The year is 1934. A flight across continents and a trek of many hundreds of miles brings an inexperienced pilot and novice mountaineer to the Roof of the World and the foot of a yet-unclimbed Mount Everest. After an improbable twelve-month journey, his focus narrows to a one-inch square of paper showing the summit, purposefully cut out from his map and carried in his chest pocket. He wants to climb Everest solo, and has artfully dodged diplomatic and logistical hurdles - and death - to get there. When Maurice Wilson and the mountain finally meet, it marks the culmination of years of soul-searching obsession born out of the trauma of war.
Those with a basic grasp of Everest's history will know that Wilson didn't succeed, but his gutsy attempt and its intriguing backstory - long relegated to the footnotes of Everest's annals - are ascending to prominence thanks to award-winning author and The New Yorker writer Ed Caesar and his latest book The Moth and The Mountain: A True Story of Love, War and Everest.
A World War I Captain and recipient of the Military Cross 'owing to his pluck' and devotion to duty in 1918, Wilson's desire to climb Everest is 'forged in private trauma', Caesar writes. A salvo of machine gun fire injures Wilson, but his war wounds are likely to be more than just skin-deep. A post-war round-the-world trip to New Zealand, Africa and the US results in marriages, separations and a string of broken hearts in his wake, leaving him 'topsy-turvy'. Abandoned by the state and feeling purposeless in peacetime like many of his peers, Wilson is inspired by newspaper reports of Everest expeditions and sets his sights on scaling the world's highest peak, alone, aiming for both the summit and spiritual rebirth. His scant mountaineering preparation consists of a few training rambles in the lowly British hills, and he packs neither crampons nor an ice axe. An oxygen tank is thrown in, which he counterintuitively plans to cache at 20,000 feet, 'to have the lightest possible load for the final dash to the summit,' as he told The Daily Express.
Not content with the conventional methods of travel to Asia via ship and train - as per the four failed British Everest expeditions before him - he wants to attempt something 'more flamboyant, more Wilson,' Caesar writes. He ham-fistedly learns to fly a de Havilland DH 60 Gipsy Moth aircraft and a few months later sets off for Everest without the requisite permits and permissions with the intention of landing on its flanks, flying in fits and starts across Europe, Africa and the Middle East and across India, where his plane is ultimately impounded by authorities in Purnea. Bureaucracy is no barrier for Wilson, though, and instead he plots a trekking route through Darjeeling, Sikkim and Tibet to reach Everest, dressed-up in a priests' outfit and joined by two Bhutia accomplices to avoid a dressing-down by officials.
Wilson is a complex protagonist who charms his way from the hustle and bustle of his native Bradford to the rarefied air of the Himalayas. He's not posh - like most adventurers of his time - but he's a social butterfly with the gift of the gab. He's both charismatic and enigmatic; persuasive and slippery with bureaucrats, but always staying true to his working class and liberal Christian roots. He studies theosophical scripts, but is also partial to placing bets at the bookies. He breaks into an aircraft hangar to acquire fuel, but leaves some money behind. He's both worldly-wise and hopelessly naïve — especially when it comes to mountaineering, and perhaps relationships. He's a decorated war hero whose interest in women's fashion could be rooted in some form of - as it would be described in his day - sexual deviance. Meanwhile, he enjoys flirtatious written correspondance with a female friend, but she's married to his best friend...
Faced with a lack of hard evidence, bewildered historians have long dismissed Wilson as an oddball or reckless amateur. But there is more depth to Wilson and his motivations, Caesar argues. He read a snippet about Wilson in Into the Silence in 2011, when Wilson's story and character took hold of him. Caesar's empathetic portrayal of Wilson is the result of years of meticulous research delving into letters, diaries, photographs, ships' manifests, passport stamps and even undertaking a Gipsy Moth flight to trace Wilson's contrails and footsteps, becoming 'less like an intimate than a detective in approaching him,' as he writes. Caesar becomes nonetheless deeply attached to and personally invested in Wilson and deftly weaves the criss-crossing strands of his complicated life story into a compelling narrative that lifts off the page, picking up where biographers had left off and filling in the gaps of his colourful character, even if Wilson's writing is 'a slippery rock face on which to gain a fingerhold' at times.
