Ian Birrell*‘s Spectator review of Ed Caesar’s new book, The Moth and the Mountain (to be released November 17) placed it immediately on my own must-read list.
It recounts WWI veteran Maurice Wilson’s doomed 1933 attempt to solo climb Everest by crash landing a de Havilland Moth biplane on the mountain’s upper slopes and then ascending on foot to the top.
Reinhold Messner, the first person to climb all 14 of the planetâ€™s peaks higher than 8,000 meters, is probably the finest high-altitude mountaineer in history. His list of astonishing achievements on dangerous ice-clad crags includes the first solo ascent of Mount Everest without use of oxygen. Yet as he sat exhausted at 26,000 feet with two days still to go on that pioneering ascent, he thought of an eccentric Englishman â€˜tougher than I amâ€™ who had set out before him with one crippled arm and no crampons, let alone knowledge of some basic climbing techniques. â€˜Do I understand this madman so well because I am mad myself?â€™ he wondered.
[T]he writer Ed Caesar, similarly captivated by the crazed early assault on Everest by the Yorkshireman Maurice Wilson, has told the extraordinary story of this intrepid â€˜madmanâ€™ in an engrossing biography. It is a tale well known in the mountaineering community, not least since his frozen corpse has emerged five times from its glacial tomb on the slopes where he died; yet it remains clouded in as much mystery as those mists that cling to the great peaks. Was he a naive climbing legend, a mystical sage, a disturbed war veteran or even someone running from his gender fluidity, so unacceptable at the time? Or possibly all four of these things? …
The backdrop, as with so many things in the 1930s, was the legacy of savage trench warfare that tore apart a continent. Wilson fought with distinction, winning a Military Cross, but lost the use of an arm and saw one of his three brothers turned into a shambling wreck. His own efforts to win compensation were repeatedly rebuffed, leaving him with a loathing of officialdom.
It seems his traumas led him to trek the world aimlessly, dumping women and jobs in his wake. So was his bid to climb Everest an attempt to find glory or inner peace? …
Wilson began to read widely about Everest in 1932, hatching his plan despite the cruel details of terrible deaths in avalanches and blizzards. He was not deterred by the failure of four British expeditions, comprising the best climbers in the country aided by teams of porters carrying huge supplies. He began training his mind and body through fasting and prayer. He flirted with the idea of parachuting onto the lower slopes. Then he decided to fly there, so took lessons and bought a Tiger Moth; yet he was such an inexperienced pilot that when he left (looking â€˜like a man going to a fancy dress party as an aviatorâ€™) he nearly crashed by taking off in the wrong direction with the wind.
Maurice Wilson’s Wikipedia entry.
* Outline frequently lists the wrong author’s name for articles decrypted from behind paywalls.