The cold was bitter and spiteful, the type you only know when you’re stood on the side of a mountain in winter. The wind whistled around objects, penetrated every warren, and licked up unwelcomingly around my exposed fingers, as I struggled with zips and mismanaged setting up my splitboard.
I was standing just off the unload ramp on the Kosciuszko Express chairlift, at Thredbo, New South Wales, Australia.
The plan of the day, was to tour up to the top of Australia’s highest mountain, earning our turns down. The route is an unmarked 13km+ return cross country, with any side tracks, predictably made wrong turns, and down runs taken additional kms underfoot – there is the mandatory top of the Kosciuszko chairlift to Thredbo Village, snowboard down to pop a cherry on the cake, at days end. The once receding snow line, had been freshly iced with a delicious white coating. Despite the rough patch of weather we were forecast, my friend and I were confident we could have a good time.
He is a true mountain man, with a suitably mysterious past, who spent all of the hostile winter months, covertly camping in the tree line. For the sake of privacy and because it’s going to sound unnecessarily badass in this story, we’ll call him The Sparrow. If there was anyone you wanted to have by your side in challenging conditions, it was him. We had bonded during the season, through many coincidental shared experiences, having both worked as De-icers at Mount Ruapehu, in New Zealand, as well as in Snowmaking – using water pumped from a source, to fan guns, which in utilising compressed air and a dry, low atmospheric temperature, create a man-made snow supply to supplement the natural snow base – at ski resorts in Canada.
Thredbo had concluded the season a week early due to inconsistent snowfall, with a busted pipe, the Snowmaking system had been inoperative during the latter half of the season, compounding into thin snow cover over the lower part of the mountain. In an ironic twist fate, the weather wizards had pointed their wands above us, and gifted several generous last days dumping out dry, feathery powder, mere days after the chairlifts span their last sheathe for another year (apart Kosciuszko Express Chairlift, which runs through the summer months). The recent storm had tipped buckets upon the rolling mossy hills, painting the landscape with an eccentric hand, once more abundantly white, settling and holding its quality through the cold snap, across the upper slopes.
For those who aren’t familiar, ski touring and split boarding involves navigating the landscape on your chosen equipment, with an articulated toe clip and disengaged heel, the rider slides their toes forward, in a vertically inverted moonwalk, choreographed to glide over the snow. Once the end destination is reached, on the high ground, ‘skins’ are removed (a carpet like cover which goes over the slick base of the ski, giving it grip) the heel is clipped in, for skis, or the two halves of the “split”-board (get it!?) are attached together, to be ridden down.
After rendezvousing at the chairlift, we made the first pushes over to The Sparrows tent, where he had been residing resiliently for the few days since the resorts closure, amid the storm, like the hermit man he is. He broke the ice above the stream which trickled underneath a bridge walkway 1km in, and filled his bottles up from a mountain source to the Snowy River.
Mt Kosciuszko, part of the Snowy Mountains in Kosciuszko National Park, is the highest mountain, in the highest range on the Australian mainland. They are part of the Australian Alps, which spans parts of New South Wales and Victoria. That said, it is still relatively tame, compared to its European or New Zealand counterparts, standing modestly with a highest point of 2,228 metres.
As we got moving, the warm blood pulsing around my system began to relive my numb fingers and toes. I was used to numb fingers and toes – I’ve been playing silly games in the mountains for a while now – but, that doesn’t make it anymore comfortable.
The sky sat heavily as a dense white barrier in droplets, airborne. We were navigating by the tips of our noses. Whenever you go touring, it’s always essential you bring a beacon with you, which is a signal sending and receiving device, in case of avalanche burials. We had redundant paper maps stashed away, and a GPS, which we used to steer our direction.
The Sparrow lead the charge, with his superior experience, filling the holes in my knowledge, as we went. We picked a landmark in the direction of our destination, according to the GPS, and headed straight to it, cutting our path through the unforgiving whiteout, recalibrating on the GPS, once, and only once, we reached the landmark.
As we pierced through, at approximately 2 hours into the trek, we noticed a huddle of people in the distance, circling around the same spot, with eyes fixed on a GPS watch. The Sparrow, made a brief verbal acclamation, “Thats what not to do.”, as we headed in a straight line toward the discernible black figure, of a rock.