Although a 36-year-old Wilson ultimately met his match in Mount Everest, his gumption, self-sufficiency and his pioneering example of an alpine-style solo ascent have been lauded by none other than Reinhold Messner. He was 'adventure personified' as one Indian newspaper pegged him. They don't make adventurers like Maurice Wilson anymore, and The Moth and The Mountain is a fitting tribute to a truly remarkable man who defied all odds and whose flight of fancy very nearly came to full fruition. The book has received rave reviews in newspapers including The Guardian, The Times and The Wall Street Journal amongst others. A must for this year's Christmas book list, for climbers, aviators and everyone in between.
Ahead of his Kendal Mountain Literature Festival event on Thursday 26th November, Caesar kindly took the time to answer some questions about Wilson and The Moth and The Mountain.
While you were researching for the book, your family and friends surprised you with a flight experience in a Gipsy Moth. How did this day add to your appreciation of what Wilson achieved in his Moth as a relative beginner who 'was not a natural aviator'?
It was so fun and terrifying! A Moth is about 920 pounds unladen. It's light, it's made of linen and spruce and little bits of metal and the engine is 100 horsepower, so it feels like there's a lawnmower engine in the front powering along this thing stuck together with glue. They are beautiful machines, but you feel everything; you feel absolutely every buffet of wind and it just struck me how fragile it all seemed. The idea that Maurice Wilson - after really not very much flying experience - decided to get in this machine and fly it from London to the North of India to the Himalayas was really extraordinary. The other thing that's really striking about flying it is you fly low; you fly at 1500-2000 feet, so you can see a lot of things in detail and it really helped me to write the sections where he was flying to Everest.
Wilson was a WWI captain and was awarded the Military Cross for 'conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty' in battle at Wytschaete, and was later injured in the left arm by machine-gun fire. However, doctors had limited understanding of the psychological impact of war on ex-servicemen, and you explain that Wilson possibly suffered from undiagnosed neurasthenia alongside his injuries. Many people have dismissed Wilson as an eccentric or crank over the years. How did your research change your own impression of him - did it change any preconceptions you had about him as a person?
Absolutely. I was never of the opinion that he was crazy. I had to work out what his wartime experiences had actually been, and I had to correct the record on that. He had fought on a really terrible day in Flanders when most of his battalion was killed or taken prisoner or injured and he was one of a tiny number of survivors. He won the Military Cross on that day for staying at the very front of the frontline while everyone around him was killed or injured and I don't think that would ever leave you, so even if you don't medicalise it and say he had PTSD or neurasthenia, he could not have been through that and not have been affected. It must have been extremely hard to think about what to do with the rest of his life. Whatever happened to Wilson and whatever label you want to put on it, it marked him deeply. Interestingly his brother Victor went through a similar experience and did absolutely have neurasthenia. His hand shook, he had nightmares, he woke up sweating and he just couldn't work. He had very severe PTSD. Wilson didn't have that at the end of the war at least. He might have fallen into some of those symptoms in a kind of late onset PTSD, but mostly I think what he went through after the war was a natural and human reaction to the charnel house in which he'd found himself.
Wilson's outlook on life was influenced by a mix of bourgeois Christian liberalism and working-class gumption, you explain. He seemed capable of adapting to all manner of social situations and circumstances, whether he was meeting local people abroad, dining with wealthy people or negotiating with bureaucrats (even though he despised them, and Britain still 'liked its adventurers posh'!) One journalist would later describe Wilson as an 'internationalist' who didn't understand the need for borders and airspace. In what ways do think Wilson's upbringing in quasi "classless" Bradford, as J.B. Priestley described it, helped to shape the person and adventurer he was? Where did his bravery and unyielding optimism stem from?
