Me and my dad: following in his footsteps on Everest

Everest was a part of me before I was born. My father, Barry Bishop, first went to Nepal in 1961 to join the Silver Hut expedition on Ama Dablam, led by Sir Edmund Hillary. This was five years before my birth. The team wintered at 18,000 feet on the Mingbo glacier collecting what would be seminal research on high altitude physiology. My mother, Lila, led her first trek from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp in support of the 1963 American Everest Expedition, and has been leading treks to the high mountains ever since.

Mount Everest became an unknowing cornerstone in so many ways for our family; the mountain would define Barry’s climbing career with his ascent in 1963, life-long friendships were formed around the mountain, and countless adventures were launched with people Everest brought together. Our family would live in the mountains of Nepal in a tent for two years when I was a boy, and we have now worked, trekked, and climbed in the Himalaya for over 50 years. I simply can’t remember a time when the Himalayas were not woven into the fabric of our family’s life in one sense or another.

My father was a member of the American Mount Everest Expedition (AMEE) team; and I have been lucky enough to follow in his footsteps, reaching the summit of Everest in both 1994 and 2002, and attempting to summit the mountain via the West Ridge in the spring of 2012. This May marks the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of Mount Everest, which was achieved by the AMEE. My own three expeditions to the mountain over the course of nearly two decades, have given me a unique vantage point from which to reflect on the significance of the 1963 American team.

As much as I picked Everest, the mountain picked me. My father was a photographer and scientist for the National Geographic Society, and a renowned climber; and he was my hero. Growing up in his household left an indelible imprint on me. I remember watching “Americans on Everest” as a child, the first National Geographic television show ever produced. It documented that first American ascent of the mountain, and was narrated by Orson Wells. I was captivated by the grand adventure of scaling the world’s highest peak. This trip epitomized what exploration means to a young boy.

The men of the expedition were giants to me; larger-than-life climbers, and it was my great privilege to know them first-hand. I vividly recall scenes from our kitchen where my father and his cohorts would be telling stories about climbing and travel to far off places. Unbeknownst to me, these men were all elite climbers, explorers, and scientists; I simply viewed them as my father’s friends. Such moments filled a young boy with wonder and amazement for what awaited him in the world. As early as I can remember, following in my father’s footsteps and climbing Everest was a dream of mine, and this quest seemed normal and simply part of the legacy that I was lucky enough to be born into.

Growing up with a father with a larger than life persona whose curriculum vitae fills page after page can be a tricky business. Pride and admiration for my dad were balanced by trepidation that his boots were so large it seemed a daunting task to fill them. I remember early climbing trips to the Tetons with my father, where fear gripped me while on exposed precipice or ridgeline. As I grew older, the fear of exposure gave way to a thirst for adventure and the unknown. Looking back, the greatest gift bestowed on me by my father was not technical instruction, but an attitude that any adventure was possible and within your grasp as long as you took the first step and had commitment to the process. My first expedition to the Himalayas had lofty goals; it was to climb Mt. Everest. And when asked about what I learned most from my father about climbing, the answer is not technique or skill, but the unwavering belief in myself that I would be successful. Failure and triumph have marked subsequent expeditions, but it was the attitude my father bestowed on me from an early age that has been his greatest gift in the mountains.

The first time I approached Everest’s summit in ‘94, tears ran down my face as a deep sense of connection to my father welled up inside of me — a connection as a climber I had finally earned a right to call my own.

And while these climbers were already heroes to me as a boy, it was not until I embarked on my own Everest climb at age 27, that I came to fully understand the significance of these men and in particular their AMEE expedition. Climbing through terrain that I knew from pictures embedded in my memory from my youth, I was flooded with admiration and emotion. These early climbers hadn’t accumulated knowledge of the mountain after hundreds of ascents over decades of climbing. They earned their knowledge of the route one foot at a time. I remember struggling with the weight of my own oxygen equipment as I labored up the Geneva Spur to Camp IV, at 26,000 feet. There on the South Col I picked up a discarded bottle from AMEE’s era of rudimentary equipment. It weighed three times as much as my modern apparatus. Even with the psychological barriers of the unknown removed and the benefit of over 30 years of technological advancement, the climb pushed me beyond what I thought was possible both psychologically and physically.

