The mission: To climb Australia’s highest mountain, Mountt Kosciuszko (pronounced kahz-ee-ahz-koh) at 2,228 meters above sea level. The highest peak on the continent. A feat for anybody aiming to climb the highest peaks on each continent. A real notch for the climbing belt, if you ask me.
(Sshhh….don’t tell anybody that there’s a chairlift that takes you most of the way up, and that our climbing company for the day includes an eighty year old German couple).
Upon driving through the front ranges of the Snowy Mountains and landing in Thredbo – at the base of Kozzy (as it is adoringly and apathetically referred to by locals who are tired of saying all four entire syllables over and over again – understandably), we are surprised at what we see. Or rather, don’t see.
Thredbo, the popular resort town, and gateway to the “Australian Alps”, is empty.
First of all, I must address the whole “Australian Alps” theory. Alps, they are not. If you come to the Snowy Mountains in search of huge peaks and year-round powder snow, you are on the wrong continent entirely. Although the Snowy Mountains are majestic, they are so from a distance. Thredbo, at 1,380 meters, involves a beautiful and very uphill 1 ½ hour drive from the entrance to the Snowies. So once at Thredbo, mountains don’t loom majestically over you. Rather, they cradle you, sloping gently upwards towards peaceful rolling peaks. The alpine tundra above tree level is indeed beautiful, craggy, splattered with granite boulders amidst the green grass and delicate wildflowers in the summer, and gracefully blanketed with a layer of snow in the winter. But Alps in the traditional European sense, they are not.
The fact that people die every year in this environment is beyond me. Then again, the scenery is deceivingly kind; above the tree line anywhere in the world, unpredictable weather rolls in without warning and Kozzy sees snow generally once a month, with brutal white-out conditions socking in the mountain frequently during the winter. Without proper due diligence and preparation, people are lulled into a false sense of security and safety up here. Heck – the path to the top of Kozzy is pretty much paved the entire way up; how can you not be?
But I digress. In our journey to the top of Mount Kosciuszko, we are still in the deserted town of Thredbo.
Infrastructure is set up for massive amounts of tourists. Accommodation offices are scattered throughout the town, which is small enough that no car is needed to get around. All-inclusive resorts, lodges, apartments, and cabins are built up into a green forested hill facing Kozzy. (Or rather, facing the ski hill that fronts Kozzy – you can’t actually see the mammoth mountain from Thredbo as it hides behind closer peaks). Expensive restaurants are dotted throughout town, featuring award-winning wine lists and creative gourmet mains that are rarely under $30.
But most of the restaurants are closed, as are a good portion of the resorts, lodges, and stores. I peruse the bevy of closed signs, and search through the discounted ski wear uncomfortably strewn in front of the numerous ski shops, making me feel that I should be wearing more clothing when the temperature is in fact well into the 20’s. But there are no summer stores here – only winter stores, hoping to entice wannabe skiers with their wares in advance of the upcoming season.
I should have known. “You’re a little early for the snow,” comes the parting advice of the woman we stay with enroute to the Snowy Mountains.
“Lady,” I reply with a tired smile, “I’m Canadian. Snow is not a novelty for me. In fact, I’m in Australia to get away from the snow, not look for it.”
Snow is indeed something of a novelty in Australia. It is only found at higher altitudes in the southern states of Victoria, Tasmania, and parts of New South Whales. People pay big bucks to drive hours upon hours and enjoy downhill skiing at the few ski resorts to be found. To a Canadian or European, it seems like madness for somebody to pay over $100 for a lift ticket at a ski resort that resembles more of a glorified speed bump than the mountains we have at home. But here, snow play is fun, full of child-like wonder, and snow remains pretty, white, idyllic, and peaceful.
I have been jaded by too many years fighting overflowing piles of grey dirty icy snow blocking the roads, nursing annual back injuries from shovelling drives and walkways, and watching my day’s plans crash to a halt with huge multi-vehicle accidents on the roads due to icy conditions. For me, snow is far from a novelty. Oh yeah – and I can’t stand the cold either. This is why I travel – I have a quiet mission to permanently avoid winter. So far, so good.
