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...When Liz was in surgery German ex-pat Billi Bierling swiftly stepped in as Miss Hawley's 'mobile unit'. Racing across town on her bicycle, Billie feared no bandhs nor speeding tuk-tuks, chasing down climbing expeditions one after the other. Image ExWeb files.


"The best part of the job for me is getting to know Miss Hawley. She is a fascinating person and even though she is quite difficult to get to know I feel privileged that I get to spend quite a lot of time with her," said Billi. Image of Miss Elizabeth Hawley courtesy of Gory.wyd.pl (click to enlarge).

ExWeb interview: Billi Bierling - Miss Hawley's mobile unit, part 1

Posted: Apr 18, 2006 01:12 pm EDT
(MountEverest.net) After four decades of tracking Himalayan expeditions, the legendary American chronicler Elizabeth Hawley missed the beginning of the current season: At 83, she had to undergo surgery in Thailand. Yet if climbers thought now was their chance to sneak out of Kathmandu un-noticed, they were wrong: German ex-pat Billi Bierling swiftly stepped in as Miss Hawley's 'mobile unit'. Racing across town on her bicycle, Billie feared no bandhs nor speeding tuk-tuks, chasing down climbing expeditions one after the other. <cutoff>

<b>Billi: "The hardest part of my job is pleasing Miss Hawley"</b>

This time though Billi is not the one asking the questions: Here goes the first of a two part ExWeb interview with Billie - digging deep into topics such as how come a girl ends up living in a conflicted country and work for one of the most influent ladies in climbing history.

<i><b>ExWeb: </b>Where are you from originally, what brought you to Nepal, how long have you been there and how long do you plan to stay?</i>

Billi: Originally I am from Germany. However, a lot of people find it hard to believe as they think I sound posher than the Queen ( I lived in London for nearly 10 years), and apparently I have a sense of humour!

I first came to Nepal in 1998, when I embarked on my first trekking and climbing trip. I did not know what to expect at all I came with my then boyfriend, who had introduced me to rock climbing in the UK. It was a 2 ½ months trip, which involved crossing 2 of the most difficult passes in the Khumbu and climbing two 6,000m peaks. So when I arrived in Kathmandu I thought that was the norm but it dawned on me pretty quickly that it was quite a tough trip.

<b>A tough introduction</b>

Anyway, I loved it and that is how I got into high altitude mountaineering as I managed to conquer Parchamo and Mera Peak, which are both above 6,000m, and Ramdung, which is 5,500m. I hate to admit that I was actually one of those people who had never used crampons or an ice axe before

Anyway, from that time I came back to Nepal every single year, and in 2000 I met Liz Hawley for the first time when I went to Baruntse. I remember very clearly when the guy at reception told us that Miss Hawley had rung and that she wanted to see us! We were very excited and very confused as we never thought that this lady, who is an absolute legend, would be interested in such a small and unknown expedition. But of course we were going to tackle an expedition peak and no matter how big or small an expedition is as soon as you are going to climb one of the 237 expedition peaks you ought to be in Miss Hawleys books.

<b>From radio broadcaster to Miss Billi</b>

In 2001 I moved from the UK to Switzerland, where I worked as a radio journalist for Swiss Radio International. After more than three years in Switzerland I missed Nepal so much that I decided to go and live there but what was I going to do there? So I wrote a letter to Miss Hawley asking her whether she needed some assistance in her work and to my surprise I received a letter from her, telling me that she would be more than happy for me to help her. So I arrived here on 31st August 2004 and that is how it all started.

I am not sure how long I will stay here. It depends what the future brings, and people have already asked me whether I would take over from Miss Hawley and some of them already call me Miss Billi!

<i><b>ExWeb: </b>What are the worst and best parts of your job?</i>

The best part of the job for me is getting to know Miss Hawley. She is a fascinating person and even though she is quite difficult to get to know I feel privileged that I get to spend quite a lot of time with her. For me she is a legend and that is part of the reason why I am working with her I think what she has achieved in the last 43 years is very impressive and now that I am helping her I see how much work it is!

Another great part of my job is meeting people. I love talking to people (you might gather that by the extent of my answers), finding out about them and discussing their climbs and routes with them.

<b>A demanding job in a man's world</b>

I suppose one of the more difficult parts of my job is pleasing Miss Hawley and getting the right information for her. No matter how hard I try, she always finds a mistake in my forms be it a spelling mistake, a missing occupation or a wrong date of birth (all climbing members have to fill in a bio form). The problem is that I can be a bit disorganised and scatty at times (no idea what happened to the German in me there ;-) and Miss Hawley wants her information to be 100 per cent right! So when someone puts down teacher as occupation it is not enough. Miss Hawley wants to know WHAT they teach, so at the beginning I often had to go back to the climbers to find out. But I am learning every day and I hope that there will be a time when all the information on my forms is perfect.

Another difficult part has been to get established in the climbing community and accepted by the trekking agencies. I can see that it must have been very hard for Miss Hawley when she first started her archiving work in 1963. Back then it was probably more difficult to get accepted as a woman. It has not been easy at the beginning but I think the climbing community has now accepted me here.

<i><b>ExWeb: </b>Although healthy and back from the hospital, Miss Hawley might like to delegate part of her work eventually. Are you her successor? In that case, how do you face the responsibility and the possible comparisons?</i>

That is a tricky one. I dont think I, or as a matter of fact anybody else, could ever replace Miss Hawley. She is unique in her work and I dont think anyone could carry on her work the way she does it. When people ask me about the future of the archives, my usual reply is that I would not mind taking part in continuing her work but I dont think I would be precise and committed enough to carry on her work on my own. And I am not sure whether I would like taking on all that responsibility. Miss Hawley is a legend and I dont think anybody could ever take her place.

There is of course Jeevan, who has been working with Miss Hawley for about seven years. He is a great guy and we work well together but I am not sure whether he can envisage taking over completely.

<i><b>ExWeb: </b>Whats Miss Hawley like - as boss?</i>

Miss Hawley is a very strict boss and pleasing her can be very hard some times. However, by being strict with me she makes sure that I come back with the right information - well, at least I try very hard. I often worry that I might miss an expedition, but in a way finding new expeditions and not missing any has become a bit of a quest for me. But its all about talking to people, and even though some of the climbers say we should do the interviews online to save time I dont agree. We find out a lot more by talking to the climbers face to face.

<b>Tomorrow: Part 2</b>

<i>Born in the US in 1923, Elizabeth Hawley moved to Kathmandu to work as a correspondent for Reuters and has since the sixties been devoted to interviewing and keeping track of climbing expeditions. Although she has never climbed a mountain, her long and diligent work has made Liz a major authority for Himalayan (Nepal and Tibet) climbing statistics.</i>
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