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There once was a crazy man named Maurice Wilson who had a plan.. if you can call it that …a man who dared to follow his dream, an adventure which could have come straight from the pages of a ‘Boy’s Own’ annual.

Maurice Wilson’s Flight to the Top of the World

There once was a crazy man named Maurice Wilson who had a plan to crash a plane on Everest, then climb the rest of the way up… despite not being a pilot or a climber

One of the strangest attempts to climb Mount Everest was by Maurice Wilson (1898-1934), an eccentric Englishman, who tried to climb Everest after flying to the mountain–despite knowing nothing about mountaineering or flying. Wilson decided to climb Everest while recuperating from illness, forming a plan to fly to Tibet, crash the plane on the mountain’s upper slopes, and climb to the summit. He then learned to fly a Gipsy Moth plane, which he named Ever Wrest, and spent five weeks hiking around Britain for practice.

He flew to India in two weeks and spent the winter in Darjeeling planning his expedition. Wilson, with no climbing equipment, approached up the Rongbuk Glacier, getting lost and crossing difficult terrain. On May 22, 1934 he tried to climb to the North Col but failed at an ice wall. On May 31, his last diary entry read: “Off again, gorgeous day.” His body was found in 1935 in snow, surrounded by his blown-apart tent.

The last twist in the Wilson saga was that it appears he was a cross-dresser who had worked in a ladies dress shop in New Zealand. He was supposedly found wearing women’s underwear and had women’s clothes in his pack. A 1960 Chinese expedition added fuel to the story by finding a woman’s dress shoe at 21,000 feet. It seems Mr. Wilson wasn’t dressed properly for conditions.

The outdoor sport of mountaineering is not only a costly affair but also it requires proper training and planning. In the case of scaling tall summits like Mt. Everest, Mt. Nangaparbat, Mt. McKinley (Alaska, USA), etc., one needs better training, technical skills, mental agility, and sound physical and mental health. Can you imagine what will happen to a man who has tried to climb the tallest peak Mt. Everest without having either reasonable experience in mountaineering or proper planning of an expedition to such a tall summit? Such a suicidal attempt is roughly equal to digging his own grave and fixing by himself an epitaph on it written by him! One Maurice Wilson, a British soldier and an aviator had an ill-fated attempt in 1934 on Mt. Everest, barring government restrictions on his adventure. It drew the attention of the media world over not because of his wealthy background, but because of his quirky and aberrant behaviour.

From travelling to the ends of the earth, going into outer space or plumbing the depths of the ocean, man’s quest for exploration knows no bounds. One doesn’t look for logic in performing human feats that surpass the perceived limits of physical and mental endurance. Grit, self-belief and a sense of purpose empower individuals to undertake death-defying journeys, often to places where no one has gone before. Mountaineering is no different. On being asked why he climbed mountains, British climber George Mallory famously answered ‘Because it’s there…’

But how you can climb a mountain unless you know it’s there? For years, Kanchenjunga on the Sikkim-Nepal border was believed to be the world’s tallest mountain. Though the quest to scale Mount Everest is fairly well documented, the attempts to locate and measure it are not so well known…

After the First World War and the Anglo-Afghan Wars, the British once again turned their attention to their original conquest – the world’s highest mountain. Access was either from Tibet to the north or through Nepal from the south, but both Himalayan countries were hostile to outsiders. It was only through high-level diplomacy and an appeal to Thubten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama that the British finally secured permission to visit Tibet in 1921.

A view of Everest from Darjeeling, taken from Pictorial Tour Round India by John Murdoch, (1894)

Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, is also one of its most storied with many tales of adventure, bravery, strength, daring and death. The first British Reconnaissance Expedition, organized by the Mount Everest Committee, explored routes up the North Col and produced the first accurate maps of the region. George Mallory was a part of this recce and returned in 1922 for the first true attempt. Man scaled a height above 8000m for the first time. During the 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition, Mallory and his young climbing partner Oxford student Andrew Irvine, disappeared high on the North-East ridge, just 800 vertical feet from the summit. Mallory’s fate was unknown for 75 years, until his body was discovered in 1999 by an expedition to locate the climbers’ remains. Whether Mallory was able to summit Everest, decades before Hillary’s ascent, remained the world’s biggest mountaineering mystery.

