Our Assault on Mt. Kosciuszko -- 2004

The Lure of the Summit

"Seven Seas." Everyone has heard the phrase. Naming those seas could be a problem: the list has grown substantially since the ancients began sailing.

The number of continents is pretty well fixed at seven. Inescapably, each continent has its highest point. To many modern adventurers, standing atop the loftiest peak on each continent has become an irresistible quest. Alex and I are not immune.

Many adventurers have elected to start their climbs of the with the more difficult peaks, possibly to avoid wasting time on the lesser should the whole enterprise prove too daunting at last. (Click here for an annotated list of the summits.) We have taken the opposite approach, and leave it to the reader to judge our wisdom.

One further fact must be stated: not every mountain lies on a continent. A certain radical element has argued for including Carstenz Pyramid, a peak in Indonesia, as representing Oceana, or Australasia. Admittedly, a strict definition of "continent" is going to exclude some pretty good climbing. Doubtless the French were disappointed to see Mont Blanc eclipsed by a Russian peak. Still, certain standards must be maintained. We set our sights resolutely on Mt. Kosciuszko.

Our Journey Begins

We had sized up a number of the other Summits on previous trips: Everest, on one of our first international expeditions, in early 1995; Kilimanjaro and Denali during the spring and summer of 1998, respectively. Now we were sure that we were prepared for what would be the greatest obstacle to attaining the first of the Seven: namely, the thirteen hours aboard a Qantas 747 high above the Pacific. And indeed, thanks to advances in seat-back digital technology, the time passed quickly.

Likewise several days in Sydney, a city of considerable charm and hospitality, where, in view of the coming privations, we indulged in every luxury.

Looking down on Thredbo

Soon, however, we found ourselves driving a rented car toward the hamlet of Thredbo; or rather we found Alex driving, since she alone has the nerve to navigate traffic in foreign lands, cool in the face of oncoming vehicles, their occupants screaming, gesturing and signalling desperately. My theory is that the well-known Coriolus Effect, which makes life in the Southern Hemisphere different in so many ways, also makes it difficult to stay on the normal side of the road.

Thredbo (click here to see a website about the area) itself proved quite hospitable in general, as did the Thredbo Alpine Hotel in particular. Do try the Moroccan lamb; do beware the Phad Thai, which is topped not with a red edible flower but with a fiery pepper cut to look like one.

On the Mountain

We had little trouble with the language or the currency, and the food was top notch, but when we made known our intentions of scaling the famous peak, difficulties began to arise. Inquiries concerning a topographic map of the area were met with the explanation that such an item had existed, but was currently out of stock. We relied instead on the aerial photo you can see at the website mentioned above. We rose early on the appointed day, our eyes now on the summit: Mt. Kosciuszko, 2228 meters (7310 ft), Grade I or II, Class 2.

Lake Cootapatamba

Again, mysteriously, the locals seemed to conspire to hinder our plans; this time delaying our alpine start by refusing to set the telepherique, or "chairlift," into motion before its regular 9:00 starting time (those additional 560 vertical meters would render the climb Grade II for certain). We used the interval to provision ourselves, and to go back to the hotel and leave a sweater that we were now sure would not be needed.

Said provisions were obtained at a bakery near the real estate office; and it was there that we encountered the mystic spirit of the place, in the form of a red wattle-bird, Anthochaera carunculata. Wattlebirds are said to be a form of honey-eater, but it is clear that in some circumstances they can become quite fond of sandwiches as well. This was not to be our last meeting with this bird.

Back on track, and the chairlift mastered at last, we saw immediately what navigational difficulties could beset the ill-informed: a wrong turn at the head of the lift would lead not to mountaineering glory, but to the restaurant, where the only real meal served is dinner and a booking may be required in any case. Instead, bear left and upward on a track that can only be described as technical.

The "technical" nature of the track refers not to difficulty, but to actual physical construction. To mitigate damage to the fragile alpine ecosystem, a raised steel mesh walkway, seventeen years in the making, now leads virtually to the summit. In fact, it is only the steps between platforms, and the few remaining stone steps where snow creep makes stabilization difficult, that keep the summit from being wheelchair accessible; and hence our confident Class 2 rating. On our descent we met a party that included a stroke victim, who chose as her alpine tools two rubber-tipped canes.

The walkway passes over billy-buttons, eyebright, mountain celery, siver snow dasies, and at some point the headwaters of the Snowy River; and among clouds of tiny flies whose purpose in life is to engender gratitude for the constant wind. Other noticeable fauna include numerous noisy, husky-voiced corvids, oblivious to human intruders. From local accounts these are likely Corvus mellori, the Little Raven.

The track also passes several important landmarks, including Lake Cootapatamba and Rawson Pass. At the latter there is evident a road, leading away to Charlotte Pass, which might be thought to provide an even easier ascent of the mountain; but apparently only to the blokes who maintain the honey buckets conveniently located at Rawson.

The Summit Pyramid

The eternal, though hardly ubiquitous, snows

None of the Seven Summits is without its defenses. Besides its impossible height, Chomolungma presents, depending on your approach, the Khumbu Icefall, or the First and (especially) the Second Step. Aconcagua, snowy mountain, though it has seen successful canine ascents, has also seen 165 mph winds in sudden storms. Denali, though thousands of feet lower than Everest, is 35 degrees further north and rises farther from its surroundings. Kilimanjaro's defenses are changing with the changing global climate. Elbrus is big; Vinson is far away, on a continent with no indigenous inhabitants. Carstens' sharp rock (should climbing it be deemed necessary) is protected by the political and cultural climate of Irian Jaya.

Those who would challenge Kosciuszko face the twin obstacles of spelling and pronunciation. The mountain's first conqueror, Paul Strzlecki, was a surveyor, not an orthographer, and consonants have been added to or removed from the name on more than one occasion since 1840. A plaque honors the first ascent, and its attendant obelisk provides the route's single opportunity for third-class climbing -- a layback and a mantel to its top.

"Well, that's one down," I said, "six or seven to go."

Next January we sail for Antarctica.