In a brief and remarkable career spanning the southern summers of 1909/10 through to 1912/13, Emmaline Freda Du Faur assembled a truly remarkable climbing resume.
Starting as a raw novice to mountaineering in December 1909, and armed only with her self-taught rocklimbing skills, Freda commenced her alpine career under the guidance of famous pioneer Mt Cook guide, Peter Graham. In order to assess Freda’s ability, Graham took her out on a 10 hour traverse of Mt Wakefield and Mt Kinsey at the extreme southern end of the Mt Cook range. This climb convinced Graham that his client was able to tackle bigger things without further assessment. Remarkably, and well ahead of his Edwardian time in this respect, Graham had said that he saw no reason why Freda should not be a mountaineer, despite the fact that she was almost certainly the first woman in his experience to express such a desire.
During that first season, Freda also completed a climb of Mt Sealy followed two days later by an ascent of The Nun’s Veil., and, a week later perhaps most stunningly of all, along with Graham and another client, Laurence Earle, made the first ascent of the west ridge of Mt Malte Brun
, crossing the famous Cheval ridge to the summit – all of this, in deference to Edwardian convention, in a skirt! This was also only the second ascent of Malte Brun’s summit.
Any normal novice would have been thrilled and satisfied with such an FA in their first alpine season. Freda was having none of it – a fortnight later she and Graham made an attempt on Earle's Route on Aoraki/Mt Cook, but were defeated by the bergschrund and the iced rocks immediately above it.
Far from beaten by this experience, a week later Freda completed her first alpine season with a return crossing of the Copland pass across the main divide to the West Coast.
Freda clearly had the bug. She sailed back to New Zealand from her Sydney home in November 1910 for a second crack at Mt Cook. Warm up climbs of Mt Annette and Mt Mabel and a Ball Pass crossing behind them, Freda and her guide knocked off a virgin 8000ft peak near Barron’s Saddle at the head of the Mueller Glacier before turning their attention to the main goal – the second ascent of Earle's Route on Aoraki/Mt Cook.
Freda and her guides, Peter and Alex Graham, not only succeeded in making the second ascent of the west ridge of Mt Cook on 1st December 1910, in doing so they set a staggering record time of 14 hours return (including 2 hours on the summit!), Freda became the first woman to reach the summit, and the first Australian to reach the summit. All of this without crampons and, yes, she was still wearing a skirt!
A week later, Freda was back into it. Making the second ascent of Mt De La Beche and a further week later summited the Silberhorn en route to a failed attempt at a second ascent of Mt Tasman, the second highest NZ peak and easily it’s most challenging snow and ice climb at the time. Ultimately it was the weather that defeated this attempt on Mt Tasman.
Undeterred by adversity on Tasman, Freda continued her season with a second ascent of Mt Green at the head of the Tasman Glacier, and a first ascent of Mt Chudleigh.
A late start to the following season saw Freda succeed on a couple of virgin peaks including Mt Nazomi, a prominent peak on the Mt Cook range between Ball Pass and the SE ridge of Mt Cook. Freda named this peak from a Japanese expression meaning "hearts desire". This climb was followed by her second, and this time successful, attempt at the 2nd ascent of Mt Tasman. She had now “bagged” NZ’s two highest peaks among the successes of her short career, and still she was just getting started in that skirt.
Some three days after making the 2nd ascent of Mt Tasman, Freda set her sights on the third highest and yet unclimbed peak, Mt Dampier, at 11267ft, just 200ft lower than Mt Tasman. The attempt was successful and Freda had now become the first person not only to climb Mt Dampier, but the first person to climb the three highest peaks in the Southern Alps, and all this in the first three years of her climbing career. Opposite page 182 of her book “The Conquest of Mt Cook” there is a photo of Freda on the summit of Mt Dampier, with her back to the camera, facing Mt Cook’s NW face. The photo shows that, even now that her gender had well and truly ceased to matter as far as the record books went, she was still wearing a skirt.
After a night in the bivouac after Mt Dampier, Freda was still unstoppable, and immediately attacked the fourth highest peak, Mt Lendenfeld (10551ft). This attempt was also successful and Freda became part of the second ever ascent of the peak, and did so by a new route – it was the FA of the North East ridge.
