Guest Post: The Maverick Mountaineer by Robert Wainwright


When a 13-year-old boy chased a mob of wallaby up Mt Canobolas on the outskirts of the inland New South Wales town of Orange one spring morning in 1901 he could not have imagined that his climb would be the precursor to one of the great pioneering adventures of modern times – and lead him to the roof of the world.

That day, George Finch, a rangy and steely-eyed Australian youth, stood in wonderment at the land stretched before him and decided then and there that he wanted to see the world from atop its highest vantage point. Along the way he would challenge the hostile demands of the British establishment which would not take kindly to a vocal and maverick colonial youth who wore his hair long, spoke German and climbed alpine peaks with modern equipment and without the traditional professional guides.

But this intriguing polymath and anti-hero was inspired by more than just the physical world. Intrigued by the wooden eighteenth century instrument designed to demonstrate Newton’s law of motion in his father’s library, George would also become a scientist of pioneering the use of bottled oxygen at altitude, and designing a jacket made of balloon fabric and eiderdown stuffing that would be the forerunner of today’s ubiquitous puffer jacket.

He would twice be decorated a war hero, once as a soldier in the Great War and then as a civilian helping London resist the Blitz of 1941, he helped unravel the mysteries of metals that would improve the efficacy of the combustion engine, build a camera to inspect microscopic electrons and be involved in the synthesis of ammonia from air that would allow manufacture of fertilizer in commercial quantities.

So who was this man, and why has his extraordinary life gone largely unrecognised?

George Ingle Finch was born in 1888, in a stone homestead on the sheep and cattle station established by his grandfather 170 miles inland from Sydney. A self-made man from an English village near Cambridge, Charles Wray, George sailed to the colonies as a soldier but quickly worked hard to become a prominent landowner, farmer and politician. However it was George’s father Charles Edward, who deeply inspired his young son, encouraging early independence and freedom to explore the untamed wilds of his inland home while stirring the young man’s interest in the mysteries of science.

The combination was irresistible when the family sailed to Europe in 1902 for what was supposed to be a yearlong tour but instead became their new home, led by George’s bohemian mother Laura. As much as Charles Finch was a straight-laced man of 60, his much younger wife longed to shed the boredom of an Australian bush life and insisted on settling in Paris. Even when Charles returned home to New South Wales, Laura stayed with her three children – George the eldest, brother Max, and sister Dorothy. The boys would never see their father again.

From their first climbing adventure – scaling Notre Dame Cathedral by moonlight – George and Max would challenge authority and convention, their enthusiasm for alpine peaks slowed only by their mother who insisted on height limits and teachers who instilled the need for honing skills with icepick and rope, patience and careful planning on the pair. It suited George’s logical brain and would be one of the few times in his life that he accepted the advice of others over his own intuition.

Having struggled through his early school years and rejected medical studies at the Sorbonne, he found an academic home at the Zurich Institute of Technology where, after managing to become fluent in Swiss-German within six months, he studied physical sciences, not only passing but winning the university’s gold medal. Albert Einstein was among his tutors.

Weekends and summer holidays were largely spent with younger brother, Max exploring the Alps, travelling by train to villages in Switzerland, Italy and France and then hiking to ramshackle mountain huts from where they would launch audacious assaults on peaks such as the Eiger, Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, and dozens of others, often leaving in the early hours of the morning to avoid the inevitable avalanches cause by the morning sun. Their great joy was sitting atop a peak, boiling a brew of tea by melting snow on a small stove and sharing tins of peaches drenched in condensed milk.

The Finch boys however were different as climbers, passionate and at home with nature and uninterested in the established practice of paying local guides to lead them up the mountain’s easiest lines of ascent. Instead, they chose the tougher routes, challenging themselves often on the steeper north faces of the giants that had rarely – or in some cases – never been conquered.

Their exuberant exploits brought them head to head with the tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking gentlemen of London’s stitched up Alpine Club of Savile Rowe. These aging, often arrogant men were founding members of the ‘golden age’ of mountaineering when Europe’s Alpine peaks were climbed one after another, usually led by paid local guides.

