Before Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing climbed Mt Everest, the world’s highest mountain, a cross-dressing shoe salesman from Bradford reached the top before them. This is the little known* story of that salesman – Maurice Wilson – and how he swapped high heels for hiking boots and back again.
In the 1930’s, Maurice Wilson had a dream. In a world bruised and battered by the Great Depression Maurice believed a single man, with faith in the Lord, could achieve anything.
That meant, despite working in a woman’s shoe shop in Bradford, despite never visiting the Himalayas, Tibet, Nepal or even Asia, Maurice believed he could reach for the stars. Literally. He would climb the unclimbable – he would climb Mt Everest – and touch the sky itself.
But first, as a warm up, he went hill walking in Wales, which, like Mt Everest, is cold and inhospitable (especially Cardiff) but nothing to match the conditions of Everest itself.
To put his training into perspective, climbing Mt Snowden to prepare for Everest was a bit like jumping in a paddling pool to swim the Atlantic. Or closing the curtains and jumping up and down in a darkened room to walk on the moon. It was simply not enough – and Maurice knew that… so he went hiking in the Lake District too.
Nothing prepares you for sub-zero conditions like an ice cream cone on the banks of Lake Windermere.
In short, to prepare for a climb that many thought impossible, Maurice did two of the three peaks in the ‘Three Peaks Challenge’. But he didn’t do them in 24 hours. Nor did he climb Ben Nevis, presumably because it was too big and far away.
But, despite being outclimbed by Dave from IT and Maureen from Accounting in your office’s annual fundraising challenge, Maurice could not be stopped. He would climb Mt Everest!
Because Maurice had a plan. A cunning plan. He would climb Mt Everest by… NOT climbing Mt Everest!
Instead he’d fly a plane and crash into the top of Everest, pop out of the wreck, jog to the summit and claim the mountain for Blighty!
Except for one small problem: he didn’t know how to fly.
Undeterred, he took flying lessons. Big mistake. His instructors refused to pass Maurice as they thought his flying was so bad he would kill himself during take off.
But that didn’t stop Maurice. Maurice had a dream, and he believed that dreams were there to be followed.
So, in 1933 he took off for Everest. And the take off was a success, if success is judged by escaping with his life after he immediately crashed. It was not a success. However, a second attempt followed…
Three weeks later, Maurice took off again. And this time, he travelled across Europe and the Middle East in a tiny Tiger Moth plane he christened ‘Ever Wrest’.
Despite the British Government’s efforts to either hinder him (by contacting airports to ask them to refuse to give Maurice fuel) or save him from himself, Maurice made it to Nepal, who immediately hailed our intrepid hero, wished him all the best, and, while his back was turned, confiscated his plane to stop him crashing into their holy mountain.
But Maurice could not be stopped. Despite guards barring his way, and despite not having a plane, he and two Sherpas sneaked into Nepal disguised as Buddhist monks.
According to his diary, Maurice, reached Everest one month later. Also, according to his diary, he would have got there faster, but he kept getting lost on the way.
History does not record whether Maurice had ever learnt to use a compass.
On May 15 1934, Maurice arrived at Everest. It was, as he suspected, remarkably like Snowden. Except 10 times bigger, 10 times colder, and without a steam train that takes pensioners all the way to the top.
But without a plane it was time for Plan B. Maurice would climb Everest singlehandedly.
This was not a success.
With no experience of climbing, no equipment, no clue what he was letting himself into, Maurice lasted five days before he had to turn back to base camp. In his diary Maurice wrote:
“It’s the weather that’s beaten me – what damned bad luck!”
But that didn’t stop Maurice. He tried a second time, and this time he made his way through faith, prayer and fasting almost all the way to the top until he was stopped by an ice wall that he couldn’t climb because, despite all his preparation, he had never learnt to use a rope.
And there he died. In a lonely tent at the foot of the wall, overcome by the cold, having failed to conquer Everest.
Or that’s what most folk think.
Here’s the thing.
A couple of years ago, a Chinese expedition reported finding, just below the summit of Everest, a single high heeled women’s shoe. No-one could explain it. Chris Bonnington’s not known for his fondness for a patent leather pump, unless that pump inflated a belay bed at 30,000 feet.
Maurice on the other hand (or other foot) was different. It turned out that some nights former shoe salesman Maurice liked to be known as Maureen. And Maureen liked ladies shoes. And in his/her bag, in his/her tent at the base of the wall, Maureen nee Maurice had packed a floral dress.
So, how did the shoe get to the top of Everest? Could Maurice have reached the tip of the world in his high heels and floral dress? Did he use his stilettos as make shift ice axes to climb the Hilary step? Could he have reached the summit twenty years before any other man and have died on the way back down, and not on the way up, as many believe?
I’d like to think so.
One day, when temperatures rise and the top melts, we’ll find that shoe’s twin. A single high heel planted on the summit confirming that the first man on Everest with a woman’s name was not Hilary but… Maureen.
*And possibly, almost, nearly true. Kind of.