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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 52 - Whizz, Pop, and Up We Go! (World First Week)

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

Sam's Episode notes: Maurice Wilson and his attempt to crash a plane on Everest to get there first (and do it for God)

I’ve got a failed world first for you today. And unfortunately, it’s another British eccentric. I know, I know I’ve done a lot of British history recently, but this one was just too good to pass up and I promise I’ll be more creative next week.

So this is a story all about a mountain, a plane crash, and a fad diet. Yes, Tom, it’s the attempted 1934 scaling of Everest by British nutjob Maurice Wilson.

Now, as plenty of our listeners will know, Everest wasn’t officially successfully climbed until The Hillary expedition of 1953, I’m calling it that so all the Sherpas get their recognition, and the first successful solo ascent of Everest was by Reinhold Messner in 1980. So from that, we can pretty safely say that Maurice Wilson didn’t make it.

In fact, there was no chance in a million years he was ever going to make it, because he had literally no knowledge of climbing, hiking or indeed flying. So his plot to deliberately crash land a plane into the side of Everest then sprint up the last few hundred metres was never going to go well.

Especially since he planned on doing the entire thing whilst fasting for the glory of God.

And in a way I feel bad, because this is clearly just a story about a madman. But at the same time, fuck me it’s a good story.

SO. Maurice Wilson. Born in April 1898 in Bolton, he was the son of a mill owner. Instead of going into the family business he joined the army as an officer on his 18th birthday, becoming a hero of the Battle of Passchendale, and winning the military cross for keeping a machine gun position firing and single handedly holding off a German attack as the only surviving uninjured man in his unit. A few months later though he was seriously injured and sent home, and remained in serious pain for the rest of his life.

After the war, he bummed around a bit between the UK, USA and New Zealand and despite the wealth of the family business, he was a pretty miserable bloke prone to a lot of pain and coughing fits. Until, that is, he duscovered quackery. Sorry, faith healing.

In 1932 he claimed to have met a man in Mayfair who could cure the incurable through a 35 day fasting and prayer retreat. I suspect there may also have been some crystals and flax seeds involved... At any rate, Wilson claimed not only that he had been cured by the Christian mystic, but that it gave anyone the power to do anything… Purely through the power of faith. And, it turns out, also a lot of money. So Huey Lewis got it wrong on two counts:

You just need money,

And lots of faith,

Don’t eat no food to cure your pain,

It’s bullshit and nonsense,

Are you out of your mind?

But you don’t seem to care,

That’s the power of prayer.

Da da da da da da da

And what better way to show that anything is possible if you just believe in it and stop eating, than to do the impossible. After all, if prayer can cure your illnesses, it can also get you to the top of the world’s tallest mountain, right?!

He would let technology take some of the strain, by flying to the lower reaches of Everest, and ditching his plane there, before hiking up the last few kilometers, planting a flag, and be back down in time for Last of the Summer Wine and a pint of mild. Or something else equally Lancastrian.

And to be fair, it was a completely impartial test. Wilson couldn’t use skill to get up the mountain, because he didn’t have any. He genuinely knew nothing about mountains. Nor had he ever been in a plane. But he was rich, and so he set about throwing the cash around in preparation. Cue sporting montage, but to the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme tune.

He started by getting ready for the harsh mountain conditions of the Himalayas. By going on holiday to Snowdonia and the Lake District. In summer. Because he didn’t want to get cold. Having strolled through some very nice countryside he decided that this climbing malarkey was easy, and so decided not to bother with any of that daft safety gear.

He was also a terrible pilot. He barely scraped the licence, taking twice as long as he should have done to pass. And almost immediately after passing his test, and just a few days before he was due to set off for Nepal, he managed to crash his plane into a field. The press had a field day, and the British air ministry banned him from flying. Which is completely unreasonable, because clearly he was just practicing crashing into Everest.

But hey ho. Through the sheer power of god’s will, Tom, he ignored them and took off anyway as soon as he’d patched up his plane, named Ever Wrest.

And would you bloody believe it, Tom, he actually managed to make it to India. He made it as far as Persia with no trouble, but telegrams had been sent from the Government ordering that no airfield in the British empire was allowed to give this nutjob any more fuel. It seemed as though his dream might just be dead in the water, until solely through the power of faith, just through *faith*, he managed to lie to one airfield manager that he was giving up and turning back. And sure enough, as soon as he was airborne, he flipped around, flipped the finger to that faithless, heretical bureaucrat, and was on his way again. Until he got to India, where his plane was impounded before being allowed to cross the border into Nepal.

However, a couple of months later, after finding his way to Darjeeling, he did manage to escape via a group of passing Sherpas who he bribed to smuggle him into Nepal, which they did by dressing him as a Buddhist Monk and taking him to a monastery at the foot of the mountain.

Fortunately, in an act of divine intervention, the monastery was chock full of Sherpas who knew the mountain, as well as high quality equipment left by an earlier expedition. Wilson was mad and an idiot though, and didn’t really know what all those ropes and things were for. Besides, he had a map of Everest with a line drawn up to the top of it, so why would he need the Sherpas? It’s not like he had much more than a tent to carry, and possibly some tea and biscuits. And so, with an abundance of stuff and expertise he could have used around him, he left it all behind and buggered off on his own on the morning of April 14th, and began to climb.

Now, most of what we know from here on in comes from Wilson’s diary, which was found near his body. Spoiler alert. In the first few days, he managed to struggle up the side of the infamous Rongbuk Glacier. A journey which would have been an awful lot easier if he had kept the crampons he found in an abandoned camp on the way up. Unfortunately, he didn’t know what they were and threw them away.

