(1923 – 2018)
Elizabeth (Liz) Hawley was the sharp-tongued interrogator of Himalayan hopefuls, the keeper of Everest statistics, the deflator of egos. Until you had convinced this schoolmistress-like Torquemada you actually were on the summit of Everest, you hadn’t done it.
For more than 50 years, until her death at age 94, Elizabeth Hawley was a fixture of that most paradoxical of cities, Kathmandu. She arrived just as the Nepali capital was about to be swept by waves of westerners drawn by a sense of something exotic - be it mysticism, mountains or merely marijuana. Yet there was not a whiff of incense or the tinkle of temple bells about this most untypical newswire reporter. Rather, one imagines her being played on screen by that doyenne of acid spinsters, Dame Maggie Smith. And what a colourful cast ‘the Hawley Story’ would have – a darkly good-looking Russian playboy, princes of Nepal’s turbulent (and now former) royal family, expatriates of many stripes, and a succession of driven mountaineers, notably Mr. Everest himself, Sir Edmund Hillary. There would be unrequited romance, rumours of espionage and a car scene with Hawley’s trademark blue VW Beetle.
It seems an improbable story for a serious-minded, middle-class girl from the American Midwest. Elizabeth Anne Hawley was born in Chicago in 1923, her father an accountant and mother a labour-relations professional for the League of Women Voters. A good high school was followed by the University of Michigan, an honours degree in history, and then, in a demonstration of independence, a move to New York where she landed a job as an editorial researcher at Fortune magazine. It was 1946 and actually writing for Fortune was an exclusively male preserve.
Hawley had developed a keen interest in world politics at university and over the next decade travelled extensively, usually alone, first of all in post-war Europe and then ever-more adventurously. Looking back on these journeys, she crystallized them as her favourite verandahs – Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen) verandah in the Ngong hills outside Nairobi, the St George Hotel verandah in Beirut, where she met, among others, the double-agent Kim Philby, and the verandah in Khartoum where she sipped whisky with one of the few men she ever considered marrying, Mamoun El Amin. She had met the tall, sophisticated British-trained administrator on a Nile steamer and they enjoyed a whirlwind romance.
She reached Kathmandu in February 1959 by way of Baghdad, Tehran, Karachi and Delhi at the end of a two-year round-the-world tour, having quit Fortune after 11 years at the age of 34. The magazine’s barrier to any advance to writer status had remained insurmountable. It was only a short visit but Hawley was captivated by Kathmandu – then still very much in its unworldly pagoda-ed time warp – and in September 1960 she was back for good. She was accredited as a part-time correspondent, first for Time Inc and two years later for Reuters, but ‘journalist’ was only one of several hats that Hawley wore in her long sojourn in Nepal.
Hawley forged a life for herself almost as out of the ordinary as Kathmandu itself. Her reporter’s income was supplemented by work for a curious organization called the Knickerbocker Foundation, suspected of being a cover for the CIA, and later she was involved in the infant trekking industry. In the 1960s she was part of a small but colourful social circle with friends including royalty, prime ministers and characters such as Boris Lissanevitch, a Russian émigré whose parties at the Royal Hotel were as fabulous as his past with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Peter Aufschnaiter, who had partnered fellow Austrian Heinrich Harrer in his Seven Years in Tibet. As a journalist, she seems to have erred on the cautious side, though an entirely factual report of a terrorist bomb exploding by the royal palace gates in 1985 cost her official accreditation for three years.
Hawley’s worldwide reputation rests largely on her self-appointed role as chronicler of mountaineering in Nepal Himalaya, with particular emphasis on ascents and failures on Everest. Her recording of the detail of every expedition went way beyond what might be regarded as newsworthy and over the decades a vast archive accumulated. Thanks to American climber and computer analyst Richard Salisbury, in 2004 this valuable resource was published on disc by the American Alpine Club as The Himalayan Database: The Expedition Archives of Elizabeth Hawley. Continuing through to 2017, the digital Database records many thousands of expeditions by tens of thousands of climbers.
The data was extracted from expedition leaders and other climbers by a process that is better described as ‘interrogation’ than ‘interview’. An incoming team would barely have settled into their Kathmandu hotel when there would be a message that Miss Hawley had arrived in reception. The English mountaineer Stephen Venables, who summited Everest by a new route in 1988, said it was like being summoned to see the headmistress. And so it seemed to me, 10 years later, though there may have been a frostiness borne of the fact that I was also newspaper reporter trespassing on her territory.
