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Freda Du Faur – Cloud Piercer

By ALEC SMART


Emmeline ‘Freda’ Du Faur was a pioneering mountain climber and avid bushwalker, who spent the last years of her life in Dee Why and Collaroy.


Freda Du Faur mountain climber

Freda Du Faur, pioneering mountain climber, during her ascent of Aoraki / Mt Cook, Dec 1910.

Photo: George Mannering


Freda climbed at least 18 peaks and was the first woman to ascend to the summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook (New Zealand's highest mountain). She even had a peak in Kosciuszko National Park, Mount Du Faur (2,159m, Australia’s 8th highest pinnacle), named after her.

 

Despite breaking international climbing records in an era when women were discouraged from such pursuits, for 71 years she was left in an unmarked grave in Manly Cemetery and only honoured with a memorial in 2006.

 

Born 16 September 1882 in Croydon, western Sydney, she was the daughter of Blanche Woolley and (Frederick) Eccleston Du Faur.

Her father Eccleston, a keen environmentalist, was also a distinguished explorer (he co-founded the Royal Geographical Society of Australia). In 1874 Eccleston helped finance the last expedition in search of traces of the lost explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, who disappeared in 1848 somewhere along the Maranoa River in south-west Queensland.

 

The Du Faur Rocks, Du Faur Creek, Du Faur Creek Canyon and Du Faur Lookout, all in the Blue Mountains, were named after Eccleston, as well as Du Faur St. and Du Faur Pl. in Canberra, Du Faur St. in North Turramurra and the Du Faur Wetland in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park.

 

As a draughtsman for the NSW Government, over a 10-year period Eccleston mapped the state of NSW.

Tragically his original cartography was incinerated in the Garden Palace fire of 22 September 1882 – just six days after Freda’s birth – an act of arson that destroyed countless Aboriginal relics, survey maps and priceless artworks.


The Garden Palace fire in Hyde Park

The Garden Palace fire in Hyde Park, Sydney, September 1882. Illustration: National Library Australia

 

Freda Du Faur Ku-Ring-Gai connections

In 1888, when Freda was six, the Du Faur’s settled on 10 hectares of land near Eastern Rd on the Upper North Shore in a new district Eccleston persuaded the authorities to call ‘Turramurra’. The suburb was named after the Dharug Aboriginal word for ‘big hill’ (and the Indigenous Durramuragal clans that occupied the region prior to British colonisation).


Turramurra is one of only four suburbs in the Upper North Shore region that adapted existing Aboriginal names, including neighbouring suburbs of Warrawee (‘stop here’ – eg, a campsite) and Wahroonga (‘our home’), and nearby Killara (‘permanent place’).


Ecclestone employed distinguished Canadian architect John Horbury Hunt to design his house Pibrac, named after a commune near Toulouse in south-western France.

Hunt combined the North American architectural trend of Shingle Style with the then-popular Federation Queen Anne that has since characterised Heritage houses in Warrawee and Turramurra.

 

The Du Faur’s family property is still standing at 11 Pibrac Avenue, Warrawee. Later, Freda was to name a mountain peak in New Zealand after her childhood home: Mount Pibrac.


Fredu Du Bar Pibrac - Heritage Listed House

‘Pibrac’, the Heritage-listed house built in 1888 by Frederick Eccleston Du Faur.

Freda's childhood home still stands at 11 Pibrac Ave Warrawee, Sydney. Photo: Alec Smart

 

From Turramurra, Eccleston oversaw the construction of a road through the bush to Bobbin Head on Cowan Creek, and explored the foreshores extensively. It was here young Freda nurtured her sense of adventure, roaming with her dog, and she developed her incredible climbing skills clambering up the rocky escarpments.

 

Eccleston lobbied the Minister for Lands to preserve the region as a national park. Initially unsuccessful, he invited the Governor of NSW to visit, and, with his support, in December 1894, the bushland around Cowan Creek (and its tributaries), were proclaimed the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park.

Australia’s second national park (after the Royal National Park in Sutherland Shire, created 1879), the park status protected its native flora and fauna from rapidly expanding European settlement and Eccleston Du Faur was appointed managing trustee.

 

According to NSW National Parks and Wildlife, “Ku-ring-gai Chase is the second oldest national park in Sydney and the second oldest continuous national park in Australia. It was established largely through the work of one man, Eccleston Du Faur, who was concerned about the destruction of the bush by collectors of wildflowers and timber getters.