That's absolutely true. Bradford was this fascinating place intellectually and politically at the beginning of the 20th century. It was really cosmopolitan and it was full of all these quite radical socialist ideas. Wilson's father was this liberal Christian and a campaigner on issues like children's poverty. Yes, J.B. Priestley did have this great line about how the place felt classless in that anyone who made it big in business would still have been called by their first names by the people they had once worked with. Wilson seems to have been a product of that specific place at that specific time. One of the most rewarding bits of research for the book was finding that many of the things that happened to him or developed in him later, such as his great love of languages, must have stemmed from Bradford because it had this huge German population and he spoke German and French fluently. Bradford was a place which looked outwards; it was not insular and Wilson for the rest of his life was able to talk to anyone as you say. He didn't like the higher classes as much as he liked mingling with normal people, but he was able to talk to anyone.
You imagine that Wilson's desire to climb Everest was a symptom of a widely-shared desire by ex-servicemen for adventure to understand the self. Mountaineers began to attempt Everest not just for nationalistic reasons, but as a means of 'personal and metaphysical rebirth' following the 'crushing horrors' of the front lines. Wilson became interested in Indian mysticism, notably Gandhi's asceticism, who spoke of 'golden' and higher planes of existence. He began fasting and described his mission as being 'almost a religion'. Do you think Wilson viewed his journey and climb as a pilgrimage of sorts?
It follows the route of a pilgrimage doesn't it, there's this place where you're dreaming of and you make your way there by hook or by crook. He was very interested in a number of ideas. There was this muscular Christianity, this new thought that was coming from America from the Oxford Group of Christians that he was really interested in and that was where some of this fasting and prayer comes from, but he was also interested in Ghandi and that ascetism that he embodied. I think the fasting idea comes from two directions. He was interested in theosophism and Helena Blavatsky who was very influential at that time and for all these reasons he was drawn to Everest as a place where you could maybe be reborn. His idea, he always said, was to 'build a new man' and I think that's what he was trying to do.
There are lots of references to Wilson being 'the show', or to his desire for a story or narrative. His affair with Enid was 'one of narrative,' you write, and you mention Wilson's volubility as being both 'his charm and his weakness.' Wilson had lost the thread of his own story and 'wanted a plot', while he was certainly very press-savvy and believed that the world 'would be on fire' should he succeed in his mission. Do you think this extrinsic motivation for recognition eventually overtook his desire for 'metaphysical rebirth' - as you put it - by climbing Everest? Did it perhaps hamper his better judgement? Would you describe Wilson as a narcissist?
I think his judgement was way off in climbing terms, wasn't it! Yes, he was interested in telling his own story and he was interested in being the hero of his own tale. He did lie in straightforward terms to the people who are closest to him about what his life had been like before he got interested in Everest, so he was constantly shaping and varnishing his own story. My feeling is that we all do that to a certain extent, but with Wilson it was important to feel like the hero of his own story and that's why that day at Stag Lane Airfield - when he's just about to head off and the press are all there and he's just getting in his aeroplane and there are all these beautiful heroic pictures of him - becomes more important to him than lots of other days because it's one in which all of his problems disappear. I don't think he's a narcissist because I don't think narcissists can commune as neatly as he did with other people. He's got a healthy strand of egotism - or maybe an unhealthy strand of it! He is definitely quite pleased with himself at various points but he communes deeply with other people and is really interested in other people. To me that doesn't shout narcissist, there's something more interesting going on I think.
Wilson was 'preparing himself purely to endure, as if toughness were the only quality required in the Himalayas,' you write. He was woefully ill-prepared with limited scrambling experience in the UK and he didn't take crampons or ice axes, but still felt that Everest was a job 'within him' even though he 'had hardly climbed anything more challenging than a flight of stairs'. You dismiss the suggestion of alpine historians that British understatement in reports of previous Everest attempts might have given Wilson a false belief that it was a more straightforward affair. Is there a possibility that Everest appeared tame to Wilson compared to the brutality of war, an idea alluded to in Younghusband's writing, which you quote - that 'the stature of a mountain cannot increase but the stature of a man can?'
