For two days he fasted and prayed there, and such was the faith and confidence of the firm-jawed Englishman that everyone at the monastery seemed to share his belief that somehow he must succeed (after all, he had already worked miracles in coming this far). But in reality this never was even a remote possibility. Regarding weather and mountain conditions, he was attacking Everest at the ideal time of year. He was following an intelligent route, his clothing, general equipment and provisions were sufficient. All these factors, however, counted for nothing when weighed against two decisive points. His climbing aids—one length of rope and one ice ax—were hopelessly inadequate, and no amount of courage and determination could compensate for the man's colossal ignorance of mountaineering techniques.
On April 16, Wilson, the apostle of loneliness, left his Sherpas behind and set off alone with a 45-pound load on his back. He aimed to stand on the windswept roof of the world on April 21—his 36th birthday—and use his small shaving mirror to flash news of his conquest to the monastery.
There was only one precedent in mountaineering history for such an impossible lone assault. In May of 1929 a young American climber, E.F. Farmer of New Rochelle, N.Y., had set off from Darjeeling on a suicidal attack on 28,146-foot Kangchenjunga. He disappeared into the clouds and was never seen again.
After spending his first night at 17,600 feet Wilson passed Camp I of the Ruttledge expedition and looked up at the pinnacles and crevasses of the East Rongbuk Glacier. Here, lashed by spring gales, he confronted his first real mountaineering problem, and in his own words he "floundered about doing fifty times more work than was necessary." At times he lost his bearings amid the great pinnacles of ice, covering the same ground again and again, and the experience left him so exhausted that he had to abandon some of his equipment, a cooker, candles, a roll of film.
Now the weather began to deteriorate, and he was compelled to stay in his tent for hours at a time while outside a blizzard howled down the glacier. His eyes and throat became affected by the appalling conditions, and he was suffering from "glacier lassitude," an insupportable weariness that overtakes climbers at such altitude. After three agonizing days of struggling in vain against blizzards he wrote in his diary: "Discretion is the better part of valor. No use going on."
Retracing his steps to the monastery, Wilson stumbled and bruised himself severely. Once he slipped 30 feet before grasping a rock. Down and down he slithered on, in a state of near panic, descending 5,000 feet in one day and finally dragging himself back to the monastery half blinded, half crippled. His face was partially paralyzed from exposure; he had inflamed, swollen eyes, a wrenched ankle and a limp, nerve-damaged left arm.
Patiently, the Sherpas nursed him back to health, only to be shocked when the man who had just cheated death now began to prepare for a second assault. He left on May 12, this time taking two of the Sherpas with him as far as Ruttledge Camp III. Now only 8,000 feet separated Wilson from his goal, but he still had to tackle the steep and shining ice wall of the North Col, which forms a saddle joining the northeast ridge of Everest and the eastern wall of the Rongbuk Glacier. On May 22, one year after his departure from England, he set out alone for the final assault. For three days he struggled in vain to climb onto the slopes of the North Col, then, bruised and bewildered, he slithered back to Sherpas Tewang and Rinzing.
Their delight at seeing him alive was quickly turned to dismay when they realized that the stubborn Yorkshireman, though half dead from exhaustion, had not the slightest intention of admitting defeat. There could be no turning back. He would conquer or die. The Sherpas, knowing that he was neither physically nor materially equipped for the test that lay ahead, refused his request for them to accompany him as far as Ruttledge Camp IV, and they implored him to give up or at least wait for additional equipment. But Wilson would not wait.
On May 29, the so-called madman of Everest made his third and final attempt to conquer the world's highest peak. The following day he was lying at 21,500 feet, too weak to leave his sleeping bag, but on May 31 he summoned enough strength to resume his climb after writing in his diary: "Off again. Gorgeous day." They were his last recorded words.
Eric Shipton, leader of the 1935 Everest advance party, found Wilson's body one year later. His tent had been ripped to shreds, but the guy lines remained, together with his rucksack and small green diary. The most audacious adventurer in the history of mountaineering had died of exposure and exhaustion—still some 7,500 feet from the fulfillment of his impossible dream.