George Finch’s audacious climbs, leading strong if inexperienced climbers up dangerous ascents using new technology including silk ropes, pitons and better designed ice axes, incurred the wrath of the Alpine Club, often in print back in London. George, already recognised as the leading climber of his generation, would fire back with gusto, equally publicly. In one particularly barbed salvo published in 1913 in the English sports magazine, The Field, George didn’t hold back:

A man who climbs consistently with guides may be a great mountaineer but he need be nothing more than a good walker to ‘climb’ any peak in the Alps. The man who has to depend on his own skill, strength and nerve must have the craft at his finger-ends. The guided mountaineer need only follow patiently in the footsteps of a guide. He may and often does climb for years without the power to lead up easy rocks, to cut steps in ice, or find a route up an easy snow route. In the early days mountaineering, because of its expense, was almost exclusively the luxury of men who had made a position in life. It was controlled by men to whom years had brought prudence, men who looked with suspicion on enterprise beyond traditional limits.

It is no longer the monopoly of rich Englishmen. The younger men are taking up the sport and gradually coming to the front. The development of guideless climbing has brought the Alps within reach of young men with limited means. For good or evil, guideless parties composed of young Englishmen are becoming more and more common. The attitude of the older climbers is changing. The spirit that saw the Alps a preserve for moneyed and middle-aged Englishmen is dead.

That article would come to define a large part of his life battling both mountains and men.

London certainly beckoned in 1913, not least because George could sense that war with Germany was now not just a possibility but a likelihood. He had witnessed the growing instability inside the country where he had been working as a research assistant and then factory foreman, helping to turn the theory of producing ammonia from oxygen into the reality of the commercial production of fertilizer. The project he worked on would earn two men, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, Nobel Prizes, and come to be regarded as one of the most important industrial breakthroughs of the twentieth century.

George was nearing his 25th birthday when he arrived in the British capital, a young man already known for his mountaineering exploits but perfectly happy to enter the anonymous world of teaching at London’s Imperial College. His fears came to fruition a year later when the Great War erupted. George volunteered soon after but he would not see action until 1916 when he was sent not to France, as expected, but the Balkans front at Salonika.

Here, amid the heat and disease of the eastern stalemate, he would make a name for himself, firstly for coordinating the repair of thousands of missiles that had been made useless by the heat melting the seals. George and a small team were forced to take apart and then reseal the arsenal, piece-by-piece, using a temporary wax seal devised by a young Australian scientist.

But it was an ingenious device to thwart an ace German pilot that brought George fame. In September 1917, 21-year-old Rudolf Von Eschwegge, the Red Baron of the Balkans, as he was known, was creating havoc on the frontline. He was more skillful and better equipped than the British pilots he faced, and even shot down observation balloons. George rigged the basket of one balloon with 500lb of booby-trapped explosives, triggering it from the ground with a hand held detonator as ‘The Eagle’ attacked the balloon. George was awarded a military MBE, presented by King George V, after the war had ended.

But as he reveled in the limelight, George Finch’s personal life was unraveling. A few months after signing up he had met and swiftly married Betty Fisher, an attractive, vampish young woman from London. But within weeks of leaving for the front, Betty embarked on an adulterous affair with a Poona Horse officer named Wentworth ‘Jock’ Campbell.

When George was called back to London in early 1917 he found Betty nursing a baby boy. Peter Finch would grow up to be a famous Hollywood actor but died in 1977 still unsure of which man was his father, a frustration echoed in final role as Howard Beal in the movie Network, in which he played the angry newsroom executive who was ‘as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’. The performance would earn him the first posthumous Academy Award for best actor.

In his fury at his wife’s infidelity, George found and thrashed Campbell, and made Betty promise to cease the affair. She agreed but then renewed the relationship. In the resulting divorce, George took Peter, then 2-years-old, and sent him to his own mother, Laura, to be raised. Betty, pregnant again, would marry Jock although it was not to last. She would deliver another son, named Michael, who would spend his life also wondering about his father.

In the meantime George had met and fallen in love with a nurse who had helped him back to health from a bout of wartime malaria. But the infatuation with Gladys May would fade after the war ended and mountaineering resumed. He returned from a climbing trip in 1919 to end the relationship only to find that Gladys was pregnant. In a naive effort to save her from the shame of a child out of wedlock, he went ahead with the marriage, only to leave her a few weeks later. This time he would not take the baby – another son named Bryan – but promised financial support.

Perhaps it was the war that shook his usual emotional sure-footedness but George then reached the darkest time of his life. Two failed marriages and two sons – he was unlikely to have even known about Michael – were taking their toll on his spirit until he met a vivacious and intelligent young Scots woman Agnes Johnston. George would fall in love with the woman he called Bubbles and this time the marriage would last, eventually producing three daughters, two of whom are still alive.

