George Finch − AACZ president and Everest pioneer
 

English air

Author: Edgar Schuler

Amid the noisy celebrations marking the half century since the first ascent of Everest, another anniversary went almost unnoticed. It is now 25 years since Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler reached the world's highest summit without artificial oxygen. In doing so, they not only proved the feat was possible but settled a question that has been asked, on and off, since people first attempted the mountain. With their ascent, Messner and Habeler finally laid to rest the dogma that mountains of more than 8,500 metres would never be climbed without the help of oxygen equipment. That belief traces its origin to an all but forgotten English alpinist. This Everest anniversary year of 2003 provides the ideal occasion to revive his memory.

Geoffrey Bruce und George Finch bei der Rückkehr von ihrem Aufstieg auf 8326 Meter am Mount Everest. (Bild aus "The Assault on Mount Everest 1922)

The name of George Ingle Finch, in contrast to that of George Leigh Mallory, his fellow expeditioner and rival, has fallen into almost complete obscurity. Yet they were more or less equally esteemed as alpinists among their contemporaries. Mallory was renowned as a rock climber while Finch, who served as president of the AACZ while studying in Switzerland, made a name for himself as an ice expert. In the oxygen debate touched off by the British attempts on Everest in the 1920s, however, Finch took an opposite line to Mallory. Ever the aesthete and idealist, Mallory found the idea of artificial oxygen repugnant, not least because he was less than conversant with the equipment. For his part, Finch argued strongly for oxygen both as a scientist and a pragmatist.

Mallory's ambitions eventually brought him round to Finch's point of view. So it was that he and Andrew Irvine were carrying oxygen equipment developed by Finch when they vanished into the clouds on the summit ridge of Everest on June 8, 1924, thus entering the pantheon of tragic mountaineering heroes. Finch himself had been excluded from this final expedition, having failed or chosen not to make the necessary accommodations with the British alpine establishment. Subsequently, he continued a long but often lonely campaign for the use of oxygen on Everest but these efforts gained him nothing except a reputation as a crank - and later, perhaps, a certain satisfaction at having contributed to the ultimate victory. For when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally reached the summit on May 8, 1953, they owed their success partly to their oxygen sets.

George Finch im Basislager der britischen Everest-Expedition von 1922. (Bild aus dem "Alpine Journal")

Finch's commitment to artificial oxygen followed naturally from both his alpine and his academic background. Unlike Mallory, a romantic without much to distinguish him other than his mountaineering abilities, George Finch was a natural scientist with a strong and focused practical bent. He was born in 1888 in Australia to widely travelled parents but was brought up partly on the Continent. He had plans to train as a doctor at the École de Medicine in Paris but, finding that physics and chemistry were more interesting, enrolled instead at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. After completing his undergraduate studies with distinction, he took up a position as assistant to George Brenig, an expert in physical chemistry. His work on ammonia synthesis caught the attention of BASF, which led to a short assignment with the German chemical company. He then spent a short time in Geneva before moving back to England in 1912 to take up research positions first at the Royal Arsenal and later at Imperial College in London. This was the start of a long and distinguished academic career.

At weekends and in the summer holidays, Finch was a passionate mountaineer. This enthusiasm can be traced back to his childhood. In his autobiographical The Making of a Mountaineer, Finch describes how he and his brother Maxwell were inspired by Whymper's "Scrambles Amongst the Alps" to tackle steep cliff climbs in their native New South Wales. In Paris, a priest caught them attempting to climb Notre Dame by an "unorthodox route". Only the cleric's sense of humour saved this adventure from ending in a prison cell. Fortunately, Switzerland provided the brothers with an inexhaustible range of outlets for their energies, as well as a troop of like-minded companions in the shape of fellow members of the Academic Alpine Club, an organisation dedicated to the art of "guideless climbing". Elected a member of the AACZ in 1909, George Finch presented one of the most impressive mountaineering records ever seen by the committee. He was one of the best climbers in a club which could already point to a good number of strong alpinists, all of whom were enthusiastic pioneers of new routes. A friend attributed Finch's uncanny route-finding skills to his ability to deduce the right line from the shape and geology of a peak. On rock, Finch impressed people with his speed of movement. He climbed confidently and purposefully, rather than elegantly. But ice-climbing was where he really excelled. His step-cutting skills were unmatched and such skills were paramount in an age when crampons still lacked front-points and ice-pitons and ice-screws had yet to be invented. In those days, success on an ice route depended on picking the line of least resistance and hacking your way up it.