The real grilling however came with the team’s return from the mountains, when Hawley would require convincing of whatever claims the climbers were making, be it a simple summit success, a new route or some other kind of record – oldest, youngest, fastest and so on, though Hawley generally regarded this last category of Everest ascents as mere stunts.
The killer questions usually concerned what one could see at the summit and what other peaks were in view. Summit plateaus and mountains with multiple peaks were treacherous ground for bluffers. Of the big 8000m peaks, Hawley found three in particular prone to false claims – Dhaulagiri, Shisha Pangma and Cho Oyu. Among claims she disbelieved was one by Alan Hinkes to have reached the actual summit of Cho Oyu, a mountain with a vast plateau top. Hinkes was fêted as the first Briton to have climbed all 14 of the world’s 8000 m peaks. He acknowledges that visibility was poor in bad weather on the Cho Oyu plateau but is sure he and Frenchman Benoit Chamoux got to the summit.
Hawley met nearly all the big players in half a century of Himalayan mountaineering. She regarded Sir Chris Bonington as the outstanding climber of the 1970s (the era of the Everest southwest face climbs) while the 1980s, she believed, belonged to Reinhold Messner, the Italian who climbed Everest solo and without bottled oxygen. But the mountaineer who captured her heart was Sir Edmund Hillary.
Nepal had become Hillary’s second home after his first ascent of Everest in 1953, expeditioning there and establishing the Himalayan Trust to assist the Sherpa people. Hawley was the Trust’s executive officer, managing the finances and using her contacts to smooth the way for new schools, health posts and other projects. In 1975 she had the awful task of personally breaking the news to Hillary that his wife and daughter Belinda had been killed in a light aircraft crash at Phaphlu, in the Khumbu.
Hawley’s Kathmandu home was a retreat for the bereft Hillary and the pair became close. Hillary’s remarriage was quite a blow and her remark to biographer Bernadette McDonald that she could not have “fulfilled the role of diplomat’s wife as beautifully as June (Mulgrew) has” contains a note of painful regret. Hawley denied rumours of an affair with Hillary, and also with several less credible candidates including Eric Shipton and Don Whillans.
Ironically, Hawley had no direct experience of climbing at all and never even trekked as far as Everest Base Camp. Even odder, given her work as a news reporter based in a single country, she never learned to speak Nepali. For all her contact with literally thousands of mountaineers, she remained something of an enigma to most, and would have remained so had McDonald, of the Banff Mountain Centre, Canada, not told her story in I’ll Call You in Kathmandu, published by The Mountaineers Books in 2005.
In 1990 Hawley became the honorary (but paid) consul for New Zealand, helping Nepalis with visa applications and Kiwis who were in difficulties. In 2003 she was at the centre of celebrations in Kathmandu to mark the 50th anniversary of the ascent of Everest - Sir Edmund and Lady Hillary stayed at her house - and the following year was presented with the Honorary Queen’s Service Medal for Public Services for her work with the Himalayan Trust and as an honorary consul.
Hawley continued filing mountaineering reports well into her 80s, though increasingly delegating work to devoted assistants. As ever she stuck to the facts rather than commentary or speculation. Accuracy was the basis of Hawley’s authority and mountaineers knew it. After the Russian ace Anatoli Boukreev (subsequently killed in avalanche on Annapurna I) reached only the secondary summit on Shisha Pagma he lamented to a friend: “I’ve got to go back – Elizabeth says I didn’t really climb it.”
Elizabeth Anne Hawley, journalist and Everest chronicler; born Chicago 9 November 1923; died Kathmandu 26 January 2018.
The legendary Himalayan historian Elizabeth Hawley passed away on January 26 at the age of 94 in Kathmandu, Nepal. Although her remarkable life encompassed several distinctive chapters, climbers knew her as the chronicler of Himalayan climbing in Nepal.
I first met Elizabeth at her apartment in Kathmandu, in 2004. I was hoping to write her biography, and I’d planned ten days of interviews with her. She was skeptical, and I was nervous. Almost everyone who knew her warned me that she had no patience for anyone who was unprepared, that she insisted on being called Miss Hawley, that she preferred men over women, and that she liked gifts. Although I couldn’t do much about my gender, I had done my research, and I came laden with whisky and chocolate.
