The story of Maurice Wilson, fabled “Madman of Everest”
I once heard that every corpse on Everest was once one of the most motivated people in the world. There are many people in the world who could tell you the story of George Leigh Mallory. There are some that could tell you about Green Boots, and what he means to the mountain.
I’d like to tell you about one of the lesser-known corpses, Maurice Wilson.
Wilson’s early life was marred by WWI
Maurice Wilson was born in 1898 and like many men of his age and time he ended up enlisting in the English services on his eighteenth birthday, during WWI. Maurice quickly ascended the ranks — he became a corporal during exercises after his enlistment and a lieutenant by the time they were even sent to France. Once he arrived, it was just in time for the Battle of Ypres (Battle of Lys), and there, with noted and award-winning pluck, he promptly earned the Military Cross for single-handedly taking and guarding a machine gun post after the rest of his unit was terribly injured (or dead).
A few months later, our guy returned to the same place (I’m being literal, as it was once again in the town of Meteren), only this time as a captain. Once again he was caught by machine-gun fire — but this time fate decided to treat him less like a messiah and more like the rest of us. This time, Maurice was shot repeatedly in his chest and his left arm.
Once it became apparent that he was strong enough to heal from being shot in the chest, he was moved to France, and eventually back to England to recover. He once again served with his unit, but since he didn’t fully recover the use of his left arm, I doubt they expected him to hold off a whole unit on his own.
Wilson spent years wandering through places, wives, and careers
For some unknown reason, when Maurice got back to his home town of Bradford from all of these horrors, he wasn’t in the right mindset to take over as director of his father’s weaving / woolen mill. Like many of his contemporaries, facing the horrors of war left his prior dreams faded and discarded, and — like many without an idea of what to do in life — he wandered.
Maurice set off hoping to find his fortune and to attempt to address his nagging health injuries which definitely included a giant case of PTSD (possibly related to being shot in the chest while watching most of his friends die horrible deaths in trenches). Maurice wandered through London, San Francisco, and New Zealand just as he wandered through the careers of farmer, dress shop owner, and snake oil salesman. Since his snake oil was created from alcohol and opium, I’m pretty sure it at least relieved some pain for both his customers and Maurice, as he was dogged by illness (supposedly pulmonary tuberculosis) throughout his travels (Kaplan).
Maurice found himself in worsening health and on a slow boat back to Britain after two failed marriages and years of wandering the world. It was during this journey that he had his foundational ideas of a ‘perfect life’ shaken. He found himself surrounded by a cross section of people of varied class and lifestyles — all of whom seemed more fulfilled than he had ever felt. At this time he also engaged in conversations with Hindu sadhu, and according to his diaries and letters, they were as fascinated with him as he was with them (though this could be his ego talking).
Maurice was confident that he had found peace and a home in London when he returned there, but instead, he found himself a nervous breakdown.
A plan takes shape
At this point, Wilson’s story depends entirely on the man’s account itself — which was that he met a mystic who advised him to fast heavily and pray. Maurice disappeared for a few months, returned, and — by all accounts — was recovered. Powter recounts a story by personal friends of Maurice Wilson’s wherein he says “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 — I’ll climb Mount Everest alone!”
Maurice now needed a plan, which he found in the form of a torrent of articles flooding papers at the time regarding plans for a flight over Everest. Maurice decided he’d try to convince them to allow him to parachute to Everest. The salesman in him recognized a big opportunity in using the latest tech to try and aid him in his new quest.
It’s important to take a moment and appreciate Maurice’s climbing resumé, but not too long of a moment since it was nonexistent. This is in stark contrast to, say, George Mallory, who had a decent climbing resumé for the time — and died on the mountain. So obviously, if Maurice could pull this off, it would be due to Divine Intervention.
This is a recognizable thought process if you have spent a lot of time studying the Bible (either as literature or as writ of God). To give God (or whatever) the glory for something, it can be weirdly important to some prophets and mystics that the vessel for this feat is also incompetent. That way, it’s super obvious that it was God doing all the special stuff.
Unfortunately for Maurice, those embarking on the 1933 Houston flight expedition wanted it to succeed, and they felt that Maurice’s plan of an ‘unencumbered’ race to the summit of the highest mountain in the world directly after parachuting onto it was going to take more than “a tent, a sleeping bag, warm clothing, food, and faith.” ( Powter).
Maurice had pluck, faith, and confidence. Talent, experience, and a strong plan — not so much. Undeterred by the rejection, he doubled down on his new identity as a mountaineering pilot, and used people’s reactions as a springboard to attempt to bring them into his mission. His first step was to buy a plane that he dubbed “Ever Wrest.”
The more Maurice Wilson was rejected in his pursuit of the summit, the more it strengthened his resolve. When people mocked his style of dress, it made him more certain of his destiny. When he was made fun of for taking twice as long as other pilots to learn to fly, he still returned, ready to face the next lesson. When he messed up his ankles trying to learn to parachute, he decided to crash land. He hired one of his friends to be a PR guy.
Maurice Wilson completely threw himself into this expedition — except for learning to climb glaciers, learning to climb in snow, or buying any climbing equipment. When he trained, it was by walking many miles of rolling English countryside.
Himalayas in his sights
Because of this (and possibly many other facts), Wilson was repeatedly denied permits and allowances to crash land into the mountain. Shocking that bureaucrats wouldn’t let him, I know — especially since he had crashed to see his parents, requiring three weeks of repairs to the Ever Wrest. Despite the fact the Air Ministry telegrammed him on the day of departure that he was forbidden the necessary permissions, he set out for India from Stag Lane Airfield on May 21, 1933.
