It is a curious thing to plan for contingencies.
No matter how well you prepare for the unexpected, when it finally arrives, because it is exactly as its name implies, the unforeseen inevitably leaves you scrambling. One can attempt to plan for the unexpected, but the unexpected is never planned; you can only prepare for the worst, whatever that may be. It’s a catch even Yossarian would be forced to chuckle at, though it’s one that is ultimately a blessing in disguise. After all, it’s only when plans are thrown into disarray that you truly find yourself on the trail of adventure that leads souls into the unknown. And it was with a spell of poor weather in Mount Kosciuszko National Park that four friends and myself not only discovered this, but came to treasure this wilful abandon amid the unravelling chaos. All one really has to do is keep their wits about them. But that’s easier said than done, of course.
With Melbourne Cup being the last long weekend until Christmas, and with a languid disdain for the occasion shared by group, it seemed only fitting to bundle our gear into the boot of our cars and set off for four days of hiking at altitude — or what passes for altitude in this great, southern land. After all, late Spring just might afford us a lonesome peek at snow before the influx of summer hikers head for our country’s highest peaks. And who could resist having the Snowy Mountains practically to themselves?
We would first venture to Kosciuszko National Park, namely to summit the peak that lends the surrounding park its name, and afterwards we would make our way to Victoria’s Alpine State Park and hike the Razorback Trail to the top of Mount Feathertop. This was the plan for weeks. Until a cold snap forecasted torrential rain, storms, and snow at Mount Feathertop, causing even more water spill into the already flooded Kiewa River as the temperature plummeted to minus seven. Preferring not to thrust ourselves into unnecessary danger if we didn’t have to (anyone familiar with the infamous cornice atop Mount Feathertop knows of the mountain’s perfidy), after a brief chat we relegated Feathertop to another trip and decided Kosciuszko would instead be our home for the next three nights: a change in the itinerary that would prove to be the first of many.
By 7am Saturday we were already burning rubber and rocketing towards Cann River. Fields of brown and green kept us company as we streamed through the countryside, driving across the Victorian border into New South Wales and up to Jindabyne, continuing on until we arrived late in the afternoon at Thredbo. We stepped out from our cars with arms outstretched, loosened the sinews of stiffened flesh from each joint, then, after we wiped away the legion of mosquitoes that had smeared our windscreens, the five of us squinted westward and stared in silence for a moment.
What had been a burning incandescence only an hour before was now a glint of sunshine dripping onto the gilded wilderness below. Sunset now galloped towards us with the threat of a day wasted. Therefore, we fumbled our gear from the car, yanked out boots on, and quickly found ourselves tramping along the Riverside Trail at Thredbo: a clay trodden path that winds parallel with a thinner section of the Thredbo River around the local nine holes. Normally a trickle of water in Winter or Summer, in Spring this section thrashes about in a cascading run of white water and melted snow that dislodges small boulders in the current; each a victim of the warming fury as they wash downstream and away from sight. The trail takes less than an hour to tread, and probably appeals best to people who, like us, are looking to get their blood moving again before dinner having spent most of the day seated in the steadily growing discomfort of a car.
Then, like a windswept haze, we found our heads deeply set in our pillows, stomachs filled with tuna and rice, and dreaming about the snow capped peak of Mount Kosciuszko that we planned to make an assault on the next day. Yes, by that stage the words assault, peak, summit, glacial ascent, and others alike had been pouring liberally from our mouths. With what we intended as playful braggadocio for what is generally regarded as a rather innocuous mountain, intoxicated with our own hubris we had even begun referring to ourselves as the Spring Expedition. However, as hinted at earlier, our lack of deference for an oft-neglected mountain would prove premature as more contingencies crept upon us. But at that moment all we thought we had to worry about was a little drizzle in the morning. How wrong we were.
At three o’clock Sunday morning, ensconced in the darkened cocoon of predawn air, I awoke to the pitter-patter of rainfall outside. I paid no attention to it and quickly fell back to sleep. However, at 6am all of us awoke to a sound that grabbed our attention. We stared bleary eyed at the weather forecast: 25-60 millimetres of rain, the bulk of which was not to be steady downpour, but to come in waves—first at 11am, then lightning and thunder between 5-8pm. With the temperature already tumbling to -4 at the country’s rooftop, frantic northwesterly gusts scored the plateau and rendered a wind-chill factor of -10 for anyone foolish enough to straddle the mountainside.
Considering we hoped to walk from the bottom of Thredbo to the top, a 17-kilometre round trip expected to take between six and nine hours, we were forced to alter our plans a second time. It would be suicide to trek at the highest point in Australia during a thunderstorm – we’d effectively be lightning rods begging to be soldered onto ice. So, yielding to what we thought may be another bitter contingency, we each packed a torch, a waterproof jacket, and set out towards the Great Dividing Range along the Snowy Mountains Highway in pursuit of the Yarrongobilly Caves.
A brisk walk down a leafy brown path sheltered underneath arching green foliage that wouldn’t go amiss in Frodo’s Shire, we followed the slender trail until we reached the enormous cave mouth tucked behind precipitous rock walls that tower over the valley below with a stoic foreboding. Swathed in earthy hues, the bucolic view stretched for miles off into the meridian, becoming a blur of darkened tree canopies that looked almost blue as they fade upon the undulating mountains in the distance. Though, the view isn’t all that possessed us along the walk; knuckles were prone to turning white here as they clutched the thin metal handrail that kept us from tumbling to the valley floor below.
