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This famous Cincinnatian scaled Mount Everest

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Posted at 5:00 AM, Sep 14, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-14 05:00:23-04

CINCINNATI -- Barry Bishop (1932-1994) may have been the most adventurous Cincinnatian of the 20th century. But have you ever heard of him? 

WCPO contributing photographer Gary Landers has. He knows Bishop as the photographer, who in 1963, was on the first American and National Geographic-sponsored team to reach the summit Mount Everest.

The two men, however, have one more thing other than photography in common. It’s a house on Resor Place in Clifton, the very one Bishop grew up in and the one Landers and his wife, Cindy Hardesty, have owned for 15 years. 

Bishop would have appreciated the house-photographer coincidence, said his wife, Lila Mueller Bishop of Bozeman, Mont.

She passed on her best wishes to Landers during a recent phone interview. 

“When I went to UC, (the Bishop House) was so much closer than where I lived in Mount Lookout that I pretty much lived Thursdays and Fridays with the Bishops until the weekends," she said. "I remember that house real well.” 

It was the second Clifton home for Barry Bishop. His parents, Bob (a University of Cincinnati sociology professor and dean) and Becky, owned a home a few blocks away on Cornell Place, but moved to Resor Place when their son was about 8 years old. 

It was during the time he was living in that 1923 Tudor revival house that Barry first dreamed of climbing Everest. He was described by childhood, Walnut Hills High School and UC friend Sally Stirsman of East Walnut Hills as “kind of a dickens but nothing as far as being naughty.”

Bishop was constantly seeking adventure. 

As a boy, he saw Antarctic explorer Richard Byrd at a lecture and dreamed of working with him and going on expeditions with the staff of a favorite magazine, National Geographic. 

Bishop described his ultimate dream – one he had as a member of the Colorado Mountain Club – during a commencement address he made at his alma mater, UC, the year of his death: 

“The third (dream) was the most vivid and frequent of my youth – climbing Mt. Everest. I had it first on the summit of Long’s Peak (14,255 feet), in Colorado, when I was twelve. While dozing in the sun after reaching the top that August afternoon, I dreamed of climbing a peak over twice the height of Long’s – Mt. Everest – Chomolungma – Goddess Mother of the World (29,028 feet). The scoffers with no vision might view it as nothing more than a boyhood dream of an unattainable goal. But great dreams can become realities. Such was the case for me, for as a member of the first American Mt. Everest Expedition in 1963 I did reach the Third Pole – the summit of earth’s highest mountain.” 

Eager For Adventure

Barry Bishop earned a degree in geology from UC and a Ph.D from Northwestern University, but he began his education at the private Lotspeich School in Clifton, where children were encouraged to learn on their own -- even if it meant that they got into a little mischief while doing it. Lila Bishop said that Barry’s mother, who had a teaching degree, embraced that philosophy. 

Given a little freedom, Lila said, her husband could be a handful. 

“I remember him talking with some of his old neighborhood friends – they were a hell-raising bunch of boys – about how they’d run on the roofs of garages, which they could do because (the buildings) were close together and they could go from one to the other," she said.

She also recalled hearing about how when he was young, Barry once strapped on his toy pistols and pulled a handkerchief up over his mouth and nose like a bandit. He actually held up a girl and stole her bag of groceries, Lila said, and his parents made him return them and apologize to the girl. 

Sally Stirsman’s parents were neighbors and good friends with the Bishops. She and Barry ran with the same crowd at Walnut Hills and ended up at UC together. Barry was an usher at her wedding, and her husband was in Barry and Lila’s wedding, she said. 

She recalled spending time with Barry after their freshman year in college in Colorado’s Estes Park, which is a base camp for adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park. Barry had a car, Stirsman recalled, and drove them up Trail Ridge Road, one of the most scenic roads in the Rockies. 

“He stopped and got out of the car and cascaded on his feet down a snow bank all the way to the bottom. I’m at the top waiting for him to come back up, but he didn’t. Finally, after 15 minutes, I scooted down on my back. He was great fun,” Stirsman said. 

