Saturday, March 26, 2011

I'll Climb Mount Everest Alone, by Dennis Roberts

The mystery of Maurice Wilson comes to light with amazing clarity in Dennis Roberts' I'll Climb Mount Everest Alone. Roberts was the first writer to have access to Wilson's personal diary and letters, and he puts together one of the few accurate stories of Wilson's life. After surviving a 35-day fast followed by some heartfelt prayer prescribed by a crank for a particularly nasty ailment, Wilson decides that the world must know of this miracle cure. He knows that it would takes something spectacular to convince the general populace of this difficult, but heaven-sent cure, and hatches a plan to fly to Mount Everest, crash into its lower flanks, and climb to the top alone. Unfortunately, Wilson knows neither how to fly a plane nor proper mountaineering. He'll just have to learn! Roberts recognizes both Wilson's triumphs and shortcomings in his doomed quest to approach and scale the world's highest peak.

Roberts shows that Wilson was a man driven by faith and a sense of purpose, rather than the desire for fame or some sort of general neurosis. Unlike other accounts, I'll Climb Mount Everest Alone reveals that Wilson did much to prepare for his attempt, especially considering the short time-frame he gave himself before he left. He took flying lessons and practiced for long hours, though he was certainly not a natural pilot; he studied everything he could find both on climbing Everest and his proposed flight plan; and he gathered the very best equipment for climbing, including many of the same items as used by the 1933 expedition (They had actually prepared and left by boat several weeks before his own departure.) and a surprisingly lightweight oxygen set. Additionally, Wilson tries first to work with the authorities to get the proper permissions for his adventure, and leaves the country believing that he has or will be able to obtain all the right paperwork. He only works around such authority when they obstinately try to stop him using whatever means at their disposal.

Even if Wilson died in his attempt on Everest, his journey included an amazing amateur flight, given the resources he had available. His plane was an open-cockpit two-seater Gypsy Moth biplane, and he put both its manufacture and its range to serious test. The airfields in Africa and Asia were not well-provisioned, while the authorities were generally less-than-happy to see him, yet he often managed to outwit them while keeping things legal. As he arrived in Cairo, where his permit to fly through Persia should be waiting, he found that no one was willing to produce it. This should have ended his quest, as he would be arrested upon landing in Persia without a permit, but he finagles a re-route over Saudi Arabia and the Indian Ocean, including a flight longer than the apparent range of his aircraft.

When his plane is impounded in India, Wilson finds other means of approaching Mount Everest. After an illegal trek through Tibet from Darjeeling in record time, he heads up the East Rongbuk Glacier, only to find that his mountaineering skills are less-than-adequate for the trip ahead and above him. His inability to climb the glacier, and then later to surmount the North Col does little the quell his sense of purpose. He throws himself repeatedly at the mountain to the point of complete exhaustion. His final diary entry, from below the ice wall that blocks access to the North Col from the east, sums up his determination: "Off again, gorgeous day." I find it fitting and perhaps ironic that Reinhold Messner, in Everest's first solo ascent (in The Crystal Horizon), followed Wilson's planned route to the top.

No comments:

Post a Comment