Billi Bierling has worked for the Himalayan Database, the archive of legendary Himalayan chronicler Elizabeth Hawley, for almost twenty years. She is known for cruising the busy streets of Kathmandu on her bicycle to interview expedition climbers from around the world. In her book, she tells of the fascination of expedition mountaineering in the Himalayas and her commitment to people in need.

Billi Bierling is since 2004 for the of Elizabeth Hawley founded Himalaya database. In 2016 she took over the reins from the legendary Himalayan chronicler. When the Garmisch-Partenkirchen-born cosmopolitan is not in Nepal interviewing expedition teams or climbing mountains herself, she works as a communications expert for Swiss Humanitarian Aid.

Her book “I have a bike in Kathmandu” was published in February. Monika Resler spoke to Billi Bierling about Elisabeth Hawley, the Himalayan Database and her passion for the highest mountains in the world.

Billi Bierling, what do you think made Elisabeth Hawley so famous?

Miss Hawley had authority. She was pragmatic and content with what she had and what and how she was. I admired her sober, very realistic manner. She never grieved for the past and responded to metaphors like “poor Mount Everest needs a break” with: “Why would Everest need a break? He's a big black rock and nothing more."

She was honest, never felt like she had to impress anyone, nor was she afraid that people might not like her. Sometimes I wish I had a little more of her.

What historical significance does the Himalayan Database still have today - how do you see its future?

I think the Himalayan Database will never lose its historical value. In Miss Hawley's time it was the only archive that recorded the pioneering work of many mountaineers.

The way of climbing has changed a lot in the last two decades and we see many people on the highest mountains who are no longer alpinists. Far be it from me to condemn that, because it is a development that we also see in the Alps.

However, on commercial expeditions that take participants up the mountains with lots of bottled oxygen and Sherpas, use the same sites for their camps, and often fly to base camp by helicopter, it's no longer as interesting to record the details.

The Himalayan Database has documented all expeditions in Nepal for 60 years. Image: Alex Treadway
The Himalayan Database has documented all expeditions in Nepal for 60 years. Image: Alex Treadway

What current mountaineering achievement in the Himalayas can impress you?

I keep mentioning the three Ukrainians Nikita Balabanov, Mikhail Fomin and Viacheslav “Slava” Polezhaiko. In autumn 2021 they climbed the southeast ridge of the 7555 meter high Annapurna. It was an amazing feat and it certainly took four hours to get the full details of that climb from them.

You've climbed six of the fourteen eight-thousanders. What role does the character and nature of the mountain play in such ascents, is it about the summit or the way there?

It may sound unbelievable, but the summit is always the icing on the cake for me. I enjoy being on an expedition, living at the base camp, looking out of the tent in the morning and seeing the mountain I want to climb, just being away from the ordinary everyday life.

Expeditions are an integral part of Billi Bierling's life. Image: Alex Treadway
Expeditions are an integral part of Billi Bierling's life. Image: Alex Treadway

It's wonderful to slowly approach the mountain, to get to know it over weeks, to feel your way around it and to get higher and higher during the acclimatization phases.

I never go on an expedition expecting to reach the top. I'm also not afraid of losing face if I have to turn back and don't make it to the top.

Such an expedition is a wonderful journey, which of course reaches its climax when you are allowed to stand at the summit - but if not, then the journey was just as beautiful!

Billi Bierling on top of Mount Everest. Image: Billi Bierling
Billi Bierling on top of Mount Everest. Image: Billi Bierling

70 years after the first ascent of Everest - what did this event mean for the country and people back then and how do they feel about it today?

When Tensing Norgay Sherpa and Edmund Hillary stood on the highest point in the world exactly 70 years ago, no one knew how expedition life would develop.

I think expedition tourism is very important for the Sherpas as well as for the whole country.

The Sherpas in the Everest region had the great advantage that Edmund Hillary built schools in the region in gratitude for their help on Mount Everest. The Sherpas in the Everest region received education before many others, but they also made good use of it.

In my book I describe in great detail the development of the Sherpas and the fact that 60 percent of the expedition activities are now in the hands of local agencies - which I see as a very positive development!

Anyone who wants to experience Billi Bierling live has the chance to do so on Friday, March 31, 2023. In the Alpine Museum in Bern, the high-altitude mountaineering expert talks about extreme alpinists and refugees, working with Miss Hawley or her work for people in war and disaster areas. Among the Lacrux community members we are giving away 3×2 tickets for this event.

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Credits: Cover picture David Gottler