“As such, it was the first national park in Australia to be established primarily for nature conservation (earlier parks such as The (Royal) National Park and Centennial Park were established primarily for recreation, and modifications to the environment including extraction of natural resources were permitted on these reserves).”


Freda Da Daur Enjoying camping

Freda Du Faur enjoying camping

 

New Zealand’s Southern Alps beckon

Freda, who was educated at Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School in Darlinghurst, initially went on to study nursing, but found it unsuitable.


Although she had spent summer holidays in New Zealand on the North Island, on her first trip to the South Island to see the New Zealand International Exhibition at Hagley Park, Christchurch in November 1906, she was captivated by photographs of Mount Cook.


Freda travelled to the area, staying at the Hermitage Hotel in the alpine village below Mt Cook. She then set her heart on climbing the snow-peaked Southern Alps, which run along a geological boundary plate almost the entire length of New Zealand’s South Island.

 

After she was gifted an inheritance of $2000 from her aunt, composer Emmeline Woolley, in March 1908, Freda, aged 25, had an independent income that enabled her to pursue her passion of travelling and climbing.


Later that year, back at The Hermitage Hotel, Freda was introduced to the district’s premier mountaineering guide, Peter Graham, who had made 13 ascents to the peak of New Zealand’s highest mountain.


Graham reportedly called her a “blessed cat”!

 

Aoraki / Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki

Aoraki / Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki. Watercolour by John Gully, 1872


According to Explorersweb, “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….

 

“In 1909 [December 19], 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.”

 

The obligatory chaperone, a hotel porter, proved a hindrance – at one stage he slipped down a rock face and his life was saved thanks to Freda’s adroit knot-tying skills on the rescue rope that retrieved him. She dispensed with him for future climbs and thereafter ignored the malicious gossipers.

Freda commented, “For about ten minutes I almost succeeded in wishing that I possessed that useful appendage to a woman climber: a husband!”


Freda Du Faur with her guides, the Graham brothers

Freda Du Faur with her guides, the Graham brothers, Peter and Alec.

Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park, 1910. Photo: James McDonald

 

The fact that Freda was a single woman sharing a tent with a single man wasn’t the only thing that got the scandal-mongers talking. Her attire was also subject to scrutiny. In a time when women were expected to wear ankle-length modest skirts, hers were trimmed, for practical purposes, at the knees, although there were no clothes specifically made for male or female mountain climbers in the early 1900s (and the safety equipment was primitive).

 

An article in Lotl revealed: “Though her family’s money and inheritance made some aspects of her chosen pursuit easier, it couldn’t make Du Faur’s bucking of established social expectations palatable to her peers. Her style of clothing caused some consternation, for while she wore skirts while climbing, she opted for a knee-length style with long-line underwear and high socks (puttees) to protect her skin from the harsh conditions.”

 

Furthermore, Freda was homosexual during a time when it was illegal. Society saw lesbianism as a social stigma and a psychological disorder that needed psychiatric treatment to cure. This public attitude later impacted dramatically on her life partner, Muriel Cadogan (more on that below).


Aoraki / Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki

Aoraki / Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki. Photo: Krzysztof Golik / Wikimedia

 

Cloud Piercing

After her first major climbs, Freda set her sights on conquering Mt Cook, known to the Indigenous Ngāi Tahu Maoris of the South Island as Aoraki. New Zealand Tourism’s official website states: “According to Ngāi Tahu legend, Aoraki and his three brothers were the sons of Rakinui, the Sky Father. While on a sea voyage, their canoe overturned on a reef. When the brothers climbed on top of their canoe, the freezing south wind turned them to stone. The canoe became the South Island (Te Waka o Aoraki); Aoraki and his brothers became the peaks of the Southern Alps.”

 

There is an alternate legend that Aoraki means ‘Cloud Piercer’, derived from the Ngāi Tahu words ao (world) and raki (sky/weather), which describes the earth cutting into the sky.

 

Captain John Lort Stokes named New Zealand’s highest mountain ‘Mount Cook’ in 1851, in honour of Captain James Cook, whilst undertaking hydrographic surveys of New Zealand. Although Cook surveyed the South Island from his ship The Endeavour 81 years earlier (Jan-Feb 1770), prior to anchoring at Sydney’s Botany Bay, it’s probable he never saw the Southern Alps’ highest peak.