Subsequent attempts of Everest saw some of the biggest names of the British climbing fraternity – Hugh Ruttledge, who did a parikrama of Mount Kailash with his wife (the first Western woman to do so), Frank Smythe, who discovered Valley of Flowers on the Kamet expedition and Eric Shipton-Bill Tillman, the first to gain access to Nanda Devi Sanctuary. Shipton also gave a 19-year-old porter from Darjeeling his first Everest opportunity because of his attractive smile. His name was Tenzing Norgay.

In 1933 a British expedition made the first flight over the summit of Mount Everest in a couple of bi-planes modified with supercharged engines, heated clothing, and oxygen systems. The Houston-Mount Everest Flight Expedition, funded by eccentric Lady Houston, involved two planes – an experimental Westland PV3 and a Westland Wallace.

It was believed to be Lady Houston’s way of showing opposition to plans of granting India its independence. On a still April morning, two planes took off from Purnea’s Lalbalu Aerodrome in Bihar. Marquess of Clydesdale and Colonel Blacker flew in a Houston-Westland plane accompanied by Flight Lieutenant McIntyre and aerial photographer SR Bonnett in a Westland-Wallace. The weather was so good, the trial sortie turned into an actual flight and the planes soared 100 ft above the world’s highest mountain.

The planes, based at Purnea, flew 160 miles northwest to the mountain where they were seized by erratic winds, which pushed the planes down, requiring them to barely climb over Mount Everest. Photographs taken above the mountain, however, were disappointing since one of the photographers passed out from hypoxia when his oxygen system failed.

They returned once more for better photography of the terrain. The pilots used knowledge gained from the first one to successfully approach and fly over Everest again. David McIntyre, one of the pilots, later described the summit flight: “The menacing peak with its enormous plume whirling and streaking away to the South-East at 120 miles an hour appeared to be almost underneath us but refused to get right beneath. After what seemed an interminable time, it disappeared below the nose of the aircraft.”

The cables went wild. “Mount Everest has been flown over.”

Maurice Wilson MC (21 April 1898 – 1934) was a British soldier, mystic, mountaineer and aviator who is known for his ill-fated attempt to climb Mount Everest alone in 1934. Often characterised as “eccentric”, he wished to climb Everest as a platform to promote his belief that the world’s ills could be solved by a combination of fasting and faith in God. Despite his lack of mountaineering or flying experience, he succeeded in flying from Britain to India, surreptitiously entering Tibet and climbing as high as 6,920 metres (22,703 ft) on Mount Everest. However, he died in his attempt, and his body was found the following year by a British expedition.

The story of British eccentric Maurice Wilson is even more bizarre.

Maurice Wilson MC (21 April 1898 – c. 31 May, 1934) from Bradford was the son of  a wealthy woollen mill owner and  he would have stepped into his father’s shoes and taken care of the mill with his brothers. But his fate had it the other way and with the outbreak of the First World War, he joined the British army on his eighteenth birthday, leaving his father’s woollen mill job prospects in the cold storage.

As a soldier with the British army he proved his talents and quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a Captain. He actively took part in the Battle of Passchendaele (from July to November 1917) and later won the Military Cross for his heroic engagement near Meteren (Dutch province of Gelderland). Here, being the only uninjured survivor of his unit, he single-handedly held a machine gun post against the advancing Germans.

The citation for the award read:

2nd Lt. Maurice Wilson, W. York. R. For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He held a post in advance of the line under very heavy shell and machine-gun fire on both flanks after the machine guns covering his-flanks had been withdrawn. It was largely owing to his pluck and determination in holding this post that the enemy attack was held up.

