First American Flag on Mount Everest

by Catie Watson

The year 1963 was one of the most significant in American history, marked by the assassination of President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. It was also in 1963 that an American climber first reached the summit of Mount Everest and placed an American flag there.

Mt. Everest
Mt. Everest

In May of 1963, the National Geographic Society sponsored an expedition to Everest and asked Barry Bishop to serve as photographer for the team.  Bishop was an experienced mountaineer, geographer and photographer.  An American mountaineer named Jim Whittaker was the first American member of the team to reach the summit of Mount Everest, where he planted an American flag.  A few weeks later, Bishop ascended to the peak with his climbing partner Lute Jerstad and took a now-famous photo of the U.S. flag planted by Jim Whittaker.  The spot where the photo was taken is still known as Barry Bishop ledge.

On the descent, Bishop and Jerstad fell into a crevasse but were rescued by other members of the expedition.  Bishop suffered frostbite and subsequently lost all of his toes.  In July of 1963, President Kennedy presented Whittaker, Bishop and the rest of the team with the National Geographic Society’s highest award, the Hubbard Medal.  In 1994, Barry Bishop’s son Brent also ascended Everest, making the Bishops the first father and son to have both climbed to the top of Mount Everest.

Barry Bishop tragically died in an auto accident that same year.  Jim Whittaker went on to become CEO of REI and is currently Chairman of the Board of Magellan Navigation.

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