Image: Penguin

Image: Penguin

New Yorker writer Ed Caesar's latest book, The Moth and The Mountain, tells, for the first time, the incredible story of Maurice Wilson and his jaw-dropping attempt to become the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1933.

Great War veteran, inveterate heart-breaker, daredevil pilot (despite very little training) and wannabe adventurer (with woefully inadequate alpine climbing experience), the sometime traveling salesman planned to fly a Gypsy Moth aeroplane from England to the Himalayas, crash land on the lower slopes of Everest and become the first person to climb to the summit – all completely alone.

It was a mad idea, bound for failure. Yet Wilson took it on with the never-say-die gusto of his era.

It is a story that had, until now, been lost down a crevasse in history, frozen and forgotten in time. But thanks to Caesar's painstaking research and novelist's eye for character, this wild and eccentric adventurer has been brought back to life with extraordinary verve and clarity.

Now join Caesar on another journey of danger and derring-do, from America's Wild West to the tundras of Antarctica, in his five favourite books about hair-raising adventure and extreme human endeavour.

All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (1992)

A teenager named John Grady Cole rides south from Texas into Mexico to find work as a cowboy. He breaks wild horses, and a girl breaks his heart. I have never fallen as hard for a novel as I did for All The Pretty Horses, which I read for the first time in 1998, when I was eighteen years old. I started and finished the book on a long train journey through Hungary and Croatia, imagining myself embarked on my own epic. My dog-eared paperback is one of the things I would save from a house fire.

Roughing It by Mark Twain (1872)

Mark Twain published this embellished account of his journey into and around the American West in 1872, before writing the novels for which he is most famous. He called the book “merely a personal narrative…. a record of several years of variegated vagabondizing.” Roughing It is not “merely” anything. It’s wonderful; one of the funniest travelogues I have ever read. Twain’s prose teems with violently amusing set pieces, grotesque characters, and deadpan kickers.

Everest 1933 by Hugh Ruttledge (1936)

In researching The Moth and the Mountain, I absorbed the accounts of members of the 1920s and 1930s Everest expeditions. Hugh Ruttledge’s book, from the almost-triumphant 1933 mission, is rarely mentioned by aficionados of Everest literature. I love it. Ruttledge was not a great alpinist, but he was a keen watcher, and his descriptions of the landscape are indelible. “The least imaginative of mountaineers must feel… that he is in an enchanted land where things undreamt of in his philosophy may occur at any moment.”

Into the Silence by Wade Davis (2011)

Wade Davis’s thrilling book was a catalyst for The Moth and the Mountain. Into the Silence tells the story of the three failed British attempts to reach the summit of Everest in the 1920s, but it also sets those expeditions in the context of the First World War, in which many of the climbers had seen and experienced horrors. For those men, Everest had become more than a mountain. It was a “sentinel in the sky, a place and destination of hope and redemption, a symbol of continuity in a world gone mad.”

The White Darkness by David Grann (2018)

David Grann is a nonpareil writer of narrative nonfiction, and The White Darkness may be his masterpiece. This slim book—in truth, a long New Yorker article bound in a hardback—tells the story of Henry Worsley, who was obsessed with Ernest Shackleton, the redoubtable British Antarctic explorer of the early twentieth century. Worsley’s attempts to follow in Shackleton’s footsteps in the Antarctic are described in gorgeous and heartbreaking detail.

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