The recent spate of deaths on Mount Everest – twelve already this year – serves as a reminder that even when climbers are equipped with oxygen, a trained guide and the most sophisticated gear available, the highest mountain in the world is still an unpredictable and dangerous place. So it’s worth remembering the life of a man who, eighty-five years ago, set off to climb the mountain alone, carrying only the most basic equipment.
Born in Bradford in 1898, Maurice Wilson fought in the First World War and received the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’ under heavy shell and artillery fire. Restless and depressed after the end of the war, he drifted from job to job and from country to country, going as far as New Zealand and Canada before returning to London, where he developed pulmonary tuberculosis. He was cured only after undergoing a regimen of intense fasting and prayer, recommended to him by a doctor in Mayfair. Thereafter Wilson became a zealot for his new-found creed. While convalescing in the Black Forest in 1932, he happened on an old newspaper report of the 1924 Everest expedition and decided to climb the mountain alone as a way of proving the efficacy of faith and fasting, though he had no mountaineering experience. As Dennis Roberts wrote in his biography of Wilson, published in 1957, Wilson knew that if he shouted about his miracle cure in the press, ‘the world would dub him a crank. The only chance of making people listen to him was to give them … sensational demonstration of the practical effectiveness of his beliefs.’