Inside One Madman’s Wild Plan to Conquer Everest
Can an amateur climb the world's most famous mountain? Maurice Wilson tried to find out.
Today, Everest is a tired cliche of achievement. Overcrowded and completely commercialized, the diminishment of this storied peak is succinctly captured in a photo that went viral in May of 2019. In it, a legion of climbers hooded in brightly colored puffy jackets snake up the ridge of Everest in a perilous conga line, as if ascending a Grand Central escalator at rush hour.
Before Everest was routinely summited, it was the holy grail for alpinists and a conquest that fascinated the public and British government alike. The Moth and the Mountain by Ed Caesar details the race to conquer Everest and one amateur’s mad attempt at this historic achievement.
This slim, riveting book hits all the right notes for an epic tale: the trauma of World War I, messy love triangles, globetrotting adventures, and a wayward soul hellbent on conquering his inner demons. At the center is Maurice Wilson, “a brilliant, bull-headed, extraordinary figure” who, after fighting in World War I, “set out on the most incredible adventure to try and redeem his broken life,” Caesar tells InsideHook. The adventure in question was highly ambitious and somewhat delusional: Wilson planned to crash-land a plane near the base of Everest and ascend the mountaintop, alone and unaided. At the time, Everest had never been summited and Wilson, for his part, did not know how to fly a plane and “had hardly climbed anything more challenging than a flight of stairs.”
Caesar first encountered Wilson while reading Into the Silence by Wade Davis, a book about early Everest adventurers in which Wilson earned a few paragraphs. This brief sketch of Wilson’s crackpot quest immediately struck Caesar as incredibly “cinematic.” “I used to sometimes wake up thinking about Wilson,” Caesar says.
Caesar’s telling of Wilson’s remarkable story, however, is not the first. In his lifetime, the bodacious Wilson was widely covered in the press and, in 1957, English journalist Dennis Roberts published I’ll Climb Mount Everest Alone, the first book devoted to Wilson. But, according to Caesar, this first attempt at Wilson’s life was riddled with inaccuracies. Crucially, “What Roberts didn’t do,” Caesar says, “was talk to anyone in Wilson’s family, so he didn’t really understand his wartime experience at all.” In Caesar’s view, Wilson was never quite able to get over how extremely lucky he was to survive WWI. “You sense him battling with fate and luck a lot,” says Caesar, “especially on his final trip to Everest.”
Caesar conjures prevailing thoughts and psychological mindsets of the time by immersing the reader in historical detail and supplementing this adventure tale with helpful context concerning the geopolitics of a waning British Empire, the existential crisis induced by World War I and subsequent spiritualism.
Wilson came up in a renaissance of exploration, not in pursuit of new trade routes but in the name of “science” — or at least that was the purported reason. As Caesar notes, Shackleton and other legendary explorers of this age framed their expeditions into remote, hostile territories as inward journeys to, in the words of Shackleton, “the naked soul of men.”
In the case of Wilson, his inability to settle into a contented, middle class family life following his experiences in WWI left him aching for purpose and direction. After a stint globetrotting, from New Zealand to the West Coasts of North America and back to England, he set his sights on Everest.
At the time, public imagination, stoked by British media, was captivated by astonishing feats of human endurance by polar explorers and mountaineers alike. The British government, perhaps detecting declining morale in the empire, sponsored these ambitious quests. But, in the case of Wilson, the British government expressly forbid his journey. Clever and determined, Wilson was able to outfox British officials every step of the way, procuring airplane fuel from unlikely sources and disguising himself as a Tibetan priest to evade detection while crossing the border from India to Sikkim.
“They were so ill-equipped by modern standards,” says Caesar, speaking of the early Everest climbers, and then related the story of the playwright George Bernard Shaw who, upon seeing a photo of Mallory and company dressed in tweed near the snowy peaks of Everest, remarked they looked as if on “a picnic in Connemara, surprised by a snowstorm.”
Wilson, for his part, fastidiously researched equipment and bought the most up to date gear he could find from Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly including a lightweight, windproof tent, woolen undergarments, and hobnail boots lined with cork. The same department store supplied previous expeditions with “everything from caviar to woolly hats.” But, whereas these earlier group expeditions were accompanied by porters whose duties included carrying supplies, setting up camp, and cooking, Wilson had to do all those things alone while carrying a 45 lb. bag.
Wilson’s training was laughable. With a mere two months of preparation, he learned to fly. During this time, he also went on long, strenuous walks on Britain’s highest slopes in Snowdonia and, later, in Wale’s mountainous north. Though he emerged extremely physically fit, these hills were but a pale shadow of Everest and he neglected to learn “basic alpine techniques” such as “ice cutting, climbing in crampons, the use of the ax.”
Most curiously, Wilson trained his mind and body in the art of fasting. “In preparation for his march to Everest,” Caesar writes, “he cut down to one meal a day, then just to fruit, and then to nothing but water…After a period of abnegation, he though that the body was rebuilt even stronger.” Though this goes against conventional wisdom, Wilson’s faith in fasting was rooted in what Caesar calls the “regenerative power of asceticism,” not unlike holy men he encountered waiting in Darjeeling for opportune weather to tackle Everest.
In the end, Wilson never made it past Camp IV, though it’s no small miracle he made it that far. In the face of great doubt and adversity, Wilson repeatedly trounced everyone’s expectations and Caesar’s biographical tale of Wilson rightly restores a footnoted figure of alpine history to the storied peaks of Mount Everest, where his body lay still today.
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