George's younger brother and frequent climbing companion, Maxwell, was regarded as equally competent. But "Max" was reckless. He lacked George's sureness in assessing risks. It was Max who led the party of "twenty year-old hotheads" including two "candidates" for AACZ membership on a fateful excursion to the Toedi on March 12, 1911. The first ski ascent of this 3,614-metre mountain in Canton Glarus had taken place a few weeks earlier and they intended to make the second. The students left the Fridolin hut shortly before noon. Shortly after they reached the summit at midnight, a storm blew up, forcing them to bivouac halfway down the mountain. One of the tyros in the party, Hans Morgenthaler, lost to frostbite the first digits of almost all his fingers.

Maxwell was heavily criticised within the AACZ for this episode and he subsequently fades from view in club records. George, by contrast, had gained the club's trust and was elected president in 1911. However, he does not seem to have performed his official duties with sufficient diligence. The club's annual report for 1911 notes acidly that the autumn inspection of the Windgällen had not been carried out as promised "like much other work for which the president was responsible".

Instead of inspecting huts, the young Englishman preferred to climb. Prominent among his countless ascents is the first ascent of the north face of Castor in 1909. In 1911, he made the first ascent of the SSW rib of the Aiguille du Midi, together with Maxwell. And he kept faith with Switzerland and particularly the Glarus Alps even after he moved back to England in 1912. In 1913 he made the first ascent of the west ridge of the Bifertenstock, a line that is still identified as the "Finch Route" in the Swiss Alpine Club guidebook. The first world war then interrupted climbing in the Alps. Finch served his country in France, Egypt, and Macedonia.

Four long years of war did nothing to blunt Finch's alpine skills. Although not a member of the Alpine Club, he numbered among the few English "gentleman alpinists" of the day who climbed without guides. Finch's remarkable series of ascents were "guideless" and undertaken on his own initiative. This brought him to the attention of John Percy Farrar, the president of the Alpine Club, whose members were generally sceptical of guideless climbers. Farrar had been invited by the orientalist and army officer Sir Francis Younghusband to join an expedition to Everest. The still largely uncharted "third pole" of the world appealed to the British as an outlet for their sense of adventure after the north and south poles had been snatched from their grasp by, respectively, Peary and Amundsen. Farrar promised to supply Younghusband not only with organisational and financial resources but with "two or three young climbers".

Together with Mallory, whose alpine record proved him a strong rock climber, George Finch headed the list of Everest candidates as a pre-eminent "ice man". Yet when the expeditioners embarked for India in the spring of 1921, Finch was not with them.

The expedition doctors had refused to allow him to participate, having "no alternative on medical grounds", a decision many found difficult to understand. Whether Finch was dropped from the expedition on account of malaria contracted during the war or for some other, less obvious, reason remains unclear. The medical assessment notwithstanding, Finch enjoyed a notable summer season in the Alps. Among other exploits, he repeated the Eccles route on Mt Blanc from the Frêney glacier. Finch seems never to have commented in public on the doctors' decision. It is quite possible that other events might have loomed larger in his life at that time. In 1921, he married Agnes Isobel Johnston, a 33 year-old Scottish woman.

Meanwhile, the Everest committee had decided to launch an "assault" on Everest, and to attempt the summit. The reconnaissance expedition of 1921 had discovered a plausible ascent route on the northern side of the mountain. And, this time, the doctors found no reason to exclude Finch from participating.

As part of the systematic preparations for the expedition, Finch went to Oxford in order to test the expedition's Primus cooking stoves in the university's low-pressure chamber. To establish whether or not they would function properly at high altitude, Finch had himself and the stoves sealed inside the steel chamber for a two-hour session. To survive the greatly reduced air pressure, he breathed oxygen from a rubber tube. "What most surprised me," he wrote, "was the fact that, thanks to the oxygen, I felt almost no discomfort." Although there were no plans to take oxygen equipment to Everest, Finch arranged for further tests under the supervision of Oxford physiological experts in which he subjected himself to simulated altitudes of up to 9,100 metres. These tests gradually convinced him that nobody would reach the summit of Everest alive without the use of artificial oxygen. Indeed, the experiments were so compelling that he described them as his "conversion" to the cause of supplementary oxygen.