This would have been a daunting trip for experienced pilots of the time, much less one that had only logged 19 training hours in acquiring their pilot’s license — but not for Maurice. Despite fuel difficulties, arrest, and (I’m not kidding) lack of all the actual maps he’d need — Maurice Wilson made it to India in under two weeks.
He attempted to use the buzz his success generated to convince authorities India to approve his petitions to crash his plane into the mountain and allow him to begin his assault on the summit. The authorities responded largely by having his plane impounded, which forced Maurice to eventually sell it to meet his expenses as monsoon season approached.
Maurice plotted in Darjeeling how to get past the authorities, who were not going to allow him past Sikkim. After spending months fasting for up to three weeks at a time and going for training walks in Darjeeling while waiting out the monsoons, Maurice finally gathered three Sherpa to begin his ascent of the mountain. Per his plan, Maurice dressed as a Tibetan monk and left Darjeeling with Rinzing, Tewang, and Tsering Sherpa on March 31, 1934. To cover his departure with the hotel, he paid many months in advance and claimed he was going on a tiger shoot.
From there, the information we have about his life is relegated merely to the diary he kept with him (which now resides in the Alpine Club Archives after being found by the Shipton Expedition in 1935). The Sherpa lead him through night marches that finally brought him through Sikkim, and once they arrived in Tibet, he doffed his disguise and traveled in the day. Despite complaining that he felt he was on the mountains of the moon, he even often managed to walk twenty miles in a day.
He beat the pace of the 1933 Ruttledge expedition (he was fiercely competitive with them) to the Rongbuk Monastery by 10 days. It was here that he impressed the Lama, who gave him access to the Ruttledge equipment that they have left behind — so I guess he didn’t have to buy all that pesky equipment after all. He was so anxious to beat the Ruttledge expedition’s metrics that he spent only 2 days resting at the monastery before taking off on April 16th, alone, to walk the route he read about.
Unfortunately, all of the books he read were in the tone of hearty Englishmen who were used to climbing up mountains, not wandering hills. Their tone was often dismissive of the real trials that it took to travel across the different terrains the mountains had to offer, and it would have fed Maurice Wilson’s already false sense of confidence.
Maurice climbs Everest alone
Despite all of this and a 45-pound pack, Wilson made good progress on the first day, until he reached the Rongbuk glacier. And this is where fate decided to treat Maurice Wilson less like a messiah and more like the rest of us. His reading and theories failed him, and he became terribly lost in a changing maze of ice.
In the end, you can’t prepare for Everest by looking at even the most accurate of maps, because it can’t prepare you for the reality of an ever-changing, moaning ice landscape.
After three days of wandering around this glacier, cutting random paths of useless steps with his ice axe, he finally found Camp II. There, he found a pair of crampons, and tossed them aside because they weren’t food. At this point, the weather became far more hostile, and he only advanced 250 vertical feet in six hours the next day.
He made it pretty close to Camp III before being pinned in by a blizzard, where he wrote in his diary “Discretion is the better part of valor . . . It’s the weather that has beaten me — what damned bad luck!” (Wilson via Unsworth, pg 242). Yeah. The weather.
Luck once again intervened, and he managed to stagger back down the glacier and to the monastery and the waiting Sherpa. Unfazed, he immediately wrote in his diary about how he intended to head back up. It would take him eighteen days to heal to the point where he could, during which Tsering fell so ill he was unable to leave Rongbuk with the rest of the team.
Tewang and Rinzing set out with Maurice on the 12th of May, and they reached the site of Camp III in three days, availing themselves of a ‘bounty’ of food supplies that had been cached from the Ruttledge expedition. Maurice abandoned his dietary restrictions, and even tucked into a box of chocolates. He bemoaned in his diary the waste of equipment and supplies by the prior expedition.
Once again, Wilson was beset by a blizzard, which confined the three of them to camp by a blizzard. It was then that he wrote an entry in his diary that really put his ignorance of mountain climbing in perspective, “Not taking short cut to Camp V as at first intended as should have to cut my own road up the ice and that’s no good when there is already a handrope and steps (if still there) to Camp IV.” (Wilson via Unsworth, pg 243). On the 21st, he managed to get some scouting done with Rinzing despite headaches, but found that all traces of the prior expedition were gone.
The next day, he tried to climb the col alone, and set out for four days, until he came upon a 40-foot ice wall. Wilson camped below the chimney, and then spent a futile day attempting to climb it, and ended up staggering back into Camp III on May 25th. He spent the next two days trying to convince the Sherpa that he should continue forward, until on the 29th he tried once again to set out for his goal and set out alone for the col, and it camped at its foot, not far from Camp III. He spent two days resting and gathering strength before he wrote in his journal “Off again, gorgeous day” on 31st May and walked into history.
Maurice Wilson was born at a time that forced him into the unbelievable violence of WWI, where his first skirmish reinforced ideas of granduer before he was plunged into his own suffering. The war deposited him into a world that didn’t understand the mental anguish of her protectors, and to deal with his pain, he did what many do and set himself a large goal. Unfortunately, the goal he set had the price of failure set at death — and now, Maurice Wilson rests forever on Everest until global warming causes him to slip from his resting place. . . again.
Unsworth, Walt. Everest. The Mountaineers, 1989