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One summer day in 1933, in a brief pocket of time between the two World Wars, a British man named Maurice Wilson clutched the stick of his tiny, open air biplane and watched his fuel gauge dwindle. He had only learned to fly two months earlier, but inexperience was not his biggest problem. His lengthy list of troubles included the angry British officials he had just left behind in Bahrain, the certainty of arrest if he turned left to land in Persia, the roiling waves of the Persian Gulf below, and the increasing likelihood that his fuel would run out before he reached a safe landing.
But Wilson pushed on, knuckles white. He would not turn back, and he had no intention of crashing into the Arabian Sea. He sought a larger goal, a quest he believed to be his God-given destiny: to crash his plane into Mount Everest.
Maurice Wilson’s early life was decidedly unremarkable. He was born on 21 April 1898, the third of four sons of a middle-class textile mill owner in Bradford, West Yorkshire. He very likely would have joined the family textile business if not for the outbreak of the Great War when he was 16. Instead, he followed his older brother Victor into the British Army, enlisting a month after his 18th birthday.
In the army, one boyish face among many, Wilson could have remained lost in the crowd, but he managed to distinguish himself during training. He began as a private but soon received his commission as a second lieutenant through merit rather than class, a “temporary gentleman.” He itched to be sent to the front, writing that he was “aching to give Jerry a good talking to.”
Wilson was finally sent to France in November 1917 to help fill the empty positions left by the enormous British losses during the Third Battle of Ypres. By the spring of 1918, he celebrated his 20th birthday by giving Jerry that dressing-down at the Western Front in a town called Wytschaete in Flanders. The Germans had been attacking the line as part of their Spring Offensive—first south of Wilson’s battalion, then north. Now they were heading for Wilson and his men, who were tasked with defending a patch of high ground where the British heavy artillery were positioned. If the enemy broke through the line, they would likely roll all the way through to the English Channel.
The attack came in the middle of the night on April 25. The Germans hammered the British line with explosions and gas. Early the next morning, German infantrymen emerged from the smoke, pushing forward as a German airplane strafed the field with machine-gun fire from above. By 7 a.m., the Germans had encircled three of the four companies in Wilson’s battalion and broken the line. But Wilson, in the still-surviving D Company, continued firing on the Germans from his besieged machine gun post. The front line was behind him now, and men were dropping around him.
Wilson was stubborn; the kind of stubbornness that can kill a man. But he survived the battle unscathed, the sole uninjured survivor of his company. He held his post until around 10 a.m., when—likely out of ammunition—he retreated to find the British line. The German onslaught had been slowed, and the attack ended about 18 hours after it had begun.
Wilson was later awarded the Military Cross for his actions, for “it was largely owing to his pluck and determination in holding this post that the enemy attack was held up.” But not long after the award reached him in June, Wilson returned to the front lines in Flanders again, this time just east of the battle-scarred city of Ypres. On 19 July, an otherwise quiet day according to his commanding officer’s diary, Wilson was leading a small group into the no-man’s-land between the lines when a German machine gunner spotted the squad and opened fire. Wilson was hit across the back and left arm, but he survived. The injuries left him with pain and loss of function in his arm, which plagued him for the rest of his life.
Wilson spent the end of the summer of 1918 recuperating, first in a military hospital in England and then at home in Bradford, where his older brother Victor was also recovering from injuries from the war. Wilson then reported to a reserve battalion in Suffolk, where he immediately came down with a case of the influenza virus that was spreading across the globe, sending him back into a hospital bed for the rest of the autumn—and for the rest of the war.
While recovering, Wilson wrote to the War Ministry requesting a pension for his injuries. But the ministry refused, as the military doctors did not consider his disability to be serious enough to meet the threshold for financial support. The rejection stung, leaving Wilson with a bitterness toward bureaucracy even after he was finally demobilized in 1919 and sent home to Bradford.
