Strzelecki's ascent of Mount Kosciusko - 1840

by Lt. Colonel Hugh Powell G. Clews, Melbourne 1973.


Strzelecki left Sydney on 21st December, 1839. This is attested by a letter written by him on that date to his friend Donaldson in Melbourne,

„I am off for the Snowy Mountains this very moment - from thence for Fort Phillip and Launceston - Hobart Town - Sydney again”.

He was at Camden on 26th December, and on the 20th January at Bagalong (midway between Yass and Jugiong) - according to a letter by Philip Gidley King to John Hay of Welaregang recommending Strzelecki to him. He arrived at Ellerslie … Hannibal McArthur's station on 5th February, 1840, with a pack horse and convict servant. However, on the way from Sydney he had made many deviations as can be deducted from his book „Physical Description … ”.
Being a keen geologist, he had examined the country from the Shoalhaven River to Yass plains and visited many properties.

book    On first arriving in Australia at Sydney in 1839, Strzelecki spent three months getting to know the country and the people. He made friends with many people being a pleasant, agreeable companion, including James McArthur and, in view of subsequent events, this was important.
Strzelecki then left Sydney on a tour of the Upper Blue Mountains and westwards to the Conobolas.
liscAfter this first trip he wished to examine the Dividing Range as far as Wilson's Promontory and inspect the Alps, all with the view of extending his geological knowledge of the country.

In the meantime McArthur had gone to Tasmania and while returning as a passenger aboard H.M.S. Pelorus was blown off course to the east of Wilson's Promontory and fairly close to the Gippsland coast. He noticed that the ranges did not rise until well back from the coast line and considered it likely that good grazing land existed between the mountains and the coast. He thereupon decided to take an expedition in to inspect this country.

On arrival in Sydney he met Strzelecki again and found that he wanted to look at the geology of the same country. Therefore they agreed to join forces with McArthur funding most of the food supplies, extra men and horses, which cost him some £500 sterling. McArthur, of course, had no particular reason to climb the Alps, but accompanied Strzelecki on the trip up what is now known as Kosciuszko.

Strzelecki's movements between 5th February, when he arrived at Ellerslie Station, and 2nd March when he left it with McArthur require some guesswork.

It is thought that Strzelecki after a few days rest at Ellerslie, left for Welaregang to deliver the letter of recommendation, given him by Philip Gidley King at Bagalong on 20th January, to Mr. (afterwards Sir) John Hay. He was hospitably received and probably made some observations there - sextant fix for geographical position and barometer readings, etc. Also he probably took bearings to Dargal, Tumburumba and possibly Kosciusko, which can be seen from Welaregang.

The Documentation.

The documentation of the climb was extremely weak depending solely on Strzelecki's reports, until portion of McArthur's diary covering the trip to the top of Kosciusko became available in 1942, when a few pages came into the possession of the Mitchell Library. Strzelecki scarcely ever recorded a date for any of his travels, and of the three he did record for the whole of the Gippsland episode the day he left Sydney and the day he arrived at Westernport appears correct, but the date for the ascent of Kosciusko is wrong. This is surprising because every time he used sextant to obtain position he must have referred to the Nautical Almanac under the correct date for the sun or star co-ordinates.

Apart from his carelessness in dating events, Strzelecki was very general in any topographical descriptions. He dismisses the climb up Kosciusko in a few words.

„I followed the windings of the valley (the Murray) for about 70 miles (query) to the (part) foot of the highest protuberance of the Australian Alps, which it was my object to ascend and examine. The steepness of the numberless ridges, intersected by gullies and torrents, rendered this ascent a matter of no small difficulty, which was not a little increased by the weight of the instruments, which, for safety, I carried on my back. Once on the crest of the range, the remainder of the ascent to its highest pinnacle was accomplished with comparative ease.
On the 15th February, about noon, I found myself on the elevation of 6510 feet above the level of the sea, seated on perpetual snow”.

