Billi Bierling: “One 8,000’er Per Season Is Old School”

Billi Bierling is a great source of information for an overview of the evolution of climbing in Nepal. Besides her work with The Himalayan Database, she is also a climber. Currently, she is on her way to Dhaulagiri. Bierling confirms what many of us have feared. The time of the long, adventurous expeditions in the Himalaya is over.

Bierling is doing something quite offbeat by contemporary standards: She is actually trekking (!) to Dhaulagiri Base Camp with a team organized by Swiss outfitter Kari Kobler Expeditions.

“Trekking to Base Camp is old-school, barely done nowadays,” she says. “Doing one 8,000’er per season is also old-school. Times have changed. People have no time anymore.”

A quaint approach to Dhaulagiri Base Camp — on foot! Photo: Billi Bierling

 

In Nepal, COVID is in the past

This season, she says, COVID seems in the past. People in Kathmandu again wear masks just to protect themselves from pollution, not viruses.

“People just don’t talk about it anymore,” Bierling said. “Mandatory tests are over. But most of all, the trekkers are back. That is a big difference compared to last year.”

On the other hand, she noted, the war in Ukraine has kept everyone from that country out of the game, except for Antonina Samoilova, who hopes to plant the yellow-blue flag on top of Everest. The war has also made some other European climbers postpone their plans, uncertain about Russia’s next movements.

“Some people just don’t see the point of climbing a mountain when there’s a war, which is fair enough,” she said.

The season also lacks those smaller teams doing alpine-style climbs. But according to Bierling, this is the norm for spring, when Everest and the other 8,000ers gobble up all the outfitters’ resources.

Climbers arrive at Dhaulagiri’s summit on April 9. Photo: Tracee Metcalfe

 

“The extremely early summits on Dhaulagiri [last weekend] and Annapurna last year, both led by Mingma G, are remarkable,” Bierling said. “Mingma G is revolutionizing the traditional expedition style. Climbing these mountains so early in the year was previously unheard of. Now it is happening more and more, maybe due to the changes in the weather.”

The new expedition life

Such early climbs draw heavily on aerial transport to save time. “The fact is, there is a new style of expedition,” says Bierling.

She cites as an example her friend Tracee Metcalfe. The American arrived in Kathmandu on March 31 and summited Dhaulagiri with Imagine Nepal on April 9.

“That was fast, possibly even too fast for her, but Mingma G did it safely,” said Bierling. “I am not sure how much O2 they used, but I’d guess they would have used it from Camp 2.”

Tracee Metcalfe, on top of Dhaulagiri just nine days (!) after landing in Nepal. Photo: Tracee Metcalfe

 

Bierling also believes that the trend of climbing several peaks in one season here to stay.

“Yes, climbing only a peak a season is almost old-school as well. Once you are in Nepal, you just keep going. After Dhaulagiri or Annapurna you go to [a bigger one], maybe Makalu or Kangchenjunga. And maybe even a third. This is a completely new and younger style of doing expeditions. And I take my hat off because I do one peak and I am absolutely knackered.”

The good old days: Billie Bierling on the summit of Cho Oyu (which she climbed without supplementary O2), 2005. Photo: Billibierling.com

 

Climbers rarely trek now

So why is she trekking to Base Camp?

“For me, trekking to the base of an 8,000m peak is part of the journey. You get to know where you are, you meet the people in the area and see how they live, you learn a little bit about them. This way, the summit becomes a little less important, even though it’s always great to have.”

Bierling adds: “I am not saying this is better, just different. Logistics allow for much faster expeditions. Our lives, in general, have changed so much through technology, and this reflects on expedition logistics too.”

Good old times vs safer times?

“Those of us who have been around longer sometimes look back to the good old days when we spent four to five weeks in a base camp,” she says. “We used to hang around, to party, and that’s all gone…People have less time and probably more money. But I think they still enjoy it.”

Left to right, Uta Ibraini of Kosovo and Viridiana Alvarez of Mexico (going for Makalu) with Billi Bierling in Kathmandu. Photo: Uta Ibraini

 

“On a positive note, this new way of managing expeditions may be actually safer,” Bierling said. “Mingma G’s operation on Dhaulagiri was very safe, and he got his people up to the top and down as quickly as possible. Mingma G is breaking new ground in his own country.”

Finally, the return of trekkers to Nepal has become even more vital to the economy than it used to be. “For instance, the tea houses in the Everest region are not making money out of expeditions because of the helicopters,” she points out. “It’s the trekkers who stay in lodges along their way.”

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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Elmo Francis
12 days ago

Way to go Billi, great to read about your experience and the authentic experience, and it’s so true.. If you have the luxury of time, there is nothing better to experience the people and culture on the route. It simply takes the expedition to a whole new level. Been there and done. It..God speed on Dulagiri to you and everyone on the mountain, Great article and thank you.. 👍

Tom Hayes
Tom Hayes
12 days ago

Too bad Migma G is a cheater. Who knows what he and others do. Ought to be ashamed.

James Kelly
James Kelly
12 days ago
Reply to  Tom Hayes

care to elaborate?

Mingma G
Mingma G
11 days ago
Reply to  Tom Hayes

Hi Tim
What do you mean by Cheater? Can you clarify? We did all the climbing from base camp to base camp on our own capacity and as per rules and we put big effort for that. Please correct your mind

Chris Warner
Chris Warner
8 days ago
Reply to  Tom Hayes

Tom, I was with Mingma G on Dhaulagiri. He is a brilliant climber, logistician and wonderful person. There was no “cheating” just hard work and hard earned wisdom about the weather patterns on the mountain. As Billi described, he is “evolving” the commercial aspect (& let’s not forget the winter ascent of K2 and the true summit of Manaslu) of Himalayan climbing (as others have done in the past). It’s remarkable what’s happening on these peaks as folks rethink what is possible. While I have no idea what the origin of your comment is, breaking conventional “rules” is not “cheating”,… Read more »

Steilwand
Steilwand
12 days ago

Trekked 480 km in a few months around the “Big Ones” in 1979. Had the luxury of time and got to know the people and culture over a 6 month period in Nepal, Mustang, Tibet and India. Yet, I do realize the time constraints of folks who “speed up” an 8,000’er in a mere few days. Their experience is valid as well, and I do not ever want to judge another traveler…..

P.R.
P.R.
11 days ago

“The time of the long, adventurous expedition is over” you should finish with: “on the normal routes of 8000m peaks”. There are still plenty of peaks to explore in the Himalayas, where true classic adventure can be possible. One thing is for sure. We, as a community, should consider stop calling this type of ascents “climbing”, or “alpinism”. Using helicopters massively, fixed ropes to the summit, oxigen from 6000m, porters for everything, and all the amount of help possibly is something of another league, in my opinion, not to be celebrated as big achievements, at all. In fact, it is… Read more »

B.G
B.G
11 days ago
Reply to  P.R.

There is a term – adventure tourism. This level of stuff has existed for decades with safaris.
First thing thats needed is to stop using the word ‘expedition’.

Paul Devaney
Paul Devaney
8 days ago

Enjoyed the article. I have a question… On the notion that “this new way of managing expeditions may be actually safer”, are we sure about that? This new way certainly results in faster ascents, shorter time on the mountain, lots more use of oxygen from lower camps and heli rides up the valley to avoid the usual long trek to base camp. However if something goes sideways on the high mountain and climbers find themselves stuck with limited access to more oxygen or supplies for a period, the absence of natural adaptation would become an immediate danger as would the… Read more »