Wilson was left with the same question as the countless other men returning from the war, their youth and innocence gone, their bodies and minds battered: What to do next? His answer, for the next decade, was to wander. He married a Bradford woman named Beatrice Hardy Slater in 1922, then left her in England the following year to move across the globe to New Zealand. Wilson did finally send for Beatrice in 1924, but three weeks after she arrived, he left her for another woman, leaving Beatrice without a roof and far from home.
While Beatrice sued for divorce, Wilson took up with the “other woman,” an Australian dressmaker named Ruby Russell. They married in 1926 and built a thriving fashion business together. Ruby designed clothes under the name Mary Garden, and as Mary Garden Creations became successful, they expanded into property development, amassing a cozy fortune that Wilson used to fund much of the rest of his adventures.
Four years later, Wilson’s restlessness re-emerged, and he left New Zealand on a ship bound for Vancouver, Canada—without his second wife. Instead, he traveled with a married fashion buyer named Lucy Pitman, until they parted in California. He drifted around North America, then returned to England, where his mother tried to persuade him to settle in Bradford and resume work in the textile business. Instead, he moved to London, then South Africa and Mozambique, this time with a dress designer named Kathleen Dicks. Two years later, they returned to London and parted ways.
It was 1932, and Maurice Wilson had spent a decade traveling the world. He had yet to find the peace he sought, however, reporting a “nervous breakdown” in California and a sense of feeling “topsy turvy.”
He found a flat in London to catch his breath, and soon met the two best friends of his life: a married couple named Leonard and Enid Evans. The three spent their evenings dining and dancing in London’s nightclubs, then returning to the Evans’ flat to talk the night away. Wilson and Len shared a genuine affection; Enid loved his stories of the war and his travels.
But Wilson could not outrun the trauma of the war forever. His health—both physical and mental—took a turn for the worse. He lost weight and energy, developed a chronic cough, and sunk into a malaise. He disappeared a few months after he’d arrived in London, leaving a note for the Evanses warning them that if they did not see him again, he was probably dead.
Rather than dying, Wilson experienced the most profound transformation of his life. He later claimed that he had met a mystic in Mayfair who offered him a miraculous cure, based on the mystery man’s own experience: the anonymous advisor had survived a fatal illness decades earlier by fasting and praying for five weeks. The existence of this man is unverifiable, but Wilson did indeed spend several weeks fasting and praying, and he reappeared in society a few months later having completely recovered from both his depression and his illness.
Wilson had also found a mission. He wanted more than anything to convince the world of the extraordinary power of prayer and belief. “If a man has sufficient faith he can accomplish anything…” he proclaimed to the Evanses. “I’ll show the world what faith can do! I’ll perform some task so hard and so exacting that it could only be carried out by someone aided with Divine help.”
But what hard task would do the job? While recuperating in Germany after his fast, Wilson happened to come across a newspaper article about the British expedition to Mount Everest in 1924. During their attempt to be the first to reach the 29,000-foot summit of the world’s tallest mountain, climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine had been lost. Mallory was the alpinist who, the year before his death, was asked by a journalist from The New York Times why he wanted to climb Everest and replied with the famous quote, “Because it’s there.”
Wilson, reading about their deaths and the still-untrodden summit of the mountain, was suddenly filled with the same ambition, but with a different purpose. He believed that he could use fasting and prayer to succeed where Mallory, Irvine, and other climbers before them had failed, thus spectacularly proving the truth of his beliefs to the world.
There was one small obstacle, however—getting to the mountain. The British expeditions had involved government negotiations for access through Nepal, generous funding from sponsors, and huge crews of climbers with hundreds of pounds of supplies. Wilson scoffed at the size of these expeditions—he was sure the best way to achieve the summit was with a single climber, and that fasting would remove the need for burdensome supplies. But he needed a way to get from London to the base of the mountain.
Another Everest expedition soon provided inspiration. In the autumn of 1932, while Wilson was explaining his plans to the Evanses, the newspapers were filled with the plans of British philanthropist Lady Houston, who was funding a new expedition to Everest composed not of climbers but of an air crew. The Houston expedition planned to be the first to fly over Mount Everest in the following year, taking aerial photographs.