I feel like that that might have been influential in him. The truth is that I was trying to work out what kind of things Wilson would have been reading. I know that he read very, very intensely about previous Everest expeditions, so I just looked up the contemporary journalism about Everest and there is absolutely no doubt, there is no euphemism. Those press reports tell the story of a nightmare at high altitude, they told the story of when seven sherpas were killed on the North Col, they told the stories of people getting frostbite and getting sick. These descriptions of a 'killer mountain', that's what he would have read, so I don't think that he had any illusions about it being easy. That raises the question of why didn't he prepare more, why didn't he learn more skills like cutting ice steps - or anything really - that would have helped him actually climb? I think it comes back to this idea that Wilson viewed Everest primarily as a physical challenge; he thought if he was just strong enough and determined enough he could do it and and he was wrong about that, obviously!
Reinhold Messner 'took [Wilson] to heart' and wrote about him in his book The Crystal Horizon. 'Do I understand this madman so well because I am a madman myself, or do I take comfort in the constancy of this man in my delusion to prove something?' Reinhold is famously brusque and rarely effusive about other mountaineers. From your research, why do you think Wilson's approach to adventure resonated so deeply with Messner, aside from his early example of alpine style climbing?
I don't know, maybe loneliness is a theme. Wilson and Messner both have this big streak of loneliness. I have to say, when I met Messner I found it very difficult, but his eyes really brightened up when I talked about Wilson. He said 'He was alone, he was really alone!' and for Messner that's the purest form of mountaineering. The Crystal Horizon is a wonderful book, astonishing I think and this idea of loneliness is really what the book's about. Messner writes about this incredible solo ascent of Everest in 1980, but the book is fundamentally about loneliness: 'I am a fool who with this longing for love and tenderness runs up cold mountains,' Messner says, and I think that's the point at which he connects to Wilson.
'There was no quit in Wilson, and there never had been. The only thing he ran away from was relationships.' Wilson sought female company in moments of crisis, you write, and he travelled around the world leaving broken hearts behind and eventually suffered a 'serious nervous breakdown', as he described it. You assume that Wilson's 'secret' alluded to by his great-nephew is that he was a transvestite: rumours spread about Wilson upon the discovery of a woman's shoe on Everest's flanks, he enjoyed courting dress designers and he seemed to 'delight in dress-up'. You wonder if Wilson's post-war derailment and his desire to climb Everest was 'born out of an unsettled sense of his true self', especially given society's views on non-conventional gender identity and sexuality at the time.
I think it might be that, or something unconventional about Wilson's relationships and his attitude towards sex. It might be transvestitism or it might be something else peculiar. He definitely didn't have a conventional sex life, I think that's fair to say, but he also loved women. He seems to be in a very chaste but intense relationship with his best friend's wife, but also with his best friend - there's a lot going on. I don't know of many other Everest climbers who have taken the book Sexual Life in Ancient Greece with them to the mountain, so I think there's something going on and it makes me feel like he did find it difficult to live a conventional life.
The only time Wilson openly expressed fear was shortly before his second and final attempt on Everest. You write that at this point, Wilson was unlikely to be consciously or unconsciously suicidal, but rather he had 'a desire to be deathless'. Although Wilson was awarded the Military Cross due to his 'pluck and determination' at his post ahead of the front line, he was also afforded a great deal of luck both during both his military service and his adventure to Everest. A line in his final letter is intriguing, which could be referring to both Everest and death: 'Some of us go looking for it and some wait for it to call us up.' Is it possible that he considered himself to be immortal in some sense, or that his run of luck seemed endless? It's incredible how often he seems to dodge death and bureaucracy!
