Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Curious Parallel

It is worth mentioning that some Franklin Expedition fanatics are also interested in the history of mountaineering. This is not too surprising; the perils and stark beauty of the polar regions are quite comparable to the frigid and breathtaking heights of the world's loftiest peaks. Both are witnesses to exhilarating feats of survival as well as horrendous tragedies. The eccentric (some might say "insane") women and men who brave the high latitudes also sometimes have a lot in common with their counterparts who tackle the high altitudes. I would like to address one similarity, perhaps just a coincidence, that is simply too strange to ignore.

David Woodman has very effectively captured the suffering that can transpire in extreme regions of the globe. His careful analyses of the Inuit testimony in Unravelling the Franklin Expedition reveal the horrors Franklin's officers and men had to endure. This literal trial by ice was not only physical, but mental. I can't help but think (and I'm not alone) that the combined effects of illness, lead poisoning, vicious weather, and starvation resulted in madness in at least some of those poor men. One curious particular might help to reinforce this sentiment: the well-preserved body found by Ogzeuckjeuwock and his mother Tooktoocheer, perhaps at Nuvertaro. The body of this Kabloona was "positively festooned with jewelry" (page 147). Woodman infers that this man might have been the last of his group to die. When Ogzeuckjeuwock "pulled the chain [hanging about the waist] it pulled the head up by the ears"--a macabre and puzzling detail. These two stood firm on their testimony, refusing to be told that they were perhaps mistaken. One wonders just what was going on inside that poor man's head that compelled him to embellish himself in such a fashion.

So, what does this have to do with mountaineering? Well, while reading the book Mountain Men: A History of the Remarkable Climbers and Determined Eccentrics Who First Scaled the World's Most Famous Peaks by Mick Conefrey and Tim Jordan, I came across a curious detail about the body of eccentric Maurice Wilson. Anyone familiar with Mt. Everest has probably heard of Wilson; those who have not will find a succinct article about him HERE. When Wilson's body was found on Everest's North Col, it was purportedly "festooned in women's handkerchiefs" (page 159). Conefrey and Jordan even used the same verb ("festooned")! Wilson was odd to begin with, but did the extreme conditions drive him to madness? Was it just a rumor generated by mistaken witnesses? Any conclusion is elusive.

The Arctic and the Himalayas are breathtaking places, but quite a few poor souls have taken their last breaths amid the cruel beauty. We will never know the full stories behind the cryptic behaviors of Maurice Wilson and the man found by Ogzeuckjeuwock and Tooktoocheer. All we can do is hope that they are at peace now, liberated from the torments of ostensible insanity.


  1. Wonderfully described!! I´ve always felt this paralelism though I would like to feel the sensations on the spot (Excepting the scurvy, the frostbites, etc).

    I think that the sandy deserts also share part of the hardships that you can find in the arctic and in the high mountains, except for the cold.

    Is possible that the man in the Franklin expedition was wearing those jewels to trade with the Inuits?. Perhaps he wanted to look more attractive to them and to provoke an encounter? We will likely never know it as you well said.

    In the case of Wilson, I believe that he carried his insanity with him in the plane when he went to the Himalayas(or perhaps more likely than insanity an original idea of how to pay tribute to God ascending to the top of the highest mountain of the world dressed as a woman.

    You can find here curious photos (and a more extensive explanation of his dead) taken by the chinese expedition when the corpse of Wilson still remained recognizable:

    Unfortunately the Mountains, like the north, exert a powerfull attraction that in the hands of prepared people become challenges and adventure stories and, sometimes, in tragedies but in the wrong hands of other certain people always become grotesque and strange misteries that nearly always end on tragedies.

  2. Thank you very much for your illuminating comments!

    It is very true that the desert is another alluring and perilous place. Just think of the exploits of T.E. Lawrence!

    It would seem plausible that the dead man had adorned himself for purposes of interacting with the Inuit, but the frightening context in which his body was found precludes that possibility for me. His story is in the "Nuvertaro" chapter of "Unravelling".

    I think you are very right about Wilson in that he "carried his insanity with him in the plane"--well-said! He knew next to nothing about mountaineering and all the challenges it entails. He was not acclimated to that altitude, so the symptoms of acute mountain sickness would have profoundly affected him. Those scarves probably came from the women's clothing store he operated!

    I did most of my reading on mountaineering in 2010, so it's nice to get back into the subject with comments from someone who has not only read the histories, but also experienced the thrill of seeking the summit!