by Stephanie Ho
Following months of planning and deliberation I embarked on an adventure with two friends, Yasmine and Lara, to Australia’s tallest mountain range in Kosciuszko National Park. Over the next three days we were going to attempt to climb the 10 highest peaks in the country, following parts of the Main Range Circuit while occasionally heading off-track to bag some extra peaks.
Our journey started at Charlotte’s Pass on Australia day, where we followed the flat path for a couple of hours with a bunch of day hikers who were seeking the annual 'Australia’s highest BBQ' at 2000m above sea level! We enjoyed the open vistas of the mountain range (many of which we would soon be climbing) before arriving at the base of our first objective - the unnamed peak on Etheridge ridge. We clambered up the side of the mountain for less than 10 meters before dumping our cumbersome packs among the tall grass. As we continued negotiating the pathless peak, I felt the thrill of climbing higher and higher, accompanied by little more than the sound of our laboured breathing. I felt like we were finally on our way! Not long later, after a short scramble, we reached the summit. Standing at a mere 2180m, this little guy was a dot on the world map, easily dwarfed by the 8000m peaks in the Himalayas. Nevertheless, the view from the top was one to remember, offering a direct view of Mt Kosciuszko, the highest point in mainland Australia.
Yasmine scrambling up the side of Etheridge ridge peak
A couple of hours later we found ourselves doing another pack dump behind some boulders. From here, we would follow the metal pathway for a few hundred metres before venturing off into the bushes once again to bag Rams Head and Rams Head North. Finding the latter peak was no issue, and after a challenging and exposed scramble up massive boulders, made worse by strong winds, we could see why this was well-known for being the most mountainous of the Aussie 10. It felt great to be at the summit of another peak from where we could see three mountains to the South-West. We were aiming for Rams Head, the tallest of the three, but our task was made more difficult by our too-small scale map. We walked to what appeared to be the tallest but upon reaching the summit of this peak we could see that there was in fact a clear winner a few hundred metres further south, which had been hidden from view by the rocky outcrop on which we stood. We made our way over to the 3rd of the top 10 and, after a successful summit, retraced our steps to our hidden packs.
The last peak of the day would also be the tallest in Australia, Mt Kosciuszko, standing at 2228m. In my opinion this was the least impressive, offering a paved path winding up gently to the summit, a peak which could be easily conquered by my grandmother. Regardless, it still felt special to be the highest person in Australia at that point in time.
The view from the summit of Kosciuszko
It was already well into the evening, around 7pm, when we stumbled into our campsite just off Mueller’s pass. We quickly threw up our tents, only realising later that in our haste we had set up right on top of multiple ant nests! Nevertheless, the beauty and remoteness of the campsite made it one to remember. Situated in a saddle, there were stunning views of mountains on either side and an impressive panorama of the sunset (photo at the top of the page).
As the sun went down so did the mercury, and we snuggled into our down sleeping bags after a tiring 20km day. In the middle of the night, the wind picked up and the rain pelted down. I had innocently left my fly up before going to sleep in an attempt to do some star-gazing as I dozed off, and was therefore caught unawares at 1 am by water on my face and my sleeping bag getting more drenched by the minute. I frantically unzipped the mesh, crawled outside in the pouring rain and struggled to undo the clip fastening the door open. After a painful minute or two I succeeded and dove back inside, panting and quite wet. Another lesson learned the hard way!
Low cloud above the campsite
I woke up the next morning to a mesmerising landscape of cloud-shrouded mountains on either side of the valley. The day's plan was to bag another 4 peaks, mostly off track, before returning to spend the night in the same campsite. As we set off carrying only the bare necessities, the rain came and went and we struggled to keep our bearings. The first mountain, Abbott Peak, was a relative breeze, but along with the rain came increasing wind and low clouds threatening visibility. My worst mistake on this trip was deciding to go minimalist on rain gear, bringing little more than a ‘sturdy’ rain poncho, thinking that the weather forecast of 'clear skies' would be accurate. The others were decked out in soft shell jackets but were still saturated by the end of the day. Whilst trekking across an exposed pass, trying to stay upright, the arm and hood of my poncho tore off (despite exhaustive reinforcement strategies involving strapping tape) and disappeared into the clouds.
I stuffed the poncho into my pack, donned my fleece instead and pushed on in the hope that it would keep me somewhat warm. Thankfully I wasn’t feeling the cold too much as long as we kept moving. Mt. Townsend, the second highest peak in the country, was next and as we approached the summit we were engulfed by low and fast moving clouds which reduced visibility to a few meters. We sat behind a rock, hiding from the wind, and contemplated our next move. We still had two peaks scheduled for the day but they were both quite a distance off and required careful use of our map and compass to reach, not too convenient as the wind would likely blow the map to shreds within seconds. On top of this was the question of whether or not we could all make it safely back in one piece.
It was mentally tough on all of us when we decided the best option was to retreat. It’s often hard to know when to pull out and when to give just a little more and push through, but this time we knew the odds were against us. The realisation that we wouldn't be able to climb the Aussie 10 was disappointing, and I trudged back to camp in silence, lost in my own thoughts. However, I tried to reassure myself that the mountains would still be there next year and that we had made the wisest decision. As the famous mountaineer Ed Visteurs once said: "Going to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory."
White out conditions on the summit of Mt. Townsend
When we arrived back at the campsite, I dove into my tent and did the only thing I felt like doing - I read a book. Meanwhile, Yasmine and Lara decided we should leave the campground at 2pm, as waiting out the rest of the day in a tent was not their idea of fun. So, after a hurried lunch we rejoined the main range track. Our exit strategy had been far from concrete but we settled on putting up camp wherever we found a flat and relatively low wind spot. However, after hours of exposed traversing, whiteouts and winds more severe than before, the option of camping out in these conditions became more unlikely.
At around 5pm we rounded a corner and approached an intersection where the wind died down and we had a chance to check the map. We were very surprised to see that we were only 6km from Charlotte’s pass and decided that tonight would be the night for a hot shower back at the lodge. We picked up the pace with a spring in our step, armed with the knowledge that we would soon be warm and dry. The path gradually wound out of the harsh alpine environment and down to the Snowy River. As we sat next to the water enjoying a warm freeze dried meal, we marveled at the nature of mountain weather: from here it was impossible to gauge that it was blowing a gale up on the cloud-shrouded peaks and significantly colder. It really was like two different worlds.
After two tough 20km days we had only managed to climb 7 of the 10 mountains, but I was very grateful for the experience and lessons learned along the way. After all, the mountains will always be there. I just have to make sure that I will be there too, in order to climb them.