It wasn’t until 1998, as part of the Ngāi Tahu Claims Settlement Act, that the mountain was officially renamed Aoraki/Mount Cook to incorporate its historic Māori name.

 

In preparation for her ascent of Aoraki/Mount Cook, Freda returned to Sydney in 1910 and spent three months at the Dupain Institute of Physical Education and Medical Gymnastics in the city (founder George Dupain was the father of celebrated photographer Max Dupain). Here she met Muriel ‘Minnie’ Cadogan, a fitness trainer and co-editor of the art, music and literature magazine Dupain Quarterly, who became her lover and life partner.


Freda Du Faur with the Graham brothers

Freda Du Faur with the Graham brothers, Peter and Alec, in the Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park.

 

After sailing back to New Zealand, on 3 December 1910 Freda became the first woman to climb to the summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook, accompanied again by mountaineer-guide Peter Graham with his brother Alec. They reached the 3,724m (12,218ft) summit in a record six hours (beating the previous record by 2 hours).


During her descent, Freda was photographed in front of a boulder, clutching a long-handled ice axe, to commemorate the historic climb [see main photo above]. The boulder, located 200m into the Hooker Valley Track, is now known as ‘Freda's Rock’.

 

Regarding her monumental achievement, Freda recalled, “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.”

 

Over the next three climbing seasons (summer months), at the peak of her fitness, Freda immersed herself in her passion and focused on scaling all of New Zealand’s highest peaks – 15 in succession!


Immediately after Mt Cook (just a few days!), she climbed Mt De la Beche (2,950m) followed by Mt Green (2,692m) and she was the first person, male or female, to reach the summit of Mt Chudleigh (2,966m) in the Chatham Islands.


Freda Da Faur with Graham Brothers climbing Mount Nazomi

Freda Du Faur with the Graham brothers, Peter and Alec, climbing Mount Nazomi, 1912.


The following season she tackled an unnamed peak, since officially named Du Faur Peak (2,330m), followed in March 1912 by the first known ascents of Mt Nazomi (2,925m) and Mt Dampier (3,440m, New Zealand’s third highest peak), again with the Graham brothers.

The trio also ascended Mt Tasman (3,497m, New Zealand’s second-highest peak) and Lendenfeld Peak (3,194m), becoming the second team of climbers to reach the apex of these two pinnacles, and Sebastopol (2013m).

 

In her final climbing season before relocating to England, Freda and the Graham brothers made the first-ever ascents of two unnamed peaks that she personally deputed: Mount Pibrac (2,541m) – named after her family home in Warrawee, Sydney – and Mount Cadogan (2,449m) – named after her beloved girlfriend Minnie.


In January 1913, with Peter Graham and Darby Thomson, they achieved what has come to be known as the Aoraki Mount Cook Grand Traverse, ascending all three peaks of New Zealand’s highest mountain in succession, now a popular challenge for international climbers.

 

Freda Du Faur sat atop a boulder in the Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park.

Freda Du Faur sat atop a boulder in the Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park.


On 10 February 1913, Freda, Peter Graham and Darby Thomson reached the pinnacle of Mt Sefton (3,151m) in what was to be Freda’s last-ever summit in an astonishing record, although she didn’t intend it to be her final.

 

Britain… from triumph to tragedies

In early 1914, Freda and her partner Muriel Cadogan sailed to England and settled in London. Some reports state they emigrated late 1913, but Muriel was in Sydney in February, having founded the Feminist Club. A news item in The Daily News (Perth), dated 5 December 1914, states: “The Feminist Club founded in Sydney last February by Miss Cadogan, began with a membership of 12, and has only been open for general membership for the last three months. Its members now number 20. In September it affiliated with the Workers' Educational Association, and the association now sends a lecturer once a month…”


In Britain, the couple had plans to undertake mountain climbing treks along the Alps, the European mountain range that extends across eight countries, and the Himalayas, the Asiatic ridge separating the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan plateau.

 

Given her confidence and extraordinary fitness, it is highly probable Freda would have eventually attempted Mount Everest, Earth’s highest mountain, which is approachable from either Nepal or Tibet. If she’d achieved this monumental feat, she would have beaten Hillary by almost 40 years.

 

Like Freda, world-famous New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary also trained in the Southern Alps. He ascended the crest of the south ridge (highest of the three ridges) of Aoraki/Mount Cook in January 1948, his first major climb, 37 years and one month after Freda.

On 29 May 1953, Hillary became the first climber to set foot on the summit of Mount Everest, accompanied by Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay.


Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay

Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest on 29 May 1953

 

In 1914, no one had yet ascended to the 8,848m summit of Everest, 2.37 times the height of Aoraki/Mount Cook, but one can speculate that Freda was among only a few people on Earth at the time capable of making the attempt.


However, on 28 July 1914, the First World War global conflict started when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Travel across Europe was severely restricted as the international bloodbath began, effectively terminating Freda’s cloud-piercing climbing ambitions.

 

When hostilities broke out, Freda and Muriel were staying in a village in the Brittany region of western France. In her introduction to the reprinted edition of Freda’s autobiography, KL Weber wrote, “In an interview with The Sun, Du Faur’s father reported … in order to return to England, and relative safety, the women walked 20 miles throughout the night to a nearby port, risking being challenged for their passports, in order to make a 5.00am boat.”  

 

Whilst based in London, Freda wrote a memoir of her mountaineering achievements, The Conquest of Mount Cook and Other Climbs: An Account of Four Seasons' Mountaineering on the Southern Alps of New Zealand, published 1915 by George Allen and Unwin.


A dedication in the forward of her memoir read, “To My Friend Muriel Cadogan, Whose Love and Sympathy have Never Failed Me, I Dedicate This Book.”


The Conquest of Mount Cook - first edition of Freda Du Faur's climbing memoir

The Conquest of Mount Cook - first edition of Freda Du Faur's climbing memoir (published 1915)


It’s highly likely the pair socialised with the Ladies' Alpine Club, the first British mountaineering club for women, which was founded in London in December 1907 and had over 100 members by 1914.


The organisation challenged negative gender stereotypes and endured a lot of chauvinism, especially around women’s attire, as they promoted female mountaineers. The all-male Alpine Club, founded 1857, refused women members, a prejudice they maintained until 1975.

 

In Elisa Rolle’s live journal, part of her Days Of Love: Celebrating LGBT History series, she revealed the couple eventually “moved from London to Bournemouth, living in the suburb of Boscombe. Freda and Muriel had their own property at 28 Sea Road, Boscombe from the autumn of 1922, and were living there until 1925, but let the property out from 1926-1928. They were back at Sea Road in 1929, and following Muriel's death Du Faur lived there alone in 1931…”


28 Sea Road, Boscombe

28 Sea Road, Boscombe, near Bournemouth, England, where Freda and Muriel lived in the 1920s

 

Muriel's decline

Whilst living together in Bournemouth after the war, something triggered a decline in Muriel Cadogan’s mental health. After seeking medical help, the couple’s then-illegal lesbian relationship was discovered and they were kept apart.

 

KL Weber wrote, “Sometime in 1929, following what may have been a breakdown in Cadogan’s mental or physical health, Cadogan and Du Faur admitted themselves to hospital.


“When the nature of their [lesbian] relationship was comprehended, Du Faur was prevented from visiting her partner, and she left the hospital, whilst Cadogan continued treatment. Cadogan’s family arrived to take her back to Australia. She died on the voyage home on 6 June 1929, from causes never explained.”

 

An article in Wild magazine declares, “Muriel’s family disapproved of their relationship and had her committed to an asylum, back then a terrible yet somehow acceptable punishment for homosexuality. Virtually imprisoned, Muriel wasted away, mentally and physically, and eventually died, aged 44.”

 

Muriel, released into the custody of her family, travelled aboard the steamship SS Port Huon for the journey home to Sydney. However, Muriel declined rapidly and died onboard, and was buried at sea. She was 44 years of age.


A notification in the Sydney Morning Herald deaths column, dated Saturday 15 June 1929, states: “CADOGAN.—June 6, at sea, Muriel, beloved eldest daughter of the late W. H. and Mrs. Cadogan, 131 Ourimbah-road, Mosman.”


The steamship Port Huon, on which Freda Du Faur’s partner, Muriel

The steamship Port Huon, on which Freda Du Faur’s partner, Muriel ‘Minnie’ Cadogan,

sadly died on 6 June 1929 during a voyage home to Sydney. She was buried at sea.

 

Freda Du Faur Returns to Australia

In 1931, Freda returned home to Australia. Her parents had already passed - her mother, Blanche Du Faur, died in 1906; her father, Eccleston Du Faur, died at the family home in Warrawee on 24 April 1915 and was buried in the Anglican churchyard at Gordon.