Frostbite And Fire

Bishop’s high-mountain experiences weren’t always fun. Getting to the summit and back on Mount Everest cost him dearly. 

He described the mental challenge of the 1963 ascent of Everest in “How We Climbed Everest,” published by National Geographic in 2003: 

“As all climbers know, lack of oxygen produces weird mental effects. The thin air and the antibiotics I have been taking cause my claustrophobia – and a muddled sense of balance as well. Lying flat, I feel as if I am at an absurd and sickening angle. Nausea wrenches my stomach. Breathing is quick and shallow. By bracing myself semi-upright, I maintain some semblance of equilibrium.” 

A butane stove caught the tent on fire that Bishop was sharing with his partner, Lute Jerstad. They were due to climb to the summit the next day. 

Wrote Bishop about the moments after the tent fire: “Choking and gasping, we sag on our hands and knees. Minutes pass before we can breathe with any semblance of normality. As we crawl back inside, we say nothing to each other. But we share the same thought. The omens are bad, all bad.” 

Despite their burned beards, singed eyebrows and sense of impending failure, the two mountaineers headed out as scheduled and defeated 45-degree cliffs of snow and bare rock, successfully reaching the summit the next day. 

“Everest is a harsh and hostile immensity. Whoever challenges it declares war. He must mount his assault with the skill and ruthlessness of a military operation. And when the battle ends, the mountain remains unvanquished. There are no true victors, only survivors.” – Barry Bishop’s concluding words in “How We Climbed Everest” for National Geographic

The trip back down was equally as treacherous for the men, who were unfamiliar with the path, seriously frostbitten and nearly blind and mad. Two teams of four Sherpas had to carry them miles to helicopters that returned them to civilization. 

Shortly thereafter, doctors examined Bishop’s frozen toes. They amputated them all. 

Losing his toes limited Bishop’s climbing but didn’t slow down his career. 

He continued as a photographer, writer and advocate for the people of the Himalayas and became a vice president of the National Geographic Society. Ultimately, Bishop presided over a committee that awarded millions of dollars in grants for scientific research and exploration. He took part in research expeditions worldwide with top scientists such as Jane Goodall and Mary Leakey. 

According to a New York Times obituary, Bishop “received professional awards recognizing his contributions in geography and other fields and was a member of the board of the Yosemite National Institutes and Explorers Club, among others.” 

He and Lila spent a number of years in Bethesda, Maryland., and reared two children, Tara and Brent, a world class mountaineer who also conquered Mount Everest. The couple moved to Bozeman after Barry retired, and it was from there in September 1994 that they embarked on a road trip to San Francisco, where Barry was to deliver a lecture. 

An Untimely Death

Police said Bishop veered off the highway on Sept. 24 near Pocatello, Idaho. He lost control of his car, crashing it. He was killed, and his wife suffered minor injuries. Barry Bishop was 62 years old. 

The National Geographic Society honored him posthumously in November 1995 with the Distinguished Geography Educator award, calling it “a fitting acknowledgment of one whose life reflected National Geographic's mission of increasing and diffusing geographic knowledge.” 

“We could always count on Barry for well-considered advice,” said National Geographic Editor Bill Allen. “We also admired his concern for the people of the Himalayas and the welfare of the planet.” 

“Everybody liked Barry,” said Stirsman. “He was a very good soul.” 

UC Magazine Editor Deborah Rieselman wrote this about Bishop’s death in a 2013 article about his life: 
“I felt that it was such a meritless ending for a man who had survived falls from cliffs, entrapment in oxygen-starved environments and an overnight bivouac in temperatures of 18 degrees below zero.” 

Everest On Film

The film, “Everest,” opens at IMAX theaters at AMC Newport and AMC West Chester on Sept. 18. It tells the story of a disastrous 1996 ascent of the great peak described in chilling detail in mountaineer Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book “Into Thin Air.” The movie stars Jason Clarke, Christian Bale, Michael Kelley, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson and John Hawkes.