The first time I approached Everest’s summit in ‘94, tears ran down my face as a deep sense of connection to my father welled up inside of me—a connection as a climber I had finally earned a right to call my own. I now had a true glimpse of how strong and bold those climbers were in 1963, a time when there was no simple formula for success and every step on the mountain was gained through sheer will and fortitude. Their lives hung on every decision they made, with no preordained template to guide them to the summit. Tragically, my father was killed in a car accident only four months later, robbing me of the opportunity to share and reflect with him as the first American legacy to reach the summit.

Nearly a decade later, I returned to the mountain with the opportunity to partake in a film for the National Geographic Society, “Everest, 50 Years on the Mountain.” The film celebrates the 50th anniversary of Sir Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first ascent and is told through the eyes of the sons of these pioneer climbers. When asked to join the project, I jumped at the invitation to partake in a film that would continue the legacy of my father and his peers. And just as the original Americans on Everest film influenced me as a young boy, partaking in a film that might influence my own two sons made me proud to be part of the American Everest legacy.

Our climbing goal was to repeat Willie Unsold and Tom Hornbein’s epic first ascent of the West Ridge, but poor weather and high winds hastened our retreat from the West Shoulder. We were able to redirect our efforts and summit via the South Col route, and once again, I literally and figuratively followed in my father’s footsteps to the summit of the mountain carrying both the American and National Geographic flags that my father had taken with him nearly forty years earlier. The memory of that summit day is bittersweet for me; I remember Peter Hillary making an emotional call to his father from the summit, and while elated with standing on the top of the world, Peter’s connection with his father made me acutely aware of my own father’s absence at such a significant moment for me.

I remember being overwhelmed with the notion that this was the location where my father struggled to stay alive through the night.

The allure of Everest is quite strong, and after failing on the West Ridge in ’02 I felt I still had unfinished business on the route. The aesthetics, commitment, and climbing style embodied by the line appeal to me on every level as a climber, so I was glad for the opportunity, in 2012, to join a 50th anniversary commemorative climb of the West Ridge. This team was quite experienced, with 11 summits of the mountain between the four principle climbers. But once again, the conditions on the route were unfavorable and forced our retreat after relatively little progress above Camp II. Each day that our team labored to gain ground on the route, I kept wondering with amazement how the original American climbers were able to push the route successfully into the unknown so effectively when our veteran team of climbers kept on bogging down. Nearly 50 years after first ascent of the West Ridge, the route’s significance has withstood the test of time. The technical nature of the climb, and the commitment it demanded were unparalleled in 1963, and it still remains a coveted achievement in the Himalayas, as witnessed by the mere handful of successful ascents in the 50 years since.

Not only has the first American ascent withstood the test of time, but within the context of the era, AMEE is even more significant; 1963 was the age of Camelot, when Kennedy championed the merits of the “vigorous life.” At this point, America had lost the first step in the space race to Russia’s successful launch of the first man into space. A wave of patriotism swept through America and it was clear that no one – not mountaineers, politicians, nor the general public — wanted to see America lose another race to the Soviets. The AMEE team was assembled, and the national support it received was not only unparalleled at the time but has not been witnessed since.

The budget for the AMEE expedition was $405,000. This was a huge sum of money for its time and would be equivalent to over $3,000,000 today. To add perspective, our expedition budget in ’94 was $80,000 and this included a mandatory $50,000 peak fee for the ministry of tourism. But even more impressive than the monies raised, was the breadth and volume of support that came from myriad benefactors. It is hard to comprehend in this day and age, when expeditions receive little public attention or support, the wellspring of backing AMEE received. Private individuals donated personal funds, companies and stores donated tons of equipment, and a host of government organizations backed the endeavor. NASA, the Department of Atomic Research, the Navy, and the Air Force all donated substantial funds to the expedition in return for scientific research. The National Geographic was also a major supporter in return for the photographic and film rights to the expedition. So captivated was the nation with the expedition, that President Kennedy received the team at the White House and Life Magazine ran a cover story featuring the climb.

The objectives of AMEE were lofty, to say the least. The primary climbing goal of the expedition was to place a man on the summit via the Southeast Ridge. This was accomplished on May 1, 1963, when Jim Whittaker and Sherpa Nawang Gombu stood on the top of the world. This feat alone marked success for the team, but further goals were in store. The idea of climbing the never-before-attempted West Ridge, traversing the mountain, and descending the Southeast Ridge became the secondary objective. The West Ridge is a route that truly embodies the spirit of mountaineering – it is visionary, technically difficult, and requires a tremendous amount of commitment. In 1963, the mere idea of ascending via the West Ridge was at least 30 years ahead of its time. Willie Unsoeld’s and Tom Hornbein’s success on the route was to mark America’s greatest Himalayan achievement to date.

