It was the dead of night in the sleeping border town of Darjeeling in north India when a blue-cloaked, hooded figure stole out of his hotel room, slipped into the moonlit back streets and headed, with a Sherpa guide, toward the Sikkim frontier. Ostensibly he was a Tibetan priest, but closer inspection would have revealed certain defects in his disguise. Behind his dark glasses lurked a pair of alert, blue-gray eyes. He wore hobnailed, cork-insulated boots instead of sandals; his lama's gown concealed a gaudy, Chinese-brocaded waistcoat with brass buttons; and his nationality was certainly betrayed by the made-in-England umbrella on his arm.
Soon after dawn the pseudopriest and his guide met two more Sherpas. Now the party was complete. The three porters, with provisions packed on a sturdy Sikkim pony, headed out on a trek across the state of Sikkim into forbidden Tibet.
As they marched, the tribesmen regarded with a mixture of wonder and despair the stranger who had hired them. Without any previous experience in mountaineering, he aimed to succeed alone where a 350-man expedition had failed 10 years before. He would attempt to become the first man to conquer the 29,028-foot peak of Mount Everest. Weeks later, when they had reached 21,000 feet, the Englishman left his Sherpas behind, telling them: "Wait for 10 days. If I haven't returned then, go back by yourselves." Then, with three loaves of bread, two cans of porridge, a light tent, a camera, a Union Jack and an abundance of faith, he set off alone to conquer the world's highest mountain. In all the long and dramatic history of man's struggle against mountains there has never been a more bizarre and incredible adventure than Captain Maurice Wilson's daredevil duel with unconquered Everest in the spring of 1934. Part mystic, part ascetic, he had a dream of conquest that drew him inexorably to the Himalayas, and his plan for attacking the summit was so outrageous that his contemporaries dubbed him "the madman of Everest." This plan was not merely to attack Everest alone, but to fly alone from England to Nepal and crash-land his plane on the lower slopes of the mountain, thus conserving his energy and making porters dispensable.
For two apparently valid reasons his scheme was greeted with derision. First, Wilson knew nothing about mountaineering. Second, the man who proposed to fly solo a third of the way around the world had never even traveled as a passenger in an aircraft. But Maurice Wilson was no madman. If his methods sometimes made him appear to be eccentric, it was only because they were too daring for less bold mortals to grasp.
April 29, 1973
Attracted by the teachings of a group of Indian yogis, Wilson had used them as a starting point to work out his own philosophy and had come to believe firmly in the value of fasting and the power of prayer. Moreover, he had a theory that people could become supermen if they had enough willpower, that with faith and self-discipline a man might achieve virtually anything—even the conquest of Everest.
In 1933 he claimed that the beyond had inspired his plan to conquer Everest alone. It did not matter that he was completely without experience in mountaineering techniques. He was convinced that the yoga disciple who had conquered all physical cravings was far more likely to succeed on Everest than the skilled climber. Moreover, he argued, the lone challenger, traveling light and accompanied by only one or two porters, had far better prospects than an elaborate expedition encumbered by baggage and comprising members with varying degrees of stamina and determination.
For months Wilson pored over books and maps of the Himalayas. Then, after announcing his fantastic plan, he methodically set about learning to climb and to fly. To strengthen his legs, he hiked the 195 miles from London to Bradford and regularly went for 15-mile walks around the city. He visited the Lake District and the Welsh mountains to learn some basic climbing skills. But he got precious little experience in mountaineering and none at all in snow.
Before he had had his first flying lesson Wilson bought a 1930 de Havilland Gipsy-Moth, a two-seater biplane with a four-cylinder engine, and painted on its nose the words Ever Wrest. He joined the London Aero Club, interviewed famous pilots and visited aircraft factories. But on a farewell visit to his family in Yorkshire, the man who planned to pilot himself on a 5,000-mile route to Nepal could not even make 200 miles. He attempted a forced landing on the Yorkshire moors and cartwheeled over a hedge. A schoolboy found him, suspended upside down in the cockpit.
Nevertheless, after a mere two months' flying experience, Wilson, now called "the flying nut," judged himself ready. The Air Ministry told him that he could not undertake the enterprise without permission from the Nepalese government, but he refused to wait. He tore up a telegram forbidding the flight, and on May 21, 1933 he left from a field near London—incorrectly taking off downwind and scraping over a hedge on the way.
