Magazine article The Spectator

'The Maverick Mountaineer: The Remarkable Life of George Ingle Finch: Climber, Scientist, Inventor', by Robert Wainwright - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Maverick Mountaineer: The Remarkable Life of George Ingle Finch: Climber, Scientist, Inventor', by Robert Wainwright - Review

Article excerpt

Born in New South Wales in 1888, George Finch climbed Mount Canobolas as a boy, unleashing, in the thin air, a lifelong passion. When he was 14, the family emigrated to Europe. There, as a young man, Finch excelled both as an alpinist and a student, enrolling at the prestigious Zurich Federal Institute of Technology, where he won a gold medal which he subsequently melted down to buy ropes and belays. He was six feet two, with broad shoulders and blue eyes, and he played the piano beautifully.

In 1912 he moved to London to work as a research chemist, joining the Fuel and Refractory Fuels team at Imperial College the following year. From the outset, he upset convention in the climbing fraternity. His independent spirit proved almost disastrous when he progressed to the higher peaks of the Himalaya, a region then in the grip of the saurians of the Royal Geographical Society in Britain, and its rival the Alpine Club.

Finch failed a medical for the first official British expedition to Everest under suspicious circumstances, but he went on the second, in 1922, and with Geoffrey Bruce climbed to 27,000 feet -- higher than anyone before. When he got down to the lower Camp III, he ate four fried quail truffled in foie gras. Polarised views on the use of oxygen dominated the enterprise. Finch was one of the main supporters of oxygen use, and brilliantly pioneered new equipment, but many thought it was cheating -- just as a decade before they had sniffed at Amundsen reaching the South Pole with dogs. Finch wrote in the Royal Geographical Journal that by guzzling from a canister

the climber does not smooth away the rough rocks of the mountain or still the storm; nor is he an Aladdin who, by a rub on a magic ring, is wafted by invisible agents to his goal.

The journalist Robert Wainwright has conjured up the rasp of crampons on sheet ice, the taste of peaches eaten from the tin, and the bitchiness endemic among the frozen-bearded tribe of climbers and explorers -- a characteristic still thriving. Finch wrote in his diary of 'a legacy of hate'. The organisers passed him over for the third Everest expedition, in 1924. George Mallory went, as he had on the previous two. ('You know he doesn't like me,' Finch had written home.) This time, Mallory didn't come back.

Wainwright acknowledges that Finch was abrasive. He was, according to a peer, 'overbearing and a difficult climbing companion'. …

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