What makes a person give up everything to chase a daunting dream? Rash self-confidence, the desire to go down in history, being driven by an idea larger than oneself, or a combination of all these?
Take the case of Maurice Wilson. In the 1930s, he decided to fly from England to Nepal in a de Havilland Gipsy Moth and then become the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest – entirely on his own. Incredibly, Wilson had no flying or climbing experience whatsoever when he came up with this plan.
Ed Caesar’s new book, The Moth and the Mountain, is an engrossing and probing account of Wilson’s odyssey. Of the indomitable mountaineers in the first few decades of the twentieth century, Caesar writes that they were “not viewed as mere sportsmen, but as warriors for an unimpeachable and selfless cause”.
When asked why he wanted to reach Earth’s highest point in a 1923 interview, George Mallory followed up on his famous “because it is there” reply by adding: “Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.” To Mallory and his colleagues, Everest was both a means of national redemption as well as “personal and metaphysical rebirth”. Wilson shared this second impulse, if not the first.
He was from the textile town of Bradford, and his life had largely been defined by war and wanderlust. One of the members of the lost generation who fought at Flanders, he was later hit across the back and left arm by a German machine gunner. For his gallantry, he received the Military Cross, one of Britain’s highest awards for valour.
Once home, he tried to pick up the pieces of his life by marrying and entering the textile trade. However, waywardness got the better of him; perhaps, Caesar suggests, this was a case of late-onset post-traumatic stress, or shell shock, as it was then called. Wilson sailed to New Zealand, took up with another woman, and then started travelling yet again, this time across the North American continent.
Finally, he made his way back to London where he struck up a close friendship with tyre salesman Len Evans and his wife, Enid. Given the nature and the number of his letters to Enid, it’s quite possible that it was more than mere companionship.
This, then, was Wilson’s condition in 1932. Caesar explains: “He felt he was polluted; he wanted to be washed clean. He considered his life adrift; he desired purpose. He wandered in the fog; he longed for a flashlight. He had lost the thread of his own story; he yearned for a plot.” Sitting in a café while on a trip to Germany’s Black Forest, he came across a newspaper article on an early British expedition to Everest. Here was born the quixotic idea that was to dominate the rest of his life.
By this time, he had also started to believe that periodic fasting and prayer could cure and rebuild his body and soul. An interest in Buddhist literature apart, he was fascinated by Gandhi’s asceticism. What resonated was “the idea of purification through abstinence”.
In preparation, Wilson set out to climb some of Britain’s highest peaks, joined aeroplane clubs to take flying lessons, and put together the basic gear he thought he would need. Much of it, incongruously enough, was from Piccadilly’s Fortnum & Mason. Then, he took off on a solo flight to reach the end of his rainbow.
It was a staggering journey of ups and downs with stops in, among other places, Cairo, Baghdad, Bethlehem, Amman, Gwadar and finally, Purnea in Bihar. At this point, his plane was finally impounded. All along, the British authorities had warned him against his expedition, not wanting to upset the delicate balance they had struck with the kingdom of Nepal by allowing a lone adventurer to climb their slopes.
Nothing deterred, Wilson headed for Darjeeling. It was from here that one night, months later, he disguised himself as a Tibetan priest and, in the company of three Sikkimese guides, started to walk more than three hundred miles to arrive at the north side of Everest.
Caesar vividly outlines Wilson’s several attempts to reach the peak. He was, after all, a person without technical expertise, relevant experience or skilled companions. After many days exposed to high winds, sub-zero temperatures, and impassable glaciers, he made a diary entry before setting off once more. It read, in its entirety: “Off again, gorgeous day.”
The Moth and the Mountain is clearly focused on Wilson’s obsession – and the author’s obsession with him – but it does touch upon a wider social context to deepen understanding. There are thumbnail accounts of early mountaineering expeditions and the impact of World War One (which Wade Davis also wrote about in his fascinating Into the Silence), as well as sidelights into the so-called Great Game between Britain and Russia.
All these years later, as alpinist and National Geographic photographer Cory Richards puts it, Mount Everest is still “as high, cold, and formidable as it ever was”. However, though reaching the peak is indeed impressive, it’s no longer the phenomenal feat it once was. Hundreds accomplish it every year due in no small part to advances in infrastructure and technology.
You could call Wilson plucky, as the newspapers of his time did; you could call him bonkers; or you could call him worryingly eccentric. His unreasonable optimism and superhuman efforts, though, make one wonder what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost in emerging into a present-day world that’s rational, technological and supposedly sane.