It’s climbing season on Mt. Everest, so let’s take a look back at one of the pioneers of that deadly mountain. Thanks to his fortitude and harrowing tale of survival, Barry Bishop became the stuff of legend around National Geographic. A barrel-chested man with a handlebar mustache, he resembled nothing so much as a sturdy elf. During an era when most Americans had no interest in climbing, he had become an expert from an early age. When Swiss climber Norman Dhyrenfurth cast about for members for his 1963 attempt on Everest, he called Bishop. This “little war on a big mountain” included 19 climbers, 32 Sherpas and 909 porters.
On May 1, Big Jim Whittaker became the first American to reach the rooftop of the world. A few weeks later, leader Norman Dhyrenfurth decided they had just enough oxygen and strength to get a few more team members to the top. Willi Unsoeld and Tom Hornbein would ascend via the West Ridge route they had reconnoitered a few weeks prior to this. Lute Jerstad and Bishop planned to follow Whittaker’s path up the South Col, hoping to meet the other two on the summit and then descend together.
Bishop and Jerstad, having made their way up to the advanced Camp VI, got off to an unpromising start after dealing with a fire in their tent caused by one of the butane cylinders. Then for the real challenge. Bishop later described the South Col as “the most desolate, God-forsaken spot on the face of the Earth,” with winds never dropping below 60 miles per hour…On Everest the wind speaks with many voices. It rises, it falls, it thunders. Sometimes it is the remote night cry of a sick child. But it is always the wind.”
Seven and one-half grueling hours later, however, they stood atop the roof of the world, Bishop planting the Society’s flag next to the American one recently left by Whittaker. Jerstad took the first motion pictures from the summit while Bishop laboriously concentrated on still photography–the latter actually recorded on his parka a list of photos to capture in case the altitude clouded his mind. Both men’s hands were freezing, and the wind chill factor registered approximately -85 to -90 degrees Fahrenheit. No sign, however, of Unsoeld and Hornbein, and after remaining on the summit for 45 minutes, Bishop and Jerstad had to descend. They were worried about their dwindling supply of oxygen, and due to their late start, nightfall would catch them still far from Camp VI.
They eased their way downwards in the gathering darkness, and after a while heard voices. Surely a trick of the reverberant wind, playing on their dazed senses? But the voices grew more insistent–it was Unsoeld and Hornbein. They had successfully summited as well, the first to do so from the West Ridge route, but not before overcoming their own set of problems. Now they were descending down an unfamiliar route. Bishop and Jerstad stopped in their tracks, spending the next couple of hours stamping their feet to keep warm while leading their comrades down by the sound of their own voices. The four climbers, now reunited, resumed their cautious descent, continually urged on by Unsoeld. But after awhile the path became too complicated to follow, and they worried that in the dark they might miss the turn-off to camp. The wind having finally died down, at 12:30 a.m. the four decided to wait on an outcrop of rock for the sun to rise. Hornbein and Unsoeld huddled together; the latter unselfishly using his own body heat to ward off frostbite in his teammate’s freezing feet.
Miraculously, they all survived their night out-of-doors high up on the mountain, a first in Everest history. When morning dawned, the men set off again, encountering Dave Dingman, who had forfeited his chance to try for the summit in order to search for them despite the odds of their survival. Dingman and one of the Sherpas administered oxygen and escorted the exhausted climbers down to Camp VI. Later, farther down at Camp I, Maynard Miller, whom Bishop called a “veritable Florence Nightingale,” melted some of his hard-won ice samples in order to get liquids into the dehydrated men. Various Sherpas performed a relay race of sorts in order to transport Unsoeld and Bishop to Namche Bazar where a helicopter took them to a hospital in Katmandu. Bishop had to be evacuated via military transport to New Delhi to be under the care of a Navy doctor expert at dealing with frostbite cases. Bishop’s case was severe, however, and would cost him all ten toes plus the tips of his little fingers. Unsoeld remained hospitalized for several months as well, ultimately losing nine toes but eventually able to resume his work with the Peace Corps in Nepal.
Apart from being the first Americans to climb the world’s tallest mountain, the American Mount Everest Expedition also racked up many other “firsts,” among them getting the most men to the top and making the first simultaneous climb from two directions. In July 1963, President John F. Kennedy presented the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal to Dyhrenfurth and his team, and the story was featured extensively in the Magazine’s 75th Anniversary issue appearing that October, then passing into the realms of Society legend.