Wilson briefly considered asking permission to catch a ride with the Houston expedition so he could parachute down onto Everest as they flew over. With the advantage of this shortcut and the power of fasting and faith, he could then scamper to the top in triumph. Quickly dismissing this as a bit too unrealistic, Wilson developed a new plan: he would fly his own plane from England to Tibet, crash-land it partway up the mountain at about 14,000 feet, and climb solo to the summit.
It is, perhaps, important to note that Maurice Wilson had no experience with either mountaineering or piloting. To address the first problem, Wilson spent five weeks hiking around the generally snowless hills of Wales and northern England. He also walked the 200-mile distance between London and Bradford a few times. He purchased a top-of-the-line tent, several layers of lightweight woolen clothing, and even an oxygen canister—although he was doubtful about whether he would bother to use it during the climb—but he made no effort to learn how to use technical mountaineering gear like ice axes or crampons (spiky covers that attach to the soles of boots, providing much-needed traction on ice).
Wilson also made plans for the aerial portion of the journey. He purchased a 3-year-old de Havilland Gipsy Moth previously owned by the Scarborough Flying Circus. It was a wooden, two-seater, open-cabin biplane popular with recreational aero clubs, and he had the name Ever-Wrest painted on the side. He also went through the trouble of getting a pilot’s license, although it took him nearly twice as long as normal thanks to what a biographer described as his “violent, rodeo-style handling” of the plane. His instructor told him he’d never reach India. Wilson replied stubbornly that he’d reach India or die trying.
Wilson planned to depart in April 1933, but the Ever-Wrest’s engine cut out just outside of Bradford, where he’d been heading to visit his mother. He crashed in a field, upside-down. He emerged from the wreck with no injuries—at least, not to himself. It took three weeks to repair the plane. In the meantime, the British Air Ministry had caught wind of his plans, thanks to the growing press coverage, and informed him that the Nepalese government refused to grant him permission to fly over Nepal. This was worrisome; Wilson planned to approach Everest from the Nepal side, as most British expeditions had done.
But Wilson didn’t see why he shouldn’t be allowed to cross Nepal; after all, the Houston expedition flight had just done it! So on 21 May 1933, plane repaired and his will rewritten to leave everything to the Evanses, Wilson gathered the press at the airstrip, dramatically tore up the latest stern telegram from the Air Ministry, and took off—downwind, a rookie mistake, since a headwind helps provide lift to a climbing aircraft. He cleared the hedge at the end of the landing strip by inches.
The Ever-Wrest, loaded with extra fuel drums stuffed in the forward cockpit, had a range of roughly 750 miles. Wilson made refueling stops in Freiburg, Marseilles, Pisa, Naples, Sicily—a lovely and relatively uneventful tour through Europe. He struggled a bit after crossing the Mediterranean; he was briefly detained by the police in Bizerte, Tunisia, and accidentally filled the Ever-Wrest’s tank with water-contaminated fuel in Tunis. But he managed to land safely in the Tunisian city of Gabes, refueled properly, and headed for Egypt via Tripoli, Benghazi, Tobruk, and Alexandria.
But when Wilson reached Cairo a week after leaving England, he discovered that his permit to fly over Persia, which he had been assured would be waiting for him in Cairo, could not be found. He spent a day visiting various British bureaucrats, attempting to find a solution. Given his sentiment toward bureaucracy from the war days, he began to wonder whether his permit had been deliberately “lost” to hamper his journey, since His Majesty’s Government clearly wished to deter him.
So instead of wasting any more time on red tape, Wilson flew to Baghdad, where Persia began to loom large before him on the map. He needed to find an alternate route, along the southern coast of the Persian Gulf. For lack of a more detailed map, he found a children’s school atlas in a bazaar in Baghdad, plotted a route, and set off for Bahrain.
Meanwhile, however, British officials had been sending telegrams ahead of Wilson, warning their counterparts of his imminent arrival. In Bahrain, a Lieutenant Colonel Loch pulled Wilson into his office and explained that there was no airstrip within the range of the little Moth headed east, except in Persia, where he would be arrested as soon as he tried to land without a permit. Loch even showed Wilson a map on his office wall to prove his point.
