Review: Vivien Horler
The Moth and the Mountain – A true story of love, war and Everest, by Ed Caesar (Penguin Books)
There is something magnificent about the doomed man at the centre of this book, the Englishman Maurice Wilson.
In the early 1930s, Wilson decided to be the first man to summit Everest. And he planned to do it alone, unsupported and without oxygen.
His idea was to fly from the UK to Tibet to the base of the highest mountain in the world, and then climb it.
The fact he had never climbed a mountain, had never flown an aircraft, and that Tibet was barred to foreigners, did not deter him.
He had seen hardship in his life. In April 1918, sixteen years before he reached Everest, he had been a 20-year-old officer with the 1/5 West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own) at the battle of Wytschaete – known to British troops as White Sheet.
Wilson was a bright young man, but the middle-class son of a Bradford textile mill owner – not the sort of person who before the war would have been seen as officer class. But so many young officers had died on the Western Front by 1918 that men previously considered unsuitable were being promoted.
At Wytschaete four of the battalion’s companies faced the Germans. It was a desperate fight, and not a single officer from A, B and C companies made it back alive. Wilson was in D company
For at least three hours he faced German machine guns, and continued to fire back as men around him died. After the one-day battle it was found more than 400 of the First Fifth had been killed and 122 taken prisoner. The battalion was left with just 12 officers and 78 men.
For his “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” at Wytschaete Wilson won the Military Cross.
Despite being wounded later in the war, did this experience somehow make Wilson believe he was bullet proof? It would be tempting to think so.
Back in Bradford he was restless. In 1923 he went to New Zealand to make a new life. But while he earned good money there he could not settle, and after a long trip to the US and Canada, eventually went home to England, eight years and two marriages later.
In London he met Enid Evans, described by author Ed Caesar as “slim, winsome, brown-haired, stylish, vivacious and married”. Her husband, Len, a car salesman, seemed unconcerned by the attraction between Enid and Maurice, and the three became fast friends.
But this was not enough. By 1932 Wilson felt adrift. He “had lost the thread of his own story; he yearned for a plot”. And then he read a newspaper article about the (failed) 1924 British expedition to Everest.
It was an inspiration: he was going to be the man who conquered Everest, and he was going to do it all alone.
This is the story of a man consumed by a driving purpose that was not about to be derailed by his lack of skills, by a shortage of money, and by British officialdom. The authorities in both the UK and in India forbade him to make the journey. Nor did he have permission from Tibet to enter the country.
He bought a Gipsy Moth and learned to fly it. Then he flew all the way from Britain to India, having some hair-raising adventures among the Alps along the way.
An increasingly wary British officialdom – fearful of provoking an international incident with Tibet – ensured his aircraft was impounded. Undeterred, he set off from Darjeeling, in disguise and on foot, to walk nearly 500km to the mountain. He was accompanied by three locals, one of whom was an experienced climber and porter – although the plan was never for them to climb the mountain with him.
Ed Caesar is a journalist with the New Yorker, and in this book has written an astonishing account of a man who had an idea and would not be deterred. There was not a great deal of evidence to work on, but he had access to Wilson’s expedition diary as well as the letters he wrote Enid. And then he did a huge amount of research.
Caesar has recreated for the reader a real sense of a maverick and headstrong man who was not going to let anything stand in his way. But he was also in love, and dedicated his journey to Enid, carrying with him the “bit o’ mauve ribbon” she had given him when he left England.
Referring to the four official British expeditions to Everest between 1921 and 1933 and then Wilson’s plan, Caesar writes: “The idea was mad any way you looked at it… The odds of a novice such as Wilson succeeding where those missions had failed were vanishingly long, as every pundit told him.
“But Wilson was not interested in expert opinion… He was interested in the power of human will and the motions of the soul. Everest was a job he felt was within him.”
*This is not a new book – it was published in 2020. I got it through my book club – and it’s worth reading.