The Moth and the Mountain tells the riveting story of Maurice Wilson, who in his mid-thirties planned to be the first man to climb Mount Everest to its summit after crash-landing a plane on its slopes.
On Saturday 21 April, Wilson turned thirty-six years old. He was not on the summit of Everest, as had hoped. Instead, he was floundering, dangerously, on the glacier 9,000 feet below, and running out of energy. The nights had turned so cold that his feet felt like blocks of ice...
Mancunian Ed Caesar, who writes for The New Yorker and who has won eleven significant journalism awards, has a nose for a great story. Among the 40-year-old journalist's outstanding credits to date is the story of the world’s longest tennis match; he has also written eruditely on the subjects of stolen art, the illicit trade in diamonds and money laundering.
Here, he turns his hand to the story of Wilson, who thought up a risky, thrill-seeking idea that was surely considered madness.
Back in the 1930s, official government-sponsored expeditions from various competing countries were trying to conquer Mount Everest with a degree of national prestige at stake. British expeditions had been undertaken to Everest in 1921, 1922 and 1924.
George Mallory (1886 –1924) had taken part in the first three expeditions in the 1920s but lost his life on the mountain. His body was not found until May 1, 1999. Andrew Irvine (1902-1924) also died at the tender age of 22 in the process of trying to conquer the peak. Both men were legendary figures in Great Britain on account of their heroic endeavours, and it took a brave man to try and emulate what they had done.
Everest is the highest mountain in the world at 29,035 ft. (8,850 metres) but those brave individuals who were trying to scale the mountain were doing so with all due consideration for weather, health and safety.
Not so Maurice Wilson. When he set out on his quest, he did not know how to climb, and he barely knew how to fly a plane. Yet somehow he dreamed up the idea of flying a Gipsy Moth from England to Everest where the plan was to crash-land on its lower slopes. After his subsequent climb, he would, all going well, become the first person to arrive on the summit. Moreover, he would do it all alone.
It is believed that Wilson, who had a number of marriages and liaisons behind him when he left England for Everest, had been traumatised by his First World War experiences. The First World War's lasting marks included machine gun scars, aside from the mental scarring on the young man who was born in 1898.
In any event, on May 21, 1933, the mill-owner's son from Bradford departed from a North London airfield, making his painstaking way towards Everest in stages, pretty much like the Tour de France. Unfortunately - or should that be fortunately - his Gipsy Moth was impounded in Darjeeling.
Undeterred, the intrepid pilot set out on foot to try and achieve his aim, walking for over 300 miles, disguised as a Tibetan priest.