Loch informed Wilson that they would allow him to refuel his plane and leave Bahrain on the condition that he go home to Britain. No problem, Wilson said, covertly copying down a portion of Loch’s map. When he took off, he turned and headed directly away from Britain—due east toward India—skirting south of Persia over the Persian Gulf. His glimpse of the map had reminded him of a tidbit of information he’d received from Royal Air Force pilots he’d met on his journey: a new airstrip had recently opened in Gwadar, a small protectorate nestled between the borders of Persia and India (now Pakistan). The distance from Bahrain to Gwadar was 740 miles, just inside the range of the Ever-Wrest’s extra fuel tanks—if he stayed on course. Nine and a half hours later, with his fuel gauge reading zero, Wilson landed at the Gwadar airstrip, less than two weeks after he’d left England.
Wilson continued on to British India, where he enjoyed renewed interest from the press, giving interviews explaining that his special fasting plan for his upcoming climb would allow him to “breathe deep down in [his] stomach, taking in a vastly increased supply of oxygen”. He made his way across the country triumphantly, finally reaching the town of Purnea in northeast India, near the border with Nepal, the very town used as a base by the Houston flight to Everest earlier that year.
But the long arm of the British government caught up with him again. Local police officers waiting at the airstrip impounded the Ever-Wrest, placed it under guard, and informed Wilson that he would be charged 3 rupees per day for the trouble. The British authorities reiterated that even with a plane, Wilson had no permission to fly over Nepal—and Wilson had studied the maps enough to know there was no way to approach Everest from the air if not through Nepal. Caught in the mire of bureaucracy, monsoon season, and dwindling funds, Wilson was finally forced to sell the Ever-Wrest in July.
Grounded but undeterred, Wilson spent the winter in Darjeeling, India, fasting and praying and trying unsuccessfully to get a permit to enter Tibet to climb Everest from the north. He hired three experienced Bhutia porters: Tewang, Rinzing, and Tsering. The men had all worked on the 1933 Ruttledge expedition to Everest earlier that year, Britain’s unsuccessful (but fortunately less deadly) follow-up to their 1924 expedition, both of which had turned back after reaching an elevation just above 28,000 feet. Together, the four made a plan to reach the foot of the mountain, from which Wilson would trek onward to the summit, alone.
Before leaving Darjeeling, Wilson paid for his hotel room six months in advance and spread the word around town that he’d been invited out into the countryside for a tiger hunt and might not be seen for a few days—doing everything short of stuffing pillows under his blanket to avoid suspicion that he had fled. He wrote one last letter back to Enid Evans while he had the chance: “I have the distinct feeling of knowing that I shall return; though if things turn out otherwise I’ve at least had some kick out of life. And if I had my life to live over again, I wouldn’t wish it any other way.”
On 21 March 1934, the four men disguised themselves as Buddhist monks and set out on foot to cross the Kingdom of Sikkim (now part of northern India) into Tibet. With his tall height, blue eyes, and lack of fluency in the local language, Wilson worried about blending in, so he crouched, wore dark glasses, and his Bhutia companions explained to onlookers that he was deaf and mute.
On 14 April, suffering from altitude sickness, including headaches and insomnia, due to Wilson’s impatient overland pace, the four men reached the Rongbuk monastery at the foot of Mount Everest, where they were warmly welcomed by the lama of the monastery and given access to the equipment left behind by the Ruttledge expedition.
After two days of fasting, Wilson packed some bread, oats, dried figs, a tent, sleeping bag, two cookstoves, a lantern, candles, a camera, film, an ice ax, and a single length of rope into a 45-pound pack (a “terrific load, greater I should imagine than any Sherpa was allowed to carry” he wrote smugly in his diary). He then set off alone along the East Rongbuk Glacier, hoping to reach the summit by his birthday on 21 April. Three days in, exhausted and starving, having dumped much of his gear to decrease his load, he stumbled into Camp II, established by previous expeditions. He dove into the abandoned supplies and equipment, hoping to find food. He was unsuccessful, but did manage to scrounge a bit of good luck when he turned up a pair of crampons. Inexplicably, he tossed them aside and continued upward.
