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Climb every mountain

An Australian was the first woman to climb Aoraki Mt Cook 100 years ago. Television producer Anna Cottrell takes up the largely unknown story of the remarkable Freda Du Faur and her ultimately tragic life.

When Freda Du Faur travelled from Sydney to Christ­church with her father for the International Exhibition in 1906, she was transfixed by paintings and photographs of the Southern Alps. She told her father she wasn't coming home with him and headed for the hills. Four years later, on December 3, 1910, she became the first woman to reach the summit of New Zealand's highest mountain. We know about her climbing because when Du Faur was living in London she collected the articles she had written and in 1915 they were published by Allen & Unwin as The Conquest of Mount Cook and Other Climbs.

Australians bemoan the fact she is virtually unknown in their country. Ask people about her here and most have never heard of her. Some know she climbed Mt Cook - in a skirt; they've seen the photo. Some know there's a B&B in Tekapo called Freda Du Faur House. But unless you are a member of the climbing fraternity or a historian, it's a safe bet you've never heard of her.

Du Faur grew up beside Sydney's Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park - 15,000ha of scrubby Australian native bush. As a teenager she would disappear for hours with only her dog for company and pit herself against the rocky terrain. Her parents, Eccleston and Blanche Du Faur, let her roam free. Not that they could stop her. She relished the solitude of the bush and the challenges of rock climbing. But snow and mountains posed a challenge she could not resist.

The trip from Christchurch to Mt Cook took two days. Train from Christchurch to Timaru, then a change to a small train that wound its way through farmland to Fairlie. A night for the travellers to refresh and then by horse and coach up Burkes Pass and across the Mackenzie country to Tekapo. Another night at a travellers' inn and back on the rugged road to Mt Cook, past the duck-egg blue waters of Lake Pukaki. Accommodation for botanists, alpinists, climbers and the less energetic was at the Hermitage, a wooden hotel built in 1884.

There Du Faur met renowned mountaineer and guide Peter Graham, the oldest of five brothers from the West Coast. Within days she was climbing with Graham, who recognised in 24-year-old Du Faur all the qualities of a climber - fitness, endurance, tenacity, commitment and courage. From that first visit in late 1906 she aspired to become the first woman to climb New Zealand's highest mountain, Mt Cook.

Accounts from the time indicate there was a lively social life at the Hermitage. When she wanted to climb with just one guide she came up against what she described as "all the cherished conventions of the middle-aged ... they assured me in all seriousness that if I went out alone with a guide I would lose my reputation". Du Faur was there to climb, "not sit on the verandah and admire the view". From then on she mostly climbed with two guides, but it is clear from her writing that diplomacy was not her strong suit.

While training, she had an altercation with another climber who took exception to her climbing garb, saying he would not climb with her if she wore a skirt. "I replied with more vigour than politeness then he would have to stay behind ... on my showing it to Graham and asking him if it were all right to climb in, he had grinned cheerfully and exclaimed, 'Skirt! I should call it a frill', and at once passed it as harmless."

Du Faur returned to Mt Cook over three summers; on her second trip she attempted to climb Mt Cook with Graham and a porter. That attempt failed, but on December 3, 1910, in perfect conditions and guided by Graham and his brother Alexander, Du Faur reached the summit. She climbed the final steps alone. "I gained the summit and waited for them, feeling very little, very lonely and much inclined to cry." She was 28.

Three years later she set her sights on a challenge many guides considered too treacherous to attempt. In January 1913, feisty Du Faur, Graham and David Thomson completed the first Grand Traverse of the three main peaks of Mt Cook. By now she had conquered 30 peaks and was considered one of the world's leading ­amateur climbers.

Apart from Du Faur's climbing life, little was known about her until a New Zealand writer living in Sydney did some digging. Sally Irwin grew up in Central Otago, knowing nothing about Du Faur, apart from the photo of the stern young woman in a skirt who had climbed Mt Cook in 1910. In the Sydney phone book she found one Du Faur, just a couple of streets away from her home. She rang and spoke to a nurse caring for the ailing wife of Freda's nephew. She was the last surviving relative. The estate was being packed up and there was a box of Freda's things. "Please come and get them," the nurse told Irwin.

The box was a bio­grapher's delight: letters, articles, photos, as well as papers belonging to Freda's father, who was a surveyor, an arts patron and an original trustee of the National Art Gallery. Although Irwin is a fiction writer, she realised she had material for a biography. The box also contained a contact for one of the young women Du Faur befriended when she returned from England in 1929. Frances Lovell was still alive and she had another box. In it Irwin found Du Faur's last letter, which explained the "treatment" she and partner Muriel Cadogan were given in England for being of "inverted hedonistic persuasion" (lesbians). As Cadogan was returning on a cargo boat to the care of her relatives in Sydney after the disastrous "therapy", she inexplicably died.

Du Faur's last letter was a suicide note. The woman who had displayed extraordinary fitness, commitment and courage to become one of the top climbers in the world 100 years ago, committed suicide in 1935. She was 53.

For 70 years she lay in an unmarked grave in Manly cemetery, a number beside a small patch of grass. Until Ashley Gaulter, a New Zealander from a Geraldine farming family read Irwin's book, Between Heaven and Earth. He sent for a lump of rock, greywacke from the Mackenzie Country, and had a headstone made. That was four years ago.

Now an Australian/New Zealand documentary is under way, part of which involves re-enacting Du Faur's climb.

In early January a rock-climbing champion, Mayan Smith-Gobat, who grew up in the shadow of Mt Cook, will replay Du Faur's Mt Cook climb, in the process tackling one of her own biggest challenges.

"Freda was an amazing woman who paved the way for women climbers but also helped break down the limiting boundaries and preconceptions for how women should lead their lives." Smith-Gobat shares a "stubborn passion and determination" with Du Faur. "We do not see obstacles - we see opportunities," she says from the US, where she has been rock climbing in Yosemite National Park.

Smith-Gobat and two guides, Jim Spenser and Roy Smith, will attempt to climb Mt Cook wearing hobnail boots - the men in tweed jackets and trousers, Mayan in a woollen skirt, puttees and a cotton bonnet.

They will carry contemporary equipment in case climbing without crampons becomes dangerous. They will sleep out in a bivvy on Mt Cook as Du Faur did with the Graham brothers and set off before dawn for the summit, with lanterns.

Smith-Gobat's attempt at Mt Cook will give Skirting the Edge a contemporary angle to Du Faur's life, and is to be directed by acclaimed Australian producer/director Jen Peedom. Peedom's documentary Solo: Lost at Sea, about Andrew McAuley who kayaked across the Tasman only to perish kilometres from Milford Sound, screened recently on TV1. The New Zealand Alpine Club's anniversary celebrations take place on December 4 at Mt Cook, 100 years and one day after Du Faur reached the summit, with Irwin to be one of the guest speakers.

Du Faur's book, The Conquest of Mount Cook and Other Climbs, has been adapted by Radio New Zealand and will be read on air the week before the celebrations.

It has taken 100 years but at last Freda Du Faur's achievements will be known on both sides of the Tasman.