Billi Bierling on the No-O2 Debate and Manaslu

After a hiatus in Bavaria, Billi Bierling is back in Kathmandu with the Himalayan Database. Photo: Billi Bierling

The trekkers have not returned to an unusually quiet Kathmandu, but the climbers are arriving in numbers. Nepal has granted only 80 fewer permits this year than it did in 2019. Most have come for supported treks up normal routes. Only two teams intend to open a new route this year, both bound for Dhaulagiri’s Northwest Ridge.

Welcome to the new normal on the great peaks of Nepal. We spoke about it with Himalayan Database’s Billi Bierling.

“Thamel [the tourist centre of Kathmandu] is unusually quiet, there are no trekkers and no tourists, especially the elderly people interested in Kathmandu’s cultural landmarks, such as Patan and Bhaktapur,” Bierling told ExplorersWeb.

Bierling, a German climber with six 8,000m peaks on her resumé, has worked with the Himalayan Database since 2004. As climbers arrive, her workload increases. Like the database’s celebrated founder, Elizabeth Hawley did until her passing in 2018 at 94, Bierling gathers information from climbing teams about who, what, and how. She and her colleagues have designed an online form to fill in, but “I still prefer to interview the climbers face to face,” she says. “Although this year, it’s sometimes difficult to find a suitable place outside and keep social distance.”

Billi Bierling (right) at work in her apartment in KTM. Photo: Billi Bierling

“Everest is pretty busy, with 300 permits granted, compared to 380 in 2019. That’s not such a big difference. Everest climbers are more the daredevil type, and those whose plans were canceled in 2020 couldn’t wait to return, COVID or not.”

She’s observed the same attitude on Annapurna and Dhaulagiri.

“I understand that some outfitters have decided not to launch expeditions to Nepal this year because of safety concerns,” she said. “It’s a two-edged sword, but I think that if visitors stick to the rules and are very careful, it can be done. Economically, it’s so important.”

On Everest, O2 Matters

At least two climbers intend to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen, but even no-O2 climbers face some criticism lately. Nirmal Purja, for instance, says that climbing with or without O2 is not such a big difference for those simply jumaring up a route that others have fixed.

“Well, I’ve never tried Everest without supplementary oxygen myself, but I have climbed three of my six 8,000’ers [Cho Oyu, Manaslu and Broad Peak] without,” says Bierling. “But those were lower 8,000ers, and I would never, ever be able to climb Everest without bottled O2.”

Bierling also works for several NGOs and the United Nations. Above, at a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. Photo: Billi Bierling

“Also, I have spoken to so many climbers,” she adds. “Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, who used no oxygen on any of her 14 8,000’ers, told me after returning from Everest, ‘Billi, that was the hardest thing I had ever done.’ Very strong mountaineers like Andrew Locke and Ralf Dujmovits tried and tried and were unable to summit without bottled gas.”

“From what I have heard from others’ experiences, Everest with O2 may be climbed by normal mortals like myself, but without O2…that’s reserved for a very special kind of person. And everything has to be perfect: the mountain conditions, the weather, etc.

Ueli Steck once said that there is a point at 8,500-8,600m where he hit the wall, as in marathon running. Even K2 is 200m lower, and that makes such a huge difference.

“As for fixed ropes, Sherpa support, previously pitched camps, etc., or not… Well, we are talking about different sports. Each chooses how to climb, and who is to judge? At the Himalayan Database, we just note whether O2 was used, whether it was a solo climb…There is no better or worse.”

She adds that it is sometimes difficult to judge whether a solo climb is really solo. “When someone tells me that he soloed Everest on the 23rd of May, well…it’s like when they say they didn’t use the fixed ropes right there on the route. It’s hard to believe. And yet, we were not there, so if they seriously claim it, we believe it unless someone tells us otherwise or we have a hunch that the claim is not true.”

Billie Bierling on Lhotse.

Manaslu Controversy: We Need to Talk

Like many climbing historians, the Himalayan Database is having problems with some summits. Especially with Manaslu.

“It’s very difficult. There are some near-summit points that have been accepted year after year, by Miss Hawley as well. If we changed our standards now and accepted only the highest point of Manaslu, a huge number of climbers would be told they hadn’t reached the true summit. Are we going to change history?”

The real question, she wonders, is how to carry on from here. “The criteria might change since the latest studies have proven scientifically where the real summit is. It’s something we really need to sit down and discuss.”

Shortly after those studies came out, COVID struck and the conversation has languished since then.

“In 2019, we accepted it as we had over the years. But I agree with the climbers who say that one must reach the highest point to consider it a summit…It is just that in previous years, with Dhaula, Annapurna and Manaslu, there’s been a lot of confusion until really thorough studies came out, using data obtained from relatively new technologies that permit more accurate measuring. Now we need to make a decision.”

Billi BIerling and the sorely missed Elizabeth Hawley.

“I truly wished Miss Hawley was here. It’s a really tricky question and we really have to decide because there will be more of this. We do the best we can, bearing in mind that we are not judges, we are reporters. We register what people tell us, and we are supposed to believe, even if we have doubts. If there is controversy, we do more digging. Unless a deception is blatantly obvious, we still file it as a summit, but with the tag “disputed” — sometimes disputed by us, sometimes disputed by others. We note that and leave the readers to draw their own conclusions.”

