Failure belongs to the ambitious mountaineering – just as to admit this honestly. As Billi Bierling is doing now on Dhaulagiri. “I gave up in Camp 3,” the 54-year-old German climber writes to me from the base camp at the foot of the 8,167-meter-high mountain in western Nepal.
Last Sunday, it took her twelve hours to walk from Camp 2 at 6,460 meters to Camp 3 at around 7,200 meters. Fresh snow and loose snow avalanches had made for difficult conditions.
“Summit is only half the way”
“It was very strenuous because I was climbing without bottled oxygen and carried my own gear in my backpack,” Billi reports. “The Northeast Ridge is just mercilessly steep.” Five months ago, she had been fitted with an artificial hip.
She didn’t arrive at the last high camp until around 6 p.m. local time, Bierling says. Three hours after the other team members of the Swiss operator Kobler & Partner, two hours before the departure time towards the summit, decided by expedition leader Andreas Neuschmid. “Two hours was not enough time for me to recover,” says Billi. “If I had attempted the summit, I might have made it to the top, but might have gotten into trouble on the descent. I didn’t want to put anyone through that. I was aware that the summit was only half the way.”
Five team members without breathing masks at the top
Expedition leader Neuschmid, the Nepalese Tashi Chhiring Sherpa, Lale Tamang, Karma Gyalzen Sherpa and Mingmar Sherpa, the Wiss Jonas Salzmann and the Germans Jürgen Diez and Stefan Sieveking reached the summit at 12 noon local time on Monday. For Jürgen, it was the fourth eight-thousander he climbed without breathing mask, after Cho Oyu (in 2011), Manaslu (in 2015) and Broad Peak (in 2019). Jonas, Karma, Tashi and Mingmar also did without bottled oxygen, according to Billi.
Stefan, now 75 years old, used a breathing mask. In 2016, Sieveking had summited Mount Everest from the Tibetan north side (also with bottled oxygen). Aged 69 at the time, he is still the oldest of the around 100 Germans who have so far stood on the roof of the world. Stefan has climbed the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on all continents. In addition to Everest and now Dhaulagiri, he reached the eight-thousander summits of Cho Oyu (in 2009, without breathing mask), Manaslu (in 2014, with breathing mask) and Broad Peak (in 2019, with breathing mask).
“Out of my league”
Billi Bierling, on the other hand, was denied on Dhaulagiri her seventh eight-thousander for the time being. In 2009 Billi had summited Mount Everest, in 2010 Manaslu, in 2011 Lhotse and in 2014 Makalu, in each case with breathing mask. In 2011, she had scaled Manaslu again, this time without supplemental oxygen. Billi had also climbed without breathing mask during her successes on Cho Oyu in 2014 and Broad Peak in 2019.
From Dhaulagiri, the climber and journalist, who has led the Himalayan Database since the death of legendary chronicler Elizabeth Hawley in 2018, returns without any resentment. “The mountain is out of my league,” Billi admits. “But I’m very grateful to have come this far under the difficult conditions.” Some high-altitude climbers could take a leaf out of that kind of honesty and humility.