G’ Day Mates from the Snowy Mountains of Australia,
Two weeks ago, I was shocked to learn of the huge amounts of snow remaining in the Snowy Mountains this year and promptly went and added snowshoes to my packing pile for Australia. I could hardly believe it! Snow in Australia–never really imagined there would be snow in Australia but I have since learned a bunch more about my sixth continent. Yesterday as I slogged my way up Kosciusko’s snow covered flanks, I gave thanks for my pattern of tracking a mountain’s weather for the few weeks before I climb it. That tracking provided us with snowshoes and kept Marian and I from having to posthole the entire 13 km journey to the summit and back.
Mount Kosciusko is the highest peak in Australia (there is a higher one in an Australian territory on a small Pacific island). It is located in the Snowy Mountains about halfway between Sydney and Melbourne and within the protective boundaries of Mount Kosciusko National Park. It is named for a Polish explorer and I hear there is a Mount Kosciusko in Poland as well–might need to add that one to the list. List…it is because of a list that I am here.
Dick Bass was the first person to climb the “Seven Summits”, the highest point on each of the continents. He is a strong amateur climber from Texas and he chose Kosciusko as his seventh summit. Pat Morrow, a professional mountaineer from Canada, was the second person to complete the Seven Summits. He chose a peak in Indonesia, Carstenz Pyramid, because he used “Astral-Oceania” as the seventh continent. Since then, some climbers have gone with Bass and some with Morrow, and many with both. For now, since I’ve always imagined Australia as the seventh continent, I’m going with Bass.
When we arrived at the Kosciusko Visitor’s Centre to check conditions and purchase some maps, we were briefed about the large amount of snow still remaining in the mountains. The Snowy Mountains were living up to their name! We were shown pictures of cars passing through two metre drifts that covered the road to Charlotte Pass. We heard from a park warden who’d just returned from a trip in the backcountry who warned of flooding and huge amounts of water beneath the snow creating sinkholes that could potentially drown you if you sunk through. All of a sudden, this wasn’t shaping up to be the “almost a given” walk-up that I’d understood Kosciusko to be. My spirit sank as I realized there was a real chance we wouldn’t get the summit, I’d come halfway around the world to get.
As much as I try to frame my quest of the Seven Summits as a journey that begins long before a mountain and ends only when the next one begins, I sometimes fall prey to summit fever–wanting to get to the top really bad! Wednesday evening I recognized the pressure that spending lots of time and money to pursue a mountain ups the pressure and increases my craving of the summit. I was suddenly anxious about both the climbing conditions and about the impact of those conditions on our chances for getting to the top.
We packed our gear carefully because the Snowy Mountains have a reputation for rapidly changing weather. We entered waypoints in the GPS in case the visibility was poor (as it turns out, it was good that it was clear as the GPS seems to have been damaged enroute to here). We studied route over and over again, enjoyed a yummy dinner and hit the hay early to get a good night’s rest. Summit day dawned bright and sunny. Winds were moderate and the temperature delightful for crossing snow. The UV Index was 9 (extreme), which meant careful attention to sunscreen and sunglasses would be critical.
Marian and I headed out from the top of the Kosciusko Express chair lift. The walking track was quickly buried under snow but we could see the remains of snowshoe and boot tracks. A few steps into the soft snow had us reaching for our snowshoes–the climb was underway. We stopped often to admire the view, wonder at all the snow, consult the map, hydrate, and catch out breath. Even though we were climbing at only 1900 metres, we could still feel the influence of the altitude. We’d arrived in the valley on the day before but I didn’t want to wait a day to acclimatize because we had good climbing weather in front of us and I didn’t want to chance it. I knew we’d feel the thinner air but we weren’t at risk for any serious altitude issues.
We were climbing through a lovely valley with ridges to both sides. About 2 kilometres into the climb, we caught our first glimpse of Kosciusko. A long steep corniced ridge surprised me with some avalanche debris coming off it. The Land Down Under has held so many surprises! It was good to finally see the peak and see the route forward. After some more climbing, we reached Rawson’s Pass and had a snack. The route from Charlotte Pass meets here and I finally knew that it was likely we’d summit. The winter route varied from the summer by going directly up Kosciusko’s southern flank rather than going around the back along the summit track. I was glad for the traction cleats on my snowshoes, as the terrain got quite steep near the top!
I saw the stone tower that had been constructed on the summit! We were going to make it. I would stand on the fifth of my seven summits. I wouldn’t have to come back to Australia to climb Kosciusko again! (Not that I wouldn’t mind, however, this trip has really just been an appetizer for the grand buffet of experiences and sights that Australia offers). It took two attempts to get Elbrus and will take at least two to get Everest so I was pleased that Kosciusko was a one timer!
We drank in the views, bundle up against the wind, took heaps of summit photos including Velma and Flat Stanley, had some lunch, and didn’t really want to leave the summit. The surrounding snow covered peaks gave way to the blue hazed capped peaks of the lesser range and it felt like we could see for hundreds of miles. What a joy to share a summit with Marian once again (she climbed Kili with me in June of 2008).
After an hour or so on the summit, we coaxed ourselves off knowing that the snow was just getting softer and the way home a more difficult task. We passed a few more folks on their way up. The trip down was faster, of course, because it was downhill and we could just follow our tracks out. We stopped for a celebratory lunch at Australia’s Highest Restaurant, “The Eagle’s Nest.” (Xander…I did see an eagle sculpture at the restaurant but no real ones). Velma auditioned for the menu but elected in the end to come down and keep climbing mountains with me.
We hit the showers and enjoyed a well-earned nap for the rest of the afternoon. A fine, fine climb made more special by the huge amount of snow! I realized all the uncertainty made the summit all the finer!
Today we hiked along the Thredbo River through forests of Blue Gum Trees and saw parrots flying from tree to tree. I reflected on Phil Erschler’s words as he welcomed the group to my first Elbrus climb. He said, “The Seven Summits are really a cultural experience–some are very fine mountains to climb and some are just OK–but what unites them is an amazing opportunity to explore some amazing countries and cultures along the way.” I totally agree.
I’ve spoken before of how when I journey somewhere, the map is never the same again. As I walked along the valley below the Snowy Range today, I lived this belief once again. I will never look at the map of Australia the same way again. The past week has been filled with so many amazing experiences that the map will serve as a trigger to replay them in my head.
In my next update, I will share some of those experiences but in the meantime, I will close by expressing my gratitude to Jen and Scott Quill for their wonderful hospitality in making the first half of our visit to Australia filled with connection, discovery, joy, and friendship. We head for the ocean tomorrow to go from snow to sea, from climbing to beach walking. We start flying for home on Tuesday. I stop into Montreal for the Association of Experiential Education conference and Marian goes straight home.
Thanks for coming along on another climb. It’s always the best to have you along!