ExplorersWeb interview with Thomas Noy
10:46 a.m. EDT Jul 9, 2003
Ever since ExplorersWeb published an article written by Thomas Noy about an early, solo expedition to Everest by Maurice Wilson, many people have written in to us and a debate began Ė Could Wilson have possibly made it? Is there any evidence that could prove it? And what is the deal with this tent found at 8500m that Noy suggests might be WilsonísÖdoes it even exist?
The story goes like this - In the 30ís Maurice Wilson flew all the way to India from the UK in a plane that he piloted himself (only 2 months flying experience). He made his way to the North Side of Everest and set off on a solo climb to reach the summit. One day he set off and never returned. It wasnít until years later that his body was found by another expedition, near Advanced Base Camp.
Noy traveled to Tibet to investigate Wilson and learned of a tent found by a Chinese expedition in 1960 that was at 8500m. Through some research and reasoning, Noy believes that Wilson may have set this tent. And if it was his, this means that Wilson could have been close enough to the summit to have made a go at it.
Others have questioned the existence and meaning of this 8500m tent Ė Is it really there? Was it Wilson's?
Noy gives his response to some of these questions in a recent ExplorersWeb interview:
ExWeb: So Tom, how did you get involved in Maurice Wilsonís story?
Tom: I found out about Wilson when I was teaching at a private school here in California in 1974, nearly 30 years ago. Going through the library stacks, I was reading a book by James Ramsey Ullman called Kingdom of Adventure. There was a little chapter in there about three or four pages long about Maurice Wilson, and it was basically an excerpt from Shiptonís account of the í35 expedition.
And it was such a fascinating tale that just generally told of his aerial adventure and, you know, this audacious raid onto Everest. And I began to be interested in it and read more. And I found there wasnít anything else out there really.
No until many years later, I found that there had been a book written on Wilson by this gentleman named Dennis Roberts back in the Ď50s called I'll Climb Mount Everest Alone, that chronicled Wilsonís experience.
Robertís work was based on Wilsonís diary that was recovered in 1935. The part that it starts to fall down is the recounting of Wilsonís experience in Tibet proper. And so thatís when I started to get intrigued with the idea well, hey, you know, this is a -- a terrific story that needs to be looked at a little bit. I had really no idea what would be found, but I -- I started thinking about the mirror that was recounted in this chapter in Ullmanís book.
ExWeb:What about this mirror intrigued you?
Tom: Well, in that excerpt from Shipton he had mentioned that Wilson had shown this heliographic mirror to the Lama at Rongbuk Monastery telling him and the others there that it was his intention to signal them with this mirror once he got to the top of Mt. Everest. So my thought was, you know, I need to focus in on that mirror.
I wrote the Alpine Club in England about what happened in 1935; was there ever a mirror found with Wilsonís body? And to my astonishment, I got a letter back from Charles Warren, the gentleman that actually found Wilson in í35, and he said they didnít find a mirror.
ExWeb:How did you end up actually going all the way to Tibet?
Tom: Well, when I got the letter back from Warren saying they didnít find the mirror, I started thinking wow, this is really interesting. Maybe thereís a puzzle here. And so I thought what the heck, it would really be a cool adventure just to go there, much less, you know, discover anything.
And so I started trying to get myself over into Tibet. And it took me many, many years. As you know, the Chinese only opened that up in the early Ď80s. And I tried to attach myself to a number of parties that were going over there, predominantly the one led by Lou Whittaker in í84, and I was part of the support team that was going to go in there.
I had to pass on that unfortunately, but I used my connection with Mr. Whittaker and was able to obtain a permit to go into Tibet in the spring of 1985, and it was the first solo permit that the Chinese government ever gave to someone to go in there. And so I just decided well, Iíll go over there and see if I can get some first-hand information. And with that in mind, I took off, flew to Beijing, interviewed the participants on the 1960 Chinese expedition, and subsequently, upon their recommendation, Gombu.
ExWeb: So youíve no doubt seen since we published your article about Wilson, all the responses to it. Whatís your take on all the skeptics what they have to say?