Later he left the army in 1919 because of his serious injury in his left arm almost paralyzed as a result of machine-gun fire. The injury never healed and left him in pain till the end of his life.

British Aviator Maurice Wilson. Mountaineer, Aviator and soldier, known for Attempted solo ascent of Everest. Died June 1, 1934, Mount Everest.

Maurice Wilson left the army in 1919, and like many of the “Lost Generation” found the transition to post-war life extremely difficult. For several years he wandered, living in London, the United States and New Zealand and holding a variety of jobs. Despite the financial success which would eventually make his adventure possible, he never achieved happiness, and became physically and mentally ill, losing weight and suffering repeated coughing spasms.

Wilson’s illness came to an abrupt end in 1932 when he underwent a secretive treatment involving 35 days of intensive prayer and complete fasting. He claimed that the technique had come from a mysterious man he had met in Mayfair who had cured himself and over 100 other people of diseases which doctors had declared incurable. However, Wilson never named this man, and it has been questioned whether he really existed, or whether the treatment came from Wilson’s own blend of Christianity and Eastern mysticism. Regardless of its source, Wilson’s belief in the power of prayer and fasting became absolute, and spreading the word of these powers became his vocation in life.

Since his miraculous cure, he had become a votary of intense prayer and fasting as cure for ailments and in this vocation his commitment was strong.

While in Black Forest in southwestern Germany, where he was recuperating, a chanced reading of an article on the 1924-failed attempt on Mt. Everest by Mallory and Irvine drew his attention and wanted to pick up the task left unfinished by the duo and successfully climb Everest. He thought through the power of prayer, faith in God and fasting, nothing was impossible and was not beyond human resilience and he would succeed in his endeavour which Mallory and Irvine had failed to succeed. Further, he described that climbing Everest was an opportunity -” the job I have been given to do.”

To get to Everest, Wilson elected to go by air. He discarded a fanciful notion of being parachuted on to Everest by one of the Houston Flying expedition in 1933, and decided to fly a plane himself and to crash-land on the lower slopes of the mountain.

His weird idea was to fly a small plane to Tibet, crash land it near the summit on the upper slopes and walk up to the summit. Even an experienced mountaineer would shudder, contemplating a solo ascent on the most treacherous summit Everest. The funny thing is Wilson had to learn the basic of flying and mountaineering. He learned the basics of flying with a three-year old Gypsy Moth plane which he himself bought and got the license, taking twice the time required to get it. His peers were against his solo flight from England to India.

In the face of considerable official disapproval and opposition he reached India, flying a Gipsy Moth; this, be it remembered, was in the days of Jim Morrison, Jean Batten, Amy Johnson and others who were making flying history. It was a very real achievement and if only Wilson had taken as many pains in preparing for his mountaineering venture as he did for his flying, it would be easier for us to applaud him, even if Everest was to prove too much.

Wilson planned to depart for Tibet in April 1933, but was delayed when he crashed Ever Wrest in a field near Bradford. He was unhurt, but the crash caused damage to the plane which would take three weeks to repair, and added significantly to the press attention he was receiving. It also attracted the attention of the Air Ministry, which forbade him from making his flight.

Ignoring the Air Ministry’s ban, Wilson finally set off on 21 May, and remarkably, and in spite of the best efforts of the British government, he succeeded in reaching India two weeks later. On his arrival in Cairo his permission to fly over Persia had been withdrawn. Undeterred he flew on to Bahrain.

He believed climbing Everest was his divine calling, “the job I’ve been given to do.”

The flying episode shows that Wilson had the drive needed to accomplish big things, and also the good sense needed to fit himself for the technical requirements of a task. But he took no corresponding pains to fit himself out as a mountaineer.

Map showing air routes along the Persian Gulf, and also showing (A) Air Routes, established and projected; (B) Islands in the Persian Gulf; (C) Boundaries of Kuwait and Trucial Area.

