To start the ball rolling with this new series we look to the hills and at the career of one of the first female mountaineers in history – Freda du Faur (1882-1935).
Although female mountaineers
were not unknown of in the Edwardian era just over a hundred years ago it was
rare to come across one who was unmarried. Freda was one such mountaineer. She
was born in Sydney, Australia, into a wealthy family. Her father Frederick was
a public servant working as a land agent and cartographer for the Crown Lands
Office. He was a founder member and first chairman of the Geographical Society
of Australia in 1883, and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, so
exploration was in Freda’s blood.
In 1894 Frederick was
instrumental in having Ku-ring-gai Chase near Sydney declared a national park
and he was appointed as its managing trustee. The family moved there, and it
was the rugged natural landscape which attracted the young Freda to the outdoors.
She would often wander through the park with her dog exploring all the hidden
gullies and scrambling up rocks.
Rock climbing was not a
profession a well-educated young lady like Freda du Faur could pursue
unquestioned and she began to train to be a nurse instead. However, she was
dogged by mental illness throughout her life, and she had to stop her training
because of what was called her “sensitive, highly-strung nature”. Today she
would be diagnosed as bipolar. Fortunately, a family inheritance meant that
Freda could live independently and do whatever she wanted. And that meant she
could travel and explore to her heart’s content.
In 1906 Freda visited New
Zealand and became fascinated by that country’s highest peak, Mount
Aoraki-Cook, and the Southern Alps. When she was able to return two years later
she contacted a well-known guide, Peter Graham, to help her learn the
techniques in altitude climbing that would help her reach the summit of
They had only been work
together for a few weeks when Freda made her first mountain climb up Mount
Sealy. This was remarkable enough for a woman who had no previous experience,
but what concerned people more than anything was that she didn’t have a
chaperone when she and Peter Graham were camping out overnight on the mountains
alone. It was only after she secured her reputation as a serious and successful
climber that she stopped using chaperone-porters.
Just a few weeks later
Freda made her first attempt on Mount Aoraki-Cook, but ice and crevasses prevented
her and Graham from completing the climb. However, she did complete other
climbs so her novice season wasn’t a total failure.
The following year Freda
returned to New Zealand and this time she was successful in climbing to the top
of Aoraki-Cook. She was the first woman (and the first ever Australian) to
reach the top. Spurred on by enthusiasm after her success Freda went on to
climb another four mountains that season.
Over the next two years
Freda returned to climb more peaks of the Southern Alps, gaining a reputation
as a great pioneer of female mountain climbing.
In 1912 she made her final
ascent up Aoraki-Cook by making the first successful climb along the ridge that
ran between the mountain’s three main peaks. This was considered impossible,
but she, Peter Graham and David Thompson completed it at the beginning of 1913.
Later that year Freda
moved to England with her life partner Muriel Cadogan, planning to climb in the
Alps. But the First World War broke out and put a halt to the plans. Instead Freda
wrote a book about her exploits and feats.
Both Freda and Muriel were
dogged by ill health. Muriel was admitted into an institution following a
breakdown and Freda moved in with her for a while. In 1927 Muriel’s family took
her back to Australia, but she died on the voyage home. Freda herself returned
to Australia shortly afterwards.
In 1935 Freda du Faur,
after years of bouts of depression, committed suicide by carbon monoxide
poisoning. She was 53. She was buried
privately in an unmarked grave, seemingly forgotten by all those outside her
But Freda’s achievements
were not forgotten. They were commemorated in 2013 for the centenary of her
first ascent up Aoraki-Cook. A group of professional New Zealand mountain
climbers kept her memory alive, and in 2006 had paid for a memorial stone and
plaque to be placed at her grave.
Today there are many
female mountaineers following in Freda du Faur’s footsteps, some whose own
mentors may have been inspired by the feats of this extremely adventurous pioneer.