The Moth and the Mountain – Book Review

For the first time, humans reached the summit of Mt. Everest on 29th March 1953. This story is pretty well known. But twenty years earlier, in 1933, a Britisher came up with the unique idea to reach the summit of the Everest. His plan was:

He will fly from London to Everest, land on some high slope of the mountain and thereafter, climb the rest of the way to the summit. He almost made it.

Maurice Wilson, in 1933, was a 35 year old British First World War Infantry veteran. In order to achieve his goal, he took 19 hours flying lessons to get his licence. He then purchased a single engine Gypsy Moth, fitted an extra fuel tank to increase range to 750 Miles and was finally ready for a cross continent flight. His final destination airport – Mt. Everest.

With no communication radio and only a rudimentary on-board compass and primitive maps, and no entry permissions into enroute non-British airfields, the Britisher took off from London and started hopping his way towards India. But not without the British “Air Ministry” trying to stop his scatterbrained escapade.

From London he flew to Fribourg (Hitler’s Germany). Took off from Fribourg for Passau (then Germany, now Austria) but returned back to Fribourg because his heavy laden aircraft couldn’t clear the heights of Alps. Here, he made the first of his many plan changes displaying his focus and determination to get “Everest done.”

He changed his route. Fribourg-Marseille(France)-Pisa-Naples-Catania(all in Mussolini’s Italy)-Tunis(Tunisia,Africa). In Tunis he found no one to refuel. So he took off for Beserta, north of Tunis in search of fuel, but Beserta police locked him up in a jail. After half hour he was released and warned to get out of the city. With fuel dangerously low he flew back to Tunis. Disparately, he searched the airport and found some abandoned oil drums, the contents of which he put into his aircraft fuel tank.

With some dubious concoction in his fuel tank, he flew to Gabes, Tunisia. He took off from Gabes for Tripoli, but within a few miles his engine and aircraft started to rattle and shudder. He diverted back to Gabes and barely made it. He lost his engine at touch down. The engineer at Gabes diagnosed the failure as “water in the engine.”

Now topped up with reliable fuel he flew: Gabes-Tripoli-Benghazi-Tobruk-Cairo-Suez-Gaza-Bethlehem-Aman-Rutba-Baghdad. Beyond Baghdad was the Kingdom of Persia(now Iran) and he did not have any overflying permission to fly over or land in the territory. He needed a change of route.

To chart a new route he needed new maps. So he went searching in the Baghdad bazar and found an old school atlas. On this he charted his tracks: Baghdad-Shu’aiba(near Basrah)-Bahrain. When he reached Bahrain, the British “Air Ministry” finally caught up with him. He was told he cannot go further but fly back to London.

He asked for maps to chart his way back. He was shown a wall map and in that pre-xerox era he had to sketch it by hand on a piece of paper. But instead of plotting his return, he charted his route to Gwadar, a city close to Iran and India border near the Gulf of Oman. He calculated Bahrain to Gwadar distance as 740 Miles. His aircraft range was 750 Miles with extra tank.

But Bahrain official wouldn’t fuel till he gave declaration in writing that he will not fly towards India but fly back to London. He wrote the declaration, fuelled, took off from Bahrain, but instead of turning west, he went east, towards India. The Bahrain officials saw this and alerted the forward bases.

Maurice Wilson flew nine and half hours from Bahrain to Gwadar. On a single engine Gypsy Moth, in 1933, with no communication radio, with basic compass, with route sketched on plain paper, this is a feat. A small mistake and he could have been anywhere.

From Gwadar he flew to Karachi. He was finally in India. (Gwadar, at that time belonged to Oman.) In Karachi, the British “Air Ministry” official showed up again. He was warned not to overfly or enter the Kingdom of Nepal or the Kingdom of Sikkim or enter Tibet to reach Everest. (At that time, Tibet was a sovereign nation.)

But nothing would dissuade Maurice Wilson. He flew Karachi-Hyderabad (the other Hyderabad, now in Pakistan)-Jodhpur-Allahabad. By this time, the British administration had gone bonkers. At Allahabad he was downright refused fuel. Wilson then stole fuel but he left the money stuck on the hanger door. He flew out of Allahabad to Lal Balu (near Purnia, Bihar) and then to Maharaja of Darbhanga airfield at Purnia. Here Maurice Wilson’s fate was finally sealed, flying wise. His Gypsy Moth was impounded and placed under lock and key.

But more adventures remain. Maurice Wilson had 19 hours of flying lessons before he took to air for India. But he had no mountain climbing lessons.

Maurice Wilson only climbing experience was “a flight of stairs”. He was unequipped and unqualified for mountaineering. Out of his aircraft he was, quite literally, out of his wits.

By now out of money, he sold his airplane and proceeded to Darjeeling, the usual starting point for trek to Everest. The spies of the British Empire were also moving with him. Helped by three hired sherpas, he managed to escape Darjeeling unnoticed, disguised as Tibetan Monk. They trekked via Sikkim and Tibet to the foothills of the Everest.

Maurice Wilson planned to celebrate his 36th birthday on 21st April 1934 on the summit of the Everest. But this was not to be. Till 31st May, he made three attempts to summit. All solo. Then he did not return.

In the following year, 1935, a British expedition to Everest found the body of Maurice Wilson. Quite significantly, one member of this expedition was Sherpa Tenzin Norgay.

Flying and climbing are the extrinsic parts of this story. The book actually delves deeper into the making of Maurice Wilson, both physically and psychologically. Also spiritually. How those times of war, how his own experience in the war, the period of Great Depression effecting his livelihood, his relationship with his father, mother, brothers, wives, girlfriends; how these intrinsic things, all culminated to create the man that he became. By the time Maurice Wilson is climbing and stumbling at the heights of Twenty Thousand feet on the Everest, the reader knows who he is. Morbidly, the reader also knows what will become of him.

Maurice Wilson had left London for Everest without informing his mother. All his letters were addressed to his “flame”. All his diary entries mentioned his love. But, in a very poignant moment, on the heights of Everest, when Maurice Wilson is moving from delirium towards death, he made diary entries remembering his mother.

“I am a fool, who with his longing for love and tenderness runs up cold mountains.” ~ Reinhold Messner, The Crystal Horizon