Today, Everest is a tired cliché of success. Overcrowded and completely commercialized, the decline of this legendary peak is succinctly captured in a Photo which went viral in May 2019. In it, a legion of hooded climbers in brightly colored puffer jackets meander the Everest Ridge in a perilous conga line, as if they were climbing a Grand Central escalator to the sky. ‘peak hour.
Before Everest regularly peaked, it was the holy grail for mountaineers and a conquest that fascinated both the public and the British government. The butterfly and the mountain by Ed Caesar details the race to conquer Everest and an amateur’s mad attempt to achieve this historic achievement.
This slim, captivating book hits all the right notes for an epic tale: the trauma of WWI, messy love triangles, globe-trotting adventures, and a wayward soul bent on conquering its inner demons. At the center is Maurice Wilson, “a brilliant, stubborn and extraordinary character” who, after fighting in World War I, “embarked on the most incredible adventure to try to redeem his shattered life,” said Caesar at InsideHook. The adventure in question was very ambitious and somewhat delusional: Wilson planned to land a plane near the base of Everest and climb to the top of the mountain, alone and unaided. At the time, Everest had never reached the top and Wilson, for his part, could not fly an airplane and “had hardly climbed anything more difficult than a staircase”.
Caesar first met Wilson while reading In the silence by Wade Davis, a book about the early adventurers of Everest in which Wilson won a few paragraphs. This brief sketch of Wilson’s Mad Quest immediately struck Caesar as incredibly “cinematic.” “I would wake up thinking about Wilson sometimes,” Caesar said.
Caesar’s account of Wilson’s remarkable story, however, is not the first. During his lifetime, the bodacious Wilson received extensive press coverage, and in 1957 English journalist Dennis Roberts published I will climb Mount Everest alone, the first book devoted to Wilson. But, according to Caesar, this first attempt to assassinate Wilson was riddled with inaccuracies. Basically, “What Roberts didn’t do,” Caesar says, “was talk to anyone in Wilson’s family, so he didn’t really understand his wartime experience.” From Caesar’s perspective, Wilson was never quite able to understand how extremely lucky he was to survive World War I. “You often feel him grappling with fate and luck,” says Caesar, “especially on his last trip to Everest.”
Caesar evokes the prevailing thoughts and psychological mindsets of the time by immersing the reader in historical detail and supplementing this adventure tale with useful context regarding the geopolitics of a declining British Empire, the existential crisis induced by the World War I and the spiritualism that followed.
Wilson appeared in a renaissance of exploration, not in search of new trade routes but in the name of “science” – or at least that was the purported reason. As Caesar notes, Shackleton and other legendary explorers of this age presented their expeditions into distant and hostile territories as inland voyages to, in Shackleton’s words, “the naked soul of men.”
In Wilson’s case, his inability to settle into a satisfied middle-class family life following his experiences during World War I left him uncomfortable for purpose and direction. After traveling the world, from New Zealand to the west coasts of North America and back to England, he sets his sights on Everest.
At the time, the public imagination, fueled by the British media, was captivated by the astonishing feats of human endurance of polar explorers and mountaineers. The British government, perhaps sensing the decline in morale in the empire, sponsored these ambitious quests. But, in Wilson’s case, the British government specifically banned his travel. Intelligent and determined, Wilson succeeded in deceiving British officials every step of the way, by obtaining aircraft fuel from unlikely sources and disguising himself as a Tibetan priest to evade detection while crossing the border between the India and Sikkim.
“They were so ill-equipped by modern standards,” said Caesar, speaking of Everest’s first climbers, then told the story of playwright George Bernard Shaw who upon seeing a photo of Mallory and company wearing tweed near the snow-capped peaks of Everest, remarked that they appeared to be on “a picnic in Connemara, surprised by a snowstorm”.
Wilson, for his part, did meticulous research on the equipment and purchased the most recent equipment he could find at Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, including a light and windproof tent, woolen underwear. and cork-lined studded boots. The same department store supplied previous shipments with “everything from caviar to woolen hats”. But, while these earlier group expeditions were accompanied by porters whose duties included transporting supplies, setting up camp, and cooking, Wilson had to do all of these things on his own while carrying a 45lb bag.
Wilson’s training was laughable. With barely two months of preparation, he learned to fly. During this time he also made long, arduous walks up Britain’s highest slopes to Snowdonia and, later, mountainous north Wales. Although he came out extremely fit, these hills were only a pale shadow of Everest and he neglected to learn “basic alpine techniques” such as “ice cutting, rock climbing. crampons, the use of the ax ”.
More oddly, Wilson trained his mind and body in the art of fasting. “In preparation for his walk to Everest,” wrote Caesar, “he reduced to one meal a day, then just fruit, then nothing but water… After a period of self-sacrifice, he thought the body was being rebuilt even stronger. “While this was contrary to conventional wisdom, Wilson’s faith in fasting was rooted in what Caesar calls the” regenerative power of asceticism, “much like the Saints men he met waiting in Darjeeling for the right weather to tackle Everest.
In the end, Wilson never made it past Camp IV, although it’s no small wonder he got that far. In the face of great doubt and adversity, Wilson has repeatedly exceeded everyone’s expectations and Caesar’s biographical account of Wilson rightly renders a figure from alpine history to the legendary peaks of Mount Everest, where his body rested. still today.
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