in February 1959, just in time for the country's first general elections.

"I knew then that this place was going to change enormously and that intrigued me," she said. 

Mountaineering milestones

She landed her first major scoop during the 1963 US expedition of Everest when the American military attache offered her access to secret radio communication between Everest base camp and the embassy, enabling her to be the first to file when they reached the summit.

She soon built a reputation as one of the most authoritative voices on Himalayan mountaineering, known for ferreting out the truth from climbers claiming to set new records.

"I guess I am quite forceful, I come to the point and if someone thinks they can evade my questions, they can think again."

When 13-year-old Indian schoolgirl Malavath Poorna made a bid to become the world's youngest female to climb Everest last month, it was Hawley's Himalayan Database which certified her summit, effectively adding the teenager's name to the record books.

Hawley's archives are considered so thorough that managers of Kathmandu's Rum Doodle restaurant, which offers free food to Everest summiteers, first call her to confirm their feat before serving up any meals.

As a journalist, she covered a string of milestones, from the first Everest summit by a woman - Japan's Junko Tabei in 1975 - to the first solo ascent five years later by Reinhold Messner, who remains a close friend. 

In fact, had it not been for Hawley, the Italian mountaineering legend may not have become the first man to scale Everest alone.

Japanese adventurer Naomi Uemura, who had already completed a record-making expedition to the North Pole, had his eyes set on the world's highest peak, Hawley said.

"Messner had always planned to do it but not for a few years. Then I heard about this Japanese climber wanting to summit on his own and when I told Messner about it, he moved his plans forward." 

Witness to change

Today, the diminutive Hawley still drives around Kathmandu in her sky-blue 1965 VW Beetle to meet climbers before and after their ascents, but much else has changed in the mountaineering world.

Hawley began reporting during the age of national expeditions, then covered the era of solo ascents, and now views the surge of commercial climbing outfits with wariness.

"I have known cases where sherpas have had to clip and unclip foreign clients from ropes because they don't even know how to do that. What are they even doing up there?" she said.

The April 18 avalanche spurred a debate over the risks undertaken by sherpas on behalf of foreign clients and eventually led to a virtual shutdown of Everest, with hundreds of guides reluctant to climb this season.

Hawley, who has spent decades working with the Himalayan Trust, a sherpa-focused aid organisation set up by Edmund Hillary in 1960, said the deaths of so many guides was "tremendously demoralising" for the community.

But she said the shutdown was unlikely to have a permanent impact on Nepal's mountaineering industry.

"Climbers will forget. They will keep coming because it's Everest after all...it makes them famous and important when they go back home", she said.

In the meantime, Hawley has achieved her own fame - including a biography, a documentary, and even a Himalayan peak named after her, which she has no plans to visit.

"No thank you, I don't like trekking, I prefer to sleep in a comfortable bed and eat hot meals," she said.

"I have never ever wanted to climb a mountain." -AFP

International academic outcry over detained China scholars

Posted: 03 Jun 2014 11:10 PM PDT

BEIJING: Hundreds of international academics called Wednesday for the release of scholars and lawyers detained in China ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

China strictly limits public discussion of the June 4, 1989 suppression of political reform protests, when soldiers killed hundreds of civilians, by some estimates more than 1000.

Authorities have detained dozens - including lawyers, journalists, artists and relatives of those killed in the crackdown - ahead of this year's anniversary, according to rights groups and associates.

Around 80 academics from countries including the US, France, Britain, Australia and Germany published an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping calling for the release of five people detained last month after they attended a private seminar discussing the crackdown.

The five - detained on charges of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" - include prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, as well as academics.

Several of Pu's associates have been taken into custody in recent weeks - suggesting that prosecutors are preparing a criminal case against the lawyer, who won plaudits for representing victims of labour camps.

"It is obvious that none of the above-mentioned citizens has committed a criminal offence. Their detention is an injustice," said the letter, signed by a host of prominent China scholars and verified as authentic by AFP.

"We therefore ask you respectfully to correct this mistake, and to free unconditionally the citizens who have been wrongfully detained," it added.

In separate letter released online and addressed to "Chinese citizens," some 160 Japanese, Taiwanese and South Korean academics and writers said they were "deeply worried" about those detained.

"They have carried out rational and peaceful intellectual activities to cure the mental scars Chinese society received after the unfortunate incident in 1989," it said.

"We wish that their bodies and lives will not be under threat."

The US, EU and the United Nations human rights chief have also called for those detained in the run-up to the anniversary to be released. -AFP

New India parliament adjourns after minister death

Posted: 03 Jun 2014 11:03 PM PDT

NEW DELHI: The first session of India's newly elected parliament lasted only minutes Wednesday as lawmakers immediately adjourned in a mark of respect for a government minister who died in a car crash.

The process of swearing-in the 543 members of the Lok Sabha who won their seats in India's five-week general election was supposed to have begun on Wednesday morning.

However, it has been pushed back to Thursday as members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attend Gopinath Munde's funeral.

Munde was killed on Tuesday morning in an accident in New Delhi, barely a week after taking up his post as rural affairs minister in new Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing cabinet.

Interim speaker Kamal Nath read a brief tribute to Munde before members then observed a two-minute silence.

"The house stands adjourned to meet tomorrow on June 5 at 11:00 am," Nath then said.

In brief comments before he entered parliament, Modi promised to "fulfil the dreams" of the people of India who have given his party the first parliamentary majority for 30 years.

"I assure the people of this country that in the temple of democracy we will work hard to fulfil the dreams and aspirations of the common man in India," said Modi.

It is the first time Modi has been elected to parliament, as the representative of the holy city of Varanasi.

The oath-taking process is expected to last until Friday afternoon when a vote will be held to elect a new speaker of the lower house, with veteran BJP representative Sumitra Mahajan seen as the frontrunner.

President Pranab Mukherjee is expected to address a combined session of the two houses of parliament on Monday.

Parliament is expected to be adjourned on June 11 for several weeks as the Modi government draws up a new budget. -AFP

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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