VIDEO: Australia’s first ascent of Big Ben

By Jared Richards 18 October 2016
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Incredible archival footage from the historic 1964-5 Heard Island expedition.

IT’S LITTLE KNOWN that Australia’s tallest point is not, technically speaking, Mount Kosciusko – at 2695m, the title goes to Mawson Peak on Big Ben, the active volcano on the Australian-owned Heard Island north of Antarctica.

Now, you can watch Australia’s first ascent of Big Ben in footage from a 1964-1965 scientific expedition to Heard Island, never before publicly aired in full in Australia. Antarctic researcher Warwick Deacock led the 10-man expedition, the first private Australian expedition to the Antarctic since Sir Douglas Mawson’s in 1929-31.

“Like Mawson’s, ours was a challenging mixture of exploration, science, and adventure,” says Warwick. “And like Mawson we sailed to our destination – in the 19 metre crayfishing schooner Patanela, skippered by the renowned Himalayan explorer and high-latitude sailor HW Tilman.”

Grahame Budd, a member of Warwick’s expedition, shared with Australian Geographic some of the remarkably high-quality footage he is currently editing from seven hours filmed by Warwick and Malcolm Hay. The film is now part of the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.

The video traces the whole expedition, embracing ship repairs and training in Sydney, where Patanela sails past a half-built Sydney Opera House; the 10-week voyage to Heard Island, in Antarctic waters half-way to South Africa; the summit climb and the coastal journeys; and the safe return to welcoming families and friends.

big ben summit

From left, Warwick Deacock, John Crick, Colin Putt and Philip Temple celebrate the first ascent of Big Ben in 1965. (Photo taken by Grahame Budd)

The footage offers an insight into both the voyage conditions – like the cramped Patanela facilities, where researchers slept on bunks head to toe – and the undisturbed island as it was over 50 years ago. Captions give context throughout the silent footage, as recording sound with separate equipment during the expedition was impractical, says Grahame.

On arrival at Heard Island Warwick and four companions landed at (and named) Capsize Beach, and the remaining five men then sailed Patanela 460km north to Kerguelen, the nearest safe anchorage. During the next fortnight the Heard Island party climbed over volcanic rubble and crevassed glaciers to establish a siege camp at Budd Pass (1220m), where they waited until a break in the prevailing blizzard allowed them to reach the summit.

Back at the coast, the men spent the fortnight until Patanela‘s return travelling extensively to complete their scientific program.  The footage includes spectacular Antarctic and subantarctic scenery and wildlife, a census of the expanding populations of king penguins and fur seals, and precarious travel across glaciers collapsing because of climate change.

Grahame has returned to Heard Island many times in his life – in 2013, he wrote for AG about the island’s retreating glaciers and environmental changes across the years.

A revised and enlarged version of a book about the expedition, called The Sea and the Snow, by Philip Temple has recently been released.