8 February 2020
Through a scorched Australian landscape
On the drive to Mount Kosciuszko in New South Wales we pass blackened signs and silent, empty forests, once verdant landscapes that have been charred by the bushfires that devastated the state’s southeast region in December 2019.
From Melbourne it’s 329kms northeast to Kosciuszko National Park, which covers 690,000 hectares. Within the park is Australia’s highest mountain, Mount Kosciuszko, at 2,228 metres above sea level.
While the main road into the park is now open, many remain closed because of the fires that razed parts of the Snowy Mountains, on both the New South Wales and Victorian sides of the Australian Alps.
We’re travelling to the park for the Australian Alpine Ascent, a 50km Ultra Marathon to the summit of Mount Kosciuszko from the village of Charlotte Pass, a wintertime ski resort.
Given this is the easiest of the Seven Summits, it seems fitting to climb this mountain while at the same time completing my first “Ultra” marathon.
Until 1977, it was possible to drive within metres of Mount Kosciuszko’s summit. These days it’s preserved for environmental conservation and recreational use, and thousands of people hike to the top each year instead.
During the winter months a pristine white blanket of snow falls on the Kosciuszko National Park and its four popular ski resorts – Perisher, Thredbo, Selwyn Snow Resort and Charlotte Pass, the closest village to Mount Kosciuszko.
When the snow melts in spring and pristine waters flow into mountain streams, the winter wonderland changes into a vast network of alpine trails snaking amid magnificent Alpine scenery.
The scenery can’t be described as magnificent on the day of the Australian Alpine Ascent: much-needed rain pours across the mountains, which are shrouded in fog.
The marathon’s 700 participants pack into a Charlotte Pass resort dining room alongside officials, as well as in halls, on the stairs, and even filling the reception area. Waiting outside really isn’t an option.
Although it’s mid-summer, the forecast doesn’t look great, and the weather radar looks worse, giving an idea of how unpredictable Australia’s alpine region can be – just weeks ago the region was blanketed in bushfire smoke.
Most runners are wearing rain jackets, which makes me doubt my minimalist approach of just shorts and running tee. But while it’s really fresh waiting to start, I anticipate warming up quickly.
Just before start time everyone shuffles down to the starting line to hear the quick race brief, and within a few minutes we’re off – with a thick fog hovering and rain splattering down upon us.
Straight out of Charlotte Pass, it’s all uphill. Then we’re onto an old paved route that heads sharply downhill towards the usually glorious Snowy River in the valley below.
A change of pace and relief for some tight muscles. With all the sharp bouncing down the descent, I realise I’ve had a gear malfunction, and my dry bag holding my jacket has bounced out of my pocket.
It dawns on me that my Diabetes Australia flag was behind it, and now checking I realise it’s gone too, and is up the hill somewhere. Turn around I must, running back uphill through crowds of downhill runners.
There’s the flag on the trail. Lucky save, unlucky additional effort. The flag gets stuffed back in my pocket and back downhill I go.
After rock-hopping across the Snowy River I look up and notice it’s all back uphill from here.
I realise this event really represents both running and climbing, and requires Fartlek running – Fartlek being a Swedish term that means “speed play,” which involves varying your pace throughout the run, alternating between fast segments and slow jogs.
Wild winds greet us the higher we scale the mountain, and blasts of rain cool me off from the exertion.
Underfoot are any number and shape of rocks to leap across while at the same time ensuring you don’t a twist an ankle.
Upfront I see metal boardwalk that crosses some of the terrain, which protects fragile Alpine plant and animal species.
I’m finally striking a rhythm and settling in speed when I notice a runner crouched on the metal causeway against the now-howling wind; this section is seriously exposed to the elements, with gales strong enough to stop runners in their tracks.
Leaning hard into the wind, I manage to stay upright as I charge along it: a slip here hurts, as I discover later – many participants ended up with an injury from slipping on this metal pathway, later dubbed “The Cheese Grater.”
Still higher we climb, as the trail follows the undulations of the mountain. Although it’s raining, and the middle of summer, I spot a solid ice pack preserved in the shade.
The steady climb continues before finally I reach the junction to the Summit Track. Here the wind blows hard and the rain has pin-sharp force. Oh, and it’s still all uphill.
It’s promising to meet the first of the runners, who are now descending the mountain, and hear their words of encouragement.
One step at a time – I’m stepping very quickly, rather than running, because the wind pushes me backwards – I round the last upward left hand corner.
Here a race official, bravely bearing the worst of the wild weather for us to take part in the Australian Alpine Ascent, is dutifully recording bib numbers.
The runner in front of me continues up the mountain, and I follow him just a few more metres to the stone monument at the summit.
This stranger kindly takes a moment from racing to take a photo for me and the cause – the Diabetes Australia flag, last unfurled on Mt Vinson, Antarctica, a few weeks ago – is again hoisted among violent wind gusts.
Summit No. 5 is complete. But the Ultra Marathon is far from over.
No time is wasted to enjoy what would in clear weather be breathtaking vistas across the Australian Alps. It’s back to racing.
I’m fortunate to have summitted when I did – moments after I start to descend, organisers close the final metres to the summit due to the severity of the wind.
My muscles appreciate going downhill, and it’s finally possible to make real progress. A continuous downhill run for the best part of the next hour isn’t only welcoming, so is the easing of the tempestuous weather the further I descend.
All too quickly I’m back where I started, contemplating an official’s words as I catch my breath. “You going again?” he asks.
It takes a moment to register. That’s right, I am too.
I haven’t paid my pound of flesh to the Snowy Mountains yet.
Turning around I’m greeted with the same gruelling hill to start climbing up – again.
It’s exactly how I remembered it the first lap, only more difficult the second time around. Up, down, up,up,up. The rain pours down, and more water fills my running shoes.
I momentarily contemplate walking to prevent the discomfort of my sloshing shoes before striding forward. The longer I’m on this course, potentially the more damage I’ll do to my already fatigued legs.
So I run where I can, walk the steps, and concentrate intensely on foot placement on the rocks.
Pushing my stamina, I pass a few participants, but among the wind and dense fog I’m often running with no-one else in sight.
I have no goal to catch-up with other runners, no expectation to press harder; with the successful summit behind me, I’m just intent on finishing now.
The wind is just as brutal across the exposed metal “cheese grater.” I cross it cautiously, and then try gaining speed again.
Arriving at the junction to the Summit Track again, here are the officials taking bib numbers – and adding a little encouragement: “Well done. It’s all downhill from here …”
My second descent is similar to descending other mountains – with energy spent, it’s the individual’s responsibility to manage under sufferance. So I back off just a little.
I find some energy from somewhere entering the final two-kilometres, pick up the pace, and welcome the finish line.
In the final steps, a high five from my mate Jim brings a smile. He’s toughed out the marathon’s 25km Route, fallen on the metal causeway grazing his face and legs, yet here he is cheering me on over the finish line.
The essence of mateship, courage and determination on “Kozzie.”
Thirteenth place overall in 05:32:10
If climbing is about visiting each of the seven continents and experiencing different mountains and different cultures, here I’ve witnessed grit and determination amid an environment of raw beauty and regeneration.
The summit of Mount Kosciuszko isn’t technically difficult to achieve, or a difficult route from a mountaineer’s perspective. But it remains undeniably the highest point in Australia (not Australasia), and as such accomplished climbers come here from around the world to climb it.
To travel through fire-ravaged countryside, see the beauty still within the Snowy Mountains, and cross her incredibly beautiful rivers, is a great privilege and, as an Australian, one I was determined to give all my efforts to summit.