Visiting : Mt Kosciuszko
Distance : 100km
When : Monday 30th April 2012, 8:30am
The second day of my ride from Canberra to Bairnsdale was the “fun” day. It was basically a side trip up Mt Kosciuszko, the highest mountain in Australia. It started and finished in Jindabyne so it didn’t get me any closer to my destination but it was a hell of a lot of fun.
The fun day
I rolled out of Jindabyne about 8:30am after a nice sleep-in. The weather was looking great and I’d culled a bunch of stuff from my bag to lighten my load so I was feeling relatively light and agile. Which is a good way to feel when you’ve got a 50km climb ahead of you.
Kosciuszko Road is everything you’d expect of a main road servicing the snow fields – it’s wide, well-maintained and in immaculate condition. There was occasional traffic – tourists, tradies – but the road and shoulder were so wide it may as well have been empty. Nice blue skies above and riding up to an awesome destination with no time pressure. Good times.
I stopped for a breather at the Jindabyne Surge Tank. It’s part of the Snowy Mountains Scheme but I have no idea what it does. It sure looked impressive though.
I tapped out a steady cadence up the hill and started passing snow accommodation places with names like “Ski Rider”. At one point a couple of tradies in utes flew by and, just up the road, the lead ute let out a huge cloud of brown smoke and rolled to a stop. Bummer. His mate pulled up behind him and as I span past they had the bonnet up and were gesticulating at each other and the dead vehicle.
One of them pointed at my bike as I passed and said “Sometimes they’re better mate!”
Wasn’t long before I reached the main entry gate to the snow fields. The big multi-lane tollbooth building was empty apart from one booth. I rolled up and said g’day to the lady inside and we had a little chat before I continued up the hill. Bikes don’t have to pay to get in but I’d read that they’re forbidden from riding all the way to the summit so I asked her how far I could go. She didn’t seem to know and just handed me a little brochure with a bunch of MTB trails on it. Oh well, I guess I’d find out when I got up there.
The road continued to climb up and up but it was a cruisy climb. In fact, it was positively mellow compared to some of the challenging climbs just across the border in Victoria like Hotham and Buffalo. There were even a few big rollers to break up the ascent.
The terrain was definitely alpine at this point. Stunted, scraggly trees and lots of rocky, grassy plains. The sun was shining and I could see for miles – the road snaking away into the distance, tiny vehicles crawling along it, barely visible in the haze of distance, and then, cresting one particular pass, “Oh, shitchair!” snow-capped mountains on the horizon.
Rolling on, I reached the first of the ski resorts – Smiggin Holes – which should be familiar to fans of Roy and HG. Not long after that I crested a rise and then bombed down to the big Perisher ski resort. It was all empty car parks and empty streets, apart from the occasional tradies and workers buzzing around delivering things, building, maintaining and generally getting ready for the start of the snow season in a couple of months.
I took on water here and kept rolling. Mt Perisher was a big grassy, rocky hill bristling with chairlift pylons. Honestly, it didn’t look like much. Hard to believe that it’ll be covered in snow in a month or two (global warming notwithstanding) and packed with snow-goers and tourists, music blaring from chairlifts, every pitch criss-crossed by board and ski tracks, each telling the story of someone’s holiday fun.
For now, it was just a big dry hill with a couple of lonely lifts running by themselves without even any chairs attached to them.
Following the road past Perisher, the terrain started getting really good. Big picture-postcard vistas – snowy mountains, crystal clear rivers, scrubby alpine moss and grass, the road lined with big orange snow poles, snaking its way up the valley. It’s a great place to be. The rivers and creeks are brand new, icy fresh. The whole place seems special – fragile yet tough.
On, on up the road and finally I arrived at Charlotte Pass, the end of the highway and the highest ski resort in Australia. From then on the road turns to dirt and is closed to cars – bikes and peds only from then on. Nice.
It’s a mellow 8km dirt road ride from Charlotte Pass to Rawson Pass. The signs said I’d have to leave my bike at Rawson Pass and continue the last 1.7km to the summit on foot. No worries.
The big mountains in Australia are more like hills than steep craggy peaks. Our geology is relatively stable I guess, compared to other countries, so there’s no big dramatic earthquakes or volcanoes to tear up the land and thrust mountain peaks toward the sky. Our mountains are big sleeping giants, ancient behemoths that have stared up at the sky since long before man, millions of years of wind and rain wearing them down to 2000 metre nubs, towering ancient mounds worn low by time, to be walked up and “conquered” by anyone who can drag their carcass 5km along the well-maintained boardwalk from Eagles Nest Restaurant at the top of Thredbo ski resort over to Rawson Pass and on up to the summit.
The easy way to Rawson Pass, via the chairlift at Thredbo and then the boardwalk, sounded boring as hell. I was glad to be going the longer and more adventurous route up the road from Charlotte Pass. The dirt road was in pretty good shape, considering. And then I started running into snow drifts. And then the snow drifts got longer and deeper. And pretty soon I was clumsily pushing my bike through a foot of heavy wet snow and trying not to fall over..
