Having been foiled by the weather on previous trips to the Snowy Mountains, I was determined to climb Mount Kosciouzko – the highest peak in Australia- on this trip, making it the first destination. I had a two to three night stay in mind, exploring the area, but I only stayed the one night due to high winds and excruciating pain! More on that later.
Being “forced” to take some annual leave in order to gain a bonus week for the following year (awesome employee incentive), I eagerly started planning the trip. I definitely had to climb the highest mountain and maybe a few others. I also wanted to explore the Rams Head ranges, Mount Townsend and the Wilkinson valley and Mount Twynam, essentially following the main range track with some side trips along the way. I was quite excited.
Pro-tip: when planning a six hour drive followed by six hours of mountain exploration, do try to get more than two hours sleep the night before.
Pro-tip 2: facilitate sleep by not having coffee mere moments before heading to bed.
Pro-tip 3: ensure you have packed your sleeping bag so that once finally asleep you don’t wake up at 3am kicking yourself for not having packed it.
Having given up on the notion of further sleep I started getting ready at 4am and was out the door at 5am. I had a smooth uneventful run to Jindabyne where I picked up a beacon and had a bite to eat before making my way to Charlotte Pass to begin my trek.
Pro-tip 4: save yourself a few hundred meters of extra walking by not leaving your hiking poles in the car..
The walk from Charlotte pass was fairly level for a while and gave an extraordinary view of the whole of the main range allowing one to identify each peak and get the layout of the land. There was still some snow in places and I hoped there was still some lower down that I could touch.
The weather was amazing except for the winds that had been forecast. I soon put on my fleece as I was starting to feel chilly. I had walked this part of the track before and there had been thick fog and heavy rain so I didn’t see much. This time I could really appreciate the views and I was glad I had started at Charlotte Pass and not Thredbo. I crossed over the Snowy River, there were fish in the water, and noted a faint footpad leading off toward North Rams Head peak. I had originally planned to walk this route. The environmental plan for the area advised that they were trying to discourage walkers due to the sensitive vegetation. I had to respect that, and besides I wanted to climb Kosi first- no distractions!
In only a couple of hours I was standing at the intersection that would lead to the top of Mount Kosciouzko. I saw someone running down and I was jealous of his little pack. Maybe day trips are the way to do this place? The path curled up the mountain giving a wonderful view of Wilkinsons Valley and the nearby peaks. Mount Townsend looked very high and more challenging given the rocks at the top. I was already beginning to rethink my plans.
Very soon I reached the top (2228m) and was greated with amazingly clear views in all directions! It was an easy climb. Children and old folk could do it no problem. Hell, wounded puppies could manage this! Still, I was puffing and sat down for a while. I thought about looking for a geocache that was meant to be up there but gave it a miss. Another trip perhaps.
All the mountains in the distance were blue and just seemed to go on forever. There were very few signs of civilisation. With my Oakley Prizm lenses on I could see a faint layer of brown hanging in the air to the northwest – signs of the recent devastating bushfires no doubt.
I ate a snack on the mountain, drank my Powerade, then made my way down. Another couple was headed up and asked how much further, “just around the corner” I replied. I swear I heard a “woo!” A few moments later!
On the way down I studied the peak on Etheridge ridge which was the fifth highest point (2180m) in Australia and it look very doable. The winds were crazy and I was debating where to camp tonight: Rams Head area, The sheltered Wilkinson valley, or a spot in a saddle toward the top on mount Townsend. The winds ruled out the later and I had been to Wilkinson Valley before even though it was a sensible choice, so I decided on Rams Head as originally planned. But first I had another mountain to climb.
There were some signs saying the area to the side of the toilet block, that was hidden discretely in the side of the mountain, was being regenerated. So I walked further down until the signs dissappeared then made my way straight up. When I reached the rocky area that formed the peak I dumped my pack and climbed the rest of the way in freedom. The wind was intense up there and I was loving the view but also telling myself that further peak climbing wasn’t realistic if I wanted to stay safe (you know, not get blown off a cliff!).
The view of Lake Cootapatamba was stunning and made the climb worthwhile. Kosciouzko ridge was also stunning, still encrusted with the remains of the winter ice.
After descending Etheridge ridge I took the metal walkway toward Thredbo and tried to pick the best spot to start heading off track. I missed that spot by about thirty meters and found myself slightly below the optimal route the entire time. I briefly considered returning to the walkway and following it further along to try at a different spot, but I was in it now and starting to tire. I spotted some snow and that helped me decide my route. Can’t miss out on snow! There was an endless trickle of water flowing from beneath the ice layer- one would have thought the ice would not have lasted so long at that rate. I found a clear spot and sat down to build a snowman, using a rock to break up the packed ice and then other rocks to decorate it.
