Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Making of a Mountaineer, by George Ingle Finch

George Ingle Finch writes of his climbs up to 1923, including his attempt on the summit of Everest, in The Making of a Mountaineer. Finch is a curious climber at a time of transition in the mountaineering world, as he is often at odds with the mainstream, whether in his advocacy for ice climbing, oxygen-use, or even taking novices on difficult climbs. He is passionate about ice climbing at a time when skill on rock was often seen as the mark of a great climber (i.e. Mallory, Longland, Preuss, Underhill), and he revels in the cutting of an effective step and using a good pair of climbing irons. His paean to the perfect ice axe, giving ideal dimensions down to the quarter inch, shows both a man in love and true technician. He takes pride that his climbs are almost never epics (excepting perhaps his descent of Everest and his unfortunate first experience of winter climbing in the Alps), and that he takes safe lines that are often difficult. In the Alps, he is almost always accompanied by his brother, Max. (It's too bad Max Finch was dropped from consideration early on in Everest Committee deliberations.) They revel in traverses, make a couple new lines (including the North Face of the Dent d'Herens), and make what they can of the Alps in winter. In his chapter on the Dent d'Herens climb (1923), Finch makes an interesting defense of bringing tyros (think Bruce and Tejbir on Everest) on difficult climbs, saying that they are safer than the moderately-experienced climber, provide a fresh perspective, and that a hazardous climb is a reflection upon the leader, rather than the man who follows.

His Everest material is similar, but shorter than his concurrently published Der Kampf um den Everest (The Struggle for Everest). He's a bit more sarcastic here, such as in his description of his fellow climbers' "love" of the oxygen drills on the approach march and his denigration of the size of Everest. (Like Smythe, he points out that Mount Blanc is a greater vertical climb from the beginnings of the glaciers to the top.) He has plenty of reason to be, as he had been led to believe he would be returning to Everest, only to be left out of the 1924 climb when the RGS secretary became annoyed with him, and this after being shortchanged in 1921. His 1922 climb, along with Geoffrey Bruce, set a world altitude record, and came considerably closer to the summit than the previous party. He believes he definitely proved with his oxygen-assisted climb that the use of oxygen at extreme altitude is essential, and he believes no one will ever reach the summit without it. It amazes me that someone with the scientific training of Finch, who can obsess over the slightest details of the design of an ice axe or a camera, was later upstaged in the design of his oxygen system by the young Sandy Irvine, who removed several pounds of unnecessary parts and made it more user-friendly in 1924. 

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