Missing Victorian Water Minister Tim Holding told a group of bushwalkers yesterday morning he had changed his mind about climbing to the peak of Mount Feathertop because of the dangerous conditions.
The bushwalkers are the last people to have seen the minister, who has been missing for more than 24 hours in freezing weather.
The 37-year-old minister spoke to the walkers about 8.30am as they made their way to Federation Hut on the mountain and Mr Holding walked north.
Acting Superintendent Wayne Rotherham said Mr Holding told the group he had intended to climb to the top but had changed his mind and would head back towards his car, which remains parked at the base of the mountain.
"He had [planned to walk to the summit] but he had decided that he wasn’t going to now because it was too steep. He said he was going to make his way back to the car," Acting Superintendent Rotherham said.
He said searchers were taking three different routes towards the small track where Mr Holding was last seen, not far from Federation Hut.
"We are focusing on that area and fanning out from there," he said.
"We don't know if he continued walking or took a different track. There are a number of tracks that go from there, so we have different search teams going in from different locations but obviously it is very difficult because of the terrain and conditions."
Low cloud, wind and snow are hampering the search, with helicopters unable to be used because of poor visibility.
Mr Holding stayed at Federation Hut on Saturday night as the temperature plummeted to minus seven.
A bushwalker who also spent the night in the hut told The Age online his walking group set off about 30 minutes after the minister left the hut for a solo hike about 7.30am.
As the group headed towards Mount Feathertop they saw the minister’s footprints veering off the path.
Police last night picked up a weak signal from Mr Holding’s mobile phone but have been unable to use it to pinpoint his location.
Acting Superintendent Rotherham said Mr Holding’s phone could be low on power or out of range, or may have been dropped by the minister.
Victorian Premier John Brumby says he is concerned that his friend and colleague’s mobile phone is "inactive". He said Mr Holding was an experienced hiker who had tackled the Kokoda Track.
Mr Holding sent a text message to his partner on Saturday at 6.30pm to say he had arrived at Federation Hut and that he expected to be home at 4pm on Sunday.
The alarm was raised when he had not returned by 9.30pm.
He was well-equipped with food, a tent and sleeping bag but did not have snow shoes or an emergency beacon.
Bureau of Meteorology duty forecaster Michael Halfpenny said it was currently minus two degrees at Mount Hotham, with a north-westerly wind of between 20 and 25km/h.
"There are a few snow showers in the area and quite a lot of cloud with poor visibility," he said.
He said the weather conditions were expected to remain bad throughout the day and the temperature would probably not rise above zero.
State Emergency Service state duty officer Jeff Cartwright said an extra 12 specially trained alpine SES searchers would help police look for Mr Holding today.
He said "white-outs" were possible in low cloud and snow which made it difficult to tell where the ground ended and horizon began.
A civilian bushwalking group is expected to arrive at the mountain around lunchtime to join the search.
Mount Feathertop is the second-highest mountain in Victoria at 1922 metres and is popular with walkers.
Located near the town of Bright in Victoria’s north-east, it is often known as the Queen of the Victorian Alps.
Mr Holding is a rising star of Victoria’s Labor Party and holds the multiple portfolios of water, finance, WorkCover, TAC, tourism and major events.
During his decade in Parliament as the MP for Lyndhurst, in Melbourne’s south-east, he has held cabinet positions for police and emergency services, corrections, information and communication technology, financial services industry and manufacturing and export.
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