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About the Author

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides

Senior journalist, published author and communication consultant. Specialized on high-altitude mountaineering, with an interest for everything around the mountains: from economics to geopolitics. After five years exploring distant professional ranges, I returned to ExWeb BC in 2018. Feeling right at home since then!

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Dan Mccann
Dan Mccann
2 months ago

I know billie from cho. She is the right girl for a very hard job !

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Paulo
Paulo
2 months ago

“It’s very difficult. There are some near-summit points that have been accepted year after year, by Miss Hawley as well. If we changed our standards now and accepted only the highest point of Manaslu, a huge number of climbers would be told they hadn’t reached the true summit. Are we going to change history?” If a climber don’t reach the highest point of a mountain (wathever the reasons) it seems to me that he actually didn’t touch the summit so, factually, he didn’t summit. Another thing is to “accept” near (some not so near) summits as an “official” standard, and… Read more »

TMartin
TMartin
2 months ago
Reply to  Paulo

A revision of history would be interesting be interesting and how many 8000meter peaks are there anyway?
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eight-thousander#Proposed_expansion

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Uttam
Uttam
2 months ago

Billi Bierling: [clip] We register what people tell us, and we are supposed to believe, even if we have doubts. [clip] Sure it is one thing to register people with their claims of reaching summits with proofs (no matter how contested], but another to register people with claims of summits without a single proof. I think Late Elizabeth Hawley gave Ueli Steck a pass (meaning registered him), even though he provided no proofs of his ascents up Annapurna I and Shishapangma. He later went to win a Piolet D’Or for his ‘stunning accomplishments’ in 2014, although his most-cited climb (rapid… Read more »

Last edited 2 months ago by Uttam
Uttam
Uttam
2 months ago
Reply to  Uttam

oops, errata: shisapangma is in china, so Late Hawley couldn’t have given a pass to Steck on that one. the Himalayan mountain database only records climbs on mountains in nepal, even though shisapangma is in the Himalaya.

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Damien François
Damien François
2 months ago
Reply to  Uttam

Rodolphe Popier (Billi’s assistant at Himalayan Database) has brilliantly analyzed Uli Steck’s claim on Annapurna for MONTAGNES Magazine and has come to the conclusion that it was impossible Uli had climbed it.

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daniela
Daniela Teixeira
2 months ago

The summit is the highest point of any mountain. If by chance a lot of collectors did not touch the summit of some 8000’s, then until now the history is just a fake. Real history is what really happened, and that will never change. If history is wrong, surely it must be re-written, re-written is not to change, but to place things in their right place. If by chance no one has touched the 14 8000’s real summits, and if by chance a climber will rightfully claim it in the future, would it be correct to deny that climber as… Read more »

Jadepeak
Jadepeak
2 months ago

I think we will find very few people have summited all 14 (& the numbers for Dhaulagiri, Annapurna and Manaslu will be shockingly low and as Billi could tell you Cho Oyu itself has a giant flat summit and it is a long walk to the highest point: how many people stopped short?). For more details see this article https://www.adventure-journal.com/2021/03/many-climbers-claiming-8000-meter-summits-are-wrong/ Also see the more detailed info on 8000ers.com Hopefully the climbers headed to those peaks have done their research and are not just following the herd. Climbers can’t plead ignorance, when the facts are known (& the facts about Manaslu’s… Read more »

TMartin
TMartin
2 months ago
Reply to  Jadepeak

What’s interesting about this subject; is that only the person doing the climbing can ‘verify’ the summit, and that ‘verification’ can only be substantiated by the integrity of the climber. (Photos can be faked and wintnesses can lie). Focusing on the geometric ‘objective’ distracts from the quality and creativity of the climb and once the door is opened, the parsing will be endless. E.G. Climbers have no problem truncating 30% to 50% of the bottom height of a mountain (using helicopters or airplanes as the approach method, e.g Denali or Mt. Aspiring) but the same seem to be so concerned… Read more »

Jacob Schmitz
Jacob Schmitz
2 months ago

If you didn’t go to the top. You didn’t summit.

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Lenore Jones
Lenore Jones
2 months ago

Isn’t there a mountain where climbers don’t touch the actual top at the request of local residents, who regard it as sacred? I personally am happy to accept a little wiggle room on these summits. But I am not a climber, and it’s really up to that community to hash it out.

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Damien François
Damien François
2 months ago
Reply to  Lenore Jones

Kangchenjunga.This is what I write about it in my book “The Holy Mountains of nepal”: “To please the Lepchas, climbers who make it to the top compromise and stop some 20m short of the true summit. It is a matter of common sense, almost, that every climber will be happy to comply with this unwritten rule, because up there, 20m is a long and demanding distance. This type of summital “immaculation” is, obviously, an extremely rare thing that the “Five Treasures of Eternal Snows” share with only a handful, or even maybe less, big mountains. Another giant which shares this… Read more »

jmaf
jmaf
2 months ago

Isn’t there some grey area if the top of the mountain is covered by a snow dome where it would be virtually impossible to tell what the highest point of solid ground/mountain would be? If you get to the point where there is no point higher than where you are standing that should suffice even if it is not exactly correct geographically.

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Dylan Houser
Dylan Houser
2 months ago

This is a hugely pointless article.

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