A couple of weekends ago, I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: install the Himalayan Database on my computer and play around with it.
The Himalayan Database is a comprehensive record of all expeditions to peaks in Nepal over 7,000m since 1905. It is based on the archive of the American journalist Elizabeth Hawley, who died in January at the age of 94.
Miss Hawley moved to Kathmandu in 1959 as a reporter for Reuters and remained there for the rest of her life (I wouldn’t normally use the title ‘Miss’, but I understand that’s what she preferred). She became obsessed with cataloguing the details of mountaineering expeditions, including the names of climbers and their Sherpas; the names, heights and locations of peaks; and details of the climb, such as where people camped and the precise time that they reached the summit.
Miss Hawley would meet and interview climbers herself. She continued to do this into her 90s, but as more people came to Nepal to climb, she began to take on staff and helpers, both local and international. One of these, the German journalist and climber Billi Bierling, has pledged to continue the legacy of Miss Hawley after her death by taking on the management of her archives. Another one, American IT consultant Richard Salisbury, has been managing her records since they went digital, and continues to run the database.
In physical form the Himalayan Database started life as a CD, published by the American Alpine Club in 2004 and priced at $70. Since it’s an ongoing record of expeditions, it was necessary to update the CD every six months, hence the high cost. It still does need to be updated every six months, but it can now be downloaded online. The Himalayan Database is now a non-profit organisation, and since November last year, the database has been available to download free.
The fact that it needs to be downloaded and installed will be off-putting to many people, and I must admit it was to me as well, but the other day I finally got around to it.
There are still some snags. It’s only available on Windows. If you’re a Mac user, then you have to install it on top of another application called Wine, which enables you to run Windows applications on a Mac. If you’re a Linux user like me (a.k.a. a weirdo), it’s even more complicated. Wine is available for Linux, but there were no instructions, so I didn’t bother. Instead, I pulled out my work laptop, which runs Windows, and installed it there.
Installing it isn’t difficult. You just download a zip file, copy the files into a new folder on your computer, and click on the Himal 2.0 file, but that’s just the start. The interface isn’t that intuitive – it opens up on a blank screen with some bog-standard Windows menus – but if you’re prepared to poke around inside, there’s an absolute treasure trove of information.
From what I can see, there seem to be four basic tables of data:
- Members (i.e. climbers)
- References (i.e. books, magazine articles, blog posts, etc.)
To see what I could find in each one, I did what anyone in my situation would do: had a look to see what information they had about me.
I’m in the process of re-editing the diary of my 2011 Manaslu expedition, so I decided to go to the expeditions data and look up what they had on that particular expedition.
I went to the Search menu and selected Find Expeditions. I was confronted with a somewhat daunting search interface with two separate tabs and 73 different fields for entering your search criteria. It was like somebody had taken Google’s advanced search screen to a party and it had got a bit drunk.
I didn’t really know where to start. You had to enter a Peak ID instead of a peak name. I had no idea what the peak ID for Manaslu was (later I discovered that it was ‘MANA’), but there was a field for Leadership, so I entered the name ‘crampton’. This took me to another screen listing all of the expeditions Phil Crampton had led in Nepal, from where I was able to select our 2011 Manaslu expedition.
I was astonished by what came up.
It was a screen with six tabs, containing all the information you could ever want to know about the expedition (apart from our musical tastes, which are private). The expedition record included the date, name, leader, the route, the names and nationalities of all the team members, including Sherpas, and the exact times we arrived on the summit. It listed the locations of our camps, and there was even a link to one of my blog posts.
The amount of detail was incredible. Most interesting to me was the tab marked Route Notes. This contained a 350-word report outlining the details of our ascent. Having edited my diary recently, I can vouch for its accuracy. It was written in a brusque, bare-bones style. It was no surprise to me that Miss Hawley didn’t put any jokes in her report (in fact, this particular report was probably written by Billi Bierling, who was on Manaslu climbing with Himex at the time).
Here’s a short extract:
The expedition sent five members and five Sherpas to the summit on 5 October, as follows:
Cartwright, Masek and Morrell with Kami Nuru, Chhedar and Chhongba, left C4 for the top at 7:00 am on the 7th and got to the summit at 11:30 am. Hyrylanien and Pasang Wangchu left C4 at the same time, but summited at 12:30 pm. Finally, Kay and Pasang Gomba left C4 at 8:00 am also on the 7th and arrived at the summit at 2:00 pm. The summiters returned to C2 between 3:00 and 6:00 pm.
Oxygen was used on their summit day by Cartwright, Masek, Horrell and Kay from C4 to the top to C2. Hyrylainen and all Sherpas used none at all, non-summiter Ms. Mikhanovskaia also used none, as noted below, but non-summiter Owens was on it from C4 to his high point of 7800m and down to C2.
There were a couple of minor errors. Obviously my name was spelled wrong in the first instance. We actually left for the top at 6am rather than 7, and Kami climbed with Anne-Mari Hyrylainen rather than myself and Ian Cartwright, but otherwise it was amazingly accurate. I believe this report was probably written after a short verbal interview with Phil.
Next I went back to look for my own member record. This was a bit simpler, accessed via the Display menu. After selecting Display Member, I was offered a much simpler form. I typed the name ‘horrell’ into the family name field, and up I popped (so to speak).
