If you stand on the summit of Mount Kosciusko, you have made it to the peak of Australia’s highest mountain. You share that achievement Pawel Edmund Strzelecki, the first Westerner to reach the mountaintop.
Well, technically, that’s not quite true. Yes, Strzelecki was the first Westerner to climb Mount Kosciusko, and yes, Mount Kosciusko is Australia’s highest mountain. But if you are on the summit of Mount Kosciusko, you’re on a different mountain than the one Strzelecki climbed and named Mount Kosciusko.
Confused? So was Strzelecki.
It was 1840 when Polish explorer Pawel Edmund Strzelecki climbed to the top of what he believed to be the highest point in Australia. He claimed the right to name the mountain and did so in honor of Tadeusz Kosciuszko (1746-1817), the Polish hero who led Poland’s fight for independence from Russia.
While Strzelecki’s mountain climbing skills were unquestionably good, his surveying abilities left something to be desired. He looked at neighboring Mount Townsend and concluded his newly-conquered mountain was slightly higher. Cartographers took his word for it, and for the next fifty years, Australian maps declared Mount Kosciusko to be the highest point on the continent.
It was only when the range was resurveyed in the late 19th Century that Strzelecki’s error was discovered. As it turns out, the mountain he named was slightly lower than neighboring Mount Townsend. His mountain comes in at 2,209 meters (7,247 feet), while the one he thought was slightly smaller actually towers above all other Australian peaks at a height of 2,228 meters (7,310 feet).
This revelation was not only embarrassing but confusing. For over half a century, everyone had grown accustomed to thinking Mount Kosciusko was Australia’s highest point. To suddenly change this notion would cause plenty of head-scratching and potentially muddy the reputation of Australia, Strzelecki, and Kosciusko.
Australian authorities hit upon a solution to the problem. In 1892, the names of the two mountains were simply switched. The mountain climbed by Strzelecki was renamed Mount Townsend, and the mountain formerly known as Townsend was, from that point forward, identified as Mount Kosciusko.
Every geography student who has struggled to properly identify mountains on final exams wishes for the same quick-fix for his or her mistakes.