The struggle to climb Big Ben, Australia’s highest mountain

David Parer, 16 November 2023

Big Ben (Matt Curnock)

First part to ascend Big Ben 25 January 1965 L to R: W Deacock, J Crick, C Putt, P Temple (kneeling), (Photo G Budd)

Camp below Mawson Peak (G Budd)

Grahame Budd, Warwick Deacock (G. Budd)

Dr Grahame Budd

Dr Grahame Budd during the French-Australian Heard Island Summer Expedition 1971. Dr. Budd worked at Heard Island from 1954 to 2012, and published a history of the island’s exploration since its discovery in 1853. His contributions have been recognised by the naming for him of three topographic features on the island: Budd Peak, Budd Pass, and Budd Ridge.

Ascent (AAD RS33864)

Big Ben (AAD RS32227)

Mike Dillon with a Bolex Movie Camera at the screening (D Parer)

Last Tuesday evening at the Nova Theatre in Carlton, David Dodd, Liz Parer-Cook and myself attended a special screening of Mike Dillon’s latest film, The Great White Whale. It’s the incredible story of the attempts of a few crazy men to climb Australia’s highest peak, Big Ben, on Heard Island.

The Great White Whale is a 104-minutes feature documentary with 5.1 surround sound.

Produced and Directed by Michael Dillon. Film Editor Michael Balson. Music John Crick and Paul Jarman. Mike is seeking theatre and TV broadcast release and will keep the ANARE Club posted of its availability.

Dillon’s film is an extraordinary and brilliant tale of determination, danger, skill and luck that finally ends in the successful conquest of this elusive goal. Using interviews of those involved, and graphic footage from the expedition, the film captures the utter boldness of the quest, telling one of the least known and exciting polar stories of our time.

For Mike, the project has been a decade-long labour of love. He’s been making climbing and adventure films for fifty years, including six documentaries with Sir Edmund Hillary. His first opportunity to use a movie camera came from Warwick Deacock during an expedition to Nepal. Deacock, a keen cameraman himself, had been involved in the failed attempt to climb Big Ben in 1963 with Grahame Budd – an ANARE Club member who had wintered on Heard Island in 1954 and Mawson in 1959 as doctor.

Five times the mountain tried to kill Deacock, Budd and the rest of the team on their first attempt.  Yet back they sailed, through the worst seas in the world, to try again – this time with the legendary Bill Tilman as the polar skipper.

As one member of the audience said of the film after the screening “You’ve created a masterpiece. Such a ripping yarn”.

Some audience feedback after the screening:

“ A gift to the universe, a gem, a treasure”

“Very gripping edge of the seat stuff. Sensational. Down to earth. Engaging. Chock full of raw humanity”

“Audacious. Mesmerising. Brilliant”

“It’s got so much in it, like a big fat pudding”