By Steve Koppes
Barry Bishop very nearly died one night in May 1963, scarcely 1,000 feet from the summit of Mount Everest.
Bishop, PhD’80, somehow managed to survive his record-setting, exposed overnighter, although he lost all of his toes and the tips of two fingers from frostbite.
With injuries shortening his climbing career, Bishop came to UChicago and turned his focus toward research on the people of Nepal. His scholarly journey in geography also was a challenging ascent, but it produced lasting contributions that continue to inspire researchers long after Bishop’s 1994 death in a car accident at the age of 62.
Bishop’s doctoral adviser, Marvin Mikesell, introduced the students in his autumn quarter geography seminar to Bishop’s 460-page doctoral dissertation, Karnali Under Stress, published in 1990 by UChicago’s Committee on Geographical Studies. Mikesell describes it as an exemplary work by a remarkable field worker, writer, and human being.
“I like to think of him as having two lives,” says Mikesell, Professor in Geographical Studies. “His first life, he’s a mountaineer, an explorer, a photographer. Should’ve died, but didn’t, then has a new life and he becomes a scholar and researcher.”
A member of the first U.S. team to successfully climb Everest, Bishop had already stood at the summit on the afternoon of May 22, 1963. Descending a narrow ridge of snow at midnight on the mountain’s southeast ridge, Bishop and his three climbing partners needed to find the sharp turnoff that would lead them to the relative safety of Camp VI, elevation 27,450 feet.
“We know that in the darkness our chances of pinpointing this turnoff are poor indeed,” Bishop later wrote in the October 1963 issue of National Geographic. “So, at 12:30 on the morning of May 23, we decide to bivouac until dawn.”
At 28,000 feet, it became the highest-altitude bivouac anyone had ever survived—a record amazingly exceeded in 1975 by two Everest climbers who took shelter in a snow cave. “He always said that it’s a miracle there was almost no wind that night, otherwise he’d be dead,” Mikesell says.
Bishop enrolled in the now-discontinued doctoral program in geography at UChicago in 1966. He had completed his bachelor’s degree in geology at the University of Cincinnati in 1954 and his master’s degree in geography at Northwestern University in 1957.
At Northwestern, Bishop studied glaciology and climatology. But for his post-Everest graduate research at Chicago, “he really wanted to study human geography, to study the people in the area,” Mikesell says.
During one presentation Bishop gave as a Chicago graduate student, he showed an image of a shrub that had been decorated as a Buddhist shrine. Nepal’s spectacular, 26,764-foot Dhalagiri stood in the background.
“He talks about that and somebody says, ’My God, what is that mountain?’ And he says, ’Oh, I forgot to mention the mountain,” Mikesell recalls. “He was absorbed with the Buddhist ritual and the shrub.”
Initially Bishop had planned to study the Sherpas who lived near Everest, but changed course after discovering that German fieldworkers had beaten him to it. “So he shifted and went away off to the very remote northern part of Nepal, an area called Karnali,” Mikesell says.
Bishop had to trek all of his food and gear into the area. Remarkably, he took his wife and two young children with him. After a stay of approximately two years, he returned to the States with an immense amount of data. He then began a decade-long struggle to write his dissertation.
“He was in limbo,” Mikesell says of Bishop, who lived a financially marginal life while on leave from the National Geographic Society. The family survived on his wife’s salary as a schoolteacher and revenue from their small camping-equipment business and his Everest lectures. At one point he was living in the garage behind a colleague’s home in Tempe, Ariz. At another time he lived in the unheated attic of legendary UChicago law professor Harry Kalven’s home.
Mikesell and other faculty members suspected that Bishop would never finish his dissertation. Then one day Bishop telephoned from Ann Arbor, Mich., where he was staying with friends, to inform Mikesell that he was done. “And lo and behold, there it was, an absolutely brilliant study,” Mikesell recalls.
Bishop had described the Karnali economy at the family, regional, and national scales. “And he does something that no geographer had ever really done,” Mikesell says. He stressed the seasonal rhythms of the populace’s livelihood.
The dissertation took an unusually long time to complete because of Bishop’s uncompromisingly high standards. “He wanted to revise the whole history of Nepal, which was a huge chapter,” says Mikesell.
Bishop also felt compelled, as a National Geographic staffer, to include high-quality illustrations in his dissertation. “The photography, the graphics, the maps, it’s by far the best-illustrated dissertation we’ve ever had,” Mikesell says.
The text also was impressive. “Other people have worked in the Himalayas, of course, but nobody has ever done as much as he did.”
Originally published on December 20, 2010.