Mass Tourism on Roof of the World: 'If You Want a Mountain Adventure, Don't Climb Everest'

By in Katmandu

In May, journalist Billi Bierling became the first German woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest from Nepal. She was shocked at the naivete of many mountaineers and astounded that, these days, Everest base camps offer hot showers, Internet access, TVs and fresh strawberries.

"Namaste, where can I put my bicycle?" Billi Bierling asks the waiter in Nepalese in Katmandu's tourist district of Thamel. The grey mountain bike is the trademark of the 42-year-old journalist from the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

It's an essential tool for her work -- interviewing mountaineers on behalf of Elizabeth Hawley, the famous chronicler of Himalayan expeditions. "I'd go crazy driving a car in this chaotic traffic," she says.

Every day Bierling cycles along the narrow streets of the Nepalese capital through a whirl of dust, honking cars, rickshaws and street vendors to talk to climbers before and after they have embarked on their expeditions. Hawley's database contains the details of all Himalayan expeditions undertaken since 1963. what route was taken, who reached the summit when, was artificial oxygen required, how was the weather, were there accidents?

The months before and after the rainy season are incredibly busy, says Bierling. From March onwards she contacts some 60 trekking agencies in Katmandu and asks them: Are you running expeditions this season, which flight are they arriving on, which hotel will they be staying in?

Her hand-written interviews are fed into the database by Hawley. Rumor has it that Hawley had an affair with Edmund Hillary, who together with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay was the first mountaineer to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, and that the relationship kindled her passion for mountaineering. She accompanied the first major US ascent of Everest as a journalist in 1963. She has been collating information about the Himalayas ever since and is something of a legend among climbers.

Bierling too is well-known in Katmandu and, more importantly, has been accepted in the world of mountain climbers. "But it was a lengthy process," she recalls. "Women and mountains -- for many people the two don't fit together." Bierling earns 500 Nepalese rupees, just under €5 ($7), per interview. But she says she would do the work for nothing because it has long since become her hobby.

She says she is saddened when people she has interviewed don't return from the mountain. Originaly Bierling wanted to spend just one season here but many in Katmandu now expect that one day she will carry on the work of 84-year-old Hawley.

Even though she grew up close to the Alps, as a child Bierling hated the mountains. Like many who were forced to go on hill walks with their parents, she didn't set foot on a mountain for years. Her father actually offered her money to accompany him on hikes.

It was her love for a mountaineer that drew her to the Himalayas for the first time in 1998, and in 2004, she moved to Katmandu.

Since then Bierling has climbed several summits and now leads expeditions to 6,000-meter-high mountains herself. She recently took part in an expedition to Mount Everest so she could see for herself "what it looks like up there."

On May 21 at 9.45 a.m., Bierling stood on the highest point on Earth, the 8,848 meter peak of Everest, for a quarter of an hour. That made her the first German woman to have climbed Everest from the Nepalese side and returned alive. Fellow Bavarian Hannelore Schmatz had reached the summit 30 years ago but she died of exhaustion on the way down.

When Bierling arrived in Nepal she was surprised at the extent of the commercial tourism on Everest. In the high season in May some 700 people live in base camp at a height of 5,350 meters -- it has hot showers and even a bakery.

Some summiteers are anything but professional. "Many don't know how to put on crampons or even how to hold an ice pick," Bierling says. She was even more astonished to find that she didn't need to use her own ice pick to reach the summit. "Anyone looking for a mountain adventure shouldn't go for Everest," she says. Without the Sherpas and infrastructure -- such as fixed ropes leading right up to the summit -- some 90 percent of climbers wouldn't even reach the top, she believes.

More than 4,000 climbers, including some 200 women, have conquered Everest to date. More than two-thirds of expeditions have taken place in the last 15 years. Some agencies now offer "budget ascents" from €20,000. "But they often don't have the right equipment or enough oxygen or good food," says Bierling.

During her interviews with climbers she has often thought: "They have more luck than brains. I feel sick when I see 20 trusting people all hanging onto a fixed rope at the same time. Before the big expeditions came, people still knew what they were doing." However, she adds, Everest hasn't lost its magic.

Bierling paid €40,000 for her ascent of Everest -- savings from a six-month job and from her work as a journalist. Apart from a chance to reach the summit, the package included top-of-the-range supplies in base camp. A New Zealander who was cooking provided team members with mousse au chocolat and fresh strawberries flown in from Katmandu by helicopter. In the evenings they watched films on a flat-screen TV in the cinema tent. One Russian expedition had liters of vodka on hand and a wireless Internet connection for which the expedition leader paid $5,000 a month. "It was pretty crazy," says Bierling.

These days she only spends Christmas and the rainy season in her native Garmisch. During the monsoon in July and August it's impossible to ride a bicycle in Nepal, let alone climb mountains.

Everyday life in Nepal is plagued by strikes, curfews and political unrest and after spending thousands of euros on her ascent she learnt to stifle pangs of guilt at the street kids and poverty around her.

"It would just be too boring for me if I lived somewhere where everything worked properly," says Bierling, a broad smile on her tanned and weatherbeaten face.

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