Ed Caesar’s irresistible book The Moth and the Mountain tells two essential stories. Its primary story is an account of Maurice Wilson’s ill-fated 1934 attempt to be the first solo climber to summit Mt. Everest. Wilson is barely a footnote in Everest climbing history, usually derided as a grandiose dilettante whose widely publicized ambitions were not only absurd but fatal. And yet, as he promised, the traumatized, highly decorated World War I officer did learn to fly, did elude British colonial authorities seeking to ground his efforts at every turn, did pilot a biplane to India (despite an absurdly wrongheaded takeoff), did sneak across the border into Tibet dressed in the elaborate garb of a suspiciously tall holy man and did climb to substantial heights on Mt. Everest.
The important second story Ed Caesar tells is about his own obsession with solving the mysteries of Maurice Wilson. What gave Wilson his bold determination? Was it his desire to romance Enid Evans, his supposed “soul mate”? Caesar, a terrific writer and a contributor to the New Yorker, introduces us to Enid this way: "Enid was slim, winsome, brown haired, stylish, vivacious, and married. Wilson was cripplingly in love with her, and not just because of her faith in his mission."
Or might it be because of Wilson’s wartime trauma? Wilson, the son of a provincial textile manufacturer, was not of the right class to be a British officer. But the decimation in the trenches of the war led to his elevation to leadership. He performed heroically and, as a result, experienced physical and psychological torments for years. Were these wounds what led him to try to prove himself on the mountain?
The frustrating thing for Caesar and for us is that some of life’s questions are unanswerable. Enid’s letters to Maurice are lost, presumably destroyed by her husband. Caesar discovers a relative of Wilson who reveals some information but says, provocatively, that other bits will go with him to the grave. The Moth and the Mountain has many, many riveting moments of storytelling and insight, and yet, some answers to the mystery of Maurice Wilson remain shrouded in the mists of Mt. Everest.