Billi Bierling, the managing director of the Himalayan Database, is approaching the end of the year. Bierling and her small team have a lot on their plates as the Nepalese mountaineering season starts. Bierling’s daily routine includes meeting climbers before their expeditions, speaking with agencies, and determining who is coming to climb which Himalayan peak.
She came to the institute in 2004 because she adores mountains, but she had no idea that the Himalayan Database, which she helped create with the late Elizabeth Hawley, would become such an important part of her life.
“It’s a lot of work, but I’ve had a great time doing it,” Bierling says. “The people I’ve met along the way, and the people I’m meeting now, are what keep me moving. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Despite the fact that many believed the Himalayan Database would wither after Hawley’s death in 2018, Bierling and the team set up by Hawley are determined to ensure that the institution continues to chronicle people’s journeys in Nepal mountains and serve as a guide for everyone who wants to know more about them.
Data dating back decades
The Himalayan Database predates Himalayan mountaineering by nearly a century. It all started in 1963, when Hawley covered the 1963 American Everest Expedition for Reuters. She continued to collect records of each expedition that took place in the region, chronicling the journeys of mountaineering legends such as Reinhold Messner and Ed Viesturs, as she had enjoyed doing so.
“It wasn’t as commercial back then as it is now,” Bierling says. “She’d drive her VW Beetle to the airport, which only had three international flights a week, and search for climbers since there were only a few expeditions a year.”
However, when commercial expeditions began in the early 1990s, Nepal began to see an influx of mountaineers. Hawley was inspired to digitize everything she had achieved in the previous three decades by American climber Richard Salisbury, who was fascinated by her determination and hard work. Hawley was so taken with the idea that he charged two Nepali girls with carrying it out. It took them 11 years, but the Himalayan Database was established in 2004.
The team has grown since then as well. It currently has six members, one of whom is Bierling. What began as a personal project for Hawley has evolved into an organization. Climbers began approaching the Himalayan Database, hoping to get their names added to the list. Only after the Himalayan Database was established did the Nepalese government, as well as numerous other foreign climbing institutions, begin to recognize successful attempts.
“We send you the truth. Bierling says, “I’ve always done it, and I’ll always do it.” “Many people disagree with our methods and refuse to participate. That’s all right. What we do, though, we do honestly. We depend on evidence, and if the facts are right, we have no reservations about summits.”
They have, however, had their fair share of controversy. Climbers who claim to have reached the summit have been told they haven’t, which hasn’t gone down well with many.
“There have been a few instances of several false summits, especially with Manaslu. Miss Hawley used to remind me that we aren’t judges, just reporters, and that is still my mantra,” she says. “In the case of Manaslu, only 10% of total climbers may have reached the true summit, but we’ve always given people the benefit of the doubt. That was in the past; now, what we do in the future will determine our credibility.”
The database contains information on expeditions that took place in Nepal from 1905 to the spring of 2020, covering nearly 500 peaks. Dates, routes, camps, use of supplementary oxygen, accomplishments, deaths, and injuries are all documented on each expedition’s log. Peaks, climbers, expeditions, nationalities, seasons, mortality rates and causes, and more can all be found in the database.
There are a range of pre-built reports available, as well as the ability to perform custom searches and analyses. Each expedition record includes biographical details for all participants identified on the permit, as well as hired members (such as Sherpas) for whom significant events such as summit completion, death, injury, or rescue have occurred. Literature references to major papers, magazines, books, and written expedition reports are also included in each expedition record.
Climbers preparing expeditions, journalists and mountaineering historians in need of historical information, and scholars elucidating patterns of injuries, deaths, and supplemental oxygen use would all benefit from the records in the Himalayan Database.
“It’s very holistic.”
The team spends a lot of time gathering information, which is why it is so informative. Bierling reports that they all spend about 30 minutes with each expedition team before the expedition and up to two hours afterward.
“We won’t take long if you’re a one-man show. However, if we’re interviewing an expedition leader with 25 clients, it might take up to two hours and we’ll need a lot of information because not everyone makes it to the top.”
They don’t just keep track of summits. They also have information about why climbers returned and where they came from. There are also accounts of people who died in the mountains and the reasons of their deaths.
“The Himalayan Database was regarded as an authority for a reason. The database has everything you need to know about Nepali mountains.”
Bringing the legacy forward
Bierling says Hawley’s rigid process has made it easier because she still uses much of what she learned from him.
“Technology has improved greatly, but we continue to use the Miss Hawley-taught system.”
Since Hawley’s retirement in 2016, Bierling had taken over as the show’s host. She was 92 years old, and after more than five decades of doing it, she was exhausted.
“She was a very realistic person. She said she went blank during an interview one day and that she was going to quit. She seemed to be finished with the Himalayan Database and handed it over to me and the team.”
Hawley’s legacy, on the other hand, lives on. Because of the importance of the documents, Nepalese expedition agencies contact the database and request that their climbers’ names be added. Even Nepali climbers who previously were unconcerned have begun to request that their names be added to the database.
“I think that’s fantastic. The older climbers were unconcerned, but the younger ones are. They want to be noticed, which is fantastic.”