Great Explorers: Emmeline Freda Du Faur

Emmeline Freda Du Faur defied convention by pioneering women’s climbing in New Zealand. But her sexuality and tragic suicide long overshadowed her achievements. Eventually, the first woman to climb Aoraki/Mount Cook had a memorial stone placed upon her previously unmarked grave.

Early life

Born in 1882 in Sydney, Australia, Du Faur’s childhood involved long days exploring Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. Near her family home, the sprawling 150 sq km park was a welcome release for the highly strung Du Faur to explore pursuits atypical of women at the time. Instead of completing her nursing studies, she taught herself to rock climb. Rather than play with girls her age, she roamed with her dog.

For her summer holidays, Du Faur traveled to New Zealand with her family. During one holiday, she saw photographs of Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak. These photos inspired Du Faur.

In 1906, she took her first trip to the Hermitage Hotel. Nestled within Mount Cook National Park, at the foot of the Mueller Glacier, the Hermitage Hotel dates back to 1884. When Du Faur arrived, the snowy mountains captivated her. From the hotel windows, she gazed out at Aoraki/Mount Cook and determined to reach the summit.

Emmeline Freda Du Faur. Photo: George Mannering

Alpine climbing

On another trip to the Hermitage Hotel in 1908, Du Faur was introduced to Peter Graham. Graham, a pioneering guide in the area, had conducted expeditions up Fox Glacier and made 13 ascents of Aoraki/Mount Cook. He was perfectly positioned to introduce Du Faur to alpine climbing.

More than just a keen student, Du Faur was determined, strong, and capable. First, Graham tested her ability with a 10-hour traverse of Mount Wakefield and Mount Kinsey, at the southern end of the range. He quickly recognized Du Faur’s competence. Building on her rock-climbing experience, he added ropework and snow and ice climbing to their sessions.

Beneath her bravado, Du Faur struggled with her sexuality in an uncompromising society. Homosexuality was illegal in the early 1900s, and society saw lesbianism as a psychological disorder. Climbing gave Du Faur an escape.

In 1909, with Graham guiding, Du Faur achieved her first significant ascent, 2,627m Mount Sealy. Despite the pair’s climbing competence, social customs dictated that an unmarried woman should not camp alone overnight with a male guide. They were forced to invite a chaperone to join them.

Two days later, Du Faur ascended The Nun’s Veil (2,736m). Within a week, she completed the first female ascent of the west ridge of Mount Malte Brun, crossing the famous Cheval ridge to the summit with Graham and another client.

Fighting convention

It wasn’t just sleeping arrangements that Du Faur had to worry about. The public also scrutinized her attire. Du Faur dressed in a skirt to just below the knee, knickerbockers, and long puttee leg-wraps to cover her ankles. She wore this on all her climbs, despite sunburn, discomfort, and the safety hazards that came with climbing in a cumbersome skirt.

Du Faur in her climbing gear.

 

In climbing, Du Faur had found her calling. After her successful first season, she returned to Sydney and embarked on three months of training at the Dupain Institute of Physical Education. This was important for two reasons. Muriel Cadogan trained her and became her romantic partner, and her training prepared her for a return to New Zealand, setting up her pioneering Aoraki/Mount Cook ascent.

In late 1910, Du Faur sailed back to New Zealand from Sydney and enlisted Graham once again. They had previously attempted Aoraki/Mount Cook via Earle’s Route but a bergschrund defeated them. This time, Du Faur was certain that her extra training would ensure a successful summit.

They warmed up with climbs of Mount Annette and Mount Mabel. Then they knocked off a virgin 2,438m peak near Barron’s Saddle, at the head of the Mueller Glacier. Next, with the extra support of Graham’s brother Alec, they set off for Earle’s Route on Aoraki/Mount Cook.

Aoraki/Mount Cook

This time, not only did they reach the summit, but theirs was only the second ascent of the west ridge. They completed the climb in record time, just six hours. Du Faur was now both the first woman to reach the summit and the first Australian.

In sharing her tent with her male guides this time, Du Faur also broke with needless tradition. “I was the first unmarried woman…to climb in New Zealand, and in consequence, I received all the hard knocks, until one day when I awoke more or less famous in the mountaineering world, after which I could and did do exactly as seemed to me best,” wrote Du Faur afterward.

Unstoppable, that same season she climbed Mount De la Beche (2,979m) and Mount Green (2,828m). Then, she became the first person to climb Mount Chudleigh (2,944m).

In the next two seasons, Du Faur scaled the virgin peak now named Mount Du Faur (2,389m) and made the first ascents of Mount Nazomi (2,953m), Mount Dampier (3,420m), Mount Pibrac (2,567m), and Mount Cadogan (2,398m). She also made second ascents of Mount Tasman (3,497m) and Mount Lendenfeld (3,192m).

But her most notable climb was a grand traverse with Peter Graham and David Thomson. The trio traversed all three peaks of Aoraki/Mount Cook in 1913. The traverse is now regarded as one of the classic climbs of New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

Her final season

This would be Du Faur’s final climbing season. Cadogan (who had been a respected feminist in Sydney) had unwittingly cast their relationship into the spotlight. In 1914, the couple relocated to England. They intended to climb mountains in the European Alps, Canada, and the Himalaya.

In 1915, Du Faur published The Conquest of Mount Cook. It has proven vital for preserving her legacy.

World War I prevented the couple from ever achieving their climbing plans abroad. Over the next few years, their relatively contented life began to unwind. The government sent them to mental institutions and forcibly split the couple up because of their sexuality. In 1929, Cadogan committed suicide.

Du Faur returned to Sydney. But without Cadogan, she fell into depression. In 1935, she fatally poisoned herself with carbon monoxide.

Du Faur was eventually given a tombstone on her previously unmarked grave. Photo: Legacy Project Australia

An unmarked grave

Shunned by society, regardless of her contribution to mountaineering, Du Faur was not given a formal burial. Instead, she was buried in an unmarked grave.

Her private life with Cadogan rendered her seemingly forgotten until Sally Irwin released a biography in 2000: Between Heaven and Earth: The Life of Mountaineer Freda du Faur: 1882–1935.

New Zealand farmer Ashley Gaulter read a copy of Irwin’s book and decided to put right Du Faur’s final resting place.

“I read that she was over here in Manly Cemetery, and at the time, I was living quite close by, and I thought, well, I’ll go and find her,” Gaulter said.

“I couldn’t find her in the first instant, and then found a map and tracked her down. I found this poor little patch of grass surrounded by other tombstones and there she lay in an unmarked grave. And that seemed like an injustice,” he said.

Gaulter enlisted the help of a local stonemason to make a gravestone. Finally, Du Faur has a marked gravesite in Manly Cemetery, Australia.

After 22 years in the exercise industry, offset by long-haul adventures around the world, Alex Myall found a better option a few years ago and has never looked back. She took a diploma in travel journalism, backed it up with travel industry certificates, then launched Chasing Dreams Travel NZ, her own travel agency. Now she combines her love of writing and world travel with running her business from her home on the spectacular South Coast of Wellington, New Zealand, while simultaneously being mum to a gorgeous baby girl. She maintains a “life’s too short to do things by halves” attitude.


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Lenore Jones
Lenore Jones
3 months ago

Thank you, Alex Myall, Sally Irwin, and Ashley Gaulter. There’s no fixing the tragedy of her mistreatment, but at least she’s no longer forgotten.