On Mountain Climbing and the Himalayan Database
I spoke to Billi Bierling, German climber and major contributor to the Himalayan Database. The Database thoroughly chronicles those who have summited the Himalayan peaks from 1905-2018, utilizing details gathered from over 15,000 individual interviews. The creator of the database was the legendary Elizabeth Hawley, a close friend of Billi’s, who passed away earlier this year at the age of 94. Billi gave her insight on trends in climbing this spring, ideas for alternative climbs, and her musings on the loss her dear friend Miss Hawley.
We’ve arrived at climbing season once again, and you’re back with the database. Its 2018, and you’re returning to the mountains!
I am, but I’m not climbing a big peak this season. I was planning on going to Dhaulagiri 1, the seventh highest mountain in the world, but I was unable to find the right people to go with and as this is very important to me, I decided to leave it and hopefully go this autumn.
I am leading a little trip with Canadian war veterans to Lobuche East, a 6000 m peak near Mount Everest, which I have already climbed 10 times. It is a beautiful peak with stunning views of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse and I am really looking forward to getting out into the hills!
Right, so how many years is it now that you’ve been coming to Nepal for climbing? And also, how many years have you been working on the database?
I first came here in 1998 with my then-boyfriend Dr Mike Grocott. I had no idea about mountaineering or trekking and I ended up trekking and climbing in the Rolwaling and Khumbu for two-and-a-half months, climbing three 6000 m peaks, learning how to use crampons and ice axes and loving being on expedition. I loved it and was hooked! When I decided that I wanted to live in Nepal full time I contacted Miss Elizabeth Hawley in 2004 and ended up starting to work for her that year.
Speaking of the database, how are you feeling this year without the presence of Miss Hawley (who passed away last January after a colorful life, at age 94)?
I truly miss her presence in Kathmandu. She has been a huge part of my life over the past 14 years – and not only in Kathmandu. I learnt a lot from her and I am very grateful for that. However, working with her was certainly not always easy and we had our teething problems. She was very strict and bossy and I had to learn how to put my foot down over the years. The most precious time I had with her were the past two years when she had given up working for the Himalayan Database. I would go and see her every day when I was in Kathmandu and she would tell me stories. I really got to know her well then and now of course I miss my daily visits to her house in Dilli Bazaar.
The Database carries on, though, with you firmly at its helm.
Well, we are a team of four interviewers and Richard Salisbury sitting in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He looks after the data entry and the rest of us are trying to hunt down the mountaineers. We will do our best to carry on as good as we can but as you can imagine more and more expeditions are flocking into Nepal to climb these high peaks and it is getting more and more difficult to keep tabs on them. But we are trying hard, and I think we are doing a good job to continue Miss Hawley’s incredible work!
What are the numbers of climbers like now? Higher or lower than this time last year and the years since the earthquake? Any trends you’re noticing? Either in demographic or in volume?
The number, especially on Everest and the other 8000 m peaks in Nepal, is certainly going up. Disasters like the avalanche in 2014 or the earthquake in 2015 have not really kept mountaineers away from the big peaks. I actually think that the more books are being written the more inclined people are to come and climb here. Everest has become quite safe and the death rate is down to around 1%, which I guess is mainly due to the well-established infrastructure, the better training of the Sherpas (there are around 40 UIAA guides in Nepal now) and years of experience by the expedition leaders. However, the steadily rising number on the mountain is a bit worrying.
What are the top five climbs people are doing this year, or at least that have been the most popular recently? Do you think climbers who once only had sights on Everest may be looking to climb alternative peaks?
Everest South and North, Kangchenjunga, Later Ama Dablam, Dhaulagiri… and that’s about it. I think those who want to go to Everest will go to Everest and that is their goal. For many, it’s the only goal and the only 8000 m peak. However, more and more people are now attempting the fourteen 8000 m peaks, and that is why a mountain like Kangchenjunga for example, which used to see three or four expeditions a year is now becoming popular with punters. It is no longer only the REAL mountaineers going to these peaks; it is now punters who rely on fixed ropes put up by the Sherpas. So Kangchenjunga will be very busy this year and it is a worry as the infrastructure there is not as good as on Everest, the Sherpas do not know the mountain as well as Everest and it is a big and tough mountain. Let’s hope it will all go well!
Are there any trends or practices with tour operators or climbers themselves that you’re not particularly happy with? Any changes in the recent years?
Well, over the past 14 years I have seen many changes in the climbing world… good and bad. I think it is brilliant that the Sherpas are taking on more ownership and that the young ones are not only working FOR the Westerners but are setting up their own companies, are keen on summiting these peaks themselves, doing first ascents themselves and are becoming qualified guides. However, what is a bit sad is that there seems to be a divide between some of the younger Sherpas and the Western operators and a lot of competition. I think they should keep on working together as they still need each other. Let’s hope that this season they will prove that they will.
I hope that people will stop trying to do ridiculous records such as making a cup of coffee on the top of Everest (I have heard that someone wants to do it this year). The time of the first ascents is over. Most things have been done and if you do the normal route on Everest there is not much you can be the first of any longer, so people come up with strange things to become the first. If someone wants to become a first of something, then there are many unclimbed peaks in Nepal or many unclimbed routes. I would love to see more of that!
Since Cho Oyo, what else have you climbed?
Nothing big really. I climbed a 5,500 m peak in Tajikistan called Peak Energia, and Kyajo Ri, which is in the Khumbu and is 6151 m high. But I did it with a bunch of friends and there were NO other people on the mountain and I loved it. You don’t have to go high to become high (if you know what I mean).
With the volume of climbers, how do you find the time to do all the interviews?
Well, I am going to Afghanistan to work for the Swiss Development Agency, but it is only for one week. And Tobias, the German guy who is helping me, will be in Kathmandu looking after the teams. I have done a lot of the interviews by email or with my online form as the interview BEFORE the climb is more about WHO is going, WHERE are they going and WHEN will they be back in Kathmandu to grill them about the climb. So basically I will be back in town on 27 April and stay here till mid-June, which means I will catch the teams when they return, which is actually the more important interview. The meeting before serves us to find out who is here and who do we have to find after the expedition.
Thank you so much Billi! Have an exciting excursion to Lobuje East, best of luck with continuing your diligent work on the Database, and wishes for a safe, successful climbing season in Nepal!
Top image: Dirk Groeger / Flickr