The Greatest Mountaineering Rivalries: The Georges on Everest

Trading record heights

Mount Everest     Photo: Zzvet/Flickr

When the British onslaught of Everest began in the 1920s, George Finch and George Mallory topped the Royal Geographical Society’s list as their best ice men. Mallory was known for climbing rock, but Finch was generally regarded as the better climber on ice. Yet Finch was inexplicably left behind on the 1921 reconnaissance expedition with shadowy reports from doctors claiming “no alternative on medical grounds.” They found no cause to hold him back the following year, though, and Finch joined Mallory and Edward Norton for a second assault.

Finch was a staunch and lonely supporter of using supplemental oxygen to tackle the summit, a pragmatic approach his English expedition teammates thought unsporting and unfair. Norton, his intended climbing partner, disapproved and instead paired with Mallory for the summit charge. Finch wasn’t backing off, though, and recruited a new partner named Geoffrey Bruce, a transport officer of the expedition with zero mountaineering experience, along with a Nepalese military escort named Tejbir, who had also never climbed. Meanwhile, Mallory, Norton, and their team fought to a record height of 8,200 meters before exhaustion forced them back. Finch and his men then made their own assault with the oxygen sets. A bitter storm forced them to abide a night out at 7,770 meters with no food, but the oxygen kept them warm. Tejbir collapsed the next day and descended, exhausted, while Finch and Bruce ploughed upward to a new record height of 8,360 meters. Finch was certain they could have made the summit with better weather.

When Mallory saw them return unscathed, he took to supplemental oxygen with enthusiasm and led a team on a third summit bid that ended in disaster on the North Col when an avalanche swept seven Tibetan porters into a deep crevasse. The expedition report indicated that Finch’s unrivaled expertise on snow and ice may have steered the climbers away from the dangerous conditions had he been present.

But Finch was not invited on the next expedition in 1924, led by Norton, who had refused to climb with him. Finch was Australian, and the English wanted one of their own on the summit. Mallory trusted Finch and initially refused to attempt Everest without his erstwhile climbing partner, but the committee appealed to his national pride and convinced him to join. Had Finch participated, some speculate, Everest may have been irrefutably climbed 30 years sooner, shielding Finch from his longtime obscurity and Mallory and Andrew Irvine from death.

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