The „Port Phillip Herald” June 2nd reported: →

Count and Mr. McArthur ascended the Australian Alps on the 12th February, about noon, they found themselves sitting on the most elevated peak of Australia.

It can be assumed that this information (not very accurate but mentioned McArthur), was given to the press by Strzelecki himself.

(Riley's) letter to his stepfather dated at Ellersleigh February 23rd, 1840 is extremely interesting. He mentions the prices of his horses at £75 and £55, which appear extraordinarily high. No wonder he went back to try and recover his horses left behind in Gippsland. An interesting quotation is given,

„I am now staying with James McArthur, helping in the lambing. We start next week on an expedition to look for station(s). We take two pack horses and two men of our own, and there is a Polish count, a great geologist and a very scientific man, who accompanies us: he has also his man and a pack horse”.

The Ascent.

On Monday, 2nd March, 1840, Paul Strzelecki and James McArthur left Ellerslie Station, near the present day town of Adelong, with four others, six in all, on a trip to Corner Inlet on the Western Coast of what is now known as Gippsland. It was intended to make a detour trip to the highest point of the Australian Alps, then believed to be unvisited by previous explorers.?

The party consisted of 'Count' Paul Strzelecki, a Pole who was making a study of the physical aspects of New South Wales, (at that time Victoria was a portion of New South Wales) and James McArthur who was with the party to investigate the possibility of using, far pastoral purposes, the country south of the Great Dividing Range now known as Gippsland.
McArthur had financed the trip stating that it had cost him £500, quite a large sum in those days. James Riley, an Englishman, was a protégé of McArthur and would correspond to what we now call a jackaroo. Also there were two convict servants and an aborigine, Charlie Tara, who originally came from the Goulburn Plains. The number of horses they had, both pack and riding, is uncertain.

They arrived at Welaregang Station - „Messrs Hay and Chalmers Station on the Hume” probably on the 7th March. They spent the Sunday there reorganizing for the mountain trip and the mountain party left on the 9th. They left the two servants at Welaregang but added another aborigine to the party, so that the party leaving the station consisted of Strzelecki, McArthur, Riley and two aborigines. It is probable that McArthur's aborigine, being from the Goulburn country, was not acquainted with the topography of the mountains, where as the local man had accompanied other aborigines on their trips up to the mountains to feast on the Bogong moths. McArthur mentions that they saw remains of aboriginal camps, above the timber line, on the way up.

liscTo follow the climbers on their ascent of the mountain, it is necessary to depend entirely on McArthur's diary. The only help given by Strzelecki is a reference to „the steepness of the numberless ridges, intersected by gullies and torrents ”. (…)

The party, on leaving Welaregang, crossed immediately to the south side of the river (The Murray) and followed it upstream until they arrived at a ford known to the aborigines as Nowong Ford.
They camped there on the first night out from Welaregang.

Next morning they crossed the river.(…) They followed the northern bank of the river and reached a small plain known as „Gobollin”. (…) When the hills closed on the flats the party made their second camp - probably early in the day. They intended to leave the horses there and proceed on foot Riley had evidently volunteered to remain in charge of the horses, while the two white men and two aborigines made the climb. (…)

Next morning the climbing party - Strzelecki, McArthur, and two aborigines Charlie Tara - McArthur's man, and Jacky - an aborigine probably borrowed from Welaregang Station as a local guide, started at 7 a.m. in high spirits.
As McArthur observes „the weather intensely hot, we marched on with our blankets and provisions 'au militaire'”. The Count carried in addition a heavy case of instruments for scientific observations. McArthur also carried a gun.

liscThey followed up the river at first; the river known nowadays as the Swampy Plains River or to the party, mistakenly, as the Hume or Murray River. They would cross the Black (or Back) Creek in less than a mile and them moving away from the river slightly up the easy slopes to the top of the Geehi Walls. This top of the Geehi Walls is important, because from there the whole of the way up to Townsend is visible, and except perhaps for the route up the river to the foot of the climb there would be no occasion to need the services of the guide.