I think you would have a different relationship with mortality if you'd been through what he went through at Wytschaete in the First World War. If you'd managed somehow to pilot your plane 5000 miles with almost no experience, if you'd somehow just got through everything that he had, I think it would be hard not to think that someone was smiling at your venture, so I think he did feel impregnable to some extent. That moment beneath the North Col was the hardest part for me to write emotionally because I've got very close to Wilson. I think he knew he was going to die and he couldn't stop, that's why he's terrified.
In your work as a journalist, you have reported from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo, Russia, and Iran and were once asked by Kevin Costner if you were 'anxious to die'. Does your experience of working in regions of conflict give you a greater understanding of how war and tragedy might have impacted Wilson? I'm assuming you weren't 'anxious to die', but it struck me as something one might have asked Wilson!
Yes, there have been a couple of occasions in my life where I've had near misses while covering conflicts. Someone shot at me from not very far away in the Central African Republic. I was in a very bad car crash while covering conflicts in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both times I think it's possible thta I could have died quite easily and that made me reflect quite deeply on what I was doing with my life. It did not make me feel immortal and in fact made me feel exactly the opposite, that everything is extremely fragile and that I should preserve what is good and try to live in a slightly less risky way. So, I'm not anxious to die, but I could see how Wilson was so attracted by the idea of these very risky activities and also terrified by the prospects of dying; both things can be true at the same time.
You write that you're not a climber, but that you considered a trip to Darjeeling to follow in Wilson's footsteps and attempt an ascent of Everest. However, 'The idea [was] parked' due to expense and danger. You expressed interest in joining an expedition team, but someone who was able to fully commit took your place. How keen were you to do this, and do you regret not going? Is it something you may do at some point?
Yes, I do slightly regret it, just because I'm a completist and I felt like in almost every other aspect of this book I found something to help me, such as flying the plane. The really cool thing to have done would have been to walk through Darjeeling to Sikkim to Tibet and then on to Everest, but politically that's very difficult - as it was for Wilson actually - but I'm more worried about getting arrested! It would also take a long time and would be very expensive. I was going to go with an American guide to climb to the North Col and I just couldn't quite work out a way to raise the funds and take the time. I've got two small children, so it was just very difficult to justify to myself. I remember having a conversation with an editor saying 'Do you think the book would be better if I did this?' and he felt that those sections worked really well without the personal experience. Luckily you have all these accounts from earlier expeditions of what it actually looked like, so that bit of the journey is actually quite well reported. I felt for all those reasons that I just couldn't go in the end, but I would now really, really like to go.
Your father was a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and was killed in a helicopter accident at the age of 43, when you were just two years old. In a story for The New Yorker, you wrote about looking at your father's flight log and imagining the days after his last flight being filled-in and wondering how both his and your lives would have turned out. 'Certainly, it seemed unlikely that I would have spent a large part of my thirties writing a book about a traumatized aviator whose heart's desire was to climb Everest. Up, up.' If your father's life and death caused you to take interest in Wilson's story, to what extent do you think your father's history and tragedy helped you to understand what Wilson experienced?
Yes, that piece was very difficult for me to write, but I'm really pleased that I wrote it. My view on this is that there isn't a straight line between what happens in your life and what you become interested in as a writer; you write around your themes, you don't write about them. In my house when I was growing up, flying meant a number of things. It was kind of viewed heroically and with great admiration because it had been my dad's whole life, but it was also the thing that killed my dad, so it had this weird multivalent presence in the house. I think I've just always been interested in the ideas that run through the book to do with risk and to do with how we express these deep and buried traumas through what we do with our lives. Certainly I think that maybe my whole career as a writer was born out of a need to address some of these questions and when I first learned about Maurice Wilson's story, he would just not let go of me. I read a couple of paragraphs about him in 2011 and it was a few years after that before I started work on my book, but I used to wake up in the night thinking about Maurice Wilson — that is someone you've got to write about eventually! The people that don't let you go are the ones you've got to write about. It's just straightforwardly an incredible story, but also there was something in my past that had driven me towards this tale and those are some of the things I'm still trying to get my head around, but I did examine some of those themes.