I pushed on through the snow sections on foot, kicking the ice out of my cleats and riding when I could. The snowy sections were getting longer and more frequent while the ridable sections were barely worth remounting for. I stopped to take some photos and saw a hiker coming down the road towards me.
“You won’t ride any more up here mate”, he called out.
Turns out he’d ridden his MTB from the carpark at Charlotte Pass – the same way I’d come – got sick of the walking, stashed his bike behind some rocks and continued on foot. He was on his way down now so he knew what the road was like further up. “Worse. A lot worse.”
I thanked him for the info and pushed on. I could see Seamans Hut a couple of hundred metres up the road and decided to push on and stash my bike there.
Seamans Hut was awesome and much better equipped than Brayshaws. It was a stout stone-walled structure with furniture, a pot-belly heater, plenty of wood and a cupboard filled with useful bits and pieces like matches, fuel, dried food, water etc. Luxury! It would be sanctuary to anyone caught up there in bad weather and in fact, it was built in 1929 by W.H. Seaman as an emergency shelter and memorial after his son Laurie died at that location after he and his mate Evan were caught in a blizzard while skiing. Apparently the hut has saved many lives since…
Yeah, you can stop laughing at the name now.
I hauled my bike inside, unclipped my backpack from the front rack, slung it on my back and started hiking the rest of the way up to the summit on foot. It was an easy enough walk but slow going at times. For some reason the snow really collected well on this part of the road and in some places it was a foot deep and thick, wet and sludgy. I trudged on.
I could see Rawson Pass now and also the Kosciuszko summit looming up behind it. I could just make out little groups of tourists inching their way up the road towards the summit. It seemed to take forever to get up to Rawson Pass but, once there, I found it was a positively civilised affair. There was a big toilet block, signboards, places to sit, even a big bike rack! Of course, this was the last remnant of civilisation before the summit so it had to cater to all the lazy turistas hobbling over the boardwalk from the Thredbo chairlift.
I marched on out of Rawson Pass and became increasingly excited with every step up the steep winding road. Only a kilometre to go! Less than a kilometre to go!
And then, after following the road aaaaallllll the way around and up the final stretch, there it was… the highest point in Australia. No place higher. The top. The summit. The peak.
It was… amazing.
Blue skies and barely a faint breeze. I was incredibly lucky with the weather – I couldn’t have asked for better conditions. Visibility was awesome and, in some directions, I could see forever. In other directions, I was looking down upon big banks of cloud stretching away into the distance. The views were positively panoramic and there’s no way my lame iPhone photos could capture the vastness of what my eyes were seeing. It was massive. Looking down on the clouds, blue skies everywhere – the last time I saw a scene like that I had my nose pressed against an airplane window.
I sat down and soaked it up for a while, had something to eat. I was sharing the summit with about eight or so people, all sitting around on the rocks chatting, taking photos of each other, calling their friends (yes, there’s mobile phone reception up there) and saying, “Guess where I am. No, guess!” There’s a monument and survey point at the very top and my fellow “mountaineers” were posing in front of it, handing their cameras around, capturing their moment from all different angles and trying to frame each other in front of the most spectacular backdrop.
I sent a quick message to my wife, took one last long look around and then started hiking back down the road.
I was back at Seamans Hut in no time.
Hauled bike out. Backpack off back and clipped onto front rack. Pushed it downhill on foot past the gnarly snow drifts and then, finally, got to rolling again when the dirt road cleared up and fanged it downhill all the way back to Charlotte Pass. There may have been hooting, possibly some hollering and, for sure, any Mountain Pygmy Possums in the vicinity who happened to get startled by the noise and look up to see my maniacally grinning face fly by would have been thinking, “Wtf is he so happy about?!” before they scurried back down between the rocks in search of plump Bogong Moths and hard nuts to add to their winter food cache.
At Charlotte Pass I got back on the paved road, assumed a comfortable tuck position and shotgunned the hell outta there. It was nearly all downhill back to Jindabyne and the roads were wide, smooth and mostly empty. I don’t use a speedo but I know how fast I went – bloody fast. My face almost broke from grinning so hard and tears were streaming from my eyes. There were some big rollers to break up the descent but the last – and fastest – section between Rennix Gap and Thredbo River was about 13km all downhill, no brakes, just get aero and roll forever. So good.
I span slowly back into Jindabyne and did a similar supie run to the night before. Same routine of cleaning, washing, feeding, recovering. I finished off the beer and most of the food and hit the sack relatively early. The fun day was done and my head was still buzzing from the awesome views, the awesome descent, the whole awesome day. And I still had another whole day of riding to go! I was stoked!
And that stoke was important. I’d need to carry it through the night and wake up with it the next day.
Because the next day was the long day…