He eventually got about half way up the mountain before a combination of starvation, snow blindness and a twisted ankle got the better of him, and he made the horrendous four day trek back down the mountain to the monastery. Just two weeks later though he tried again. This time, with a couple of Sherpas for help, he pretty quickly made it up to camp three, further than he’d managed on his own, before abandoning the guides again. At this point, he had two options. Take the faster, safer route up, or a slower path cut the year before by a previous expedition, who had cut steps into the ice. Unfortunately, what does ice do over the course of seasons? It melts and re-forms. This guy fully expected that the steps and footholds cut into the snow a year earlier would still be there. And safe. Obviously, he failed again, and a few days later rejoined the guides, (slightly embarrassed) before sodding off again – by this time very weak and very hungry and probably doubting whether God could hear his prayers all this way up - for yet another attempt.

His last diary entry of May 31st read ‘off again, gorgeous day!’.

It wasn’t a gorgeous day. It was half way up mount Everest. His body was eventually found by another expedition a year later.

Now, there is a twist to this story: A claim that he may actually have reached the top, and died on the way down. In 1960 a Chinese expedition reached the summit with a Sherpa called Gombu, who claimed to have found a British tent at 8,500 meters – far higher than any of the similar British expeditions. However, that claim has been widely refuted by the climbing community, with famous mountaineer Chris Bonnington saying that for someone as stupid and inexperienced as Maurice Wilson: “I think you can say with absolute certainty he’d have no chance whatsoever.”

Incidentally, and as a final world first to tie in to the story, the first successful aerial landing on Everest was in 2005, when a helicopter managed to land on the summit. So Wilson may have been utterly mad, but he was nothing if not ahead of his time.

Tom's notes:

Its world’s first week!

Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the globe

Let’s be honest, Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe isn’t a subject that occupies a historical back waters is it?

· Although Magellan did ended up sailing through some backwaters

· And some of his crew explored each other’s stagnant backwaters

· It’s a very well-known story, and that’s because it’s an awesome story

· I thought we could give it our own ‘That Was Genius’ twist

· I’m also going to primarily discus one of the primary sources for this voyage

Right, let’s started with the briefest of summaries

· Magellan, a Portuguese chap, approached the Spanish king and asked if he would fund an attempt to reach the spice islands by going west, life is peaceful there, going west, lots of open air, going west, to begin life anew, going west, to have a great big poo…

o Since the Treaty of Tordisillas, the Spanish were allowed to sail West, the Portugese East.

§ The Pope, in all is wisdom, had basically said you lot can go that way, you lot can go this way

o Magellan wasn’t too popular with the Portuguese king either

· The idea was to reach the Spice Islands in Indonesia and be able to tap into the lucrative spices market

· The journey around the world took 3 years, from 1519 to 1522 and of the 270 men and five ships that set off, only 18 men and one ship returned.

o Don’t be a sailor folks

So, Magellan was the first man to circumnavigate the globe? Am I right or am I left?

· Well it depends on how you define it really

· Magellan has a slave called Enrique who was able to communicate the native inhabitants of the Philippines when Magellan’s expedition found its way there.

o This would suggest that Enrique was bought up nearby and so he was probably the first person to circumnavigate the globe

· Magellan himself didn’t even make it all the way home again

o 18 people did, and we have their names, and another 17 made it back after the sole ship Victoria returned

o He was killed in the Philippines when being a bit of a dick and insisting that a local tribe become Christian, the local tribe attacked a much smaller force of Spaniards, Portuguese and others, defeated them and killed Magellan in the process. His body was never recovered and so he didn’t even get back to Europe dead

§ I’m sure the crew were pretty happy about that.

· What you’re not going to give him back? But we want his rotting, fetid body in our dilapidated undermanned ship already riddled with rats. There is nothing more we would like then to have his body stinking out the hull as we drink our own piss through our scurvy riddled mouths whilst hallucinating that dolphins beautiful mermaids on the way through the Indian Ocean.

§ The whole concept of colonial European powers insisting that indigenous tribesmen accept Christianity makes me laugh, it’s certainly an important topic in New Zealand history

· Firstly, they had no idea what you were saying

o This foreign chap with his strange clothing and shiny spear thing, and rather revolting bleeding gums, oh and dreadful body odour, appears to be gesticulating something about wetting my forehead, he keeps pointing to the sky and putting his hands together

§ To be honest, right now I’d rather be eating the heads of those tribesmen from the other island

§ Can we just get this over and done with?

§ Oh hello Enrique! Long time no see! Where have you been? The last time I saw you I was selling you to the Portuguese. Good to see you again old boy

o Yeah, something to do with a god called Christian who’s very forgiving, probably a good thing because they’ve done some horrible things since I’ve been with them

· Secondly, the idea that baptising them suddenly makes them Christian is so bloody stupid.

o There you go! We’ve wet your head! You’re a Christian now! Haha got you!

o Where was I, yes Magellan may have actually completed a circumnavigation because he has been as far as the Phillipines before, travelling East, on previous voyages.

Anyway, let me introduce my source, my sourcey source, and let me sing the sourcey song, it’s only short, very short, because nobody likes it long.


· Wikisourcey source, and this is my wikisource song…

Maximilianus Transylvanus was an author who interviewed survivors of the expedition in the few years after completion. His short summary of the expedition survivors today and is one of the earliest secondary sources.

Here goes,

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