LILIAN’S ICE AXE WOULD HAVE BEEN A PRIZED POSSESSION. IT WAS A TREKKING POLE, A SNOW ANCHOR FOR HERSELF, AND A LIFE-SAVING BRAKE IF SHE FELL. PHOTO: ALLAN UREN
Lilian Familton’s audacious ascent of Mount Aspiring.
“DAY WAS NOW DRAWING TO A CLOSE, THE SETTING SUN LIT UP THE PEAKS IN RIOTOUS COLOURS OF FLAMING CRIMSON AND GOLD. PURPLE SHADOWS … ALL WAS PEACE.” LILIAN FAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND ALPINE JOURNAL.
Lilian Familton was wet. When she walked her boots squelched and it seemed her skin had started to soak up the moisture. The crinkly state of her feet was becoming alarming. For three days, she had been wringing her clothes in a vain attempt to get them to dry. After hours holding clothing above a smoky fire, she had managed to dry out some socks. They would be as valuable as the most precious jewels when they climbed above the bushline and onto the glacier. Despite being wet, she was warm, dressed in layers of wool and a heavy tweed jacket.
For three long days Frank Alack, Lilian’s guide, and Jack Aspinall of Mt Aspiring Station had been pinned down on Pearl Flat waiting for a break in the weather so they could attempt Mount Aspiring. Jack had just come to manage the packhorse, but decided to carry on and climb the peak. Jack and his new wife Amy were in partnership with the Familtons and Theodore Russell Jnr in the Mt Aspiring Company, which had been formed in 1927. Theodore Jnr was the son of Theodore Russell, the owner of the original Wanaka Hotel. At the time, Mt Aspiring Station’s boundary took in the summit of Mount Aspiring. In effect, Lillian was climbing Aspiring as a part owner of the lease.
Once they had Pearl unloaded, Jack gave her a slap on the rump and told her to go home, back down to Mt Aspiring Station at the junction of the East and West Matukituki. Pearl was immortalised by Frank when he named Pearl Flat after her. The journey up the West Matukituki had been pleasant, and Lilian’s pack was light due to Pearl carrying all the heavy equipment, like the tent. She loved the beech forest with its incandescent purple mushrooms and the moss draping off branches like lace from a petticoat. She’d waited her whole life for this opportunity.
She had written once that, “Merely a span of years separates the dreams of childhood from the actual reality of mountaineering. As with most children – gnomes, fairies, elves and magicians held me spellbound. Just one more story please? Then into dreamland I would float, either in search of Aladdin’s magic lamp or the crick of gold at the end of the rainbow. Now however my gay red riding-hood has given place to a sombre climbing suit, a magic wand has become my ice-axe, and the seven-leagued boots are clinkered and cramponed. From childhood two mountain peaks which ever fascinated me were Mt Cook in Canterbury and Mt Aspiring in Otago Province. Association with both peaks has but increased my respect and admiration.”
(Seven-league boots are an element in European folklore. The boots allow the person wearing them to take strides of seven leagues per step, resulting in great speed.)
Lower down the valley there had been glimpses of the goal: Tititea / Mount Aspiring, similar in shape to an Egyptian Pyramid and equally as mysterious. It was early spring, and the snow was still deep right down to the bushline at 1200 metres. Lilian could see fresh snowfall being blown off the ridges. Late in the afternoon of that third long day, it cleared enough for them to move up to the head of the valley.
But around midnight, it started to rain again with a force and weight that threatened to crush the tent. When water started to rush in from a flooding stream, Lilian and Frank and Jack shoved everything into their packs, grabbed the tent, and “made off”. But where to? They had no light source, and scrub and boulders made it too dangerous to stumble around in the dark. So they stopped in the deluge and waited for dawn. Even Lilian, who was described by Frank as being “the one climber, man or woman, who could endure more physical discomfort than any other person” he had met, must have been starting to wonder at the sanity of what they were doing.
“There are many physical ways of dying in the mountains, but you can often trace the root cause to pushing too hard at the wrong time.”
When it got light enough to see, they found a couple of large overhanging rocks that might afford shelter, and after a few hours of scraping with ice axes and moving rocks they had somewhere that was secure. They stayed, for another three long days.