Wilson celebrated his birthday alone in his tent, in the middle of a snowstorm, two miles short of Camp III below the North Col, a glacier-carved pass in the ridge between Everest and the nearby Changtse mountain. “It’s the weather that’s beaten me—what damned bad luck,” he wrote in his diary, as he began his retreat. It took him four days to stumble back down to the monastery, where he slept for 38 hours straight and spent 18 days recovering from snowblindness, a twisted ankle, and his exacerbated war wound.
On 12 May, Wilson set out again, this time bringing Tewang and Rinzing with him (Tsering was down with dysentery). With the Bhutias’ experience, they made it to Camp III in three days. They even managed to find some of the gear he’d left at Camp II, although not the crampons. Bad weather kept them stuck for several days at Camp III, and they spent the time ransacking the food stores left behind by Ruttledge’s team. They gorged themselves on honey, butter, cheese, soup, anchovy paste, Ovaltine, cookies, cake, and a one-pound box of King George chocolates. Wilson’s fasting plan was on a temporary pause.
Leaving the Bhutias at Camp III, Wilson went on alone, attempting to reach the North Col, but after four more days of chopping steps into the ice, he was stymied by a massive ice wall around an elevation of 22,700 feet. He was naively disappointed to find that the steps and fixed ropes left by Ruttledge’s team the year before had not survived the weather. When he returned to the camp, his companions begged him to return with them to the monastery, but he refused. The kind of stubbornness that can kill a man. “This will be a last effort, and I feel successful,” Wilson wrote in his diary, and set out alone on 29 May.
Wilson was starving, exhausted, and too inexperienced to know he was out of his depth. But he could not give up his mission. It was the kind of unrealistic and death-courting quest that is often interpreted as “suicidal” (in fact, London’s Daily Mail criticized Wilson’s plans as “an elaborate suicide”), but Wilson looked forward to his future after the mountain: he wanted to see Enid again, and his mother, and he wanted to see the world’s reaction when he emerged, triumphant, from the mountains. “The world will be on fire,” he predicted. He made it a few hundred yards from Camp III before setting up camp, too weak to attempt the North Col.
Wilson had left instructions with the Bhutias that if he did not return after two weeks, they were to assume he was dead. Tewang and Rinzing waited a month. When Wilson failed to return to Camp III, they left the mountain, reuniting with Tsering at the monastery. They brought news of Wilson’s death to Kalimpong, India, in late July, where it was quickly passed to the rest of the waiting world through the newspapers, who mourned the loss of yet another English climber on Everest (not to mention the loss of a colorful character for selling papers to the Everest-hungry British public).
In 1935, Eric Shipton’s Everest expedition came across Wilson’s body at the foot of the North Col, surrounded by his rucksack, his diary, and the remnants of his tent. The last entry in his diary, dated 31 May 1934, said “Off again, gorgeous day.” He had made it some 5,000 miles from England and scaled 22,000 feet, but he died alone, a few thousand feet from his goal.
Almost 20 years later, in 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Edmond Hillary became the first to set foot on the summit of Everest. It wasn’t until 1980 that Reinhold Messner made the first successful solo ascent.
In 2003, historian Thomas Noy proposed that Wilson may have actually reached the summit and died on his way down. This theory, based on the rumored discovery of a tent at 27,800 feet by a Chinese expedition in 1960, has not found widespread support in the mountaineering community.
Despite his failure to reach the summit, Maurice Wilson’s strange legacy still inspires Everest climbers. While “it is obviously futile to judge his project from a mountaineering standpoint,” Eric Shipton wrote after finding Wilson’s diary, “…we cannot fail to admire his courage.” As English mountaineer Frank Smythe later described the affair, even more concisely: “It was not mountaineering, yet it was magnificent.”
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