A Conversation with Billi Bierling, Who Ascended Cho Oyo Without Oxygen
Billi Bierling tried to ascend Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world, in 1995. Heartbreakingly, after reaching Camp 2 at 7300m, her guide concluded that high altitude mountaineering just wasn’t for her. She thought so too, and turned around.
Four years later, she summited Everest. Up until her latest ascent in October 2016, she’d summited three more peaks above 8000m: Lhotse, Makalu, and Manaslu (twice). Looks like she got the hang of high altitude mountaineering.
I spoke to Billi a year ago, and she said she’d like to come full circle and actually summit Cho Oyo (8201m) before she turned 50. She thought that this feat would round off her mountaineering days. On October 1, 2016, after spending three nights at dreaded Camp 2 at Cho Oyo while waiting for some unreported harsh weather to clear, her energy slowly ebbing, Billie successfully summited Cho Oyo at the age of 49. Without using any oxygen.
I spoke to her a week after she arrived back in Kathmandu. She had black bits of frostbite on her fingers and was just regaining her sense of taste from her frostbitten tongue. She was slowly regaining her strength, after she’d been walking around like she was in a bubble, feeling depleted, for several days.
Some say Cho Oyo is an easy mountain to climb, a training mountain for Everest. So I asked Billi, is it easy?
“No! It’s NOT easy!” she replied emphatically.
Billi was the only one in her 12-person group to summit without using oxygen. Thin, but tough as the mountain itself, Billi explained to me why it was so important to her to NOT use oxygen.
“Before the mountain became commercialized, it was just a fun mountain where groups of friends would climb together [without oxygen]. Of the 3200 people who have summited Cho Oyo, 2000 were unaided. It’s only been in recent years that climbers have started using oxygen. So without, it’s just more pure.”
Billi wants to keep it that way.
German herself, she told me that 13 other German women had summited Cho Oyo before, and all without oxygen, which she thought was pretty cool. “For myself, the climb without oxygen is much more physically challenging,” she said.
She doesn’t climb just for the recognition, but she knows that in the mountaineering community, climbing without oxygen is another ball game. The mountaineering world has been Billi’s world for many years now. Asked why she climbs, she said that part of it is because she knows everybody. A social butterfly, these peaks are her backyard. One of the reasons her tongue got sunburnt was because she spent so much time talking! The price one pays for doing what they enjoy…
Billi has become a name in the industry. She works on the Himalayan Database, interviewing adventurers who’ve summited the Nepal Himalaya and working closely with Elizabeth Hawley, a journalist based in Kathmandu. When she climbs, she is devoted to keeping the activity as pure as she can.
When asked about her training regime, she stated: “Some people kill themselves in the gym, they eat a lot of protein, take supplements. I don’t. I mean, I exercise. I run every day. I did my 100k run in June. But no, I haven’t done anything special.”
(In my book, running a 100k race is a tad special!)
What about food, water, or supplements on the mountain?
“I don’t even take paracetamol! I’m lucky to be so healthy, but really, I don’t take anything. I try to be a vegan at home. But when I’m on the mountain, if they use mayonnaise in the potato salad, I’ll eat it. I’m not there to be a vegan, I’m there to climb a mountain!”
What allowed her to summit Cho Oyo this time? And how was different now than in 1995?
“My own experience, and I’m not talking about technical climbing experience. But it’s, how can I say, my own experience just knowing how does it feel to get to 7000m, my experience about food, about drinking. At high altitude you have to drink! Drinking is the most important thing. It’s so hard to get anything down. The water tastes foul because you have to melt the snow! But you have to drink so much. It’s a mental game. It’s not about physical training.”
She said that every day climbing was a challenge: “Waking up in the dark, alone at Camp 3 at 2am, putting on crampons and stepping out in the freezing dark was not easy, nor enjoyable. But you enjoy it when you come down.”
Besides the physical challenges, it’s also a time-consuming and expensive hobby. Each high altitude expedition takes 5-6 weeks. It costs around $19,000 with a commercial tour company to climb Cho Oyo, and over $80,000 for Everest.
I asked her whether she had any sponsors.
“No. I have a bit of a barter system with the tour companies. I write their blogs. But I still pay. I pay in the five digit numbers. But I don’t want to have sponsors. I mean, why would they pay for your fun! And there’s no pressure, I don’t have to justify myself. Not to anybody. I love it.”
When asked if this was indeed her last summit, Billie answers with a very definitive “No.”