Obituary: Dame Freya Stark
Friday 14 May 1993
She started to climb before the 1914- 18 war, with her adopted godfather (who was also mine) the scholar WP Ker, later Professor of Poetry at Oxford. In 1913 he took her climbing in the Gran Paradiso range south of Mont Blanc; in 1919 they were again on the Italian side of the Alps, climbing from Courmayeur and walking over the passes between the valleys that radiate from Monte Rosa, ending at Macugnaga in the Val Anzasca. In 1923 they returned to Macugnaga and as they were climbing towards a minor summit, the Pizzo Bianco, 'WP gave a sudden cry and died': his heart had stopped. He was buried in the old church at Macugnaga, under the great East face of Monte Rosa.
This gigantic wall of ice and snow, 10,000 feet high, had seldom - as WP told Freya - been climbed, because of the danger from avalanche and rockfall. But in 1924 Freya, climbing with a Macugnaga guide, became the second woman to reach the summit of Monte Rosa by this route. They had to start the climb before midnight so that the Marinelli couloir, which runs up the face, could be traversed while still congealed by night frost.
This was the high point of her climbing life. In 1931, while travelling in Persia, she had plans to climb Takht-i-Suleiman, but was foiled by a rival climber who bribed her shikari to lead her to the unclimbable side of the mountain. Her delight in just being among mountains endured: 'Nothing will ever hold me like the mountains,' she wrote me in 1975.
In a letter to me of May 1979 she confessed she was 'not up to much (86)' but had 'an unreasonable but happy wish to look once more on the Himalaya', and especially 'to ride from Indus source to Oxus across Pamirs'. Would she need a Russian visa, she asked me; and would her heart hold out? I think she half hoped it would not, and that, like her beloved WP, she would end her life suddenly, among great mountains.
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