The nature of obsession is just one of the questions Ed Caesar addresses in his new biography of Maurice Wilson, a First World War veteran determined to climb Everest alone and without oxygen.
Widely reckoned to be an eccentric amateur, most notably by Dennis Roberts’ book of 1957, Wilson’s efforts have so far been consigned to a footnote in the history of mountaineering. Caesar re-examines the evidence and reveals his own compulsion to uncover the truth about this highly complex man.
Born in Bradford in the north of England, Maurice Wilson signed up to the army in May 1916 at the age of 18. His experiences in the trenches in Flanders earned him a medal for bravery and a life-long hatred of officialdom. Injured, mentally and physically, he returned home and was finally demobbed in 1919 when the War Ministry saw fit to deny him a gratuity as compensation. The wool trade in Bradford, on which the Wilson family finances relied, had collapsed. Broke and bored, Maurice set sail with his brother to New Zealand.
After an eight-year hiatus, including two failed marriages, Wilson drifted back to London. Here he befriended a married couple, Enid and Len Evans, with whom he seems to have established a ménage à trois. Whether the relationship was consummated is unclear but Enid remained the center of Wilson’s romantic attention for the rest of his life.
The London of the early 1930s was an exciting place to live. Caesar skillfully shows Wilson against a backdrop of cabaret, black-tie dinner-dances and derring-do. In a serious loss of face, Britain had missed out on being first to conquer either pole. The next best thing, scaling previously unclimbed mountains, became a matter of national urgency. Those who had taken on the challenge some years earlier, such as George Mallory and Charles Bruce, were deemed heroes.
The last entry in his diary read: “Off again, gorgeous day.”
Putting Wilson’s life in this context makes his ambitions more understandable. By this time, Wilson had also investigated spiritual healers and philosophers fashionable in his circle. He decided that physical deprivation could be the way to enlightenment and undertook periods of fasting, prayer and extreme exercise. And what could be more of a test for the soul than reaching the summit of Everest?
It is perhaps unsurprising that so many of the early Everest explorers had witnessed the crushing horrors on the front line in the First World War. To Mallory and his pioneering colleagues on those missions of the 1920s, Everest had become a means not only of national redemption, but of personal and metaphysical rebirth.
As a mere civilian in 1932, Wilson had steep obstacles to overcome before he could get anywhere near base camp. Planning to fly to the lower slopes of Everest and climb to the summit from there, Wilson procured a second-hand Gipsy Moth, which he renamed Ever-Wrest, and took lessons. Having mastered the machine, Wilson then failed to convince the authorities to give him the necessary permissions and visas. The British government thought Wilson’s plan was dangerously foolish and cabled its dependencies abroad with instructions to detain Wilson should he touch down in their territory en route.
Undeterred, Wilson went anyway, flying a circuitous route to avoid bureaucratic blocks. He escaped arrest in Tunisia and thwarted British officials in Bahrain and Karachi. In Purnea, the Gipsy moth was impounded and Wilson was denied entry to Nepal: the kingdom was by now independent from the British Empire but relations were still friendly. Meanwhile, Tibet was firmly closed to any adventurers and an illegal entry could cause a diplomatic incident. Wilson dallied in Darjeeling, fasting and weighing up the options. In the end, he recruited three Bhutia guides and walked with them the three hundred miles to Tibet, travelling at night and disguised as a priest, before arriving at the Rongbuk monastery in the Himalayan foothills.
From this location, Wilson made several attempts at the peak. None of them were successful and, sadly, the last was fatal. He died alone in his tent, overcome by exposure to the high winds and sub-zero temperatures. The last entry in his diary read: “Off again, gorgeous day.”
Adding depth to this incredible tale, Caesar devotes a couple of chapters to his own travails in capturing Wilson’s story. He describes the process as a “mania” and details the frustrations of trying to identify “meaning” in the evidence—letters, photographs and so on—which Caesar collected. Sometimes that meaning eludes him and he concludes that, occasionally, it may not even be present.
For this reader at least, that seems unimportant. Wilson’s flamboyant life, and this thrilling biography which describes it, are a testament to the incredible power of human determination.
Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.