Maurice Wilson… He comes up now and then – like earlier this year in Climbing magazine. Then I stumbled upon several other short pieces on him. He is a curiosity to climbers and non-climbers alike, though he took being nutcase to new levels… literally. Which probably makes him one of our own, unfortunately.
When people say climbers are crazy, I think the phrase was originally intended for Wilson. He was not a pilot and he was not a mountaineer, but he flew his own plane to Darjeeling, India, snuck into forbidden Tibet and attempted Everest in 1934. Then again, when has climbing ever been sensible?
What brought him to this climb was a mix of events in his quest for answers. What he was asking was not always certain as he was a bit of a wonderer. Wilson was born in Bradford, Yorkshire in 1898 and fought in the worst of World War I. He returned home a hero – earning the Military Cross – but was also injured and shell shocked. After the war, he had all the symptoms we know today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. From this, he developed wonderment at the body’s ability to heal itself. However, for years afterwards, partly from his trauma, he suffered from various health complaints for years.
He grew restless and traveled to New York, then San Francisco hoping to find peace. He moved again to New Zealand running a couple of small businesses and married and separated two times in that span. Suddenly he returned home to England. En route, he met some yogis in Bombay. The yogis told him about many things, but what seemed pertinent to Wilson was about faith healing, including the importance of fasting. These, he felt, were the secret to overcoming his ailments.
When he returned to England – after encircling the globe – he had discovered the purpose he wanted to pursue. Mount Everest was back in the news after several years of no access through its host countries, but now Tibet was permitting climbers to approach the mountain once again. Wilson believed he would go there himself and climb it alone, proving the value of faith healing and the body’s strength. He did some “training” in Snowdonia to prepare and declared himself ready.
He also bought a used Gypsy Moth airplane and got licensed. As Lawrence Millman said, “That he earned his pilot’s license is indicative of the loose, if not downright unfettered standards of the day.” He crashed once before ever leaving England and then, a month later, started the journey again, taking him to Darjeeling, India.
The British in India refused his entry into Tibet, so he did what any single-minded adventurer did, he snuck in by disguising himself as a Sherpa and walked the rest of the way. Along the way in Tibet, he borrowed an ice axe, which he would us, and found discarded crampons but not knowing what they were for he cast them away again. Much was his innocence.
Of course, this story does not have a happy ending. Wilson hacked steps and made no progress anywhere toward the summit and was promptly beaten back by the weather. He returned with the help of two Sherpa guides that pointed out the proper route. Wilson and one of the Sherpas made it as high as Camp IV. His drive and Snowdonia training could not have prepared him for this: He started avalanches and broke ribs in a separate fall. He returned to camp again only to tune up his determination.
The Sherpas refused to go with him again. His diary was found later and its final entry read: “Off again, gorgeous day…”
Sources: 1) Conefrey, Mick and Tim Jordan, Chapter 6 of Mountain Men, “The Misplaced Optimism of Maurice Wilson” (2001); and 2) Millman, Lawrence, “Our Man in Everest: Maurice Wilson Surfaces Every Few Years, Only to be Dutifully Reburied,” The High Lonesome, John Long ed. (1999).