Experts gave Wilson no more than one chance in a million of reaching India safely. He had a fragile machine, no radio or weather forecasts to help him, inadequate maps and, worst of all, no practical knowledge of navigation. Moreover, he lacked a permit to fly over Persia (now Iran), and at most airstrips he was denied servicing and refueling facilities since his flight was not fully authorized. Within two days of his departure Wilson was reported missing. Then from Rome came his first message. He told friends: "I am now able to keep the machine on a straight course without looking at the compass. Funny how it comes to you."
At Bizerte in Tunisia, Wilson was briefly arrested and then forced to fly back to Tunis to refuel. Next he arrived in Cairo, where he had been told a permit to fly over Persia would be awaiting him. There was no permit, so he flew to Baghdad and gambled on taking a new route down the southern side of the Persian Gulf. But on Bahrein Island, on the instruction of the British consul, he was refused fuel.
Wilson was exhausted and badly sunburned from his 8½-hour flight over the Persian Gulf. Still he would not give up. He now bluffed the consul by saying that he would fly back to Baghdad and abandon his flight if the permit did not come through. He got his fuel.
Wilson's real intention was to head directly for Gwadar in India, just beyond the Persian frontier, but he lacked a detailed map of the route and he could not risk arousing suspicion by asking for one. So, while the consul was out of his office authorizing the fuel, he studied a wall map and made notes on his sleeves. Relying on these hastily scribbled jottings, he would make the most perilous part of his journey.
Gwadar was nearly 800 miles distant. If he were given perfect flying weather and his navigation were faultless, the flight would take 9½ hours, five of them without sight of land. The slightest miscalculation could have been fatal, and yet, despite the severe cramp of his small open cockpit and a breakdown of his tachometer, Wilson landed safely at Gwadar 10 minutes before nightfall His fuel gauge registered empty.
By luck as much as good judgment allied to fanatical singlemindedness, Wilson finally reached Purnea in India, his takeoff point for Mount Everest, and it seemed as though some divine providence were indeed at his side. With detours, he had covered approximately 6,000 miles in two weeks—a flight that rates as a minor epic among the great aviation achievements of the '30s. Yet his supreme test had not even begun.
Wilson planned to rest for two days in Purnea before his assault on Everest, but then came a heartbreaking setback. At 7 o'clock in the morning after his arrival the authorities decided to confiscate his aircraft pending an inquiry into the flight. The delay ruined his carefully laid plans. His money was running out, and when, after three weeks, his plane was released he found it impossible to start the engine.
He knew nothing about aircraft mechanics, and yet after studying the instruction book for five hours he had the engine working again. By now, however, the weather was worsening rapidly, and the breaking of the monsoon season finally killed all his hopes of flying to Everest. So at the end of July he sold his plane for $2,000 and went to Darjeeling, starting point of most Everest expeditions.
Wilson was welcomed there by news that would surely have shattered the morale of any other adventurer. The Nepalese authorities had refused him permission to fly over their country; now he was denied a permit to enter Sikkim and Tibet on foot. As he expressed it in a letter to a friend: "In view of these holdups doesn't it seem to you somewhat uncanny that I am as optimistic as ever about my job of climbing Everest, the one I've been given to do?"
Still convinced that faith and willpower could conquer all and that some divine inspiration impelled him to demonstrate this truth to all the world, Wilson stubbornly wintered in Darjeeling, scheming and building up his strength for a secret assault on Everest.
He proved to have no difficulty in recruiting three Sherpa tribesmen—Tewang, Rinzing and Tshering—and the four of them slipped out of Darjeeling on the night of March 21, 1934. By forced night marches, the party trekked 300 miles through the humid jungle of tropical Sikkim and Tibet in 25 days—10 days less than it had taken the highly professional 1933 Everest expedition led by Hugh Ruttledge. They climbed through jungles, over mountains and across snowbound plains, and on April 13 Wilson reached his first objective—the 16,000-foot-high Rongbuk Monastery, a home for 400 monks that nestles on the fringe of the Everest snows.