They descended the Geehi Walls, a drop of some 1.000 feet, finding it „so steep that we only accomplished it safely by clinging to the shrubs and small saplings”. At the foot of the drop they crossed the Bogong Creek, probably very close to the junction of Walls Creek, and climbed the ridge on the other side which McArthur thinks was equally as steep as the Geehi Walls. This may be so for a short distance but the rise would be only two or three hundred feet in all and then they dropped down on to the flat used by the Snowy Mountains Authority for its first camp in the area, and here they crossed the river.

It is worth noting that McArthur does not seem to be aware of the conventions governing the banks of the river. The right bank of any river is that bank to the right when looking downstream. McArthur states „He crossed to the right bank”, but as he was already on the right bank, he crossed to the left bank. The ford, if it was the same 125 years ago, is a very wide stony one with the water 12 inches deep all the way across. With „the thermometer ranging upwards of 90 ° ”, it would be very pleasant wading across it.

They then proceeded up the left bank of the river for about two or three miles (…) finally crossing the Geehi Creek at the foot of Hannels Spur near the present day Stony Rises hut.
The party was now at the foot of the climb after a very hot day „upwards of 90°”. They decided to start the climb in the moonlight. Climbing an unknown timbered ridge in moonlight is usually frustrating and not very sensible, but they seemed to have climbed the ridge probably as far as the sedimentary belt crossing the granite. However, as next day, they took five hours to reach the present Byatts Flat, they may not have reached the sedimentary belt. If they had, it would have put them up about 2000 feet on their climb. They secured a lyre bird for supper but had no water.

It was scarcely a bare half-moon low in the Northern sky.

McArthur states that they „only camped when the bright moonlight failed us”.(…)

On Thursday, 12th March, 1840, the party left their night camp on the lower slopes of Hannels Spur on what was to be their final day of ascent. McArthur says „The early dawn of the 12th found us again on our way”.
(…) After five hours of steady climbing through the timber they came out in an open spot with water in it. As they were not carrying water and had been without it for some time, this was welcomed. It cannot be certain whether this spot was Moiras Flat or Byatts Camp.

Anyhow, they had breakfast and decided to leave their blankets etc. there to return to at night.

liscFrom there, they started to climb the steep and rocky Abbott Range. Although Jacky - the aborigine from Welaregang - knew the natives' usual route round the end of the Abbott Range into the cirque at the head of the Wilkinson Creek, which is a much easier approach than the rocky, spiny-backed Abbott Range, Strzelecki had seen the Abbott Range approach from the top of the Geehi Walls, and would be more inclined to follow the route he had seen. „After two hours of toilsome ascent” they were still far from the top of the mountain they were aiming for which, of course, was Townsend. As they had doubts about getting back at night to their gear, they (Strzelecki and McArthur) sent the two natives back to bring the gear where they stood, while they proceeded to the summit which they reached after a „very laborious climb”.

When they arrived on the summit of Townsend, a very rocky top, they found that there were several other mountains in the near vicinity. As McArthur says:

The Count by the aid of instruments quickly detected one of them as being considerably higher than where we stood.

This of course was Kosciusko some 2 miles due south and about 60 odd feet higher. In descriptions of what can be seen Strzelecki gets very mixed up with what can be seen from each of the two mountains. The upper reaches of the Geehi River - which he calls the Murray - are fairly obvious from Townsend, and the fearful gorge 3.000 feet deep is underestimated. The drop from Townsend to the bend of the Geehi River turning north is 5.350 feet, the biggest clean drop in Australia.


While on Townsend, Strzelecki named Kosciusko after a Polish national hero as „Kosciusko”. The configuration of Kosciusko as viewed from Townsend reminded Strzelecki of an elevated tumulus in Krakow named in memory of Kosciusko. This was done in the presence of McArthur, and then Strzelecki left McArthur to proceed to Kosciuszko. He then makes one of his rare comment on the route -

„Once on the crest of the ridge, the remainder of the ascent to its highest pinnacle was accomplished with comparative ease”.

