Sunday 23 August 2015

Xtremely Queer : Freda du Faur

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 Aoraki-Cook.

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 family.

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.

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