Tom: Iíve always felt that there was much more to the story than meets the eye. There are many holes in the story. And what Iím laying out are factual bits of information that can be investigated further and deductions can be made. The skeptics, well, theyíre certainly entitled to their opinion, but I would say that no one has looked at the story, the Wilson story, in the extensive in-depth way that I have. Frankly, I donít see that in-depthness from some of these skeptics.
Their information is nothing really new. And so Iím sort of out there on the edge and Iím open-minded to further discoveries. And my feeling about Wilson is that for someone to do what he did, to carry himself as far as he did, deserves a real nod, you know what I mean, a tip of the hat. Whether he succeeded in climbing the top of Mt. Everest, we donít know, and we hope to find out.
ExWeb: One of the things people were saying was that it had seemed that you were kind of concluding that Wilson made it?
Tom: Iím not. Iím not saying that at all.
ExWeb: So could you summarize for us what your thoughts are about it the whole situation?
Tom: Wilson was climbing Everest in a metaphorical way, a symbolic way. He wasnít a mountain climber, thatís evident, and for him to succeed probably would have required the intervention of supernatural divine powers. But, he was in tune with that. He was a very mystical, religious person.
He would often say that, "faith is the thing that can move mountains," and he had a deep faith. And Iím as astonished as the other people by the story. I would think that it would be impossible as well, but the evidence points to tantalizing possibilities otherwise. I remain open minded, and I think that if anything, the Wilson story, in its audacious dream, is compelling, and time will tell.
ExWeb: A lot of these questions that have come up are centered on this tent that was found at 8500 meters. How did you learn about this tent? Whatís the story behind this?
Tom: I knew nothing about this tent at first. When I was in Beijing interviewing the leader of the expedition, Mr. Ching and one of the summiteers, Chou Yin-Hua, we sat for many hours and discussed the events of 1960, and one of the things I asked them was "were any strange items found during your expedition in 1960?" And remember, this is the first expedition to the upper part of Mt. Everest on record since 1938.
Thereís some talk of Russians going high in the early Ď50s, but my research into that has shown that thatís unlikely. So these guys were walking into an archeological minefield of things that had been lying there for all those years. And a couple of the things that they found were really intriguing. One of them was a camera, they found a camera on the trail going up to Advanced Base Camp.
It was an old camera, and they told me that they took the camera back to Beijing and developed the film and there were no images on the film. And then they told me that they found this totally bizarre discovery of a womanís high-heeled shoe up there.
This is pretty bizarre in itself. And I asked these guys, what do you think and they said well, maybe somebody missed his girlfriend.
Anyway, my subsequent question to them, "well, did you find anything else that was strange up there?" and at that point they urged me to go talk to Gombu who was in Lhasa. So I went to Lhasa, and a week or two later had an interview with him in the Chinese Mountaineering Association compound there in one of the rooms. I tape-recorded the interview.
Heís a very polite man, highly respectable man in -- in Lhasa and throughout the Sherpa community. And as we recounted the events of 1960, getting his whole take on it, I asked him about the high-heeled shoe. Yeah, he said he remembered that.
And then I said "what else?" It was at that point in time that he volunteered information about the tent. Until that time I had no idea. And I asked him about it twice; he reiterated. And in fact, on the recording he says, through my interpreter, he said, "he is very sure that ("he" being Gombu), they found these old things at 8,500 meters, beyond the yellow band."
ExWeb: Is there a possibly there could have been confusion when speaking to Gombu through the translator. Do you think thatís possible?
Tom: I doubt it. Fu Ping, the translator that was hand picked for me is one of the best in China. In fact, he was the translator that translated Krakauerís book Into Thin Air for the Chinese market and subsequently went on to do work with some very high-powered companies here in the United States like Bechtel Corporation. This guy really knows his stuff, and I have no doubt of his capabilities.
ExWeb: Did Gombu or anyone else mention any of the other tents that they found up there?
Tom: Only that they had found a tent at 8,300 meters approximately, and then beyond that is when they found this other old tent.
ExWeb: Do you think thereís any reason why Gombu didnít mention this tent to Audrey Salkeld or -- or Hemmleb when they both spoke to him?
