Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Struggle for Everest, by George Ingle Finch

George Ingle Finch describes his experiences with Everest and tells the story of the the expeditions of the 1920s in The Struggle for Everest. George Rodway recently had Finch's Der Kampf um den Everest translated into English (or rather, back into English), which he presents here, along with an introduction and some supplementary materials about Finch. Finch's book is a fresh, level-headed account of the climbs, which reads in stark contrasts to Younghusband's similar The Epic of Mount Everest in its frank, scientific tone. For example, his first sighting of the mountain humorously contrasts with Mallory's poetic excrescence at a similar moment: "This bulky and badly proportioned lump of a mountain possesses neither beauty nor pleasing symmetry, and it seems like an accidental afterthought that created the western cone-like structure carelessly bulging from the top of this colossus." It's a bit strange to read Finch write about the 1921 expedition in the first person (perhaps the royal first person), as he should have gone if not for some back room dealing at the last moment. Of course, the bulk of his book covers the 1922 expedition, in which he was responsible for the supplementary oxygen system.

His perspective is quite a bit different from the official account, The Assault on Mount Everest, 1922, as he was rotated away from the action or sick during much of the forward action save his own attempt on the mountain with Geoffrey Bruce and Corporal Tejbir. He finds out that the show has gone on without him, and all the first-rate climbers save Finch (Norton, Somervell, Mallory, and Morshead) decide to band together for a single attempt on the summit. I imagine there is some truth to Finch's perspective, that the four climbers let their ambitions and impatience get the best of them---at least as much truth as the official line that it was the best idea to revise the plan under the circumstances. He bets on Bruce and Tejbir for climbing companions, neither of whom had any mountaineering experience, and trains them in oxygen use and climbing technique en route to Camp III under the North Col. On a short reconnaissance to the Raiphu La, he comes to the conclusion that Raeburn, of the 1921 expedition, was correct that the Northeast Ridge is actually the best route to the summit, as it would be out of the way of the westerly winds and the Pinnacles could be easily bypassed on the South Side. (He was of course, terribly wrong, as later climbers on this route found it nearly impossible to keep a tent up on the ridge due to the wind, and only one of the three Pinnacles can be bypassed, and the other two are daunting obstacles given their altitude.) His account of his summit attempt reads similarly to the official account, but in his own work he is able to more forcefully defend the superiority of his climb with artificial oxygen. I recommend this book if you've already read the official account of 1922, as it adds a lot of color to the story of the climb, but I do not believe it serves as a substitute for it, as it offers but a single perspective. He tells the 1924 story dryly, with little detail, though he does tell about the preparations for the expedition, as he was not dis-included from the climb until after he had helped out with several practical matters.

The supplementary materials add to the story of Finch and Everest. Rodway includes a number of photographs from Finch's personal collection in this new edition as well as entries from his expedition diary when it adds significant interest to the story. His introduction tells a bit of Finch's biography as well as some of the history of supplementary oxygen use in climbing. The appendices include an essay by Stephen Venables on Finch's climbing career and some documents relating to Finch's health before the 1921 expedition. This past year, Rodway also collaborated with Ian Mitchell in writing Alexander Kellas' first book-length biography, Prelude to Everest.

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