Bahrain is a far cry from Mount Everest.  Hot, humid and surrounded by shallow seas, the island reaches a modest 439 feet in height.  Yet Bahrain played its part in one of the more unusual tales to have made it into Everest lore, and the mountain’s symbolism indirectly contributed to the formation of aviation policy in the Persian Gulf before the Second World War.

On 31 May 1933 the Gypsy Moth plane landed at the Imperial Airways aerodrome in Muharraq.  Maurice Wilson, intended to refuel at Bahrain before continuing on to India, via Sharjah.  The British and Bahraini authorities had caught wind of Wilson’s arrival and given strict instructions to Imperial Airways that he should not be allowed to refuel or leave the country.

Wilson was interviewed by Imperial Airways staff and the Political Agent in Bahrain, Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon Loch.  His intention was to fly his plane 10,000 feet up Mount Everest “and then to walk the odd 19,002 feet to the summit”.  Badly injured in the First World War, Wilson claimed he had been healed by fasting and prayer when conventional doctors had been unable to help.  His mission, he believed, was to be the first to climb Everest to show the world the power of such faith.

Loch was justifiably skeptical. “He has never seen the Himalayas and has never been above 18,000 feet”.  All he had to assist him was “an oxygen apparatus weighing 18 pounds which was to supply oxygen for seven-and-an-half hours”.  Loch did not know that Wilson’s training had only involved hiking the hills of Snowdonia and the Lake District, hills that barely reached a tenth of the height of Everest.  Wilson’s preparations for flying were not much better, obtaining his pilot’s license in twice the average length of time.

Wilson had ignored an Air Ministry ban on civilian flights along the Arab coast, hence the attention from the authorities. While special permission was sometimes given, only the Royal Air Force and the government-backed Imperial Airways were routinely allowed to fly the route. Wilson’s journey prompted deliberation at some of the highest levels of government and triggered a flurry of correspondence that led to tighter controls and a change in policy. Sensitive to the “political complications” that the activities of those such as Wilson might cause, and conscious of maintaining the illusion of the Gulf States’ independence, the Political Resident was instructed to obtain letters from the Arab rulers of Kuwait, Bahrain, the Trucial Coast, and Oman explicitly banning all private and civil travel over or into their territories. These instructions were then incorporated into the Air Navigation Regulations of each country and notices of the ban were posted in airfields in Iraq and India.

Notice to Airmen posted at airfields in India. The record is made up of 1 volume (142 folios). It was created in 12 Nov 1932-22 Feb 1939. It was written in English, French and Arabic. The original is part of the British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers.

Wilson  ignored all common sense in his approach to Everest was surely not admirable, but plainly stupid. He had done no serious mountaineering, and he could not use· an ice-axe. He had read a certain amount about mountaineering expeditions, and could, for example, recognise a pair of crampons when he saw them. Yet he took none himself and when he found a pair in a dump left by the 1933 party, he cast them aside, only to regret having done so later on. His peculiar notions of feeding found him under-nourished by the time he reached the Rongbuk monastery, so he pillaged the reserve stores kept there since the I 93 3 expedition, just as, later on, he was to throw his. feeding principles to the winds and to glut himself on the stores found in a dump at Camp Ill. Wilson’s mountaineering achievement amounted to showing that a very light party could traverse a harsh stretch of country (Tibet) without coming to grief.

He made very heavy weather of the Rongbuk glacier and was so much less fit by the end of May that he had to sacrifice his basic principle, of going on alone, by asking the Sherpas to come with him to Camp V. Like sensible men, they refused. Wilson must have known he was done, and his Sherpas obviously recognised it still more clearly.

Most of what is known about Wilson’s activities on the mountain itself come from his diary, which was recovered the following year and is now stored in the Alpine Club archives. Completely inexperienced in glacier travel, Wilson found the trek up the Rongbuk Glacier extremely difficult and constantly lost his bearing and had to retrace his steps. He showed his lack of experience when he found a pair of crampons at an old camp, which would have helped him tremendously, but threw them away.