Tom: Iím not sure that Hemmleb ever spoke to Gombu. It was my impression that he did not talk to Gombu. I donít follow what Hemmleb or Salkeld do particularly, and I donít know if they ever had the opportunity to speak to Gombu. All I know is what I have heard from the gentleman myself, which I have on tape.
ExWeb: In Hemmlebís response, he was saying that there were several different tent sites that were found at differing altitudes.
Tom: But remember, that was a last staging point for all the previous expeditions. The record shows that the tent at 8,350 approximately is the highest established pre-war tent.
ExWeb: You had mentioned about a Russian expedition. Some other folks also brought that up as well. What do you think about the possibility of a previous Russian expedition as having left that tent at 8500m?
Tom: Well, the Chinese say it never happened. And, in fact, I recently found on the Internet a reference to activities prior to 1960 from the Russian Mountaineering Federation itself saying that they had done no extreme altitude work on Everest prior to 1960. It's interesting in that it mentions Gombu as one of the Sherpas. (see link for webpage)
ExWeb: Also, there was another tent found on a later expedition at 7,600 meters by a guy named W. W. Sayre. And he had mentioned that this might be from the Chinese or from Wilson. Could that have possibly been Wilsonís unaccounted for tent?
Tom: That elevation was a point that everyone had speculated Wilson could never have ascended to. So at the very least, I mean if it were Wilsonís, he certainly achieved a much higher altitude gain that was previously presented.
ExWeb: So whatís the next step for you now in terms of continuing on with this investigation?
Tom: Well, the next step for us is we hope to find sponsors and mount a return expedition to go search the glacier moraines below ABC for any existing bits of evidence.
Also to enlist the climbing and Sherpa community to keep their eyes and minds open as they ascend the summit, keeping perhaps an eye peeled for any bits of evidence that may surface at that 8,500 meter level. Iím also intrigued with the disappearance of Irvine and Iím interested in following up some leads on that as well.
ExWeb: In terms of leads, do you mean the location of where he could be?
Tom: Well, I really canít get into it at this point. You know, we hear lots of rumors out there. My focus is really Wilson. It always has been. Thereís just something really intriguing about it. But Iím interested in trying to bring resolution to some of the mysteries of Mt. Everest, and there are many.
ExWeb: Do you think there could ever be resolution with Maurice Wilson?
Tom: I think the only way that weíll ever, in terms of -- letís -- letís just fantasize here that Wilson actually made it to the top of Mt. Everest. Letís fantasize that he had no means to prove that he had made it, but perhaps left something there as evidence, for example, his mirror, which has never been found. It wasnít found by Warren in 1935, it wasnít found by the Chinese in 1960, it has never been found. Where is this mirror?
Well, letís say global warming melts all the ice off of Mt. Everest one of these days 100 years from now. Maybe theyíll find a mirror up there. Who knows? The only other thing is to look at 8,500 meters, you know, factuality to Gombuís account to see if any evidence still exists and try to deduce from that investigation what may or may not have happened.
ExWeb: Now, has anyone else that you know of seen this tent at 8,500 meters. There have been so many expeditions and if the Chinese saw it in 1960, surely another team must have seen it since?
Tom: You know, the only thing that would be left would probably be pretty minuscule because of the conditions up there. But because of snow and ice cover, itís a remarkable preservation blanket, and it can keep things pretty much pristine. We donít know. Thatís why we want to take a little closer look.
ExWeb: Do you have any final words or anything youíd like to say?
Tom: Well, Iím just heartened that the world can take a refreshed look at this extraordinary man. Maurice Wilson was an epic guy. He was a man who embraced challenge. He, I think, was a man who had nothing to lose. He felt that he was alive perhaps by the intervention of God to have survived the trench warfare at World War I, and life-threatening illness in a time that predated antibiotic development. He was a man on a mission, and his mission was a glorious one; one that we should all respect.
Links on the left go to Noyís original article, and some responses to it.
Image of Thomas Noy courtesy of BBC-TV and Thomas Noy