A gelid breeze greeted us as we approached the black hole. Gripping our jackets a little tighter, we ventured into the abyss armed with torches. A labyrinth of stalactites, stalagmites, pools of freezing water, damp rock walls and cave corals, the South Glory Cave is one of the few that bushwalkers can guide themselves through; which is exactly what we did for an hour — all by ourselves, except for the occasional flap of a bat’s wing.
]When we stepped back outside, we glanced skyward at a less inviting wonder: violent charcoal clouds were rushing towards us. So, in what was becoming a recurring theme, we hurried ourselves back into our cars and jettisoned back down the Great Dividing Range to avoid the rain. And we almost did. Until the lacerated sky above us haemorrhaged at Jindabyne. Day mutated into night as our headlights lit the Alpine Way ahead — rain soaking everything below as a symphony of thunder gathered might while purple flashes of lightning lit the scene of Australia’s highest stage.
Throughout the trip we had chanced rare sightings of silver brumbies, emus, wombats, kangaroos, geckos, and rabbits, and each time a mild gratitude formed at the luck of catching sight of them in the wild. However, driving down the freeway with a rain spattered windscreen, blinded by the high beams of oncoming traffic, I’ve never wanted to see wildlife any less than when a young doe ran scared onto the road, a passing truck only narrowly avoiding it after we punched our horn. Watching the tendrils of legs scamper back into the scrub was an apt reminder of how fickle life is, and how beholden it is to the weather. A reminder that, for the next thirty minutes, persuaded us to crawl along Alpine Way as each of our eyes scanned the dirty glow ahead in silence.
And it was perhaps because of this that, at 6.30am the next morning, we stared bemused at the weather forecast. Slight winds, clear skies, no rain, and a cool -2 at the peak. Practically perfect. So good in fact, that by 7.30am we were already traipsing along Merritt’s Nature Track towards the top of Mount Kosciuszko.
At first we made excellent time. Weaving our way through the vegetation and thickets of scrub, pausing occasionally to wipe the sweat from our upper lips and gulp down mouthfuls of water, it was only when we reached 1,700 metres that we ran into our first spot of bother. Much of the track found itself submerged under a gentle stream of melting snow. But at about 1,800 metres, the patches of snow soon became rolling plains of white that snapped underfoot without warning. With small pockets of crevasse-like pits lurking underneath the packed snow, we realised the threat of broken ankles and torn ligaments if we persisted. A quick consultation of our map lead to us traversing through the nearby brush towards the less glamorous 4WD road – a road that also leads to the base of the Kosciuszko walk. From there we made our way past the lookout, only to find the entire range blanketed with snow. Only, it wasn’t snow. It was ice. Rain from the night before had frozen over where a line of people, many only wearing gym attire, now slipped with each step. One lady had resorted to sliding forward on her backside, kicking her heels into the snow and pushing off with reddened palms as she dragged herself forward. Each shifting body looked like a droplet of frozen meat thawing atop a bench top of ice.
Conversely, we made our way along with relative ease, each walker behind us no doubt silently thankful of the depressions our boots provided for them to follow. But at 2,080 metres above sea level, a three-kilometre walk shy of the 2,228-metre peak, and with the clear sky darkening, we stopped, snapped a photo, and admitted defeat. Before us stood a monolith of exposed ice and rock being whipped by ferocious winds, something that, until then, seemed unfathomable to find on little Mount Kosciuszko.
“How was the top?” I asked a young Hungarian couple as they pushed past us, the crunch of their snowshoes churning the ice with each step.
“Did not make it, we turned back up there,” said the man as he pointed his walking pole at a bump in the earth a few hundred metres away. “You think it’s windy here, it is crazy up there. Not worth it. Too cold and cannot see a thing.”
Most of the walk back down was rather quiet. By the next morning we were already on the road and bound for Melbourne, the clank from one of our cars bringing an abrupt end to the trip at Charlotte’s pass near Perisher. It seemed wise to get moving while the car still could, since the gentle crepitating of the engine was becoming a worrying clatter the longer it ticked over. We dared not to tempt yet another contingency.
So went the next eight hours, a heaviness settling in my gut as I left a place I really should have made my way to years ago — a place I likely wouldn’t have explored as much had it not been for so many visits from the unexpected.
It would have been easy to assign the jittery flutter of apprehension to the grating clank of each gear change reverberating throughout the engine — wondering if the old tin can would get us home in one piece, let alone at all — but in the solitude of my thoughts I knew it was something else. Like an unsuspecting void inside that lingers similar to a rude house guest. For as we approached home, I found myself reflecting on a subject that, to be honest, is becoming all too frequent these days. It seems that in our desire to venture far away in search of adventure, so many of us neglect to search the hidden vistas in our own backyards — places that cost nothing to explore or experience save for the cost of petrol to get you there. The only thing you really need is to pack your bag and step outside once in a while.
Perhaps there brews a quiet scorn in the hearts of many Australians for our locale, for a growing few tend to dismiss our landscapes and features as significantly lacking compared with those overseas. Truth be told, I too am guilty of this. I’d thought Mount Kosciuszko would be a walk in the park. And if it weren’t for each of my plans being whittled away with each barometer reading, I probably wouldn’t have strolled through even a smidgen of this abundant park. Places like Yarrongobilly, Charlotte’s Pass, Talbingo, Perisher, and other places I visited on a whim would have remained neglected corners in the far-reaching house of our outdoors had everything gone as expected.
How glad I am now that it didn’t.