After five days and in worsening weather he was still two miles short of Ruttledge’s Camp III below the North Col. He wrote in his diary “It’s the weather that’s beaten me – what damned bad luck” and began a gruelling four-day retreat down the glacier. He arrived back at the monastery exhausted, snowblind and in great pain from his war-wounds and a badly twisted ankle.

It took eighteen days for Wilson to recover from his ordeal, yet he set forth again on 12 May, this time taking Tewand and Rinzing with him. With the Sherpas’ knowledge of the glacier they made quicker progress and in three days they reached Camp III near the base of the slopes below the North Col. Confined to camp for several days by bad weather, Wilson considered possible routes by which he could climb the icy slopes above, and made a telling comment in his diary.

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 hand rope and steps (if still there) to Camp IV.

The fact that Wilson thought that the steps cut into the ice the previous year might still be present has been cited as particularly strong evidence of his ignorance of the mountain environment, and of his continuing failure to understand the task before him. When, on the 21st, he finally made an abortive attempt to climb to the North Col, he was extremely disappointed to find no trace of the rope, or the steps.

The next day he began a further attempt to reach the col. After four days of slow progress and camping on exposed ledges, he was defeated by a forty-foot ice wall at around 22,700 ft which had stretched Frank Smythe to his limit in 1933. On his return the Sherpas pleaded with him to return with them to the monastery, but he refused. Whether he still believed that he could climb the mountain, or whether he continued merely because he was now resigned to his fate, and preferred death to the humiliation of an unsuccessful return to Britain, has been hotly debated.

Writing in his diary “this will be a last effort, and I feel successful” he set out for the last time on 29 May, alone. Too weak to attempt the Col that day, he camped at its base, a few hundred yards from where the Sherpas were camped. The next day he stayed in bed. His last diary entry was dated 31 May, and read simply “Off again, gorgeous day”.

When he did not return from his last attempt, Tewand and Rinzing left the mountain. They reached Kalimpong in late July, giving the world the first news of Wilson’s death.

It was not until 1935 that a small reconnaissance expedition came across his body at the foot of the North Col, lying in the snow. They thought he had been dead for about a year. The body was rolled in a crevasse in the ice.

And so Everest was to be Maurice Wilson’s final resting place and the story of the ‘mad Yorkshireman’ was to reach the world.

It is unclear how high Wilson actually got before succumbing to his lonely death, some 2,300 meters below Everest’s peak. While attempting to ascend the steep, icy slope above Camp 3 toward the North Col a few days earlier, Wilson and his experienced Bhutias had quickly been forced to turn around— Wilson, of course, had no crampons and was wholly unfamiliar with step cutting technique. Alone, technically unskilled, with an immobile arm, but powerfully driven, Wilson most likely made his best attempt at the ice wall, gave it up, then returned to the vicinity of Camp 3 to find his porters missing. No explanation exists for why he was found, without his sleeping bag, a short distance away from Camp 3, with its copious food depots

The first flight over Mount Everest was by two British biplanes in 1933.

After a brief lull during the Second World War, political developments in the Himalayas changed the way climbers would approach Everest. Post-war the Dalai Lama had closed Tibet to foreigners. In 1950, the Chinese took control of Tibet, closing access via the north face while Nepal relaxed its borders to foreigners, opening up the southern route. The Everest was no longer an exclusively British dream as it drew international attention from Canadian, Swiss and Soviet climbers. In the 1952 expedition the Swiss managed to make the first climb to South Col. With each expedition climbers inched closer to the summit. It was going to be a race to the top…

In 1953, the British launched their ninth expedition under John Hunt. With the French securing permission to climb in 1954 and the Swiss in 1955, the British would get another shot only in 1956. It was now or never. The first climbing pair of Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon achieved the first ascent of the 8,750 m (28,700 ft) South Summit and stopped 100 m short of the final summit because of faulty oxygen equipment and lack of time. Two days later, on May 29, 1953 New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made the second and final assault. Climbing the South Col route, they negotiated a 40 ft rock face (later named Hillary Step) and summited at 11:30 am. They spent 15 minutes to click photos and bury sweets as an offering to the mountain before descending.