Finch was not the first to consider using oxygen sets on high-altitude ascents. During the 1921 expedition, the Scottish chemist, Alexander Kellas, had made his own investigations and had even experimented with steel flasks at altitudes of between 5,500 and 5,800 metres. The apparatus was so heavy, however, that the user had to drag along some 50 kilograms of metal for a single kilogram of oxygen. Kellas also assessed how best climbers should acclimatise themselves to high altitude and made estimates of the atmospheric oxygen pressure at summit altitude and of how fast a climbing rate could be sustained. Exponents of high-altitude medicine say that these estimates proved to be astonishingly close to the numbers generally accepted today. Kellas also came to the conclusion that fit and well-acclimatised mountaineers should be able to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen. And he recommended against oxygen sets on account of their excessive weight. He was not, however, in a position to bring his views to bear on preparations for the 1922 expedition because he had died during the previous year's reconnaissance, probably from the after-effects of dysentery. With the enthusiasm of a new convert, Finch set about persuading the Everest committee to include oxygen in their plans. But opinions were divided both within the committee and among the prospective oxygen users. Nobody doubted that supplementary oxygen would facilitate the ascent. It was, after all, the thin air that would represent the main challenge if the route via the northern ridge proved to be as technically straightforward as it was expected to be. Younghusband summarised this point of view in a pithy sentence: "Provide the oxygen and the ascent could be made at once." But the weight and unreliability of the apparatus counted against this advantage. In the eyes of the critics, indeed, the disadvantages more than offset the advantages. An additional fear was that an oxygen user would collapse immediately if his apparatus failed. For many, however, the main question was ethical: should the mountain be "forced into submission" by these artificial means. Viewed in this light, the use of supplementary oxygen would be "unfair, unsporting, and un-English".

Ever the pragmatist, Finch had little sympathy for such arguments. After all, he opined, no climber hesitated to protect his eyes with sunglasses or overcome his weariness with a cup of coffee. If scientists managed to develop an 'oxygen pill', he argued, nobody would argue against using such an effective remedy on an Everest climb. Nothing could divert Finch from the pragmatic approach that he drew from his scientific and mountaineering background.

Eventually, the committee gave way to Finch's urgings and agreed that oxygen sets would be sent out with the expedition on an experimental basis. Finch then ordered thin-walled steel oxygen cylinders of the type developed by the Royal Air Force for their aeroplanes at the end of the first world war. He also designed the necessary tubing, valves, mask, and carrying frame. Although he did his best to keep the equipment as light as possible and despite the use of duralumin alloy for all metal parts other than the cylinders, the apparatus still weighed in at 16 kilograms, including a full charge of oxygen. This, Finch judged, would be tolerable for a well-trained climber.

These efforts did little to win over the oxygen sceptics. Among the expedition's climbers, Finch was still the only oxygen enthusiast. As an incident on the approach march in the spring of 1922 showed, he had made no converts to what he called - without irony - "the true faith". On the march through India to the borders of Tibet, it emerged that the oxygen cylinders had not been properly packed. This omission was all the more surprising in the light of the military thoroughness with which all the other preparations for this expedition had been made. Finch discovered that the cylinders had been damaged as they grated against each other in transit. To prevent further losses, he improvised better packing arrangements. But he could do little to overcome the mistrust of oxygen among his companions. They attended his "oxygen drill" sessions every evening with an enthusiasm which, as he dryly recorded, "left much to be desired".

Resistance to the oxygen sets hardened to a degree that bordered on outright revolt. Although originally slated as Finch's climbing partner, Edward Norton opposed this plan and paired up with Mallory instead. To make the most of the good weather, the latter started to push the route out towards the summit, taking with him all the other climbers - but not the suspect oxygen sets. Finch, the expedition's most experienced alpinist, was left behind at base camp. This was a dark moment, he wrote, but he did not allow himself to despair. Instead, he recruited as his own climbing partner Geoffrey Bruce, one of the expedition's transport officers and a nephew of Brigadier General Charles G. Bruce, the expedition leader. Bruce had no mountaineering experience, but with his strength, resilience, and energy, Finch found him an "ideal companion". Finch completed his team with Tejbir, an officer of the expedition's Nepalese military escort, who was also innocent of any mountaineering experience.

