Fred in the Western Cwm, 1982. Photo: Peter Hillary(?)

Fred in classic barefoot pose, Lhotse 1982.
Photo: Peter Hillary(?)

William Robert “Fred” From died high on the west ridge of Everest, 30 years ago next month.  Fred touched all kinds of people in surprising ways that I’ve gradually discovered over the years.  Like his old Prof., who – contrary to stereotype – was still publishing papers in his best student’s name five years posthumously.  Or the two journos I’ve never heard of who put up an article in the Brisbane newspaper for the 25th anniversary. Fred was my guide, my inspiration, my rock in a scary world. But not just mine.

He grew up on a big family farm west of Brisbane, where his parents still live. I don’t know what led him to climbing, but not far up the road was a place that became a Mecca for Queensland rock climbers, Frog Buttress on Mt French. Somehow he knew about it before hardly anyone did.  Not long out of school, he’d hitched there alone and walked up from the bottom to investigate, unaware of the blacksoil access track ’round the back that Rick’s¹ old Citroen used to plough.

Climbing there long ago, I watched him struggle up a nasty off-width crack, barefoot as always, hosing out the rope behind him. He’d slung it to a strangler fig tree root low down, but there was nothing else to attach it to. Then he peeled off – silently – from about 20 m up, and this nube belayer and that fig root caught him barely a metre from the ground. I remember staring uncomprehendingly at him dangling on his seatbelt webbing waist band (no new-fangled harnesses for us) … “Lower me you bastard”. Mountaineers learn early to exude an aura of indestructability.

Fred didn’t think much of skiing². His worst experience was a winter trip up the Hooker Glacier at Mt Cook in New Zealand. He’d hardly been on skis before and was painfully slow, so his climbing partner³ pushed on ahead to a hut high on the mountainside. A big guy carrying a huge pack, Fred of course fell in a slot (NZud for a snow-covered crevasse). There he stuck, metres down, between the cold, hard ice walls … and waited. It was hours later, long after nightfall, before his partner twigged that Fred wasn’t coming, and wandered back down the ski tracks to a dark hole in the snow.  New Zealand led Fred to extreme mountaineering and to Peter Hillary, with whom he “hit it off straight away”.  They completed a series of hard NZ routes in rapid succession, before heading off for Lhotse and Peter’s long and sometimes difficult Himalayan climbing career.

“There’s ample time for climbing if you do your work when you should”, was good advice back then and would be better advice now.  Until recently I didn’t know that Fred was awarded his PhD posthumously; he’d submitted his thesis in ionospheric physics just before he left.  Unlike your average baffled grad student he was already well-known in his field.  “He wants to win the Nobel prize you know”, Peta once confided, incredulously. I thought of their unlikely union when I put their old washer out for kerbside collection a few years back⁴. Ambition ought not to have surprised her. Like Scott chasing Amundsen, Fred set off to Everest hoping to beat Macartney-Snape to the top. Certainly no braggart, nor burdened with Scott’s ineptitude, but with a steely will. He lost⁵.

“We were young and foolish, soloing high on the west ridge … Nottle fell, and then I looked up and saw my old mate Fred flying past my head at 100 miles an hour”, Hillary remembered, years later⁶.

And Judy, after he’d gone, offered the realistic, “I never had any illusions about Fred”.  Neither did we all.



1. Rick White, the late founder, although certainly not financial beneficiary, of Mountain Designs. His huge portrait still graces the wall at my local store: El Capitan – The Nose, 1973, with Doug Scott. Doug Scott famously dragged himself down a 7000 m Karakoram peak after breaking both legs near the summit. Late in his life Rick insisted on his version of that, dragging himself, unaided, back to the top of Frog Buttress after an abseil descent. He suffered from a muscle wasting disease and had lost all leg function.

2. Fred’s old climbing partner, Peter Hillary, was and is a fine backcountry skier, making the first all-ski descent of New Zealand’s highest peak, Mt Cook.

3. Was it Joe, who these days fights the good fight against invasives on the north coast? Probably not. Maybe Kim C. I can’t remember.

4. Sign on it, “works well”; someone took it, oblivious to history. Fred had sold it to me for a stupidly high price to help fund some expedition or other.

5. Tim Macartney-Snape and Greg Mortimer were the first Australians to reach the summit — via an audacious new route not far around to the northwest, 6 days before Fred fell.  High altitude Himalayan climbing depends on a tight weather window — often only a few days — between the monsoon and the swing of the polar jet stream.  Maybe if the guys hadn’t taken quite so long through the icefall.

6. Reports say he saw Craig Nottle fall to his death, far below.  Fred and Kim Logan, with whom he was climbing at about 8200 m, then abandoned their summit attempt and descended.  Fred fell from near where Nottle did, probably tripping over his crampons (others have managed that ;-) on what Hillary later described as an easy 30° slope.  Fred’s fleece pants were always full of crampon holes.



Another remembers (p6)

And another  (he has the date wrong: 9/10 … 9 October 1984, Fred’s 28th birthday; not 10/9).

Lhotse 1982, in somewhat better times.

Makalu 1983 — I don’t have the text of that (anyone?), but I read a long draft a long time ago. NZ climber Bill Denz was avalanched low on the mountain, but after a retreat to base camp they decided to keep on. Then Mark Moorhead fell descending after a fine day’s advance — as they all do — at a little bit of fixed rope around a buttress that he obviously didn’t think was worth clipping. Fred saw him go, and followed, at considerable personal risk, all the way down the fall line to his body on the glacier far below. I guess he hoped he might find him alive, but gradually realised he wouldn’t. Mark was a good friend.

Fred’s physics publications

Fred’s papers at the National Library


Fred From at Frog Buttress, early 1980s

Fred at Frog, early 1980s