In the book, you keep your own personal biographical aspects at a distance, even though there are connections. Early on, you explain that you are attempting to answer why Wilson needed Everest, but you also try to answer why you care about his reasons. You suggest that it's because you're a similar age to Maurice was at the time, and because 'you have often felt the lure of adventure.' Perhaps also because 'you understand a little about loss and trauma - not as much as Wilson did, but enough.' Was it a conscious decision not to write about the 'three journeys [...] that converged in the air' - Wilson's, your father's and your own Moth flight - in the book and to stick to second person narration in the telling of your research and writing?
I think it's not the way I write, generally. I did want to create a bridge for readers, which I do in the book, about the impulses to follow the story. Wilson is considered a minor figure, so people might think 'Why this person, why now?' and I hope that as a reader you feel my compulsion to know him. All you need to know really as a reader is that it means something beyond the outline of the tale, so to me it means something and the story resonates at a personal level for the author, but it resonates more widely I hope for readers because of that. Yes, I just didn't want it to be a memoir, I wanted it to be a book about Maurice Wilson.
You write that Wilson was 'a man of many contradictions.' Which contradiction is the most fascinating to you?
I don't know whether this is the most fascinating, but I do find it hilarious that throughout his life he's constantly writing about all these deep and meaningful aspects of spirituality and his journey and interspersed in these letters home there is almost always a request to place a bet in an upcoming horse race! To me, that grounds him as a real person: 'Could you put a fiver on in the Derby?' or whatever it is. I just love that, because people are complicated and Wilson was really complicated and confounding and beguiling because of that complexity, but he was also just someone who went to the shops and put bets on horse races and that - to me - makes him more attractive.
Given Wilson's dream to set the world alight with his story (which he did three times: during his flight, upon going missing on Everest and upon the announcement of his death) what do you think he would make of his story now 'blazing around the world' a fourth time thanks to your book?
I hope he'd love it. I mean, it's difficult to read about yourself, isn't it? Maybe it isn't if you're Maurice Wilson, but I hope he'd recognise himself and I hope that he would feel that I had not laughed at him. I think the failing of a lot of the literature around Wilson is that it has somehow treated him as a fool; I don't think he was a fool, I think he was acting out of a deep need to express these traumas and difficulties in his life through this great theatrical experience. I really love Maurice Wilson and I hope that this book allows other people to fall in love with him as well.
Kendal Mountain Festival 2020
Kendal Mountain Festival (19-29 November, then On-Demand until 31 December) is an award-winning event that has grown in size and diversity over the last 20 years. This year - on the event's 40th anniversary - Kendal Mountain Festival is going fully online. Thousands of outdoor enthusiasts plus media industry specialists, athletes, top brands and equipment manufacturers, artists, writers, photographers, adventurers, explorers and inspirational speakers gather every year to share adventures and celebrate the very best in outdoor and adventure sports culture. It's also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK. Don't let the winter lockdown dampen your passion for the outdoors - grab a drink and settle down for the new virtual KMF experience!
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Great interview Natalie!
A good interview. I think it is worth pointing out that "long relegated to the footnotes of Everest's annals" is a little misleading. The same story was told in 1957 in Dennis Roberts's Book "I'll Climb Everest Alone" reprinted in paperback by Faber in 2011.
The story is also revisited in Tony Astill's "Mount Everest The Reconnaissance 1935" since this expedition discovered the body.
I read "I'll Climb Everest Alone" about 40 years ago, borrowed from the library, so I can't comment on its quality or compare the two books, however I'm sure the new account will be well worth reading.
This chap was on Dan Snow's History Hit podcast a couple of weeks ago if anyone's interested.
A lovely, thoughtful interview (and interviewee). Thanks - brightened my day.
It's also covered in Walt Unsworth's book 'Everest.'