Climbing Mount Kosciusko

by Steve Bragg

I arrived alone in Sydney, with the intention of climbing the highest point in Australia, Mount Kosciusko (pronounced "Koziausko,"). It is located in the Snowy Mountains Range in the Australian Alps, about midway between Sydney and Melbourne.  To reach the peak from Sydney, I took Route 31 west from Sydney and then southwest to Canberra.  But first, a word about Sydney.

Sydney is a huge old place filled with too many people and roads that twist about in an incoherent fashion, loop back on themselves (useful for throwing off pursuing vehicles), arbitrarily change their names, or terminate suddenly.  Also, the concept of a freeway has not yet penetrated the downtown area.  It was legal for cars to park in the slow lane, so they did -- several thousand of them.  This meant that anyone driving in the slow lane had to stay alert or die.  Also, people who were trying to turn across the oncoming traffic stopped in the speed lane.  Thus, I constantly dodged out of the slow lane to avoid a parked car, only to narrowly miss destruction by merging with the rear end of a stopped truck in the speed lane.  In addition, all of Sydney's three million inhabitants seemed to be on the road at the same time.

To make matters worse, the directional signals and wiper controls were reversed on my steering column, the stick shift gears were NOT reversed (e.g., reverse was near me, and first gear was furthest away), a 173 page guide to the streets of Sydney was balanced on the steering wheel, and I was eating McDonald's Kangaroo McNuggets while driving.  Consequently, the chore of eating, reading the map and street signs, avoiding parked cars, changing lanes, shifting gears, and shutting off the wipers instead of the turn signals caused me to be completely lost.

As a comparison, I have driven all over such driver death traps as Istanbul, Athens, Mexico City and London, and never had problems with directions.  In Sydney's case, however, the local chamber of commerce should erect a sign at the city limits (admittedly not good for business), stating:

"Abandon hope, all ye who drive here"

From the airport, it was twenty miles west to the freeway I needed, and it was the most annoying twenty miles I have ever driven.  In my journal for that day, I wrote, "Aggravating!"

I eventually reached a freeway that headed south to Canberra. The countryside in this area is a savanna with a light covering of trees, and low rolling hills.  There was no sign of a kangaroo, though a number of cars on the freeway had large grilles mounted on their fronts, used as protection against a kangaroo collision.  Unlike their smaller cousins the wallabies, kangaroos can grow to be eight feet tall.  Ramming a kangaroo would be similar to hitting a moose.

It was a long drive down to Canberra, and the number of radio stations dwindled as I drove away from Sydney.  Finally, there was just one station left, which played "Merino," an ode to the sheep of that name, sung by the Purple Dentists.  Talk about getting an impression of the local cowboys.

The road skirted a long reservoir that led into Canberra. I had no time to explore Canberra, but noted its concentric roads that channeled traffic to its center, where the Houses of Parliament sat upon Capital Hill.  The massive Telecom Tower rose from the slopes of Black Mountain, to one side of the city's center.  Canberra was totally unlike Sydney, having been thoroughly planned before any construction began.  After the congestion of Sydney, it seemed like a very lovely place.

I then took Route 23 south to Cooma, where I camped for the night.  From Cooma, I took route 18 west to Kosciusko National Park.  The total distance from Sydney to the Park's main gate was about 300 miles.

There was a $10 fee to enter the park.  However, anyone arriving before 8:30 a.m. can enter for free, because the park rangers are still in bed.  The main road through the park, a well-maintained sealed road, passed through several ski areas before terminating at Charlotte Pass.

I parked just below the Pass because snow drifts obscured the final 100 yards.  Walking over firm snow, I came to a trail map mounted on a board, indicating that the summit was five miles away.  The summit was also visible from the Pass, and proved to be an uninspiring lump at the end of a wide valley, with a barely discernible high point.  Stepping around a barrier, I found that the trail was actually a dirt road, well graded, with snow markers posted to one side.  Though the elevation gain to the summit was not marked, I estimated a rise of 1,500 feet.

Walking along the track through a fierce wind, I saw a great deal of snow in the valley, but none on the road.  Since I was in the southern hemisphere, the north facing slopes were free of snow; most of the road followed a north facing slope, so there was no snow until I was a half-hour from the summit.  The road had a barely perceptible incline, so I made very good time.  As the summit neared, it became even more unimpressive.  There was no obvious upthrust to mark the highest point, just a gentle slope that humped slightly to reveal the top.

The road turned right.  I walked over a small snow field to reach an emergency shelter, and huddled in its lee side to change the film in my camera.  The wind was unremitting, and the chill factor was well below freezing.  The road bent left from the hut.  The summit was close now.  The track turned sharply to the left, and was covered by a deep snowdrift.  A path had been beaten through it to a depth of three feet.  I walked through the drift with snow reaching to my waist on both sides.  The snow disappeared after a hundred yards, after which the track curled left around the summit.  I stood atop the highest point on the Australian continent.

Most people would yawn after such a climb. I did not.  As a child, one of my favorite books was The Mountains, which was one of the Time-Life Nature Library books.  It contained a list called "Fifty Famous Mountains" that included Kosciusko.  Though I do not intend to climb all 50 peaks, it was exciting to have climbed one that I had been familiar with since my childhood.

It had taken 1 3/4 hours to reach the summit (or to look at it another way, I took a documentary photo of the hike every 15 minutes, which resulted in seven photos).  Luckily, an Australian climber reached the top a few minutes after me, and helped with a summit photo.  A battered concrete pillar marks the top, and a nearby plaque explains the reason for naming the peak after a Polish general (it was discovered by a Polish explorer, who named it after a Polish national hero).  The view from the top showed a number of nearby peaks that came close to Kosciusko's height.  Below, there was a side path that branched off to a distant chair lift.  If one were to take the chair lift, then the hike was reduced to about 3 1/2 miles.

Instead of taking one of the main roads out of the Snowy Mountains, I elected to take a dirt road for 70 miles back to the coast to see the "backwoods" area of the country.  What I saw was tiny villages overlooked by stone churches, thousands of acres of grazing, and very few people.  At one point I stopped, got out of the car, and listened.  The only sound was the wind rushing through the grass.

The radio frequently played operas.  Finding two operas playing at once was a common occurrence.  However, the air time for opera was easily exceeded by the time used for cricket matches, which was the national passion.  I listened to cricket matches throughout the trip, and still have no clue as to how the game is played.  The following quote comes from the Sydney Morning Herald, and describes the playing conditions before a test match between the Australian and Indian national teams.  You figure it out.

"The wicket was green-spiced and deep-grained in grass, its appearance ominous after the rain of Wednesday night and fairy mist of Thursday, but it freshened up without being spiteful."

The road back up the coast to Canberra could best be described as aggravating.  It wound about continuously, making passing so difficult that one slow-moving truck could tie up a great deal of traffic.  The "back door" route I had taken through Canberra was ruler-straight, and much more pleasant than this.

At the last campground at which I stayed on the coast, I decided to verify the story that water flows down the drain in an opposite direction from the way it flows in the northern hemisphere.  My first attempt was in the sink in the men's washroom.  A gentleman was shaving over the sink next to me. He noticed that Iwas peering intently into the sink, and leaned over my shoulder to see what was stuck in the drain.  I could not detect any spin at all, and so headed into the nearest stall to flush the toilet.  Again, there was no discernible spin.  I got another look from the shaver, who must have been wondering how I could go about my business in the stall so quickly.  I grabbed my towel and walked out of the men's room.  My last view of the shaver was of him looking inquiringly into my sink.