The 1912/13 season was to be Freda’s last. She returned to Mt Cook for the fourth and final series of objectives she had set for herself. Freda was bent on nothing less than the first east west traverse of Mt Sefton and what most mountain guides considered the impossible – the first complete traverse of all three peaks of the mile-long summit ridge of Aoraki/Mt Cook. She accomplished both.
On 3rd January 1913, Freda Du Faur, Peter Graham and David Thomson became the first to complete what is now referred to as the Grand Traverse of Mt Cook, ascending from the Hooker Valley by the south west ridge to the southern, low summit, traversing to the middle, second summit and then following the exposed sinuous and corniced ice ridge to the northern high summit and descending the Linda Glacier “normal” route back to the Tasman Valley. The traverse took twenty hours. To this day, the traverse is considered by most to be the greatest alpine climb in New Zealand.
Of course Freda wasn’t finished for the season and, followed this extraordinary feat on Mt Cook with the first east-west traverse of Mt Sefton., a first ascent of yet another virgin peak which Freda dubbed Mt Cadogan, followed in turn by a 2nd ascent of Aguille Rouge in the Malte Brun range. This was to be Freda’s last known NZ climb.
Freda left New Zealand at the end of her fourth and most successful alpine season having become certainly the most successful amateur climber in the Southern Alps and, almost certainly one of the best amateur climbers of her day anywhere in the world. Du Faur peak in Mt Cook NP is named after her. Given her achievements it seems totally fatuous to make further mention of that skirt.
Australia’s first real mountaineer, the first woman to ascend Mount Cook, The first person to climb all five of New Zealand’s highest peaks (and 7 of the highest 10), and who achieved so much more in the NZ Alps than anyone before her at the time, kicking down the barriers of gender stereotyping in the process, took her own life in 1935 after suffering declining mental health.
When this article was originally written, Freda lay in an unmarked grave in Manly General Cemetery, Sydney. I'm pleased to say that since then, this terrible injustice has been rectified. In December 2006, a small group of people, led by Freda's biographer, Sally Irwin, NZ climber Ashley Gualter, and NZ journalist Stu Piddington, with support from Ed Hillary, Air NZ and others, arranged a memorial stone and plaque which has been placed at the foot of Freda's grave. Ashley was kind enough to invite me to the dedication of this memorial and it was a great privelege to attend.
When I initially found her grave someone had been there before me – and placed a small rock cairn where her headstone should be. I wanted to believe a climber had put it there. I now know that it was Ashley Gualter and it was pleasing to find out that other climbers had taken the trouble to find Freda and honour her memory.
Sally Irwin's excellent biography of Freda Du Faur "Between Heaven and Earth" is out of print but some copies are still available from the author or from Stu Piddington. email email@example.com. I'm sure Stu would be delighted to sell copies from his small stockpile or put you in touch with Sally Irwin.
New Zealand's highest peaks in order are:
Aoraki/Mount Cook - 3754 m (12,316 ft) *
Mount Tasman - 3498 m (11,476 ft)*
Mount Dampier - 3440 m (11,286 ft)*
Mount Silberhorn - 3279 m (10,758 ft)*
Mount Lendenfeld - 3201 m (10,502 ft)*
Mount Hicks - 3183 m (10,443 ft) (Formerly known as St David's Dome)
Mount Malte-Brun - 3176 m (10,420 ft)*
Mount Torres - 3163 m (10,377 ft)
Mount Teichelmann - 3160 m (10,367 ft)
Mount Sefton - 3157 m (10,358 ft)*
* Summitted by Freda Du Faur
Images of Freda's routes
The following images were submitted elsewhere on SP by Dan Baker and are attached here with his permission:
Mt Sefton, scene of Freda's FA of the East-West Traverse
This photo by Dan Baker shows Mt Silberhorn (the lower ice summit) and the long snow arete leading to the summit of Mt Tasman behind. This route was first ascended by Freda Du Faur and the Graham brothers.
The following image was submitted elsewhere on SP by Goldie_Oz and is attached with his permission:
The Grand Traverse ascends from behind the south (low) summit at left and crosses to the middle peak at right of this shot, then beyond to the obscured north (high peak) More than a mile of ice arete.