She was smaller than I expected, thin, and slightly stooped. Still, her eyes were dark and clear and her gaze didn’t waver. I sensed in her an innate curiosity, a confident intelligence, a no-nonsense approach and a sharp tongue. And I was definitely aware of a good ‘looking-over’ on her part. Imagine my relief when, after just thirty minutes of conversation, she suggested that I call her Elizabeth.
There was much to admire in her. Born in Chicago in 1923, Elizabeth was a go-getter from an early age. When asked by a high-school teacher what she might want to be upon graduating, she replied that she had no idea, but she was sure that she didn’t want to be somebody’s secretary! She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1946, and departed with much more than an honors degree: she had developed a deep interest in American history and international affairs, social philosophy and the meaning of freedom.
She began working at Fortune magazine as a researcher and fact-checker, but her curiosity led her far beyond her New York apartment. By living frugally, she was able to launch a series of solo voyages that took her to the United Kingdom and to Central Europe, where she observed the ravages of the Second World War. She gambled in Monte Carlo and rode the Orient Express to Trieste, Italy. Gaining confidence, she ventured farther afield, meeting up with foreign correspondents in Yugoslavia, Finland, Georgia, Poland, Morocco, Sudan, Nepal and Japan. She was clever. She was curious. And she was alone. As such, she stood out, meeting an endless number of interesting and sometimes powerful people. Her weekly letters to her mother documented her travels, leaving a fascinating trail of wonder and discovery.
She arrived in Kathmandu in 1959, hoping to stay for a couple of weeks. It didn’t work out that way. In her words, “I didn’t plan to stay. I just didn’t leave.” For Elizabeth, Nepal felt remote, exotic, less affected by the rest of the world. It was also on the cusp of its very first general election. In her words, it was “a place where you can see what the world is becoming.” Elizabeth wanted to be part of that experience.
She worked at various jobs, reporting for Reuters and organizing trips for an emerging adventure travel company. She served as New Zealand’s Honorary Consul in Nepal, and she played a key role in the New Zealand Himalayan Trust. Some of her first stories as a journalist were about climbing expeditions in Nepal, including the 1963 American Mt. Everest Expedition, which, through some clever skullduggery, she managed to scoop. Although she socialized regularly with royalty and the most powerful politicians in Nepal, it was climbers, and their exciting and dangerous expeditions to the highest mountains on earth, who captured her imagination.
She became a fixture in Kathmandu as she motored around town in her baby blue Volkswagen Beetle, tracking down expedition leaders in order to learn of their plans and to document what they did or didn’t climb. She became skilled at sleuthing fact from fiction, and she rarely erred. Climbers trembled in fear of this alpine detective’s prodding questions. “I don’t mean to frighten people,” she said, but then she added that a little fear might help in ferreting out the facts. She wrangled the biggest egos in Himalayan climbing into submission, and many of them became her dearest friends.
Anyone who knew Elizabeth retains vivid memories of her unique character. Sir Edmund Hillary once described her as “a bit of a terror.” But he freely admitted that her friendship was gold standard—one that lasted a lifetime. Reinhold Messner called her a “first-class journalist.” Kurt Diemberger described her as a “living archive”. Together with Richard Salisbury, Elizabeth transformed her vast archive of climbing data into the Himalayan Database, which remains one of the most comprehensive databases of mountaineering history in the world and a priceless resource for climbing historians.
As the numbers of expeditions increased in Nepal, it eventually became clear that Elizabeth could no longer handle all of the work without help. Respected historians and climbers came to help her chronicle the climbs and document the facts. One of those was Billi Bierling, from Germany. Over the years, their professional relationship grew into a deep friendship. In Billi’s words, upon learning of her passing: “I cannot put it into words how much this amazing woman has meant to me, how much she has taught me and how much I will miss her in my life.”
My lingering memory of Elizabeth was of her standing at the top of her stairs with a slightly lopsided smile, waving good-bye, after our first intense ten days of getting to know each other. We had laughed and cried, debated dates of climbs and details of her love life, searched through dusty files, and drank a lot of tea.
Elizabeth Hawley: a pillar of society in Kathmandu, an icon in the mountaineering community, a fiercely independent woman, and a dear friend to many. She is survived by her nephew, Michael Hawley Leonard, his wife, Meg Leonard and their children, Molly Elizabeth Leonard and Matthew Leonard.
