Andy Childs reviews Ed Caesar’s story of love, war and Everest, recently published by Viking.
Being a sucker for heroic tales of mad adventure and fearless exploration, I was instantly drawn to this wonderfully entertaining book by New Yorker writer Ed Caesar. It is the scarcely believable story of one man’s quest, in the early 1930s, to fly solo from the UK to the foothills of the Himalayas and then to attempt to climb, alone, to the peak of Mt.Everest. There can be no patent, all-encompassing answer to the question of why people choose to risk their lives climbing mountains. And in the case of Maurice Wilson, the reasoning and motivation behind his reckless escapade seems to be entangled in a web of personal experience and psychological upheaval that Caesar, with exhaustive and meticulous research, attempts to unravel. The result is an elegantly written book that is both a great old-fashioned eccentric yarn and a sensitive study of one man’s foolhardy obsession.
Wilson served with distinction in the First World War, but it left him physically and mentally scarred. Invalided out and back home in Bradford, he was unable and unwilling to settle down in one place or in any kind of stable relationship, and through most of the 1920s he lived an itinerant life, with different women, in New Zealand and Canada. It was in 1932, while in Germany, that he hatched his crazy plan to finally make something of his life, and to perhaps conquer his inner demons, as well as the as yet unscaled highest peak in the world. Unsurprisingly, his friends — and, more pertinently, the authorities in the UK, India and Nepal — did their best to dissuade him, but to no avail. In 1933, with a minimum of flying and climbing experience, and ill-equipped for the hardships ahead, Maurice Wilson took off from Stag Lane aerodrome, Edgware, in a second-hand Gypsy Moth aeroplane, headed for the Himalayas.
With a maximum of seven hours’ worth of fuel in his tank, Wilson’s journey was necessarily convoluted and involved stops throughout Germany, Italy, Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq, all the while playing cat-and-mouse with officials who were increasingly desperate to stop him and prevent a diplomatic incident. Undeterred, Wilson finally landed on a plateau in the foothills of the Himalayas, from whence, extravagantly disguised as a Tibetan priest, he made the trek to Everest and began his ascent.
That we know from the outset he never achieved his aim takes nothing away from the drama and excitement of Caesar’s account. Wilson met his frozen end on the slopes of the mountain, destined, perhaps until now, to become a minor character in the Everest narrative. He was undoubtedly a complex, troubled and enigmatic man (there’s a surprise near the end of the book which may explain some of his more colourful impulses) and my very brief outline of his life does scant justice to him or, for that matter, to Ed Caesar’s comprehensive and enthralling book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
‘The Moth and the Mountain‘ is out now. You can order a copy from bookshop.org, or direct from your local independent bookshop.