The courage of a madman

Published by The Spectator (14th November, 2020)

The Moth and the Mountain: A True Story of Love, War and Everest by Ed Caeser (Viking)

Reinhold Messner, the first person to climb all 14 of the planet’s peaks higher than 8,000 metres, 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 ‘tougher than I am’ who had set out before him with one crippled arm and no crampons, let alone knowledge of some basic climbing techniques. ‘Do I understand this madman so well because I am mad myself?’ he wondered. 

Now the 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 ‘madman’ 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?

Caesar does not fully answer these questions, but he has delivered a lovely book despite the paucity of some source material. 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? Certainly Britain was determined to win the race to the top of the world having been beaten to both poles by explorers from other nations. Caesar skilfully sketches out the early missions, often involving men who fought on the Western Front. The thirst for adventure was a patriotic duty, he writes, but also an attempt to find enlightenment for these men by testing themselves in the most unforgiving places on Earth. 

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 ‘like a man going to a fancy dress party as an aviator’) he nearly crashed by taking off in the wrong direction with the wind.

Snobbish British authorities tried to thwart him for fear he might spark a diplomatic incident, such was the delicacy of negotiations to access Everest. Yet Wilson reached India flying ‘by compass and church steeple’, before his plane, with its fuel range of 740 miles, was confiscated. ‘Stop me?’, he told reporters. ‘They haven’t got a dog’s chance.’ Such was his determination and guile that he was right. This epic air journey alone, including a heart-stopping moment when his engine cut out in a desperate flight over the Persian Gulf, would make a fine film.

But there is much more in this intriguing biography. Running like a strange thread throughout is Wilson’s curious relationship with Enid Evans, with whom he was besotted after two failed marriages. She was the wife of his close friend Len, yet Caesar writes that the trio were ‘inseparable’. He sent Enid a stream of letters, even poems and a farewell letter from Darjeeling before he donned a gaudy disguise as a Tibetan priest to walk through the British protectorate of Sikkim with his trio of Bhutia helpers en route to Everest.

Finally there is the doomed assault itself in the spring of 1934 when he walked in the footsteps of George Mallory, unaware that his altimeter was defective. His first solo effort exposed the absurdity of his attempt and nearly killed him; but he refused to quit and set off soon after for the second mission that ended in his lonely death. ‘Off again, gorgeous day,’ read the laconic last diary entry. Credit to Caesar for rescuing such a splendid tale of an engaging maverick from the footnotes of Everest history.

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