In 1922 George Ingle Finch shuffled through the deep Himalayan snowdrifts in a bulky, knee-length eiderdown coat that he’d designed himself. To other members of the British Everest expedition, dressed in their smartly tailored Norfolk tweed and windproof gabardine jackets, Finch’s ungainly fashion provided just one more example of his many eccentricities.
After growing up on an outlying cattle station in Australia with his brother, Max, and his poisonous pet snake, Finch had received a degree in physical chemistry from the University of Geneva, and he soon applied his scientific curiosity to mountaineering. Uninterested in the social conformity of his climbing peers, he ardently promoted guideless ascents, which many of the old guard considered ungentlemanly. He was also divorced–twice.
Despite his reputation for mastery on ice and snow, Finch had been dropped from the previous year’s expedition, only days before its departure, for failing a medical examination suggested by Everest Committee members Arthur Hinks and Sandy Wollaston (who perhaps intended, some historians have speculated, to oust the unconventional Australian). In 1922, however, Finch’s controversial experimentation with the use of bottled oxygen made room for him on the team.
In preparation for the frigid Himalayan temperatures, Finch submitted designs to S.W. Silver & Co., a manufacturer of military garments, to create the first eiderdown coat specifically for climbers. His grandson Charles Finch (now working to reproduce the original coat) explains that the jacket must have been made from cotton hot-air balloon material, and its double-stitched inner panels filled with duck down.
Finch proudly wore this feathered outfit (and his oxygen apparatus) to set a new Everest height record of around 8321 meters with Geoffrey Bruce (Jochen Hemmleb’s research indicates it might be as high as 8380 meters). “Finch, pilloried from the start as an Australian, dismissed as a scientific eccentric, marginalized as a colonial irritant, had done the impossible,” wrote the historian Wade Davis in Into the Silence (2011), “and in doing so changed mountaineering history.” Finch’s jacket had also proved itself. Early in the expedition, Finch wrote in his journal, “Everybody [is] now envying…my eiderdown coat, and it is no longer laughed at” (Invisible on Everest, Mike Parsons and Mary B. Rose, 2003). But the next British Everest expedition in 1924 didn’t adopt down insulation, nor did they invite Finch again, after he insisted on delivering his own Everest lectures.
Finch never returned to the Himalaya. Twelve years later, however, an American maker of tennis, golf and fishing equipment, Eddie Bauer, produced a down jacket with quilted stitching to reduce the bulk and to keep the insulation more evenly distributed, so that the feathers no longer tended to gather in clumps at the bottom hem. The warmth, compressibility and light weight of down soon made it a staple for many high-altitude mountaineers, and the 1963 American Everest expedition members wore down jackets, pants, mittens, booties and even underwear.
Then in 2009 a Swedish documentary film, Cold Facts, reported that the majority of down was harvested by “live plucking,” a painful method of repeated feather removal before the bird is killed. Several North American and European companies have since tried to set more-ethical standards for suppliers, such as providing clean living conditions for the animals, abstaining from force-feeding (as in the case of geese raised for foie gras) and only collecting feathers from birds that have already been slaughtered for food. Some companies, including Patagonia and Mountain Equipment, have made their down products “100% traceable”: a customer can enter an identification number and trace the origin of the down to its standards-compliant source.
Tundra, Crux and Bask use a process called “nest harvesting,” instead, gathering the down that has fallen naturally from living birds. While synthetic jackets might seem to present another alternative for animal-rights-minded climbers, as the Antarctic alpinist Damien Gildea points out, those products derive from the mining and processing of oil (though some are now made from recycled materials).
Today, the use of oxygen bottles is still debated, just as it was during Finch’s era. Yet the consequences of current down production methods might prompt different sets of questions for modern climbers, giving pause amid the scramble for the latest innovation to consider the origins of this and other gear that aids their safer passage through the cold and howling alpine air.
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