Keir Roper-Caldbeck

The Ecstasy of Maurice Wilson

The Gentlemanly British Explorer Who Attempted to Scale the World’s Deadliest Mountain Just to Prove a Point

Discussed: A Suburban Ménage à Trois, “The Orthodox Mind’s Approach” to Faith Healing and Fasting in the 1930s, The Third Pole, Flying the Face of the British Empire, New Zealand’s “Garbo of the Skies,” Effective Headgear for Visiting the Abbott of a Tibetan Monastery, Confusing Women with Mountains, Delusional Entries Found in a Frozen Diary, Flags of Friendship, Eternal Optimism

On the perfect spring morning of May 21, 1933, a gaggle of well-wishers and reporters gathered at Stag Lane Aerodrome, just north of London, to see a pilot off on an epic flight. In the excitement of his departure, he headed down the runway in the wrong direction, with the wind rather than into it. The crowd watched his tiny biplane lurch across the grass as it struggled to gain enough speed for takeoff, its wings flexing as if trying to lift off like a bird. Only at the very last moment did it finally claw its way into the air. This inauspicious start must have left those present wondering if they would ever see Maurice Wilson and his plane, Ever Wrest, again.

Two years later, British climbers approaching the foot of Mount Everest’s North Col found the body of a man dressed in a mauve pullover and gray flannel trousers sitting by the tattered remains of his tent. He had been deep-frozen in the process of removing his boots. They guessed immediately that this was Maurice Wilson, reports of whose death on the mountain had been circulating since the previous year. After recovering his diary and some other effects from his pockets, the climbers buried his corpse in a crevasse. Eric Shipton, one of those present, wrote: “Where we tipped it in, it completely disappeared. There was no hole where it fell. Just plain white snow.”

In the years since, Everest has become a vast mortuary where climbers step over their fallen predecessors on their way to the summit, but for these men the discovery of the body of a fellow countryman in this remote and hostile place was still a shock, and cast a pall over the group that evening as they huddled in their tents, taking turns reading from his diary.

Wilson’s was not the only, nor the most famous, corpse on Everest. The British expeditions of the early 1920s had been dogged by ill fortune. In 1922, seven Sherpas had been swept away by an avalanche, and in 1924 Andrew “Sandy” Irvine and George Mallory had disappeared during their bid for the summit. But where Mallory has become the object of an almost cultlike following, Wilson has been relegated to a humorous footnote in the history of Everest, forever known as “the Mad Yorkshireman.” Mallory was an elegant figure, much admired by the Bloomsbury set for his good looks, easy charm, and breeding; Wilson was a tall, blunt man with doughy features, from a stolid, respectable Yorkshire family that made its living managing textile mills in Bradford. Where Mallory was a fine mountaineer with a laconic turn of phrase, Wilson attempted to climb Everest without any training, relying instead on a strange, mongrel creed of “faith and fasting,” which he would talk about with the fervor of a crackpot evangelist. And yet the paths that led them to their deaths on the roof of the world began from the same place: the inferno of the Western Front.

In his book Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, Wade Davis explores the strange and intimate connection between the battlefields of Flanders and the British expeditions to Everest of the 1920s. The majority of the climbers on these expeditions, Mallory included, had fought in the trenches. They were irrevocably changed by this experience, acutely conscious that their survival was a statistical anomaly where so many of their comrades had fallen. For some of these veterans, climbing Everest came to represent a chance at redemption, a pure and noble endeavor after the corruption of the war. For Mallory and others like him, the war had brought a terrible intimacy with death, which they sublimated into a total commitment to climbing that shocked older climbers, still wedded to the prewar, “gentlemanly” traditions of mountaineering.

Maurice Wilson’s decision, in 1932, to climb Everest alone was also rooted deeply in his experience of the trenches, and reflected the suppressed psychological trauma that, more than a decade after the closing of hostilities, still hounded veterans. Born in Bradford in 1898, Wilson was destined to follow his father into the family textile business—until the war intervened. He enlisted on his eighteenth birthday, in 1916, and reached the front line in time for the bloody quagmire of Passchendaele, the battle that A.J.P. Taylor called “the blindest slaughter of a blind war,” where the bodies of the dead were used as stepping stones and the rats grew fat on human flesh. Wilson fought bravely, winning a Military Cross for single-handedly holding his position against a fierce enemy assault, after all those around him were dead. A few months later a burst of machine-gun fire ripped through his arm and chest. He was evacuated, close to death, and although he recovered from his wounds and served with his regiment as a captain until the armistice, he was left with a weakened left arm that would give him pain for the rest of his life.

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Keir Roper-Caldbeck lives and writes in Glasgow, Scotland.

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