(1935 - 2017)
Dr. Pravin Shah
We were young and boisterous. After a day of hard trekking in the local hills of the Western Ghats, we slept in the veranda of a local school. A girl amidst us started singing ghazals - a form of Urdu poetry. Dr Pravin Shah sat down across her, crossed his legs and relaxed. More than being interested in singing or poetry, he had a habit of sitting down, taking ‘his position’, and patiently observing what was happening, unmindful of the duration. After a while, the girl sang a famous song which implied, ‘My heart is in ecstasy. Oh, Masiha, tell me what your opinion about this condition is’. She stopped and explained, “Masiha means doctor, Pravin”. My friend, sleeping next to me nudged and winked at me - hinting at the new developments!
From the next morning, Pravin acquired the nickname, Masiha - the doctor who guides one in life. This nickname lived on in our trekkers’ circle right until his passing away on 15 November 2017.
He was a wise doctor and a great companion. As a senior homeopath, it was his job to sympathetically listen to the rants of his patients. This training had made him a good listener. For his friends, he was the ‘go-to’ man for all problems. While trekking, he would walk 50 m behind the group. At whatever speed one walked, he would still be 50 m behind!
In the 1970s, trekking groups to the local hills used to be large. The club we were associated with was very popular and attracted almost 50 to 100 trekkers every weekend. Soon, we started feeling suffocated. That’s when three of us decided to branch out and go on treks in smaller groups. We drew up plans for longer outings so that we could cover more ground. In one year, we planned almost 30 trips that lasted for three days each on weekends. Masiha excused himself from his practice every Friday for the love of the mountains.
Then came the treks to the Himalaya. Over the next two decades, we completed several enjoyable treks to different ranges. Masiha was not a trained mountaineer but was always ready to join us on camping trips, light treks or just reading trips in the high hills. He was an avid reader of the Himalayan Journal and mountain literature. He initiated us into yoga and treated us lifelong with his medicines.
I suffered a serious hip dislocation in 1974, and the prognosis was that I might have to be operated on - a serious proposition as the technique for hip replacement was not as advanced as it is today. I consulted an orthopaedic doctor, who gave me hope. He suggested that if I were to remain on crutches for two years, there were chances for the hip to recover.
Then, Dr. Pravin Shah took over - he supervised the treatment prescribed by this doctor and gave me homeopathic medicines. He monitored me for over two years until I fully recovered from what allopaths had declared to be a difficult case. When I was confined to bed in plaster and completely immobile, Pravin came over every other day for six weeks, from the suburbs, to have lunch with me and to cheer me up. I owe the last 30 years of my climbing and trekking to him.
Very often, we would volunteer to take groups of young students on a day’s trek to nearby places. These excursions had to be time-bound, as in the days prior to the invention of cell-phones anxious parents would be waiting at the railway station eagerly awaiting the arrival of their wards. On one such outing during the monsoons, we decided to take a dip in a river en route. Pravin, in his usual style, took up ‘his position’ in the river talking to the youngsters. Despite the cajoling, he was unwilling to budge quickly. As a result, we missed the last bus and had a harrowing time reaching the station for the train. On reaching Mumbai, Pravin patiently explained to the worried parents the reason for the delay. Only he could talk to the parents, convince them that everything was okay, and send them back in good cheer!
When I started photographing local mountains for my book, Masiha always accompanied me. We would drive deep into valleys to find suitable locations. He was always obliging when it came to pose for photographs, patiently positioning himself at different angles, even wearing different coloured jackets if required. It became so much of a habit that no sooner would I take my camera out, he would ask “Where should I stand?” He has now moved onto a modelling assignment on a higher plane and I will sorely miss my muse.
His wife Sarla, passed away a year before him. He leaves behind a son, a daughter and grandchildren.
Rest in peace, my friend, my Masiha.
I first met Christchurch mountaineer Norman Hardie in May 1983 outside my favourite old bookshop in New Regent Street. At the time I was Field Operations Officer for the New Zealand Antarctic Research Program so I introduced myself and asked Norman if he fancied a five month stint as leader of Scott Base. I knew that Norman had been to Antarctica before as a survival instructor in the early 1960s and, in 1967, as a surveyor with Sir Edmund Hillary’s Norman Hardie New Zealand expedition that went on to make the first ascent of the elegant Mt Herschel in North Victoria Land.