This was the unlikely trio that set out for Camp One at about 6,000 metres. There Finch instructed his companions in the use of crampons and ice-axe. Then they proceeded to Camp Three at 6,400 metres. From there they could make out some tiny dots on the north ridge. These were Mallory and his party working their way towards the summit. Finch, however, was wrestling with another problem. The ten oxygen sets had suffered so much in transit that they were no longer usable. So Finch turned the camp into an open-air workshop. Repair operations were only possible when the sun shone. When it went behind a cloud or the ridge, fingers would freeze to the metal. Despite these conditions, Finch managed to return four of the sets to a usable condition.

Finally, Finch, Bruce, and Tejbir - all equipped with oxygen sets - were able to set out for the North Col, supported by a group of Tibetan porters. On the way, they met Mallory's party coming down after it had been forced to turn back at an altitude of 8,200 metres. Many of Mallory's companions were so exhausted that they could hardly speak coherently. The new world altitude record had exacted a price.

After a short exchange, Finch continued his ascent. On arriving at the North Col, he found that his party had managed to climb the 600 metres to 7,010 metres in just two hours. And they were hardly out of breath, in contrast to their exhausted porters. As the latter were naturally curious to know what Finch's secret was, Bruce explained to them that Finch owed his remarkable performance in the European Alps to the "English air" which agreed with him so well. As the Himalayan air was less to his taste, he had brought with him a supply of the more powerful English variety …

After this acclimatisation and trial climb, Finch descended to Camp Three to prepare for his own "assault", which started on May 24. This time Finch, Bruce, and Tejbir let the Tibetan porters start ahead of them, confident in the knowledge that they could overtake them with the help of their supplementary oxygen. They allowed themselves to linger over a breakfast which was, nonetheless, meagre. The lack of supplies at the North Col camp ruled out all extravagance, observed Finch ironically and with some bitterness. Again, the military logistics of the expedition had let him down.

Resolving not to let these deficiencies upset his plans, Finch kept going. At 7,770 metres, he set up a new camp, somewhat above Mallory's tent site. Here they met with another unpleasant surprise. A storm blew up. Fierce gusts threatened to tear the tent from its moorings, so that the trio had to "keep hurling themselves like wrestlers on the blowing, splitting, rending fabric". The three of them could keep matters in control only with difficulty. Finch, Bruce, and Tejbir spent a whole night and a day locked in this struggle. The food ran out and they sustained themselves by smoking. Finch had not planned for such a long stay. After all, most contemporary Himalayan experts deemed it impossible for human beings to survive a night at such an altitude.

Around 6pm in the evening, as the storm started to die down somewhat, porters arrived from the North Col. They had taken it on themselves to come to their sahibs' assistance and brought hot tea in thermos flasks. Finch had difficulty in persuading them that he had no intention of going back down the mountain with them. Instead, the three climbers prepared themselves for a second gruelling night at the high camp. All were already exhausted. Tejbir's grin "had lost some of its expanse" while Bruce wore a "strained, drawn" expression. Then, "like an inspiration", Finch thought of the oxygen. So far, they had used the sets only while climbing. Now they brought one into the tent and took a draft of the life-giving gas. They felt an immediate benefit as they passed the mask around like the mouthpiece of a hookah. In this way, the trio survived a second night.

The morning brought still airs and sunshine. Without breakfast but in good heart, the climbers started out for the summit. Finch and Bruce carried 18 kilograms apiece on their backs and Tejbir, who also had spare oxygen cylinders, about 25 kilograms. The weight, the extreme cold, and sheer exhaustion proved too much for the Gurkha. About 200 metres above the camp, he collapsed unconscious. The other two revived him and, relieved of the additional load, he was sent back while Finch and Bruce continued upwards in the teeth of the wind, which was strengthening again. The next mishap occurred at about 8,360 metres. Bruce's oxygen set failed. Finch managed to replace a broken glass component in the complicated apparatus, no mean feat under these conditions. But he also realised that these exertions after two exhausting nights at almost 8,000 metres were taking too great a toll. Although the pair was now no more than 500 metres vertically and 800 metres in a direct line from the summit, Finch decided with a heavy heart to turn back. He was convinced, however, that with better weather and proper support, they could have continued to the summit.

