Billi Bierling’s life cycleSwiss-German climber and expedition chronicler’s new book is about people and mountains
Mountaineer, climbing chronicler and international humanitarian worker, Billi Bierling has been in many dangerous places in her life. But it was while riding her bicycle down a street in Kathmandu last month that she broke her ankle.
When they see her limping around with her right leg in a brace, many who know the Swiss-German climber ask her if she suffered a mountaineering accident. But that freak mishap seems deliberately timed for the launch of her book, Ich hab ein Rad in Kathmandu (I Have a Bike in Kathmandu) this month.
Bierling first came to Nepal in 1998 as a free-spirited youth from her hometown of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps. “The mountains were too close and as a free spirit, I always had the feeling they were limiting my view,” she explains.
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After dropping out of high school her concerned parents sent Bierling to work as an au-pair in the United States. Soon, she was roaming around the world and after completing her masters in international journalism at City University London, became a reporter for Swiss Radio International in Bern.
Coverage of mountaineering brought her close to Elizabeth Hawley, the famous Kathmandu-based chronicler of Himalayan Database. After Hawley died in 2018, Bierling’s team is carrying on her work of keeping detailed records of expeditions in Nepal.
Bierling has combined her mountaineering career, work with Himalayan Database, with being a communications officer with Swiss Humanitarian Aid (SHA) in hotspots like Afghanistan and Ukraine. Bierling has now summited six of the eight-thousanders (Makalu, Manaslu, Everest, Lhotse Cho Oyu and Broad Peak) besides lesser, but no less formidable, peaks like Nuptse..
Elizabeth Hawley had her trademark blue Volkswagen Beetle in Kathmandu, and Bierling has her trusted bicycle. In fact, she bought that bicycle even before she had a city map of Kathmandu, and has earned notoriety for showing up unannounced at hotels to interview mountaineers who come back from expeditions.
Bierling admits to having an attention span of a five-year-old, but when she commits to doing something she gives it her best. A German newspaper once even called her, ‘The woman who says yes before thinking.’
Despite her many avatars, at 55 Bierling is still a journalist at heart, and it satiates her sense of adventure and curiosity about the world. When the Austrian publisher Tyrolia first approached her to write a book, her immediate answer was, “No, but thanks for asking.”
Later, the persuasive publisher got her to join hands with co-author Karin Steinbach. Ich hab ein Rad in Kathmandu is a memoir, but more about the people Bierling has encountered rather than herself.
“I am first and foremost a journalist, so I write about other people, not just about myself,” she says. Elizabeth Hawley looms large in the book, the turbulent first year with the unyielding American.
But she later finds that beneath the tough skin, Hawley was sensitive person obsessed with accuracy. It is apt that the book comes out this year, when Hawley would have turned 100.
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The book is only available in German for now, but Bierling is working on an English translation. As the Managing Director at Himalayan Database and a prolific mountaineer herself, Bierling has witnessed first-hand the evolution of climbing in the Nepal Himalaya. The author does not dwell much on her own six eight-thousanders, but uses the book to discuss the commercialisation of climbing.
In the 1980s, there would be only a few international flights landing in Kathmandu, and Hawley would drive to the airport in her Beetle to catch hold of climbers in mountaineering boots to collect information for her Himalayan Database. Today, there are hundreds of expeditions and thousands of climbers to keep track of as Bierling pedals around Kathmandu to reach them.
The change is not just in the numbers of climbers, but also the way they climb. Says Bierling: “Helicopters on Everest have become as common as microbuses in Kathmandu.” She is concerned that the pressure to get to the top has led many to forget the essence of mountaineering.
She explains, “You don’t conquer a mountain, you don’t attack a mountain. You and the mountain have to be friends so it allows you to get to the summit. You go there together.”
Another significant portion of the book examines a progressive change in the mountaineering community: the reclamation of Sherpas as mountaineering entrepreneurs. Bierling delights in the fact that a new generation of Sherpas is finally getting long overdue credit for the sacrifices of their forefathers. Expeditions are finally acknowledging that it is not possible for Himalayan expeditions to climb peaks without Sherpas.
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Bierling summarises the essence of her book: “I am not solely my own self. I am a composite of all those whom I have met, seen, and loved. Their experiences, memories, and emotions reside within me, shaping the person that I am.”
Even with an ankle brace on one foot and trekking boots on another, Bierling was riding her bicycle around Kathmandu this week as news comes of more summit records breaking on Everest. This is the same bicycle she bought all those 19 years ago, and same bicycle in the title of her book, and the same bicycle she fell off to break her leg.
As she pedals off, Billi Bierling looks more at ease on her bicycle than she is on foot. But she looks even more at home on the mountains.
Ich hab ein Rad in Kathmandu: Mein Leben mit den Achttausendern. Bergsteigen im Himalaya und Alltag in den Krisengebieten unserer Welt.
TYROLIA GmbH, 2023
240 pages, Hardcover Price on Amazon: €46.00
ISBN: 10- 3702241035