I felt sure that Norman’s mana as an internationally recognized mountaineer and his reputation as a skilled, no-nonsense civil engineer would be the perfect skill-set to take charge of not only the Scott Base staff but to solve the complex logistic puzzle that is New Zealand’s summer science programme. Sure enough, a few weeks later, Norman sat beside me to start his indoctrination into how some 300 people would meld together into a cohesive team. A friendship started here at my desk and carried on during that summer at Scott Base has endured and deepened over the years.
Norman David Hardie was born in Timaru on 28 December 1924, one of three sons and five daughters of George and Mabel Hardie. He was educated at Timaru Boys’ High School then at The University of Otago and The University of Canterbury, graduating with BE in Civil Engineering. His first job, in 1948, was with the Ministry of works at Lake Pukaki. In 1950 he moved to the Wellington Hydro office. By 1951 Norman was in London and for the next four years he worked for a consulting engineering company on structural and water scheme designs. While there, in 1951, Norman married University of Canterbury friend Enid Hurst, daughter of Colonel H.C. Hurst.
After his first expedition to Nepal in 1954 Norman returned to Christ church to work for EGS Powell as a consulting engineer. From 1958 to 1963 Norman was a partner in Stock & Hardie consulting engineers, then Hardie & Anderson, structural engineering consultants (1963- 83). Norman was a site engineer for Baigent’s timber mill (1984-85) before retiring to work as a private consultant working from homes in Halswell and Cashmere.
Norman was the Chairman of the Canterbury Branch of the Institution of Engineers (1969-71) and a Director of Farrier Waimak Ltd., (1971-84) and was made a Distinguished Fellow of the Institution of Professional Engineers.
Norman’s mountain life started during the late 1930s as a government deer culler mainly in the Canterbury high country, work he continued during his years at university. On one hunting venture, after cycling from Timaru to Bealey, he shot four deer in the Waimakariri river basin. Tired, he broke into the Cora Lyn farmhouse to sleep the night, leaving a note about his actions upon leaving in the morning. Twenty- four years later, he and Enid bought that house, owning it for 22 happy years.
During his final university years Norman’s interest in hunting led him to join the Canterbury University Tramping Club and this soon fostered a desire to take up mountaineering. Climbs at the head of the Rakaia followed in 1946, as did ventures into the Landsborough river catchment, a region that held a life-long fascination where he completed numerous new routes on peaks such as Mts Decken, Strauchon, Fettes and Elliot. During Norman’s time at university he fostered enduring friendships with climbers Jim McFarlane, Bill Beaven, Bill Packard and Earle Riddiford who all went on to join the New Zealand Alpine Club. As fresh graduates bound for employment at the end of the 1947 summer, Bill Beaven, Earle, Jim and Norman completed the first ascent of the still-rarely climbed South ridge of Sefton, approaching it from Fyfe pass, the Landsborough and Harper’s rock.
Based at Pukaki in 1948 as an engineer Norman was awakened one night by Bill Beaven to tell him he was needed to help rescue Ruth Adams who lay badly injured close to the summit of La Perouse. Adams had fallen during a climb with Ed Hillary and guides Mick Sullivan and Harry Ayres. Ruth’s subsequent lower down the west ridge of La Perouse and epic stretcher-carry down the Cook river to Fox has entered New Zealand mountain folklore, with Norman’s role being written up in his autobiography On my Own Two Feet (2006). Norman told me in recent years that he felt the rescue became a pivotal point in New Zealand mountaineering whereby amateur climbers like Ed Hillary who had always climbed with a guide saw what other amateur climbers were capable of; in turn, the amateurs learning much from the professionals. The bushmen who cut the track up the Cook river taught much also. Norman and his mates realized that the time was right for them to tackle bigger objectives, with luck overseas. As one, their dreams turned to climbing in the Himalaya.
Engineering work and marriage in London followed, interspersed with climbs in the European Alps. While in England he befriended famous English climbers Eric Shipton, Bill Tilman, Charles Evans and John Hunt. Lacking Himalayan expedition experience, his application to join John Hunt’s 1953 Everest team was turned down. However, as a mountaineer based in London, he was asked by John Hunt to volunteer his time and expertise to co-facilitate the ground work for the 1953 Everest expedition that was sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society.