Once again, a clearance came in the late afternoon of the third day. Being out of “everything but hope”, they packed up and grimly climbed onto French Ridge, pitching their sodden tent at about 1200 metres. It was 2am when Frank woke them. Lilian climbed into her jacket which was like pulling on a suit of armour, it was so frozen. She put on her precious dry socks; they smelled of beechwood smoke. Outside, she could see stars and the tent “stood up stiffly as though made of glass”.
“Why people climb mountains has been a question thrashed around since before 1757”
Continuing at such an altitude in what was an obviously brief break in the weather with wet clothing and boots was perhaps foolhardy. They were courting frostbite and possibly death. If they were caught high on the mountain in a storm, they could be blown off the ridge or get hypothermia. Also, without a GPS the Bonar Glacier in a whiteout is as difficult to cross as the Pacific Ocean.
If you were to be blunt, you could say Frank Alack’s judgement was clouded by ambition to get the first woman to the summit of Mount Aspiring. There are many physical ways of dying in the mountains, but you can often trace the root cause to pushing too hard at the wrong time.
“the one climber, man or woman, who could endure more physical discomfort than any other person”
Lilian Agnes Anna Familton was born to John Deuchar Familton and Elisabeth Johanna Wilhelmiene Familton at Kakanui, south of Oamaru, in 1890. She was the fourth child of six. She went to Kakanui Primary School and then was schooled at Braemar House in Dunedin. In 1898, the Familtons moved to Oamaru and formed J.D. Familton and Sons, Auctioneers. Lilian never married and didn’t have a job. Not much has been written about her, but living relatives describe her fondly. Even though her niece Jan Wedge never met her (she was born the year before Lilian died of cancer, in her early 40s, in 1939), she describes Lilian as being a lovely natured person–“Aunt Lilo”, they used to call her.
Why people climb mountains has been a question thrashed around since before 1757, when Swiss scientist Horace-Benedict de Saussure made the first of several unsuccessful attempts on Mont Blanc in France. He offered a reward to anyone who could make it up. The prize was claimed in 1786 by Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard. The climb is considered an epochal event in the history of mountaineering, a symbolic mark of the birth of the sport. George Mallory, who went missing high on Mount Everest in 1924, is credited with the most famous answer to the “why” by saying, “because it’s there”. For Lilian, financially secure and without a family of her own, mountaineering would have filled her life with a focus that maybe going to jumble sales or Handkerchief Teas would have not.
By the time they were packed and ready to climb, wispy mares’ tails were sweeping across the stars. They made good time up French Ridge to the Quarterdeck. The featureless white of the Bonar Glacier stretched across to the dark mass of Aspiring. On the Northwest Ridge, the weather clamped back down. Frank described the conditions in his book, Guide Aspiring (1963). “Soon we were swallowed up in a driving cloud of sleety snow, but we put all our reserves into the climb and kept going… . I soon discovered that the right-hand side of the ridge we travelled on was too steep for progress to be made … it carried a cornice – an overhanging shoulder of snow formed by the wind blowing from the opposite direction.”
Visibility was down to a couple of metres and the abyss that is the South Face was sensed more than seen. To wander too close to the cornice, which could collapse with the single prod of an ice axe, would mean death.
“my gay red riding-hood has given place to a sombre climbing suit, a magic wand has become my ice-axe”
Lilian had cinched her jacket hood as tight as it would go. Through the opening she could see her feet clearly in the steps Frank had made. She looked up at him swinging his axe, the shards of ice shooting away into the cloud. A few more whacks and Frank stopped, braced himself against the wind with his ice axe, and pulled in the rope.
Standing on the summit, in the whiteout of the storm, there was no indication they were there. Everything was a confusion of wind and white. Frank and Jack, coated in snow, moved in and out of Lilian’s vision like a dream. The frozen rope connecting them had become almost unmanageable, like a length of wire. Her satisfaction of being the first woman to climb Mount Aspiring was tempered by a nagging fear. “We must go down, now!” Jack went first, Lilian in the middle, and Frank took up the rear, holding the rope as tight as he could despite the conditions, to hopefully arrest a fall.
Down in the still-frozen tent on French Ridge, they could finally relax. It had been a harrowing and endless day. (In good conditions, modern mountaineers would expect to take approximately 15 to 18 hours for the round trip, even without seven-league boots.) Walking out the next morning, as is often the case, the weather was perfect.
Allan Uren is a mountaineer, rock climber, skier and, in his spare time, a painter and decorator. He’s written for New Zealand Geographic and Wilderness Magazine.