Emmeline Freda Du Faur was born on 16 September 1882 at Croydon, Sydney, Australia, the daughter of Frederick Eccleston Du Faur, a stock, station and land agent, and his second wife, Blanche Mary Elizabeth Woolley. Educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School for Girls, Freda lived with her family near the Ku-ring-gai Chase national park where, as a young woman, she explored and taught herself to rock-climb. Freda was unable to finish nursing training 'because the mental strain on a sensitive, highly strung nature had been too great'. Fortunately, she had an independent income.
Freda Du Faur spent summer holidays in New Zealand without visiting the South Island until late 1906. Photographs of Mt Cook at the New Zealand International Exhibition, Christchurch, inspired her to journey to the Hermitage where the snowclad mountains captivated her and she determined to climb to the summits. This visit and another in 1908 introduced her to the mountains and the chief guide at the Hermitage, Peter Graham.
He realised her keenness, determination and ability but introduced her slowly to climbing, adding experience of ropework and snow and ice climbing to her skill on rock. At a time when few people climbed, Freda Du Faur gave mountain guides the opportunity to attempt challenging ascents, while she found enjoyment, freedom and an escape from many of the constraints and frustrations of family and society.
Du Faur's first significant ascent was of Mt Sealy on 19 December 1909. Other women at the Hermitage insisted she should not spend a night alone with a guide, even one as morally upright as Peter Graham. The chaperon, a porter, proved an incompetent climber, and was held by Du Faur on the rope when he slipped.
Freda Du Faur compromised on dress, wearing a skirt to just below the knee over knickerbockers and long puttees when climbing. Although one climber was concerned about its potential for accident, Graham accepted the skirt, calling it a frill, and Du Faur wore it on all her climbs. She enjoyed appearing as feminine as possible after some of her major climbs – to disconcert critics and upset existing stereotypes of physically active women – but felt sunburn, dirt and discomfort were a small price to pay for the enjoyment of climbing.
Freda Du Faur extended the limits of the possible, not just for women, but for all guided climbers of the period. Key factors were her rock-climbing ability, determination, and physical fitness. Three months training under Muriel Cadogan at the Dupain Institute of Physical Education in Sydney, before her trip to New Zealand in November 1910, enabled her to climb Mt Cook soon after her arrival. The ascent, on 3 December 1910 with Peter and Alexander (Alec) Graham, was the first by a woman and the fastest to that date. On this climb she shared her tent with the guides, and afterwards chaperonage, dress, and convention were of little concern to her in the mountains. She wrote: '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.'
In four climbing seasons she made many first ascents and notable climbs. With her guides she made the second ascent of Mt Tasman, the first ascent of Mt Dampier and the first traverse of Mt Sefton, among other 10,000-foot peaks. Probably her greatest climb was the first grand traverse of all three peaks of Mt Cook on 3 January 1913 with Peter Graham and David (Darby) Thomson.
Freda Du Faur did no climbing after March 1913, although she thought of visiting the Himalaya. She did not marry, and her close relationship with Muriel Cadogan drew her to England in 1914. The following year saw the publication in London of her book The conquest of Mount Cook, important for its record and its enthusiastic approach to climbing.
After the death of Cadogan in June 1929 a lonely Freda Du Faur returned to Australia to live at Dee Why, Sydney, where bush walking was her main interest. On or about 11 September 1935 she committed suicide by poisoning herself with carbon monoxide and was privately interred in the Church of England cemetery at Manly.
Although never domiciled in New Zealand, Du Faur is significant as the best amateur climber of her day and as the first woman to take up high climbing in New Zealand.