There would be another huge event that would change his life: the chance to climb Mount Everest. In 1919, the Tibetan Government decided to lift the longtime ban on foreigners entering the only known route to the highest point on earth, Chomolungma, Mother Goddess of the World.

No European had been within 100 kilometres of the mountain, let alone attempted to climb it. Conquering Everest wasn’t just about adventurous spirit of man but saving the face of the British Empire which had been beaten to both poles: to the south by Norwegian Roald Amunsden and the north by America Robert Edwin Peary. The Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society joined forces to create the Everest Committee and jointly chose a team, first to make a reconnaissance expedition in 1921 and the following year to attempt an ascent.

The two most obvious candidates as lead climbers were George Mallory and George Finch, two very different men in thought and behavior but the perfect foil for one another – one a rock climber of balletic poise and the other a methodical man of ice and snow who scaled the Alps like a spider. But while Mallory was a Cambridge man and a darling of the British establishment, George Finch was the opposite; an antipodean upstart, educated on the Continent and who loved nothing more than challenging convention.

The man who most hated George was a Cambridge mathematician named Arthur Hinks, a brilliant but bitter man who served as secretary to the RGS and the Everest Committee. Hinks hated anything modern including the telephone, and George, to him, embodied modernity.

It was only because of the support of Percy Farrar, the charismatic president of the Alpine Club, that George was ultimately chosen to go on the reconnaissance mission. His selection would not last long however: he ‘failed’ a cursory medical examination despite contrary evidence from tests at Oxford University that he was actually the fittest man on the expedition. While a 13-man team of climbers and scientists and soldiers left on the 4-month journey, George stayed in London, choosing to set aside his disappointment and concentrate on exploring the concept of using oxygen at altitude to counter the thin air at the top of Everest.

The reconnaissance mission would be a partial success. The mountain was reached and climbed to a point from where a camp could be established to launch an ascent allowing the area to be mapped for the first time. The team also returned with tales of a barren land, a behemoth of granite swept by blizzards and a collection of plant specimens. Mallory told a crowd of thousands who packed out a London theatre that he was prepared to try but had doubts that Everest could be climbed.

George would ultimately be included in the expedition in 1922, seconded not as the brilliant climber he was but as the man in charge of the oxygen apparatus he had not only designed himself but had built from experiments conducted in a steel tank at Oxford.

The new equipment, however, sparked a bitter debate over the use of oxygen in the climb and whether it would constitute an artificial boost and thereby be seen as a kind of ‘cheating’. George argued that it was akin to improvements in boots, clothes, hats, tents, tools and nutrition, but the purists of the Alpine Club described it as a heresy and only grudgingly approved its inclusion.

By the time the team had arrived at the foot of Everest in May, the team leaders had decided against the use of oxygen – and George. Charles Bruce was the portly, ageing expedition leader and Colonel Edward Strutt its snobbish second in command. Strutt despised George, even condemning him for wearing his specially-made green jacket of balloon fabric stuffed with eiderdown – warmer than anything known at the time – while the others struggled in Norfolk tweed suits and layers of cotton, wool and silk.

As the approaching monsoon threatened to shut down the expedition, Strutt decided to make an attempt with four climbers but not allowing them oxygen. Mallory would lead with Howard Somervell, Edward Norton and Henry Morshead, leaving the only other recognised climber – George Finch – at base camp.

George had been laid low with dysentery but had expected 2-man teams and was set to climb with Somervell who was one of the few who supported the use of oxygen. When George realized what had happened he chose two soldiers – a British officer named Geoffrey Bruce and a Gurkha named Tejbir to climb with him, despite the fact that neither had climbed a mountain before.

By the time the Mallory and the others returned, frostbitten and dazed after two days on the mountain and being forced back at just under 27,000 feet, George and his novice team-mates had prepared and tested the oxygen equipment, substituting faulty breathing tubes with a makeshift mouthpiece made from toy football bladders he had bought from a market in India.

The three men set off in good spirits, the oxygen clearly making a physical and mental difference. All seemed possible as they moved steadily upwards, but within hours the weather had closed in, forcing them to seek shelter on the north-west ridge. Here, the men would spend almost 48-hours huddled in a tiny tent, anchored precariously to the side of the mountain as the winds threatened to lift their shelter and cast them into oblivion. On the second morning they emerged, determined to push for the top.

