The tale of an eccentric plan to be the first known European to scale Mount Everest.
“The idea was mad any way you looked at it,” writes New Yorkercontributor Caesar of the plan British adventurer Maurice Wilson (1898-1934) cooked up to fly to Nepal and crash-land his plane at the foot of Everest, then climb solo to the summit. Never mind that Wilson, a shellshocked veteran of World War I and survivor of the Spanish flu, had no experience flying or climbing. He overcame those shortcomings by walking the 200 miles from Bradford to London in hobnail boots several times and, yes, learning to fly. “Wilson was preparing himself purely to endure,” writes Caesar, “as if toughness were the only quality required in the Himalayas.” It was not, and while it’s probably a spoiler to note that his expedition was spectacularly unsuccessful, it was an example of derring-do in the service of personal redemption—perhaps. Wilson was clearly in need of healing: He abandoned wives at the drop of a hat, gave little attention to the ordinary business of making a living, and may have been a transvestite. “If Wilson was a transvestite,” writes the author in this loopy, sometimes labored narrative, “he knew how to source a wardrobe.” He was also undeniably brave. Caesar has an unfortunate habit of addressing himself in the second person as he recounts how he came to the long-forgotten (though documented) story: “You read the literature on Wilson. It’s nowhere near satisfactory. He is dismissed by generalists as a crank, and by alpine historians as a reckless amateur—a footnote in the history of mountaineering.” Still, he turns in a multifaceted tale full of learned speculation—at least one climber claims that Wilson made the summit—and intriguing minor mysteries. It’s not Into Thin Air, but Caesar’s story has plenty of virtues all the same.
A welcome addition to the library of oddball adventurers.
An outstanding book . . . The Moth and the Mountain returns readers to a romantic era when Everest was terra nova rather than an experience to be bought . . . The author, a contributing writer for the New Yorker, is a talented storyteller with a flair for detail. . . . Wilson’s story is an entry less in the annals of mountaineering than in the Book of Life. That such an extraordinary person even existed is cause for celebration.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“A rollicking biography of an eccentric adventurer, and a sensitive study of the pressures that drove him . . . Unlike the airy and ill-prepared Wilson, Mr. Caesar grounds his story in patient archival sleuthing. Marrying extracts from Wilson’s letters and diaries with lively prose, he winningly conveys the glamour and contradictions of this outlandish figure, bringing cinematic vividness to his escapades.”
“Gripping at every turn . . . Caesar tells the story in impressive detail, drawing on years of archival research, and he brings to life a historical character who is both fascinating and maddening. . . . It’s impossible not to root for Wilson.”
“This slim, riveting book hits all the right notes for an epic tale: the trauma of World War I, messy love triangles, globetrotting adventures, and a wayward soul hellbent on conquering his inner demons.”
“Irresistible . . . Caesar is a terrific writer. . . . The Moth and the Mountain has many, many riveting moments of storytelling and insight.”
“Ed Caesar has written a slim, ravishing chronicle that is absolutely bursting with life—doomed romance, the dread of the battlefield, the lure of adventure, hair-raising tales of amateur aviation, and, above all, the beauty and madness of the quest to ascend Earth’s tallest summit. Maurice Wilson is as rich and full of surprise and contradiction as a character in a novel, and through painstaking historical research, Caesar brings his hero back to vivid life in all his messy, inspiring, ultimately tragic glory. A major feat of reporting and elegant storytelling.”
—Patrick Radden Keefe, author of Say Nothing
“A wonderful adventure story, beautifully told. Based on years of painstaking archival research, Ed Caesar’s The Moth and the Mountain brings us a modern-day myth with a beguiling, impossible hero from a vanished era of empire, one man on an epic quest that is by turns gripping and heartbreaking.”
—Adam Higginbotham, author of Midnight in Chernobyl
“The Moth and the Mountain is a gripping story of heroism, adventure, madness, and thwarted love, told with extraordinary empathy and intelligence. Ed Caesar is a writer of rare style and depth, and he has written a great and moving work of nonfiction.”
—Mark O’Connell, author of Notes from an Apocalypse
“The Moth and the Mountain is gorgeous and deeply affecting book: a tale of tragedy and obsession, pluck and luck, told at the pace of a thriller and bursting with heart. Ed Caesar deploys every ounce of his considerable journalistic skill as he uncovers the true story of a great British eccentric driven by forces he only partly understands to the ends of the earth. This book deserves to be counted alongside Wade Davis’s Into The Silence as one of the best ever written about the early attempts to conquer Everest. It is a fine, fine slice of history by a truly special writer who proves time and time again that he is among the best of his generation.”
—Dan Jones, author of The Templars
“A story of adventure and war, of eccentricity and courage, of love and secrets and of the overwhelming urge one man had to climb the world’s highest mountain. Ed Caesar writes like a dream, beautifully piecing together Maurice Wilson’s life with compassion and intelligence. It’s hard to imagine a finer tribute to one of Everest’s forgotten heroes.”
—Elizabeth Day, author of How to Fail
"Why climb the world's highest mountain? For King and Country; for the glory of God; because it is there. Or, as for Maurice Wilson, because of an unhappy love affair, a wartime trauma, and a longing to get away from a life whose values are measured at the cash register. In Ed Caesar's telling, the hapless, defiant Wilson becomes an unexpected hero—an unforgettable inspiration for anyone who chafes at the limits of ordinary life."
—Benjamin Moser, author of Sontag
"Caesar has created a widely appealing and affecting character study, microhistory, story of love and loss, and inquiry into some surprising effects of trauma and personal tragedy."
"An evocative portrait . . . This entertaining, well-researched chronicle is a valuable addition to mountaineering history."
“Credit to Ed Caesar for rescuing such a splendid tale of an engaging maverick from the footnotes of Everest history. . . . Caesar has told the extraordinary story of this intrepid ‘madman’ in an engrossing biography. . . . A lovely book.”
“A small classic in the making. . . Drivingly paced yet poignant—a compelling portrait of a broken man who became so fixated on Everest that he tried to climb it. . . . An urgent and humane story.”
—Sunday Times (London)
“Meticulously researched . . . Gem of a book.”
“This bonkers ripping yarn of derring-don’t is a hell of a ride. . . . Scrupulously researched.”
—The Times (London)