For two days he fasted and prayed there, and such was the faith and confidence of the firm-jawed Englishman that everyone at the monastery seemed to share his belief that somehow he must succeed (after all, he had already worked miracles in coming this far). But in reality this never was even a remote possibility. Regarding weather and mountain conditions, he was attacking Everest at the ideal time of year. He was following an intelligent route, his clothing, general equipment and provisions were sufficient. All these factors, however, counted for nothing when weighed against two decisive points. His climbing aids—one length of rope and one ice ax—were hopelessly inadequate, and no amount of courage and determination could compensate for the man's colossal ignorance of mountaineering techniques.
On April 16, Wilson, the apostle of loneliness, left his Sherpas behind and set off alone with a 45-pound load on his back. He aimed to stand on the windswept roof of the world on April 21—his 36th birthday—and use his small shaving mirror to flash news of his conquest to the monastery.
There was only one precedent in mountaineering history for such an impossible lone assault. In May of 1929 a young American climber, E.F. Farmer of New Rochelle, N.Y., had set off from Darjeeling on a suicidal attack on 28,146-foot Kangchenjunga. He disappeared into the clouds and was never seen again.
After spending his first night at 17,600 feet Wilson passed Camp I of the Ruttledge expedition and looked up at the pinnacles and crevasses of the East Rongbuk Glacier. Here, lashed by spring gales, he confronted his first real mountaineering problem, and in his own words he "floundered about doing fifty times more work than was necessary." At times he lost his bearings amid the great pinnacles of ice, covering the same ground again and again, and the experience left him so exhausted that he had to abandon some of his equipment, a cooker, candles, a roll of film.
Now the weather began to deteriorate, and he was compelled to stay in his tent for hours at a time while outside a blizzard howled down the glacier. His eyes and throat became affected by the appalling conditions, and he was suffering from "glacier lassitude," an insupportable weariness that overtakes climbers at such altitude. After three agonizing days of struggling in vain against blizzards he wrote in his diary: "Discretion is the better part of valor. No use going on."
Retracing his steps to the monastery, Wilson stumbled and bruised himself severely. Once he slipped 30 feet before grasping a rock. Down and down he slithered on, in a state of near panic, descending 5,000 feet in one day and finally dragging himself back to the monastery half blinded, half crippled. His face was partially paralyzed from exposure; he had inflamed, swollen eyes, a wrenched ankle and a limp, nerve-damaged left arm.
Patiently, the Sherpas nursed him back to health, only to be shocked when the man who had just cheated death now began to prepare for a second assault. He left on May 12, this time taking two of the Sherpas with him as far as Ruttledge Camp III. Now only 8,000 feet separated Wilson from his goal, but he still had to tackle the steep and shining ice wall of the North Col, which forms a saddle joining the northeast ridge of Everest and the eastern wall of the Rongbuk Glacier. On May 22, one year after his departure from England, he set out alone for the final assault. For three days he struggled in vain to climb onto the slopes of the North Col, then, bruised and bewildered, he slithered back to Sherpas Tewang and Rinzing.
Their delight at seeing him alive was quickly turned to dismay when they realized that the stubborn Yorkshireman, though half dead from exhaustion, had not the slightest intention of admitting defeat. There could be no turning back. He would conquer or die. The Sherpas, knowing that he was neither physically nor materially equipped for the test that lay ahead, refused his request for them to accompany him as far as Ruttledge Camp IV, and they implored him to give up or at least wait for additional equipment. But Wilson would not wait.
On May 29, the so-called madman of Everest made his third and final attempt to conquer the world's highest peak. The following day he was lying at 21,500 feet, too weak to leave his sleeping bag, but on May 31 he summoned enough strength to resume his climb after writing in his diary: "Off again. Gorgeous day." They were his last recorded words.
Eric Shipton, leader of the 1935 Everest advance party, found Wilson's body one year later. His tent had been ripped to shreds, but the guy lines remained, together with his rucksack and small green diary. The most audacious adventurer in the history of mountaineering had died of exposure and exhaustion—still some 7,500 feet from the fulfillment of his impossible dream.
Everest conqueror Tenzing Norkay, then a 21-year-old Sherpa on his first major mountain climb, helped to bury Maurice Wilson in a 10-foot snow crevasse, marking the spot with a cairn. Tenzing has recorded that Wilson appeared to have died while trying to remove his boots; he had one boot removed and the lace of the other in his hand. But how very much more probable it is that this unyielding enemy of Everest was really relacing his boots for one more attack.