In John Hunt’s The Ascent of Everest Edmund Hillary notes:

 “My initial feelings were of relief – relief that there were no more steps to cut, no more ridges to traverse and no more humps to tantalize us with hopes of success… we shook hands and then Tenzng threw his arm around my shoulders and we thumped each other on the back until we were almost breathless.” 

Times reporter James Morris descended from 22,000 feet to send a coded message through a runner, who walked 20 miles to get to the nearest radio at Namche Bazaar. The message was sent using the bicycle-powered radio station in Morse code to the Indian and British embassies in Kathmandu. A wireless transmitter relayed the news to London, just in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in the morning. The Everest conquest was perhaps the last major news delivered to the world through runner.

In 2003 Thomas Noy proposed that Maurice Wilson might have reached the summit of Everest and died on his descent.

The main evidence in support of this theory comes from an interview Noy conducted with the Tibetan climber Gombu, who reached the summit with the Chinese expedition of 1960. Gombu recalled having found the remains of an old tent at 8500m. If true, this would be higher than any of the camps established by the previous British expeditions, and Noy suggests that it must have been put there by Wilson, showing that he reached a much higher point than previously believed. Noy’s theory has not found widespread support in the mountaineering community. There is much scepticism that an inexperienced amateur like Wilson could have climbed the mountain unassisted, and Chris Bonington has said “I think you can say with absolute certainty that he would have no chance whatsoever.”

Climbing historian Jochen Hemmleb and Wilson’s biographer Peter Meier-Hüsing have both suggested that Gombu was mistaken about the altitude of the tent and pointed out that his account has not been borne out by other members of the 1960 expedition. It has also been suggested that if the tent at 8500m did exist, it might have been a relic of the rumoured Soviet expedition of 1952.

However, the existence of the Soviet expedition is itself uncertain.

Wilson seems to have had no real interest in mountains or mountaineering; climbing Everest was just a job to be done, to establish to the world an article of his faith. There is no apparent reason why he should not have selected any other hard physical test, such as swimming the Channel. A stunt is only justified by success, and Wilson’s attempt on Everest remains a stunt. Maurice Wilson had a purpose in view; he expressed the hope that soon the world would be on fire with the news of his success. But an end cannot be divorced from the means used to attain it, and the means adopted by Wilson were so defective that the end he died alone of exhaustion and or starvation, in the freezing weather.

A few well-known climbers immediately recognized and admired Wilson’s spirit. After discovering Wilson’s body and diary, Eric Shipton told the police in Darjeeling that he had been deeply moved by Wilson’s conviction and elegance, his love of nature, and his belief that all difficulties could be overcome by willpower—all very evident from reading through Wilson’s diary. And when Reinhold Messner camped at 8,000 meters during Everest’s first solo climb, he asked himself if he was as crazy as Wilson. This may be the ultimate lesson from Wilson’s experience: that the line separating a bold and exemplary quest—futile or not—from a misguided and crazy one, is as gray as the stormy sky.

British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

The Power of Faith: Maurice Wilson’s Flight to the Top of the World …

WN – maurice wilson

Mount Everest Deaths: Prominent People Through History Who Died …

Wing and a Prayer – Climbing Magazine | Rock Climbing …

Maurice Wilson’s Everest Quest — Quadrant Online

Everest news – Mount Everest by climbers – MountEverest.net

maurice wilson and everest, 1934 – Alpine Journal

Four Strange Mount Everest Stories – ThoughtCo.com

faith and fasting and the mysterious man from Mayfair | gimcrack …

A Gender Variance Who’s Who: The first transvestite to climb Mount …

Maurice Wilson – Wikipedia

maurice wilson – Hayloft publishes

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“Off again, gorgeous day” : a mad transvestite Englishman and Everest …

BBC Inside Out – Everest adventurer

Maurice Wilson Diary, 1934 | The National Archives

Alpine Club Archives

1922/D56 – Maurice Wilson Diary, 1934

 


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