The movements of McArthur are related first. He had decided that as the day was far advanced it was more prudent to return to the spot where the natives had been instructed to bring the blankets and gear. He made a leisurely descent to the selected camp site which he reached towards evening. But there was no sign of the camp or the natives. He shouted and fired a shot but got no reply, so he collected firewood and got a fire burning. He then heard a faint coo-ee and discovered the natives' camp below him on the top slopes of Wilkinson's Cirque.
The natives naturally did not see much sense in climbing back on to Abbott Range where probably there was no water and little firewood, so had camped beneath it. McArthur got down to them „making a perilous decent through a dark glen”. The moon would be up but possibly not high enough to throw light into the crevice as he descended.

liscBut where was Strzelecki? McArthur promptly sent Jacky (…) to look for him and the native soon had him back in camp. He had had falls while coming down Kosciuszko in the moonlight. Walking down a grass covered slope strewn with rocks can be treacherous even in good moonlight. But these falls are important as a solution to the problems of barometer heights.
The writer has carried modern aneroid barometers for many years, and a bump or fall can cast immediate doubt on their accuracy. Strzelecki brought down a small bit of rock from the extreme summit and, although not mentioned by McArthur, an 'everlasting' flower which he afterwards sent to his fiancée in Poland. While on the summit, which he could not have reached until between 3 and 4 p.m., not noon as he states, he made several sextant observations and other survey observations, and he also made copious notes on the geology of the top. In his „Physical Description” the geology of Kosciusko is mentioned quite frequently.


It is worth noting that Strzelecki's description of the route between Townsend and Kosciusko differs from that which he gave McArthur, on arriving back in camp. He then states that he had „experienced more difficulties than he expected” owing to „the endless confusion of rocks and the tall growth of the monnong grass”. It has not been possible to obtain a modern name for this „monnong grass”. McArthur gives a description in one place of „a peculiar gigantic grass. It is from 2 to 3 feet high, bright green and succulent”.


The day following the ascent the party returned to their base camp where Riley was looking after the horses. This would be quite a good walk but nothing unusual, although the thousand feet steep climb up the Geehi Walls must have seemed hard to them. Next day they were in camp with Riley while Strzelecki made his computations. He probably did not want these to fall behind knowing there would be much further work in front of him. He told McArthur that the height of Kosciusko was 7.800 feet, although in the report to Governor Sir George Gipps he gives the height at 6.510.


Strzelecki's height for Kosciusko.

liscThe method of obtaining heights before any chains of accurate levels became available was by either a hypsometer reading, using the boiling point of water, or a mercury barometer reading. Both methods depended on the prevailing barometric pressure which might vary considerably as the procession of atmospheric highs and lows passed over. The average sea level pressure of 29.91 inches was used. At least this is the value given by the Admiralty Manual, 1938, and probably would not differ much from that used in 1840. As the normal swing of the barometer would be appr. 3 inches (equal to 600 feet), this would indicate that the accuracy to within about 300 feet could usually be expected. Occasionally, however, swings could be larger.


Strzelecki reported falling while descending from Kosciusko to the camp. This would very probably damage his barometer which is not at all a sturdy instrument and can be damaged very easily. It is possible that he discovered an error in the instrument when checking back at the camp where Riley was waiting. Not realising that the error had arisen after the Kosciuszko reading, he probably endeavored to correct his Kosciuszko height and made it 800 feet too low. (…) It is possible that on arriving back at Riley's camp Strzelecki found his barometer reading some 1300 to 1400 feet too high and made a correction to his Kosciusko height of that amount. It is significant that his next height at Pinnibar is some 1700 feet too low.


The Author of this article used the traditional spelling Mt Kosciusko, which was changed to Mt Kosciuszko in 1999.

Lower case spelling of „aborigines” also as per original text.