Few people know the puffer jacket, that triumph of warmth and comfort over good looks, came from the hottest and flattest continent on earth.
The story leads back almost 100 years, to a farmer’s son from Orange who became a war hero, inventor and rival to George Mallory in the race to be the first person to climb Mount Everest.
His name was George Finch. A chemist and brilliant mountaineer, he won an MBE for his bomb-making skills during WWI.
In 1922 he was invited on Britain’s first Everest expedition. He was a controversial choice.
“He was a colonial, he had long hair, which in those days meant it went to his shoulders, and he’d been divorced,” said Robert Wainwright, author of Maverick Mountaineer, a biography of Mr Finch.
“He came across as an arrogant figure at times [but] it was more that he was a confident person in himself who wouldn’t lie down to anyone.”
At the time, mountain climbing was a gentlemen’s game and Finch’s great rival on the expedition was an aristocratic golden boy by the name of George Mallory.
Finch and Mallory were regarded the two best climbers in the world, but there was no doubt who London’s Alpine Club wished to be the first one up Everest — Mallory.
“They were frenemies, I suppose, the two Georges,” Wainwright said.
“One was a romantic figure, Mallory, who trekked across the top of Tibet naked, often. Then there was Finch who was a more dour, studious figure who plotted every move.”
But Finch was too brilliant not to invite on the expedition. For the climb, he invented two technologies that are still used on Everest today — bottled oxygen and the puffer jacket.
Among the aristocrats leading the expedition, bottled oxygen was doubly suspect — it was considered a form of unfair assistance and therefore un-British and, what’s worse, it was invented by a colonial.
His puffer jacket, or as Finch called it his “eiderdown coat”, was considered beyond suspect. At the time English climbers wore a mixture of jumpers, scarves — even pyjamas, topped with a suit of Norfolk Tweed.
Finch’s puffer was bright green and custom made from hot air balloon fabric.
“The colour alone would have made him the butt of jokes,” Wainwright said.
“The others were dressed in various forms of tweed and looking fabulous.”
Wainwright found a receipt for the puffer in the archives of the Royal Geographic Society in London. It was from SW Silver and Co, outfit contractors and manufacturers of camping equipment.
An accompanying note said, “We are sending you herewith an eiderdown lined coat, trousers and gauntlets as per instructions from Capt Farrar. These garments have been made to the order of Captain Finch of the Mount Everest expedition”.
Behind the scenes, Alpine Club leaders were sending each other notes mocking Finch’s puffer jacket.
“They have contrived the most wonderful apparatus that will make you die of laughing,” wrote expedition secretary Arthur Hinks.
“Pray see that a picture of Finch in his patent climbing outfit with the oxygen apparatus is taken by the official photographers.”
Early in the expedition, the use of oxygen was banned and Finch found himself out of favour.
After being observed repairing his own boots — something a gentleman would never do — deputy leader Colonel Edward Strutt was heard to remark, “I always knew the fellow was a shit”.
But Finch’s skill and ingenuity did start to win the respect of the men. Expedition photographer John Noel wrote in his diary, “Finch, who had a scientific brain, invented a wonderful green quilted eiderdown suit of aeroplane fabric. Not a particle of wind could get through.”
Later in the expedition, Finch wrote in his journal, “Everybody now envying … my eiderdown coat, and it is no longer laughed at.”
Mallory was given the first chance to climb the mountain. In his tweed suit and without the assistance of oxygen, Mallory failed to reach the summit.
Days later Finch was finally allowed to climb using his down jacket and oxygen system. Finch reached 8,360 metres — the highest any person had climbed — before his exhausted partner forced his retreat.
London’s Alpine Club returned to Everest two years later in 1924. George Mallory led the climbers. George Finch was not invited.
Instead Mallory’s partner for the attempt was third-year chemistry student, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine.
The two were last seen alive moving quickly, high on Everest.
The two died in their tweed, carrying Finch’s oxygen system.
Robert Wainwright wonders what might have been if it were Finch climbing with Mallory, rather than the young and inexperienced Sandy Irvine.
“The two Georges could have, should have, conquered Everest that day. And they both should have survived. It’s part of the mystery,” he said.
Finch quit climbing nine years later after friends of his were killed in a climbing accident. He went on to become one of England’s most senior scientists. His son Peter Finch became a famous actor.
Thirty years later, George Finch was an advisor and mentor on Edmund Hillary’s successful ascent of Everest in 1953. For the expedition, New Zealand company Fairydown improved Finch’s design to create a jacket that looks remarkably similar to today’s puffer.
The rest is history.