At the time of writing I’m the only Horrell listed in the Himalayan Database, which means I must have been the first Horrell ever to climb Everest, which in my book is at least as impressive as being the first man to make a phone call on the summit. Yet, somehow I failed to get the media recognition this achievement deserved.
But anyway, I discovered that I was listed five times in the Himalayan Database for five separate expeditions.
For two expeditions, I was even listed as leader, which was news to me, although I rather liked the idea. One of these was for my Lhotse expedition in 2014, where I was listed as leader on the permit, even though the only thing I was likely to be leading was a merry dance. This was because it was a joint Everest and Lhotse expedition, and our actual leader, Phil Crampton, was climbing Everest instead, and didn’t need to be on the Lhotse permit.
The other was for an expedition to Baruntse in 2010 with my friend Mark Dickson, where we were both listed as co-leaders. This was interesting, because neither of us spoke to anyone from the Himalayan Database, yet they still had the details of our expedition correct, including how high we climbed.
I’m not sure what the legal implications of having all this personal data freely available are, but the fields are name, nationality, year of birth, profession, and location (city). It’s hardly Facebook levels of intrusion, but it’s something to be aware of if you climb in Nepal.
Next I decided to have a glance in the database of peaks. Again this was easy, via the Display menu. I selected Display Peak, and typed ‘Cholatse’ into the form that came up, a peak I climbed myself in 2014.
This particular mountain is only 6,440m high, which means the data is more limited. Generally speaking, Elizabeth Hawley only took all records for peaks over 7,000m. It would get silly logging all the ascents of trekking peaks like Mera Peak, as hundreds of people climb them every year. She did, however, log the significant ascents, such as first ascents by new routes.
Here’s what came up for Cholatse.
There was an interesting button at the bottom, labelled Display First Ascent. I clicked on that, and it took me to the expedition record (similar to the one for Manaslu, above) for that expedition, with the list of members, route notes, references, etc.
This was interesting because in recent times there have been a lot of people claiming first ascents in Nepal that have subsequently been disputed. But as long as you identify the right peak, there’s not really an excuse for getting this wrong, especially now that the Himalayan Database is free. The information’s all there, as clear as you like.
Next came the really interesting bit, for me anyway, and I expect for historians and researchers. For the Himalayan Database doesn’t just contain facts and figures; it also contains a few pointers to other sources of information.
I wanted to see what information they had about things I’d written. For this I went to the Search menu and selected Find References.
I was faced with another simple form with both an Author field and a field for Title/URL. I typed the name ‘horrell’ into the author field and here’s what came up. As you can see, there were references to two books of mine, The Chomolungma Diaries, and The Everest Politics Show.
These were both published quite a long time after the actual expedition. This means two things. The records aren’t static. It means that as well as capturing information about new expeditions, the team from the Himalayan Database are actively going back and updating information about old ones too. It also means that their sources are not just interviews with climbers, but written records from books, magazines and websites.
I went back to the search interface and entered the URL of my website ‘markhorrell.com’ into the Title/URL field.
There were seven references to my website in the Himalayan Database. The one that intrigued me the most was the second one to a blog post where I compared two historical ascents of Cho Oyu. This blog post made no reference to any of my own expeditions, so I was interested to know where it was referenced.
I noted down the expedition ID ‘CHOY-521-01’, then I went back to the Display menu, selected Display Expedition, and typed the expedition ID into the search form.
As I suspected, it brought up the record for Eric Shipton’s Cho Oyu expedition in 1952. As well as the usual information about leadership, team members, heights of camps, route notes, etc. the Literature tab had a substantial list of books and articles about the expedition.
This means that the Himalayan Database isn’t just a useful source for facts and figures about a particular expedition; it’s also a great resource for historians and researchers looking for references to source material (as well as some of my own shit) where they can find further information.
The Himalayan Database isn’t the easiest thing in the world to get to grips with. It’s mostly accessible to Microsoft Windows users only, and although it’s quite easy to install, the fact that you have to install it at all will put off many people. An online version would be the ideal situation, but it’s free, so it would be churlish to be too critical in this respect.
There is also a lot of work that needs to be done on its user interface. It’s a raw, techy tool that may work for librarians and IT professionals, but in terms of ease of use for normal people, I’d give it 2 out of 10. But I work in web usability, so I’m a harsh judge.
If I can use techy terminology for a second, I’ll say that the front end isn’t that hot. The back end, though, is immense. The job of digitising all of Elizabeth Hawley’s expedition records must have been enormous, and the fact that it’s possible to search it at all is a credit to all involved.
Looking beneath the surface, if you take the time to find your way around, then it’s an incredible treasure trove of information. I’m just scratching the surface in this short analysis. I have only covered the basic records. The Reports and Analyses menus also contain a number of tools for uncovering records and carrying out statistical analyses of the data.
For example, how many British people have climbed Manaslu? At the time of writing, the answer is 38 (35 men and 3 women). I discovered this from a report that provides a breakdown of the numbers by season. From that report, it’s a simple matter to search the member data by season and nationality to find out who was the first British man and first British woman to climb it (Alan Hinkes in spring 1989 and Valerie Parkinson in autumn 2008).
Not only is the Himalayan Database a great resource for statistical data, but also for historical research. I’ll certainly be going back for more.