Norman finally got his break to climb in the Nepal Himalaya by sailing out to Bombay to join the 1954 New Zealand Alpine Club Barun valley expedition led by Ed Hillary. Some 20 new climbs were completed in what is now the Makalu-Barun National Park, including the 7000 m plum Baruntse. I always envied Norman’s first ascent of Pethangtse, an elegant outlier of Lhotse that straddles the Nepal-Tibet border. He used the summit as a survey station as part of his expedition mapping programme. Charles Evans was invited on this highly mobile Kiwi trip, in part as repayment for New Zealanders being invited on British expeditions starting with Dan Bryant in 1935.
Norman’s friendship with Charles Evans deepened and this led to him being asked to be deputy leader of the 1955 British expedition to Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain. Norman helped to refine the oxygen equipment for this venture that was ostensibly a reconnaissance though it quickly turned into a full-blown assault on the summit. Joe Brown and George Band reached the summit first with Norman and Tony Streather summiting the following day; all four climbers avoided treading on the actual summit in deference to local beliefs. I always liked Norman’s tale from base camp of Evans asking him to take two of the climbers who eventually stood on the summit aside, to teach them how to use crampons.
After the Kangchenjunga climb Norman and some Sherpas set out to walk all the way to the Khumbu where he met Enid. This journey forms the basis of Norman’s first book In Highest Nepal (1957) that was later translated into German and Japanese. Following Norman’s participation in Ed Hillary’s 1960-61 Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering (Silver hut) Expedition that wintered under Ama Dablam, the Khumbu became central to Norman’s life for several decades. In 1963 he developed and constructed an improved water supply from a spring above Khumjung village. He played a key role in the functioning of the Himalayan Trust, remaining on its board from 1966-88. During this period Norman and Enid made 14 visits to Nepal for school building, national park work and reforestation programmes. In 1986, sponsored by the New Zealand Government, Norman went to the Khumbu to report on the state of their forests and to make recommendations for their future care, which eventuated in the establishment of the Sagarmatha National Park.
Norman served for 21 years on various New Zealand Alpine Club committees and was NZAC President from 1973-75. He also served on the Arthur’s Pass National Park Board from 1967-79 and on the Craigieburn Forest Park Committee 1980-87, being Chairman for two years. He was a member of the Christchurch Civic Trust Board 1988- 92 and The College House Board 1971-97. In 1992, Norman was awarded the Queen’s Service Order for services to mountaineering and conservation. He was an Honorary Life Member of The Alpine Club (UK), The Himalayan Club, the New Zealand Antarctic Society and the New Zealand Alpine Club.
Norman retained a deep interest in engineering and mountaineering throughout his life, attending and giving lectures and offering advice to younger climbers who found their way to his door. He helped innumerable authors get Nepalese facts straight as well as offering editorial advice to draft manuscripts and journal articles. Many of New Zealand’s top climbers owe a debt of gratitude to Norman’s mentoring and instruction during their formative years.
While living in a semi-rural property in Halswell, Norman and his ‘Last of the summer wine’ enthusiasts bottled their own wine. It’s time to raise a glass to Norman Hardie, one of New Zealand’s outstanding mountaineers.
Norman is survived by his wife Enid and daughters Sarah Jane Hardie and Ruth Wells and grandchildren Henry, Tamar and Roslyn Wells and David Turton Norman David Hardie: Born 28 December 1924 - Died 30 October 2017.
Norman Hardie was an Hon Member and continued to correspond with us at The Himalayan Club. He sent several stories on Sherpas to the Sherpa Project including stories about Sherpa Pasang Dawa Lama and we are eternally grateful for that. He was also an avid reader of the Himalayan Journal and always encouraged us.
He will be missed.
(1950 - 2018)
There wasn’t ever an easier path for him to take - for our father Rajinder Sethi loved the road less or never travelled! From almost climbing Mount Everest to encountering the indigenous people of Andaman and Nicobar Islands; from paying obeisance at various popular and lesser known temples and shrines in Himachal Pradesh and Garhwal to wandering the deserts of Ladakh - our father experienced it all. His unquenchable thirst for travel took him to far corners of the world, from Greenland to Patagonia, Petra to the mighty Iguassu Falls, and finally to North Pole during the summer of 2016.
He lived to tell his traveller tales of being to 117 countries across the globe.
