A Freezing Night

In case you haven’t noticed, the weather in Victoria is freezing at the moment. Sub-zero temperatures recorded at the summit of Mount William, the highest peak in the Grampians where snow has fallen in the past thirty-six hours, had me thinking of an event in history 180 years ago today.

On the morning of 14 July 1836, explorer Major Thomas Mitchell and members of his party, left their camp and set off toward a mountain range first sighted a few days earlier. Hoping for a good view to the southwest, the highest visible peak was their target.  The mountains Mitchell would later name the Grampians and the lofty peak, Mount William.


MOUNT WILLIAM BY EUGENE VON GUERARD. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria. http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/236428

After reaching the base of Mount William, Mitchell and four men began the steep ascent while the rest of the group and the horses returned to their last river crossing to set up camp.  Arriving at the summit late in the day, the low cloud prevented Mitchell surveying the area.  He was so keen to see the views the mountain had to offer and the measurements he could record, he decided to stay the night.  I’m not sure what his four companions thought of the idea but Mr Richardson would have been glad he’d taken along his daily share of provisions.  That was until Mitchell, realising it was the only food they had, split Mr Richardson’s food five ways.  Not suitably clothed to spend a night in sub-zero temperatures and with no decent rocks to shelter from the cutting wind, they tried to light a fire as the temperature dropped below -1.5 degrees Celsius,

We strove to make a fire to protect us from the piercing cold; but the green twigs, encrusted with icicles, could not by our united efforts be blown into a flame sufficient to warm us. There was abundance of good wood at the foot of the cliffs – huge trees of ironbark, stringybark and bluegum but, had we descended, a second ascent might have appeared too laborious on a mere chance of finding the summit clear; so we remained above. The men managed to manufacture some tea in a tin pot, and into the water as it boiled I plunged a thermometer which rose to exactly 95 degrees of the centigrade scale. We got through that night of misery as well as might have been expected under the circumstances, and we succeeded in keeping the fire alive although, while twigs were blown into red heat at one end, icicles remained at the other, even within a few inches of the flame. In order to maintain it through the night we divided, at eleven o’clock, the stock of branches which had been gathered before dark into eight parcels, this being the number of hours we were destined to sit shivering there; and as each bundle was laid on the dying embers we had the pleasure at least of knowing that it was an hour nearer daylight.

(Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia: with descriptions of the recently explored region of Australia Felix, and of the present colony of New South Wales by Major T. L. Mitchell, Volume 2, Chapter 3.8)

By sunrise, the sky had cleared above them but below was mist. It was still bitterly cold at below -2.5 degrees with freezing winds and icy rocks. At first, Mitchell could only make out a body of water just to the north named Lake Lonsdale.  However, with momentary breaks in the cloud, looking to the west he could see a magnificent mountain range and to the south, flat timbered country.


THE VIEW FROM MOUNT WILLIAM. Image courtesy of Kiri Handreck of Kiri’s Images https://www.facebook.com/imagesbykiri/?fref=ts  (Click on the photo to enlarge)

It was soon time to make the tricky descent and return to the horses, about eight miles from the summit.  It was a relief to reach the riverside camp and Mitchell made the most of the “comforts”,

…we found a large fire and, under a wide spreading casuarina during a delightful interval of about twenty minutes, I enjoyed the pleasures of eating, sleeping, resting, and warming myself, almost all at the same time. To all who would know how to enjoy most intensely a good fire, shelter, sunshine, and the dry soft turf I would recommend, by way of whet, a winter night on a lofty mountain, without fire, amidst frost-covered rocks and clouds of sleet. I shall long remember the pleasure of those moments of repose which I enjoyed on my arrival in the warm valley after such a night. 

(Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia: with descriptions of the recently explored region of Australia Felix, and of the present colony of New South Wales by Major T. L. Mitchell, Volume 2, Chapter 3.8)

It was only a short rest as they still had to return to the main camp, reaching it on the morning of July 16. Not all the party made it through the night on Mount William unscathed.  Two men who had been with Mitchell on earlier expeditions fell ill, Mr Muirhead with fever and chills, and Mr Woods with a lung condition. They recovered after a couple of weeks but Mitchell conceded they were never the same.


MAJOR THOMAS MITCHELL. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria. http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/75656


Major Mitchell and his party moved north from Mt William and skirted the northern Grampians. We’ll join him again next month when the expedition moves south from Mount Araplies to the coast. If you would like to read Major Mitchell’s record of his expedition through Western Victoria, you can find it on the following link to Project Gutenberg Australia from Chapter 3.8 – Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia Journal

SNOW-CAPPED MOUNT WILLIAM c1900. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/336826

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