‘Good on ya, love,’ a bloke sang out, one of a trio of pensioners trotting past me as I trudged wearily up the last slight steady impossibly steep incline before the Mt Kosciuszko lookout. Leaving the summit behind I only had 2km of the 13 km (8 miles) round trip summit hike to go, and altitude sickness was kicking in.
At least, that’s the only way I can explain the shortness of breath that had turned this last uphill stretch into a taxing climb.
‘You’re the only person we’ve passed all day,’ chirped the pensioner in the exact tone of voice that made me want to slap him silly as the trio left me in their wake.
Pedantic peak-bagging purists don’t include Mt Kosciuszko as a valid ‘climb’ for the 7 Summits despite it being Australia’s highest point.
Puncak Jaya (aka Carstensz Pyramid) in Papua, New Guinea is more than twice as high, they say.
And the Australian continent includes New Guinea, they say. And the island of New Guinea is on the Australian continental shelf, they say. The purists climb both, thus extending their 7 Summits to 8 peaks. That SO makes sense … NOT!
Although that COULD be the terminal laziness that dogs my footsteps talking …
The smart money says the REAL reason to exclude Mt Kosciuszko has nothing to do with peak bagging and everything to do with mountaineering elitism.
The ambitious scope, rigorous training schedule and technical skill required to complete the 7 Summits make it a challenge so great that only ~350 climbers have completed since it’s 1985 conception …
… compared to the estimated 100,000 climbers who conquer Mt Kosciuszko each year.
So hardly a mountaineering exclusive, although people like me DO take training seriously and prepare for the rigours of the 2228m (7313 ft) summit ascent by a test climb on Mt Wycheproof, the world’s smallest mountain!
Yes, you heard it here: The summit climb is embarrassingly easy!
Especially given the most difficult section of the climb – the 600 m (1982 ft) elevation from ski town Thredbo to the Eagle’s Nest restaurant (highest in OZ) – can be completed by chairlift.
From there – a tiny 3.5° C (38° F) the day we climbed – we were above the tree line with a 6.5 km (one way) trek to the top undulating upwards over a 300 m (991 ft) elevation.
Its place in the 7 Summit pantheon isn’t the only controversy surrounding the mountain. A neighbouring peak was originally thought to be the highest and dubbed Mt Kosciuszko, with the current Mt Kosciuszko called Mt Townsend. When a survey showed the mistake, the names were switched so that Kosciuszko remained the name of Australia’s highest peak!
Although ‘peak’ isn’t the right word – it’s more of an imposing rounded dome rising above the surrounding landscape often enough to provide a tantalising glimpse of journey’s end. Or at least the half-way mark because the shortest way back is to return to the chairlift the way you came.
But all that is well in the future at the start of the hike with spectacular views WAAAAAY down to Thredbo and up along the rocky Ramshead Range. The kilometres pass quickly along the raised metal walkway that took 17 years to construct that protects the fragile alpine heathland.
It’s a nostalgic moment as we cross the headwaters of the Snowy River. Pastoral country until being phased out in 1969, Aussie poet ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s classic poem ‘The Man From Snowy River’ superbly captures the legend of this wild high country before the National Park was proclaimed in 1944 and the river harnessed for the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme from 1949.
We climb up to a saddle from the river, and now the Australian records come thick and fast.
Lake Cootapatamba – highest lake and one of 5 mainland glacial lakes; Rawson’s Pass, overlooking highest permanent settlement Charlotte Pass, and location of highest Scenic Public Toilet at 2100 metres; then the final ascent – a relentless climb along the old Charlotte Pass road circling round the dome to the top.
And the staggering 360° view over the Main Range, Monaro tablelands and Victorian High Country.
Explorer Count Paul Strzelecki, whose commemorative statue in nearby Jindabyne portrays him as a cross between previous OZ prime minister Bob Hawke and Dracula, was the first to actually record a climb in 1840, although the peak is likely to have been climbed beforehand by local Indigenous people, who called the mountain Tar Gan Gil, and white settlers.
Until 1974, when the road was closed to traffic to help preserve the fragile environment, visitors could drive to the Mt Kosciuszko summit.
And I’ll bet the couple who pushed a pram all the way, and the young man carrying two small children in a backpack wished the road was still open …
Waiting our turn for the obligatory summit shot while an endless stream of school groups took more than their fair share of time at the marker cairn, the clouds rolled in – and justified the winter clothes we’d bought in far below Jindabyne! Although it was worth the purchase price to hear the young salesman describe his phobias – Snakes and even a recent snakebite didn’t bother him; but Spiders? No way! Mad fool!! But I digress …
The return trip punctuated by the obligatory tinkle in the highest public toilet in OZ, countless rest exhaustion photo stops, and a voluntary go-slow when I tired of the student wisdom pouring out like … well, lets just say waste … behind me.
‘Sir said life is short,’ one adenoidal youngster stated to a gaggle of giggling comrades. ‘That is incorrect. Life is the longest thing you do,’ he concluded triumphantly.
Words to live by? Words to live without … they passed me, chattering inanely …
The only cure for altitude sickness is to lose altitude quickly, which the Kosciuszko Express chairlift descent delivers in spades.
It’s almost impossible to take photos while indulging in a long, silent scream with both hands locked in a white-knuckled death grip on the ‘safety’ bar – the only thing between me and the 600m drop to Thredbo …
And just like that, my birthday present Kosciuszko adventure was over, leaving me with a fine sense of anti-climax and an almost irresistible urge for a tacky piece of memorabilia like a ‘Kozzie’ snow dome or a ‘Get High’ T-shirt to mark the occasion.
But I settled for posting some photos on Flickr and writing this blog post instead.
Besides … I’ve been to the Mt Kosciuszko summit before!
As shown by this photo from the year … well, I’m sure it’ll be immediately identifiable by the superb example of what the well-dressed mountaineer – a random stranger lucky enough to be captured by Dad’s camera – was wearing! A small clue – we apparently drove to the top …
Tragically, this means I can’t claim to have climbed it twice – but even if I could, it probably doesn’t count if I can’t remember it …
So I’m claiming Kosciuszko as Peak #1 in my 7 Summit Challenge! But don’t hold your breath for the next instalment – I’m going for the slowest 7 Summits ever!