George Finch was a maverick Australian alpinist who spent a great deal of time fighting skirmishes with the British climbing establishment while on the fringes of selection for the early Everest expeditions. Partnered by his brother Max, George had an exceptional record of climbing in the Alps, which included routes such as the North Face of Castor, the South-West Ridge of the Midi, and the West Ridge of the Bifertenstock.
He should have been an automatic choice for the first Everest reconnaissance in 1921. But Finch was neither a member of the Alpine Club, nor had he been to a public school or a British university (though he had attended a Technical University in Zurich and is said to have spoken better German than he did English). He was an individual and wonderful because of it, but not everyone saw it that way. More in tune with the 1960s than the 1920s, he grew his hair long and rarely wore a hat, unless specifically forced to, as he was here in this official expedition photograph. On seeing another photograph of Finch mending his own boots (rather than letting a servant do it), Edward Strutt, deputy leader of the 1922 Everest expedition felt moved to remark, “I always knew the fellow was a shit.” As far as most of the Establishment was concerned, the uncouth Aussie was quite simply “not one of us.” As a result, he was unfairly overlooked.
By way of a riposte, Finch immediately took off to the Alps and made a series of stylish first ascents, including the difficult North Face of the Dent d’HÃ©rens. So when it came to selecting the team for the 1922 attempt, there was no way he realistically could be denied. Finch was also technically precocious: He made the first climbers’ down jacket from thin balloon material and goose down. As a consequence he was officially selected as a “scientist” in charge of the new-fangled oxygen apparatus, which would be tested fully for the first time.
The equipment was heavy and unreliable, and there was considerable resistance to the idea from many climbers on the grounds that it constituted cheating. The Everest climbers and committee split into pro-oxygen and anti-oxygen factions. Nevertheless, Finch was proved right when, with novice Geoffrey Bruce, he reached 8,320m before a broken glass valve in Bruce’s fragile and temperamental oxygen set forced them to abandon a summit bid.
Their climb may be reckoned a hugely important one in the history of the mountain. They pioneered a new route and established a new altitude record. As Reinhold Messner was to do almost 60 years later, Finch cut stylishly across the North Face, heading for the deep cleft of the Great Couloir. It is “just conceivable that if he had been alone he might have reached the summit,” says Stephen Venables, a brilliant alpinist and something of an Everest authority these days. They had also established a new high Camp V, 150m higher than Mallory’s, before a storm pinned them down in their tiny tent. That evening, in “one of the many extraordinary displays of generous loyalty,” a team of Sherpas climbed all the way up from the North Col with thermos flasks of hot tea and Bovril. Meanwhile, Finch had been staving off the effects of altitude with regular gasps of oxygen, between puffs on a cigarette.
Despite his bravura performance, Finch was not invited onto the 1924 expedition following his refusal to comply with demands that expeditioners should not give lectures without permission. The impasse ensured it was the end of his association with Everest. Finch continued to climb, but in 1931 he suffered an accident on the Jungfrau in which one of his partners died. He never climbed seriously again, instead putting all his energy into his burgeoning scientific career. He became Professor of Applied Physical Chemistry at Imperial College, a scientific adviser to the Home Secretary and also the Director of the National Chemical Laboratory of India. With such a weight of respectable achievement, the climbing Establishment came to accept him in the end, eventually awarding him the presidency of the Alpine Club in 1959. He returned the favor by becoming as cantankerous and reactionary as the old timers who resented him in the 1920s. When the great debate was held in the mid-1960s as to whether to amalgamate the Climbing Group with the Alpine Club itself, Finch staunchly opposed the idea of letting youngsters in, saying they “should all be flogged instead.”
This Historical Badass is excerpted from the book Mountain Heroes: Portraits of Adventure, by Huw Lewis-Jones. For more information and to purchase signed copies, See polarworld.co.uk. To follow Lewis-Jones on Twitter check out @Polarworld.
For More From Our Historical Badass Series, Go Here.