We stopped above them and asked if they were alright, to which they nodded. I asked one of them to take a picture of my mate and I, which they kindly obliged, and on exchanging the phone back, I couldn’t help but notice the skimpy ‘Donnay’ tracksuit pants one was wearing – lamentably underdressed for the environment. “Are you sure you’re ok?”.
They looked at each other with an opaque stare. The uncertainty revealing hesitation, was less than encouraging.
“Which way to Kosciuszko summit?” One finally parted with.
Oh man, I thought – that’s not a good opening gambit.
Several hours from the shelter of the Village, these would-be explorers had bitten off a little more than they could chew – choking on their escapade, lodged firmly in throat. Visiting the area from the south eastern cities, this untimely trinity, had started the day as a duo and single traveller, lost, they had crossed paths and joined forces in the unforgiving storm, swallowing their internal compass, becoming a trio of equally disoriented adventurers, adrift in the sea of white.
On a wing and a prayer, the individual parties, had rented snowshoes and shot up the mountain for a day of sightseeing. With the sights to see obscured in fog, and without a compass, map, GPS… or any sense of direction, the duo was lucky to bump into the single walker, who, they gratefully followed on a roundabout campaign to circumnavigate their own footprints.
Stick with us! We’ll get you to the top, we agreed.
Over the crunch of wind swept ice, between the coyly peeping rocks, we romped on.
For another two hours, we pushed our skis forward, with rhythmic tenacity, boots became implacable against shins, as our pentagonal party filed forward, the shuffling of snowshoes at the rear.
At the base of the final rise toward the summit, we broke briefly to supplement wanting salvia with sips of water, as a hand held packet of jelly beans was offered around for the needed glucose hit by their trustee.
The trio was deflated. I don’t think either The Sparrow or I had realised just how underprepared they were when we extended our guidance, otherwise, we may have insisted on turning back, and making for the safety of the resort boundary.
The least encouraging words were soon to be laid at my feet, when one triad member chimed, “I can’t go any further, leave me, I’ll have to call for rescue…”, to nods from the other two.
I almost laughed, it sounded more feasibly a joke than a legitimate suggestion. A rash discharge of anger flooded my, until now, patient demeanour. Three – four hours and 6.5km+ from the closest civilisation, through bleached raw terrain, in the midst of an uncompromising storm lashing, even if you had phone reception, even if it was possible to locate you, which before dark would be questionable, you would have to put other people in danger, to preform the rescue. This is exactly the type of selfish, ill prepared pigheadedness that ends in tragedy. And breath. They’re not bad people, they’re just naive… they didn’t appreciate the complexity of the task or know the true bloodless face, drawn ashen – of nature in winter.
I composed myself, breaking out into my best rendition of Shia LaBeouf’s ‘Just do it!’ speech, supportive and upbeat, but with an added cube of honesty stirred in, to cut through the purposefully encouraging positivity, and bring them down to Earth.
You always have more in the tank to give, just one step in front of the other. You have to make it back on your own two feet. Nobody is coming to rescue you out here. We aren’t leaving you. And if you can make it back 3 – 4 hours, after coming this far, you can make it 30 minutes to the summit.
They proved receptive, with fire in their belly, we rose, together, to the challenge. I watched intently, as The Sparrow educated me on how to do proper cutbacks on the steep terrain, as we pressed to the top. We all learnt something.
As we stood on the summit, it was difficult to differentiate the squared vortex from anywhere else on the route – the reward of our labours was not an unending view over the landscape from atop Australia’s highest peak, but the knowing we helped to make it happen for others.
The trio were extremely grateful. I would say lucky too – but, there was no luck involved, just good navigation and experience put into action, predominately by The Sparrow.
That was a difficult all day hike in challenging conditions. Definitely an achievement, great effort from everyone, but, also one that should give everybody a greater awareness and some invaluable experience for next time.
The backcountry is an unforgiving place. People die all the time. If you’re interested in going out, then there are courses that teach navigation, mountain skills and first aid, and avalanche skills and education in traversing avalanche terrain. Preparation is key. Be safe out there.
What is life without community? I would love to connect with other nicecissists out there. Reach out, let me know what you think in the comments, and of course, give me a follow for more – nice!
Exploring mental and physical