Climbing Australia's highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko, is easy

There's a fine line between being merely unprepared and being incredibly stupid. And that line is arguably crossed when you get up at 6am to climb the highest mountain on a continent with only the sketchiest of idea of what that might entail.

Mercifully, Mount Kosciuszko is not quite in the Everest league. And frankly, it's nowhere near the Elbrus or Kilimanjaro league either. But a common thread amongst those who haven't climbed it is that no-one seems to know just how hard getting to the top is. Can you pretty much drive up then amble along a boardwalk? Or does it take a proper multi-day thigh-burning, scrambling hike?

More importantly, is this something that someone who has eaten way too many pies and done shamefully little exercise take on without having to call for an emergency rescue?

Kosciuszko does have the not inconsiderable advantage of being right next to a major ski resort, and before arriving in Thredbo, I'd heard vague rumours of a chairlift that went most of the way up. The excellent news is that this chairlift does exist. Unfortunately, the Kosciuszko Express doesn't start running until 9am, so setting an early alarm probably crosses over that unprepared versus incredible stupidity line. Still, a true great adventure always starts with slowly eating a bacon roll from the bakery, right?

Shortly after 9am, the second major error becomes clear. The packing had been semi-diligent – sunscreen, big bottles of water and a couple of salad rolls. The jacket I'd thoughtfully laid out on the bed ready to go, however, is seemingly still on said bed. And mountains have this thing for being cold and windy.

A helpful sign at the top of the chairlift tells of what's in store. It is 12 degrees Celsius at the top, with a wind speed of 50 to 60km, making it feel like nine degrees. That, it's fair to say, is not ideal. And the only feasible solution is to march like madman in the hope that vigorous movement gets the blood pumping.

That march will be 6.5km each way, and the most encouraging sign is that the bulk of the elevation has already been covered. The top chairlift station is at 1925m, while the Kosciuszko tops out at 2228m. That indicates that, unless there are some cruel glacial crevasses to clamber up and down, it's not exactly going to be a lung-buster.

What starts with a paved path suddenly changes to metal walkways. It's an unusual solution to what was an increasingly large erosion problem. Walkers' boots had been starting to wear away at the rocks, soils and vegetation, so now the slightly-elevated walkway has been hammered in to protect what's beneath.

The scenery is suitably alpine. The grasses grow relatively high, unencumbered by grazing animals that would otherwise chomp them down, and the landscape is dotted with chunky granite outcrops. Rocks tend to follow the lines cut by glaciers, and streams trickle down to feed the Thredbo River, their waters yelpingly cold for any idiot who decides to dip a hand in.

What's surprising, in early February, is that there are still tiny glaciers visible. They're very much the last hold-outs at this stage, like the most stubborn chunks of food on a baking dish after a night's soak in hot water and furious scrub. But they're continuing to feed the glacial lakes, of which Lake Cootapatamba is the highest in Australia. It looks pretty, but not much is hardy enough to live in it. There are no fish, just a few crustaceans.

Kosciuszko is not the most dazzlingly prominent of mountains. It's little more than a polite bulge, and barely distinguishable from the Ram's Head Range and Etheridge Range at either side. It's essentially part of a ridge, and the best views come once on the other side of the lull in that ridge, just before the gently spiralling path leads to the summit.

On the other side, the Snowy Mountains look pristine. There's no obvious sign of human intervention at all – not even a road or track. It's a wilderness that would have met the eyes of Paul Strzelecki when he became Kosciuszko's first documented climber back in 1840.

Strzelecki wouldn't have had the chairlift and metal walkways, of course, but even then the challenge wouldn't have seemed too daunting. Nowadays, the conquest is not one that will provoke too much heavy breathing in even the most out-of-shape assailants. If putting it on a curry scale, it's a korma. On a booze scale, a light beer. On a chilli scale, sweet chilli sauce. It's still a mountain ascent, but a very baby steps one.

The main test is of your ability to put one foot in front of the other, carthorse-style, for 13km. Oh, and your ability to put a jacket in a bag rather than shiver for four to six hours…

TRIP NOTES

MORE

Traveller.com.au/new-south-wales;

nationalparks.nsw.gov.au;

thredbo.com.au

VISIT

Thredbo – the gateway to Mt Kosciuszko - is roughly a 5 hour, 45 minute drive from Sydney, or 6 hours, 40 minutes from Melbourne. The one day lift pass costs $35.

STAY

The friendly, purpose-built Thredbo YHA is the cheapest option in town, with a full kitchen and a good stash of walking maps. Dorm beds cost from $33, and doubles with a private bathroom start at $92.50. See yha.com.au

David Whitley travelled as a guest of YHA Australia.

See also: The world's 10 most-climbed mountains

See also: Six amazing hiking trails you've (probably) never heard of

Comments