Freda initially stayed with her brother’s family, then set up home in a property called The Haven on Cumberland Avenue. (Although most biographies state this was in Dee Why, Cumberland Ave is just inside the geographical boundary of Collaroy.) She spent much of her time exploring the surrounding bushland, reportedly withdrawn and unhappy.

 

The Australian Dictionary of Biography states, “Saddened by the death of her great friend in June 1929, she returned to Australia to live at Dee Why, initially with her brother's family and then in a cottage of her own. Her main interest was walking in the bush behind Dee Why and Collaroy; she was noticeably withdrawn and lonely…”

This was echoed in an article on Tales from the Grave website dated Oct 2021: “Freda spent time walking in the bush behind Dee Why and Collaroy and appeared noticeably withdrawn and lonely.”

 

The Elisarole website recorded: “In June 1929, Cadogan died and Du Faur returned to Australia where she lived in Dee Why, Sydney. At first, she lived with her brother's family. Then, she lived in a cottage of her own. Her main interest was bush walking in Dee Why and Collaroy. But she suffered severely from depression at the loss of her beloved friend, Cadogan, and on or about 11 September 1935, she committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.”

 

In September 1935, Freda, overcome by depression, took her own life (quite likely by inhaling vehicle exhaust). She was 53 years old.

A notification in the Sydney Morning Herald deaths column, dated Friday 20 Sept 1935, states: “DU FAUR.—September 13, 1935, at her residence, The Haven, Cumberland-avenue, Deewhy, Freda Du Faur, aged 53 years. Privately interred.”


The final resting place of pioneering mountain climber Freda Du Faur,

The final resting place of pioneering mountain climber Freda Du Faur, Manly Cemetery.

For 71 years it remained an unmarked grave. Photo: Alec Smart,

 

Freda’s body was interred in the Church of England section at Manly Cemetery in plot number COE-H-654. For unknown reasons she lay in an unmarked grave for seven decades, until a group of admirers honoured her incredible achievements in December 2006 with a plaque and a marker made of New Zealand greywacke stone.


In her introduction to Freda’s biography, KL Weber wrote: “Until 2006, her grave in Manly General Cemetery was unmarked, except for a small rock cairn erected by Ashley Gualter. In December 2006, a small group of people from the Australian and New Zealand communities arranged for the installation and dedication of a memorial plaque for Freda Du Faur, complete with a stone from Aoraki/Mount Cook.”

 

Among the mourners on 3 December 2006 who installed the headstone and the memorial plaque, was Sally Irwin, the author of Freda’s biographyBetween Heaven and Earth: The Life of a Mountaineer, Freda Du Faur.

 

In December 2015, a film script on the life of Freda Du Faur, titled Cloud Piercer, made it to the second round of the Sundance Screenwriter’s lab and was accepted into the Stowe Story Labs in Vermont, USA.


Written by Anita Ross, actress, writer and founder of the New Zealand chapter of Film Fatales (a collaborative community of women feature film and television directors), the screenplay tells Freda’s story from triumph to tragedy.

 

In an online interview with Wellywood, Anita explained: “Freda’s story has everything: an independent spirit, light years ahead of her time and breaking barriers by sheer force of will and tenacity. It has love, friendship, tragedy, adventure, beauty…

“Here was a woman, who also happened to be gay, in the early 20th Century, who didn’t ask for permission to live the life she wanted. She climbed every major peak in New Zealand, in a skirt(!), before crampons and nylon rope, and despite almost everyone telling her that she can’t and she shouldn’t. What Freda did was radical and bold and I loved that.”


Aoraki / Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki

Aoraki / Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki. Photo: Bernard Spragg / Wikimedia

 

Anita kindly gave permission to use the title of her screenplay for this article.


When I asked Anita about the current status of her film project she replied, “Such a fascinating life story, wrapped up in so many interesting places and events. The film is currently parked as there’s no production company attached yet...”

Hopefully someone takes on this overdue project soon. Hollywood has for many years charmed us with tales of triumph overcoming adversity, with films featuring underdogs and outsiders achieving tremendous goals, despite often overwhelming odds stacked against them. Yet most of them are about men…

 

The Conquest of Mount Cook and Other Climbs by Freda Du Faur

Five-part abridged audio reading by Radio New Zealand:

 

The grave of pioneering mountain climber Freda Du Faur

The grave of pioneering mountain climber Freda Du Faur, marked with a piece of greywacke stone from Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Manly Cemetery, Sydney, Australia. Photo: Alec Smart,






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