Billi Bierling on the No-O2 Debate and Manaslu

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 resum√©, 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.”