The fact that Finch was able to descend directly to Camp Three with Bruce that day speaks for his strength as an alpinist perhaps even more than the altitude record the pair had set. On arrival there, Finch devoured four jars of pâté de foie gras and nine sausages, only to find that he had an appetite for more. But Finch and Bruce found their state of exhaustion harder to shake and both were suffering from frostbitten feet. Otherwise, the pair had returned unscathed from their exploit. Stephen Venables, the climber and Everest historian, describes Finch's excursion to 8,326 metres as one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of mountaineering. Accompanied by a complete beginner, Finch had pushed out a new route on Everest to a record height. Yet the record did not console Finch for having failed to reach the summit. What Finch could not have known at the time was that the technical difficulties lying in wait on the North Ridge were much greater than could be appreciated from his high point. Even under ideal conditions, the Second Step - a thirty metre-high blank wall - would have represented an impassable obstacle for Finch and Bruce.

This vindication of oxygen did, however, bring about a change in attitudes among the expedition members. Now it was Mallory who was burning with enthusiasm to try out supplementary oxygen in a third summit bid. Finch started out with this party, but exhaustion forced him to turn back at Camp One. Under the leadership of the impatient Mallory, the column of two other Englishmen and fourteen porters moved up the now heavily snowed-up route to the North Col under a blazing sun. It was mid-afternoon on June 7 when the accident happened. An avalanche swept away the entire party. The three Englishmen were able to dig themselves out, as could some of the porters. But seven Tibetans were swept into a crevasse and paid with their lives. Among them, Finch was dismayed to learn, was one of the porters who had selflessly brought hot tea up to his stormbound encampment on the North Ridge.

One sentence in the studiously circumspect expedition report sheds some light on the causes of the accident. Brigadier General Bruce comments there that Finch's unrivalled knowledge of snow and ice conditions would have been of exceptional value on the fatal ascent under the circumstances then prevailing. The accident resulted at least partly from Mallory's lack of experience of such conditions, his willingness to take risks, and his driving ambition.

Finch learned of the accident and the subsequent abandonment of the expedition only when he disembarked at Dover. He was now more than ever convinced that Everest would never be conquered without the use of supplementary oxygen. His attempt with Geoffrey Bruce had, he wrote, definitively swept aside the reservations of the oxygen sceptics. Or, to put in another way, "we still have no proof, whether from practical experience or scientific research, that Everest can be climbed without oxygen".

Be that as it may, his relations with the Everest committee were now strained. He was never again invited on an Everest expedition. And, for his part, he never again attempted a Himalayan peak. Had his advocacy for supplementary oxygen alienated the hidebound establishment at the Alpine Club? Or had his hectoring ways made him enemies among the other expedition members? Or was it that he could no longer reconcile long trips to the Himalaya with the demands of a young family and his scientific career?

Meanwhile, Mallory was persuaded by the Everest committee to join the 1924 expedition, even though he was held at least partly to blame for the catastrophe under the North Col. The leader of this expedition was Edward Norton, who had refused to climb with Finch two years previously in order to join Mallory on the first summit bid. This time, Mallory was willing to use the somewhat improved oxygen sets from the outset, although not without misgivings. The fact that he selected the inexperienced Irvine on his final ascent was partly due to the fact that Mallory was not confident that he could keep the complicated equipment working himself. Irvine made up for his lack of climbing experience by his skill with those pipes and valves. Some scepticism towards "English air" clearly lingered. The expedition doctor came to the conclusion, like Kellas before him, that human beings could in principle reach the summit of Everest without supplementary oxygen. In addition, Noel Odell, the last man to see Mallory and Irvine, said on his return that he had felt no particular benefit from his own oxygen set. So the pendulum of opinion swung back to the side of the oxygen sceptics.

Finch kept faith with alpine climbing, even though he had broken for good with the Himalaya. In the year after the expedition, he led the first ascent of the north face of the Dent d'Hérens. This "impossible" undertaking was the summit of his alpine career. His choice of route was also significant. Judging the upper part of the face to be too exposed to avalanche risk, he avoided it by swinging left onto the east ridge for the last part of the climb. This allowed Willy Welzenbach, a less risk-conscious alpinist, to challenge the validity of Finch's first ascent when he finished his own legendary north face climb in 1925 by continuing directly to the summit.