Our father served the Government of India as a senior federal officer. He was a member of the elite Indian Administrative Service for over 37 years before retiring in 2010. He was associated with the Ministry of Home affairs. Post retirement, Dad enjoyed spending his time reading, writing - he penned six books on a variety of subjects from history, mythology and travel, cataloguing his vast classic film and music collection, and spending time playing chess and ludo with his grand kids. However, travel was always his first love. While on a trip to Argentina, we realized we never needed guides; our father would befriend the cab driver or the waiter to hear all the interesting and untold local tales. Our father would ask a lot of questions, which we never really understood, but now we do. Of course in reciprocation, the cab driver would learn a thing or two about Mr K.L Saigal and Don Williams.
What have we learnt from our father ? We can say without reservation that he has clearly taught us the difference being travelling and holidaying.
“Travel far and wide and live life to the fullest” - words we will always abide by! We are confident he is trekking to higher peaks wherever he is!
Rajinder Sethi was a tireless administrator of the Himalayan Club FaceBook page – his stories and posts inspired many a member and so his presence is sorely missed.
(1918 - 2018)
We had gathered around a warm campfire. The only person, who spoke till the fire turned into embers, was Vasant Desai. He was a great story teller; stories from his vast experiences in life, of varied contacts, and tales from his medical practice. Later in life, he talked about scriptures and spirituality. Many lives were influenced by him.
When in his mid-forties, he was diagnosed with a small heart problem. Doctors advised him to shun all forms of physical activities. VND, as we called him, told himself, “OMG, I have not enjoyed the Himalaya yet!” So, he started walking, getting fit and prepared to trek with a vengeance. He was engaged full time in his medical practice at that time, but he was determined to enjoy nature. When the family was worried, he almost went on a strike, “if I cannot go to the Himalaya, then I do not want to go to my consulting rooms too - I find these more suffocating!”
Dr Vasant N. Desai
It was then that I met him, and we started trekking in the local hills, the Sahyadris (Western Ghats). He was a great joy to trek with. He would talk to villagers in the local language and thus draw us to a different life. He accompanied us as doctor on many expeditions to the Himalaya. Once, we were tent-bound in a major snow storm for couple of days. We would gather in a large tent where VND held darbar. Not a minute passed by without laughter or stories. Our porters said that the storm inside the tent was certainly greater than the one outside! There were many experiences that we shared with this doctor. Trapped in a forest rest house in Kashmir amidst heavy rains, he regaled not only us but other trapped tourists as well. French airhostesses sang gentle French songs; a Belgian musician strummed his guitar and an American press reporter, who could not sing anything except ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’, was well matched with VND singing about Indian Saints!
We organized two special treks for the families, one in Garhwal (1984) and the other in Kinnaur (1986). While VND’s grandson was the youngest member at six, he himself was the oldest, at 66. We climbed peaks while VND managed the children enjoying with our staff and feeding them a continuous variety of food and snacks. On the latter trip, we were trapped in a snow storm and had to undertake a long walk to reach safety. VND with his grandsons sang and everyone joined in chorus. Kilometres flew past.
VND was a General Practitioner (GP) by profession. By his own admission, he never made much money; in fact, he didn’t even want to make money. He said, “A poor patient comes to me in pain or sickness. I can see that he is suffering physically as well as economically. I have medical training and God’s blessings to help him. So how can I charge him?” In fact, in many cases he would give the patient money to go and buy medicines! His interactions with his patients, during his medical practice were fascinating and could fill many pages.
VND was also associated with several charitable institutions where he worked during free time. Later, he gave up his medical practice and turned towards a spiritual life. He wanted to renounce the world, but a wise guru advised him that with his experiences and family, he must stay with them and pass on his wisdom to them and to society. How lucky we were for his guru’s sound guidance. His had a pragmatic approach to religion. At Gangotri, where we went for an expedition with French climbers, he visited several ashrams but was not enamoured by any. At the same time, he would introduce us to the genuine ‘saints’ he had met there.
On 7th June 2018, he completed 100 years of life. I had proposed to organise a gathering to celebrate this milestone but VND rejected the suggestion as he made this day his own, for an internal celebration. We insisted on meeting him later in July and he welcomed us. Geeta and I spent a long time with him. Even at his age, he was in full control of his faculties and particularly that day, talked for long. For the last few days, he had been unable to eat. With his medical training and wisdom, he said, “The body is closing down and now death is the only solution”. Three days later, on 29th July 2018, he passed away leaving behind a rich legacy that has touched and changed many of our lives.
These experiences are best suited to be enjoyed talking around a campfire or while being trapped in a tent during a storm. Or now in heaven.