The Driven and Irrational Adventurer: Maurice Wilson

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…”

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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).

Free Wi-Fi Now at Mount Everest

Well, it’s not exactly free and it isn’t Wi-Fi. As you may have heard the Mount Everest area has been wired with the 3G network since last fall as part of an expensive undertaking. Earlier this week, Kenton Cool, a British climber, sent the first Tweet via Twitter from the Summit, according to PlanetMountain.com.

I’ve said this before on this and some other subjects: We cannot stop progress, but we can resent it, no?

There is clearly enough demand and commerce happening (in the form of client paid expeditions) along the Khumbu Valley and Everest base camp to justify the dedicated service. Maybe that is part of my problem. While I sincerely respect the challenge of climbing Everest, it continues to lose its cache among progressive alpinists. Not that I am a progressive alpinist, but I value their accomplishments more.

However, because of the accessibility to the mountain thanks to numerous international guiding services, the new wireless connection and constant media attention on the climbing season, it remains a reliable challenge to make headlines and bring attention to causes and promote brands and climbers. It’s also a solid challenge for part-time mountaineers that work 50 weeks a year just to climb the other two, thanks to the professional guide services! But I think even those guides can provide expeditions that are more unique and potentially more satisfying.

I won’t go on record to say that Everest is becoming just another slag heap and is the new Mount Rainier, like some have implied. No offense to Rainier, but I do understand where these concerned people are coming from.

That being said, now that the Everest Resort has upgraded some of it’s amenities including the Internet access, I am going to see if work will permit me a few weeks to work remotely from there.

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Too Young to Climb for Some of Us

I want to congratulate Jordan Romero, age 13, for becoming the youngest person to reach the top of Mount Everest in May.  It takes a lot of skill and perseverance as well as a little good luck to get there.  What he did is extraordinary, regardless whether anyone ever beats his record.

Earlier this week, however, the China Tibet Mountaineering Association made an announcement that says probably no one will ever beat Jordan’s record.  Permits for climbing in the Tibetan Himalayas will now require climbers to be at least 16 years old.  This is an attempt to prevent a race to be the youngest to reach Everest and save the most foolish of us from ourselves.

Mountaineering – and the same may be said of backpacking too – is the greatest test of our knowledge of nature and risk assessment skills.  It is also a measure of our foolishness.  Any of us may participate in these sports, but our knowledge about the activity and our ability to assess risk will determine whether we should proceed.  Clearly, Jordan Romero had the, knowledge, skills and fortune needed, not to mention support of a good team.

Should government limit who is permitted to climb?    I think not, but I do feel an age limit of something a little lower than 16 is preferred.  I recall when I was 12 and I could not pack what I rightly needed to go camping.  I did better when I was fourteen, and with the right parental support, we should be able to tie in and head up.  At sixteen I did my first long over night backpacking trip with a friend the same age.  We assumed the risk our parents trusted us.

Our own judgment matures better by knowing there is nothing there to catch us, un-belayed and on our own.  For example, would Jordan, at age 13, have climbed solo like Reinhold Messner?  If he did assume the risk of that undertaking he most likely would have turned around well before the summit pyramid, if he did not run into trouble first.  However, I do think Jordan could climb independently, but not without doing a lot more climbing – and he will be a man when he is ready.