I filled up a water bottle here to use for cooking later on then headed off to my final stop for the day, considering whether to climb North Rams Head peak tonight or in the morning. As I neared the peak it started to look impossible to climb, with jagged vertical rocks everywhere and no clear path to the top. I couldn’t climb it tonight in these winds and I was getting extremely tired. So I set off to find a sheltered camp site. The winds were so strong that I spent quite a bit of time hunting for a spot. I finally decided on a spot between two boulders that offered some protection from the wind and a flat grassy area to set up my tent.
Putting my tent up in the wind was a comedy of errors. I first set it up too far out from the boulders so there was no wind protection. I threw my pack inside to try to move it without it blowing away and lost half of my stakes in the process, plus the ground sheet got all scrunched up so I just put it inside the tent. The tent then completely collapsed and I was starting to worry. I did not have a lot of energy left and I would begin losing light soon so couldn’t trek to Wilkinsons Valley to set up there. This was starting to be type II fun. I realised that I had the weakest side of the tent facing into the wind so I turned it around and moved it as close to the boulder as I could get it. That seemed to do the trick. I lay the groundsheet down inside the tent to act as an extra layer of protection for my sleep pad.
Exhausted, sore, and a bit chilly I fired up my stove and made a packet of chicken curry pasta to warm me up. I turned on some music to help my mood. I had brought along a lot of Mike Oldfield, expecting to be taken away by his soaring instrumental melodies, but no- instead I craved Jose Gonzalez and his simple yet soulful guitar songs. I took some pictures and began to relax. As the sun set, the rocks on the ridge line became silhouettes. Figures from times gone by, spirits of the rocks, protectors of the land. It was eerie but somehow comforting.
The wind buffeted the tent most of the night and I wished I had brought along earplugs. Soon I fell to sleep, waking briefly to the louder buffets. I did not use my tent light. Moonlight filled the valley.
At some point in the night I recalled moving and hearing a “pfft” noise. When I awoke, my sleeping pad was completely deflated. Fortunately the grass beneath the tent provided enough insulation from the ground to keep me from feeling the cold. When I tried to move I had an excruciating pain in my upper inner thigh. Uh oh.
The wind had subsided but not disappeared and I knew it would be worse over the next few nights. The wind, my broken sleeping pad, and the fact that I was hobbling, all led me to decide to head back home rather than carry on. This place kicks my butt every time.
However, all morning I had been looking at a hill in front of me. It looked easy enough to climb and I’d get to see those strange rock figures up close. So that was today’s challenge before heading home. I packed up my tent in the lighter but still inconvenient wind and set off to climb that peak. It was slow going, I had definetly pulled or strained a muscle. Still, I climbed the peak and was rewarded with some amazing views, some awesome photo opportunities and mobile phone reception!
I didn’t tell my wife I was headed back yet. Part of me still wanted to carry on. I had taken some vitamin I and wasn’t in much pain anymore. I knew I would decide back at the intersection. I retraced my route back to the track, crossing the saddle (singing “back in the saddle again”) and enjoying the wildflowers. I then passed the snow and noticed my snowman was gone (..so I sang “we’re walking in the air…”). I was soon back on the track and could decide to follow the track or cut across country to save time. With my thigh playing up I chose the easier terrain of the track. Back at the intersection it turned out that I was in no quandary over what to do. I was headed home. If I left now I could visit the NASA tracking station in Canberra on the way back and also I’d be able to take my daughter to school the next day (something daddy doesn’t get to do). Sounded like a plan to me.
I paused just after Seamans hut to apply some sun cream and offered some to a passing couple. They declined but told me about some other routes they had followed and told me that they had asked the ranger about crossing the sensitive area and they were told to just try to avoid stepping on the plants.
Ah well. Next time I’ll take the short cut! I barely noticed the views on the way out as I was so focussed on getting back to the car. Before I knew it I was back in Jindabyne ordering a mug of cappuccino and a burger with the lot. I let my wife know I was coming home. I picked up two plush toy corroboree frogs for my children then left.
I do love the area but i will need to approach it differently in future. Either day trips or simply less intensive days. Set up a base camp then day pack it around. A dedicated geocaching trip would be fun too. Or a brumby spitting adventure. Anything to avoid injury! Being out there is intoxicating. It is so beautiful and raw, it fills the soul. I love it. I’ll be back.