And knowing that Thredbo is a winter destination, I should not be surprised that it is deserted. After all, I am here to scope it out for its frugal discounts; the off-peak prices that make the area more accessible to those without gads of money to spend on pricey accommodation, lift tickets, and gear specific to winter. At $160-400/night and up for a self-contained unit suitable for a couple during the winter, this place is out of the scope of many budgets.
But with prices often halved or more during off-peak and shoulder seasons, Thredbo is a beautiful place to explore during the spring, summer, and autumn seasons.
“Summer is insane here,” says a sporty fellow who works at the local attractions store. “With kids on school holidays, this is a big place to be during December and January. And it’s actually pretty busy now, and getting busier each year,” he says as he surveys the store.
I look around at more closed signs and empty walkways, and wonder what this place looks like when it’s really slow, if this is actually pretty busy.
But when I look a little deeper, I see a current of activity around me. Because of the high altitude, athletes come here to train at all times of the year. We spot an identically clad and colourful foursome from Tahiti jogging down the road. This weekend coming up is the Oceanic competition: a downhill bike race that sees competitors from all over and serves as one of the qualifying races for the Olympic team. And of course, Grey Nomads, who are Australia’s ever-wandering retired population, fill out most of the rest of Thredbo’s guests, enjoying the quiet serenity of the area.
It’s not like there is nothing to do here during the summer and shoulder seasons. Hiking and bike trails are rampant through the area. Horseback riding tours and ranches are scattered throughout the ranges, in an effort to help people create their own Man From Snowy River moments. Whitewater rafting is big in the adventure-oriented nearby town of Jindabyne, and there are some developed areas in the Snowies that are in fact completely inaccessible during the winter due to winding roads that become treacherous with ice and snow.
So why is it so bloody quiet here?
This I should not ask; instead I should be pleased. And yet, all I am is confused. I feel like I’m in the twilight zone, wandering the streets in the aftermath of some Armageddon that wiped out most of the population.
In any case, we are here to conquer Mount Kosciuszko. To stand at the top of Australia’s highest mountain, something that is only really achievable during the summer and shoulder seasons – all the more reason to be here now, and not during the winter.
We decide to join a group tour to the top; not because we can’t find our own way up (like I said, it’s basically paved all the way up), but instead to meet and chat with other hikers and learn about the flora and fauna of the area.
We prepare and dress that morning like any mountaineer would; proper hiking boots, lots of water, lunch with extra food provisions “just in case”, headlamps (again – just in case), first aid kits, and a myriad of layers of clothing that will keep out the cold, the wet, and anything else that comes our way on the 14km return hike.
When we arrive at the designated meeting spot to start stretching and find a gathering of about eight other people, ranging from the age of 40-80, all wearing running shoes at best and sporting tiny day packs, we realize that we may have over-prepared just a touch.
A 10 minute chairlift ride takes us up 600 of the 800 meters of elevation gain required to reach the summit. So the remaining 200 meters spread over 7 kilometers makes for a nice walk, rather than the anticipated strenuous hike. This seems almost too easy; too achievable for the continent’s highest mountain.
Once resolved to the hike being what it is though, we relish the experience. We gaze admiringly at the alpine meadows that surround us, searching the scrub for the indigenous (and threatened) Mountain Pygmy Possum and Broad-toothed Rat (a deceptively cute critter who got a bum deal with its name).
We enjoy chatting with our fellow renegade tourists cum mountaineers, who have come here to enjoy the area while avoiding the tourist rush. We collectively feel like we have managed to discover an undiscovered gem. Even at the top, where we congratulate one another, enjoy a picnic lunch together, and take pictures, we are amidst a handful of other summiteers who made the journey too. I initially feel that my own accomplishments are somewhat diluted in the presence of so many people…until I am told that in the height of the summer season, the summit of Mount Kosciuszko sees up to…2000 people.
All of a sudden I feel like the 20 or so of us have drawn the Mount Kosciuszko lottery in being so lucky to be here without hordes and hordes of people.
Our trip back down the mountain is beautiful and uneventful, and I feel lucky. Lucky that Thredbo is vacant. Lucky that I don’t have to wait for the chairlift. Lucky that I’m not paying $400/night for accommodation. And lucky that I just had the rooftop of Australia relatively to myself. Here’s to empty tourist towns.