Finch founded one of the first academic alpine clubs in the UK when he established the Imperial College Mountaineering Club on the model of the AACZ. But the mountains of Britain held little appeal for him. Instead, he regularly led his club members on extended trips to the Alps. On one of these tours, in 1931, one of four rope teams fell to their deaths from the Rottalsattel on the Jungfrau. Although all were wearing crampons, one of them must have slipped on snow lying atop hard ice. One of the three victims was Raymond Peto, one of Finch's companions on the Dent d'Hérens. Although he was only 42 at the time, this disaster spelled the end of Finch's alpine career, even though he had brought his own party safely down the mountain. Health problems proved to be a further bar to climbing. As a substitute open-air sport, he took to the sea and sailed extensively on his own yacht with his wife and three daughters.

He also pursued a highly successful academic career. He was an assistant professor at Imperial College from 1927 to 1936, when he was appointed to the chair of applied physical chemistry. In 1937, he spent some time at the University of Basel and in 1938 he was elected to the Royal Society. His scientific interests were unusually broad. Among other topics, he focused on the connections between electrical and chemical processes. Nor did his appointment as emeritus professor in 1952 signal his retirement. He was invited to India as head of the National Chemical Laboratory.

Finch's interest in alpine matters never waned, even in his later years. Nor did his conviction that the summit of Everest would only be attained with the help of "English air". He made this standpoint clear in the report of the 1922 expedition and expressed it with even more vehemence in his memoirs, The Making of a Mountaineer published in 1925. In the same year, his Kampf um den Everest (The struggle for Everest) appeared in Germany. The fact that this book was only published in German seems to demand an explanation. Later, it was suspected that Finch chose this route because his disagreements with the Everest committee would have made it impossible to publish the book in English. However, the driving force behind the work was the translator, Walter Schmidkunz, a German climber who had found his niche as a writer of mountain literature. Among other assignments, Schmidkunz acted as a ghost writer for Leo Maduschka, a leading light among young German alpinists in the 1920s and 1930s, thanks to his numerous first ascents and, ultimately, death in the mountains. Later Schmidkunz was to write the memoirs of Hans Ertels, who accompanied Leni Riefenstahl to the 1936 Olympics as a cameraman.

This restless writer scented a chance to launch a book on the back of the Everest awareness that the headlines about Mallory had stirred up in Germany. Finch could provide exclusive material. Even better, the Englishman was well known among German climbers thanks to his student years in Switzerland and the fact that, after the armistice, he had been among the first of the foreign "enemies" to renew pre-war friendships. Thus it was that Schmidkunz launched the "Kampf um den Everest" in 1925, the book consisting mainly of Finch's report on the 1922 expedition, rounded out with a thin chapter on the 1924 expedition based either on Finch's second-hand knowledge or ghost-written by Schmidkunz.

After 1924, silence descended on Everest for almost a decade, despite worldwide interest in the mountain. It was not until 1933 that the Dalai Lama allowed the British to make another attempt. But the four expeditions of the 1930s encountered hostile weather and, despite the liberal use of oxygen sets, failed to reach a point higher than some members of the 1924 expedition had attained without supplementary oxygen. The view that human beings could not climb beyond 8,500 metres without supplementary oxygen now hardened into dogma.

Finch contributed to that process. In Alpine Club meetings before the 1933 expedition led by Eric Shipton, he regularly promoted the use of oxygen. And he continued to advance these arguments at every opportunity, even the discussions after Himalayan lectures. A well-intentioned friend even warned him that these sermons might lead people to write him off as "obsessed". Naturally, Finch again made his opinions known when the British resumed the struggle for Everest in the 1950s. In 1952, he set out his detailed arguments for oxygen in a lecture at the Royal Institution. The Swiss expedition of the same year even based its oxygen sets on Finch's thirty year-old design. The sets did not function properly on the mountain. When the Swiss returned to the fray after the monsoon with oxygen sets of a completely different design, they ran out of luck with the weather. Raymond Lambert still managed to set a new altitude record, reaching a point 200 metres under the summit. At the same time, AACZ member André Roch climbed to the South Col and spend several uncomfortable nights there.