Not only did Hornbein and Unsoeld climb the West Ridge on May 22nd, they met my father and Lute Jerstad near the summit of the mountain and then began to descend through the night. Nightfall caught them out in the open and they were forced to bivy at over 28,000 feet without stove, tent, or oxygen. The team huddled together exposed on the South East Ridge with no other option except to wait for the light of morning. Nobody had spent the night out at this altitude before and it was uncertain whether survival was even possible. Twice I climbed past the site where the foursome spent the night unprotected below the summit and on both occasions I remember being overwhelmed with the notion that this was the location where my father struggled to stay alive through the night. I often wonder what occupied my father’s thoughts as he waited for the cold and blackness to give way to the morning light.

In essence, any American climbing in the Himalayas is climbing in the footsteps of giants.

The other objective of AMEE was to perform scientific research while on the mountain. In essence, AMEE was its own scientific lab. Significant research and experiments were performed in the disciplines of glaciology, solar radiation, physiology, psychology, and sociology. Every member of the team contributed in some form to the research component of the expedition. In 1963 there was not a great deal of data on high altitude physiology. The AMEE not only provided the perfect lab, but all of the specimens to study as well. The results from the AMEE provided concrete documentation of the effects of altitude, particularly above 8,000 meters, and this body of knowledge has served as the foundation for all subsequent altitude research done in the United States.

The Navy and Air Force were quite interested in the social and psychological aspects of a team subjected to prolonged high stress and extremely cold weather. Their interest was prompted by the notion that the U.S. Defense Department’s belief that the country would most likely be involved in a conflict where soldiers would be stationed in very cold, stressful, and remote conditions. Interesting as they were, the results of the research were most likely biased, given the exceptional bravery and strength of character of the expedition members.

Assembled by expedition leader Norman Dyhrenfurth, the members themselves were the best and most experienced mountaineers in North America in their time. The list of members reads like a “Who’s Who” of the 60’s era. Just thumb through any guidebook from almost any climbing destination in the United States, and the names Corbet, Pownall, Emerson, Unsoeld, Jerstad, et al., can be found in connection with significant ascents all over North America. Not only were the AMEE members exceptional climbers, they were highly educated and professional. The team had three MD’s, five PhD’s, and five MA/MS’s. (Three of these members were working on their PhD on the expedition). These men were from the Renaissance mold of climbers; their avocation of climbing was separate from their vocation, which only makes their feats on Everest even more impressive.

50 years ago, this expedition was undertaken with a mixture of excitement, adventure, and optimism. When we look backwards we have the benefit of seeing the risk of exploration and the light of its results. The tangible results of AMEE are quite clear – six members on the summit, a new route on the mountain, and a massive body of scientific research produced. Less tangible is the tremendous influence these climbers and their expedition had on subsequent generations to follow. Virtually every climber that ventured fourth into the mountains in the generations following the 1963 climb read either Hornbein’s “The West Ridge,” or Ullman’s official account of the climb, “Americans on Everest,” if not both. These books influenced countless climbers on many levels.

Most importantly, this team set the benchmark of what was possible for American climbers in the Himalayas. After reading these accounts, one comes away with the belief that anything can be accomplished; and one comes away inspired to accept the mantle of their legacy and follow in their footsteps. The world of the known expands only when we place our faith and support in those brave enough to take giant steps. We would be nowhere, essentially, without the bravery of our explorers, and that’s why we are celebrating this anniversary. In essence, any American climbing in the Himalayas is climbing in the footsteps of giants. And among these giants are all the members of the 1963 American Mount Everest Expedition.

A lifetime of climbing and 46 years of age brings greater perspective in the mountains, at least it has for me. No longer armed with the invincibility and strength of youth, my last climb opened my eyes even more to AMEE’s achievement. A Chortan to commemorate my father sits behind Tangboche Monestary, alongside memorials for his friends and fellow climbers Gil Roberts, Lute Jerstadt, and Jake Britenbac. It’s a powerful sight with a beautiful view up the valley and Everest looming above all else. I visit these Chortans whenever I’m in the Khumbu to string up Tibetan prayer flags and to have a drink with, “the boys.” Tears are shed and once again I feel like the kid in his kitchen surrounded by his heroes, listening with amazement and wonder to tales of Everest.