Tejbir lasted only a few-hundred-metres before collapsing, exhausted. He returned to the tent while George and Bruce continued upward, past the mark of Mallory and the others before altering their line and climbing across the face to shield themselves from the fierce winds. Once beneath the summit, George began climbing upwards once more until he heard a shout. Bruce had broken a glass valve, could get no air and was about to faint and fall to his death. George reached down and grabbed his companion by the shoulder hauling him back to safety on a tiny ledge. They were at 27,300 feet and could see the cairn of small rocks that crown the summit.

George shared his oxygen with Bruce while using a toolkit and spare parts to fit a replacement valve. The oxygen system was working again but Bruce could go no further. George thought momentarily about going on alone but quickly abandoned the attempt. Bruce would die without him. ‘Turn back,’ he called above the rising wind. Tears filled Bruce’s eyes in response.

Although some would call it a heroic failure, the public responded to George Finch and George Mallory as returning heroes, filling town halls across Britain for months as they recounted their adventure. George Finch in particular held the halls spellbound as he used glass lantern slides taken from his photographs to illustrate the alien landscape and exotic cultures of a land beyond their imagination.

Although his success filled the coffers of the Everest Committee, Arthur Hinks could only seethe at the admiration of George, using his association with The Times newspaper to continue belittling his achievements. Against the advice of promoters, Hinks banned George from spruiking his achievements and refused to allow lectures in Europe, insisting wrongly it would impact negatively on the marketing of the expedition movie made by John Noel.

The row reached its peak in the summer of 1923 as the committee finalised the expedition members for the next assault on Everest. George challenged the right of Hinks to prevent him lecturing before attempting to find a compromise but Hinks would not relent and threatened his expulsion from the 1924 expedition. In his frustration, George accepted his fate calmly: ‘I understand indirectly that for reasons doubtless sufficient to the committee I am not to be asked to join the next expedition, notwithstanding the relative success gained by my own party and my subsequent very willing services in connection with the improvements in the new oxygen apparatus.’

Instead of using his scientific genius to build a better oxygen system and manage it on the mountain, the committee chose a 21-year-old, third year chemistry student, named Sandy Irvine who would not only oversee the oxygen but partner Mallory when they made their attempt on June 8 1924 from which they would not return.

We will never really know but there are many historians and writers – including the novelist Jeffrey Archer whose 2009 novel Paths of Glory was based on the life of Mallory – who believe mountaineering history might have been very different if it had been the two Georges – Mallory and Finch – on Everest that day.

Did the belligerent interference of an arrogant administrator with no climbing experience cost the lives of two men and the chance of conquering the world’s highest peak almost three decades before Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay would do so?

Hillary was quick to credit George Finch when he triumphed on May 29 1953 using a revamped version of George’s oxygen equipment. Now aged 70 and living in India where India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had personally chosen him to manage the country’s first scientific research facility, George and his third wife Agnes Johnston had reared three daughters in the years since his Everest disappointment.

He had made his last ascent in 1933 after a climbing holiday turned to tragedy, watching three friends ignore his advice and try to traverse a dangerous section of a mountainside before falling to their deaths. Although he was clearly blameless, the experience convinced him, at the age of just 51, to retreat to his other passion – science and teaching.

By then he had also established himself as one of Britain’s most senior scientists, a professor at London’s Imperial College, member of the Royal Society and the recipient of its highest honour, the Hughes Medal, which he was awarded at the height of World War II. George’s work had helped in the scientific understanding of the behavior of fire and incendiary bombs and helped London’s defence strategies during the blitz by improving fire fighting techniques. He was also instrumental in the design of a range of bombs, including the famous J-Bomb, that created havoc across German cities during the retaliations of 1944 and 1945.

There would be some reckoning in his later years when, in 1959, he was elected president of the Alpine Club. But even with this official vindication, it is difficult not to wonder what might have been, had George Finch and George Mallory climbed together in 1924.

The Maverick Mountaineer was published by Allen & Unwin. Click here for more details.

Robert Wainwright is a London-based freelance journalist and author with more than 30 years experience in national daily newspapers. He has won a number of journalism awards over the years, the most notable being as a three-time finalist with Australia’s most prestigious journalism prize, the Walkley Awards, in 2004, 2009 and 2010. His career as an author grew from his journalism and he has written and had published nine non-fiction titles, ranging from crime and mystery to biographies and social history. Two of the books have been finalists in prominent Australian literary awards. One has been turned into a television movie, another was the basis for a musical and two others are currently under production as feature films.

This piece was originally published in The Mitford Society Vol.III