In 1953, it was the turn of the British. John Hunt's expedition attacked the oxygen problem in a thoroughgoing manner. As the British pushed the route, camp by camp, towards the South Col, they tested several different oxygen systems. For their summit assault, Hillary and Tenzing had oxygen sets that could deliver peak flow rates of about four litres a minute, almost twice as much as Finch's improvised equipment could achieve. Hillary was also able as he climbed from the southern to the main summit to make an accurate mental estimate of the appropriate flow rate. As a result, the amount of oxygen the climbers carried with them or deposited for their return was just sufficient for the purpose. For Hunt, this success made irrelevant the debate whether oxygen was ethically justifiable. Leaving aside the question whether mountains of over 8,000 metres could be climbed without oxygen, wrote Hunt, its use definitely reduced the risk and also heightened the mental receptiveness which, after all, was one of the main reasons for mountaineering in the first place. The controversy over the ethics of oxygen sets seemed to be settled once and for all.

No comment from Finch is recorded on the 1953 achievement, not even a hint of satisfaction. Yet his links to Britain's climbing establishment were certainly in better repair than in former years. In 1959, he became president of the Alpine Club and also the chairman of the Mount Everest Foundation, stepping down from these posts in 1961 and retreating into the private life of a pensioner. He died at the age of 82 in November 1970.

Eight years later, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler overthrew the dogma established by Finch and his supporters. On May 8, 1978, they made the first ascent of Everest without "English air". "Despite prophecies of doom, we are still in good mental shape," they wrote in an ironic postcard to a physiologist. Medical tests performed on Messner, Habeler, and a host of other high-altitude climbers showed that lack of oxygen inflicted all but negligible harm on the human frame. Even more important was the finding that such climbers were possessed of no extraordinary "superhuman" ability to absorb oxygen. In a stroke, Messner had revived the debate on whether the use of oxygen on Everest was ethical.

As the exponent of a radical conception of alpinism, Messner would prefer to leave the contest of man against mountain undefiled by technical aids. His models are purists such as A. F. Mummery, who called for mountaineering "by fair means", Paul Preuss, who condemned the use of pitons in climbing, and even Mallory. Messner apparently prefers to overlook the fact that Mallory resorted to artificial oxygen on several occasions, notably on his last climb.

Yet, long after Messner's and Habeler's epoch-making feat, artificial oxygen remains the rule rather than the exception on Everest ascents. Of a total of 1,659 ascents up to autumn 2002, only a small fraction were made without supplementary oxygen. Just 88 climbers - many of them Sherpas with their natural predisposition to high altitudes - reached the summit without "English air". In spite of Switzerland's long tradition of Himalayan exploration, only two Swiss managed oxygenless ascents. These were Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet, who climbed the north face in a non-stop, 43-hour push in 1986.

At the same time, an increasing number of people are trying to do without "English air", influenced partly by Messner and also, perhaps, by the ugly sight of spent oxygen flasks littering the mountainsides. Numerous casualties and accidents on commercial expeditions have also tarnished the image of mountaineering on oxygen. Christine Kopp, an alpine journalist, has criticised "Everest mania", which she blames partly on the availability of artificial oxygen to ease the way to the summit. For many Everest climbers, she writes, the prestige of an ascent is more important than the style in which one achieves it. With this criticism, Kopp comes down on the side of the purist school with its high ethical standards.

George Finch did not, of course, live to witness the revival of this, to him, familiar discussion. As the exponent of an approach to climbing where risks are kept firmly under control, he would have remained an outsider in this debate, as he always had been. He was denied the fame granted to Mummery, Mallory, and Messner. In fact, he never sought it. He was not interested in running the sort of risks that cost two of these three their lives. His contribution to high-altitude mountaineering was not spectacular, like Mummery's disappearance on Nanga Parbat or Mallory's immortal failure on Everest or Messner's incredible feats. On the contrary: by championing his "English air" against the prejudices of his contemporaries, Finch made the Everest adventure somewhat safer and more predictable.

Yet, in the end, little of that may have mattered to Finch himself. In his farewell speech to the Alpine Club, he spoke not of Everest but of a musical gathering on the summit of the Toedi. He told of the last of his 22 forays to the top of what he called "King of the Little Mountains". A large party of Swiss with bulging rucksacks joined him. As the clouds swirled around, they unpacked an accordion and other instruments and made merry for "two happy hours". "Love of the mountains," said Finch in conclusion, "a purely subjective thing, is not the outcome of a little chance acquaintance, but something which grows with experience."




AACZ   Akademischer Alpen-Club Zürich
AACZ / 15. Apr. 2005 (ab)
info@aacz.ch