Cycling the Snowy Mountains: climbing Mt. Kosciuszko
It’s roughly 13 years since I climbed my first mountain. We were on a family camping holiday at Porepunkah and, almost on a whim, I decided to ride my old mountain bike up Mt. Buffalo. It was beyond challenging but the feeling of satisfaction when I reached the top was something I’ll always remember.
All these years later, the desire to climb — to conquer — hasn’t faded. The feeling of exhausted relief you get when sumitting a mountain for the first time is addictive, as I experienced at Dead Horse Gap during the first day of my trip to the Snowy Mountains.
Getting to the summit of Mt. Kosciuszko the following day would entail more than a simple ride up a hill. But, as ever, the magnitude of the challenge only intensified the feeling of satisfaction at overcoming it.
In my initial plans for the Snowy Mountains trip I’d been aiming to ride from Jindabyne to Charlotte Pass and back. It made sense: Charlotte Pass was the end of the sealed road up Mt. Kosciuszko and I wasn’t thrilled about leaving my bike there as I hiked 18km to the summit and back.
But when my dad said he was very keen to walk to the highest point on mainland Australia, it made sense to coordinate our plans. I’d ride to Charlotte Pass, he’d drive there, I’d put my bike in the car, and then we’d walk up together. Perfect.
It’s fair to say I wasn’t feeling particularly fresh when I woke up in Jindabyne on the morning of our Kosciuszko adventure. The previous day’s ride had taken a considerable toll and it took some time to drag myself out of the tent and on to my bike. But as always with rides like these, it only took a few minutes for my earlier struggles to be forgotten.
As had been the case the day before, the weather was perfect. Once the sun rose above the trees and burned away the early morning chill, I pulled my jacket off and appreciated every moment of the autumn sunshine.
The start of the main climb to Charlotte Pass began 6km from where we were camping, immediately after a bridge over the Thredbo River.
Where the climb up to Dead Horse Gap had been extremely challenging in the early stages, this ascent of 13km started off gently and never really got much harder. The gradient fluctuated every now and then but the odd leg-testing steeper ramp was balanced out by a corresponding flatter section.
In the back of my mind I knew the ride to Charlotte Pass was only part of the day’s challenge so I took it easy, climbing well within myself.
After 12km spent climbing gently through native bush the tree cover thinned right out and I caught my first glimpses of the landscape I’d spend the next five hours or so traversing. Rolling hills, minimal foliage and, most noticeably, a cold, stiff headwind.
I climbed the last few hundred metres to the crest then enjoyed a brief descent; the first of several before I’d reach Charlotte Pass.
For the next 25km, until the sealed road ran out, I was reminded of the last third of one of my favourite climbs back in Victoria: Mt. Hotham. I figure it must have been the yellow road markings and the thinning roadside vegetation, because the ride itself was quite different to climbing Mt. Hotham. Unlike the challenging grades of Hotham’s upper reaches, the road to Charlotte Pass was only occasionally steep and never for long.
The road tended mostly uphill, as you would expect, but the longest section of sustained climbing after those initial 13km was just 4km. The descents were short but numerous and the biggest challenge was perhaps the wind.
A strong cross-headind blew resolutely all the way to Charlotte Pass, making the climbs harder and the descents less rewarding. But don’t get me wrong; I was enjoying every minute, not least because of the great views and the smooth, freshly laid hotmix I was gliding over.
After years of looking longing at maps of the roads through the Snowy Mountains, it was strange to finally come face to face with places like Smiggin Holes and Perisher Valley. Having been surprised by the size of Thredbo the day before, I was expecting these alpine villages en route to Charlotte Pass to be quite large as well.
But unlike Thredbo, I was able to pass through the entirety of Smiggin Holes and Perisher in just a few minutes. And unlike Thredbo, there seemed to be very few people around.
I rolled into the carpark at Charlotte Pass about 15 minutes earlier than I’d told Dad I would but I didn’t have to wait long — he pulled in beside me just as I peeled myself off my bike.
After having something to eat; packing a bag with extra food, drink and warm clothes; and after getting changed into some more appropriate attire, we were off, starting the 9km walk to the highest point in mainland Australia.
Back in the 1960s it was apparently possible to drive within metres of the summit of Mt. Kosciuszko. In 1982, though, the road was closed at Charlotte Pass, five years after the area had been recognised as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. But the road to the summit, first built in 1909, still exists, making it possible to ride a bike to Rawson Pass, roughly 1.5km from the summit.
The road is unsealed and while the first few kilometres might be possible on a road bike, the remaining section certainly isn’t. If you’re going to ride to Rawson Pass, I’d highly recommend a mountain bike (I wouldn’t be willing to try it on a CX bike). Or, like most people, you could walk.
As soon as we left the carpark at Charlotte Pass the landscape opened right up in front of us. On our right was a deep valley and beyond that a handful of peaks rolling away into the distance. After a few kilometres we reached and passed the treeline, the only vegetation beyond that point being hardy, low-lying scrub that can survive the cold and windy conditions at that altitude.
As it had been during my ride, a cold wind was blowing fiercely as we walked towards the summit. A few minutes into the walk I started to feel like the elevation of roughly 1,900m was starting to have an impact on my breathing. But the shortness of breath soon abated and didn’t return; I suspect I might just have been feeling the effects of my ride.
After climbing at a very sedate gradient for the first 4km, the road to the summit descended briefly to cross the upper reaches of the Snowy River. From here the climb got tough, even on foot. Judging by this great blog post, the steep, loose gravel is tough even on a mountain bike.
It was on this tough section that I started to feel the effects of the previous day’s ride and the ride I’d done a few hours earlier. But it didn’t make sense to turn around at that point.
We pushed through the 2,000m barrier right at the top of the tough section of climbing, reaching Seaman’s Hut as we did so. The climb from there was noticeably easier.
With 1.5km left to climb we got to Rawson Pass, home to the highest public toilets in Australia and the intersection of several different walking tracks. Dad and I pushed on, winding our way around to Mt. Kosciuszko, arriving at the rock-strewn summit roughly two hours after leaving Charlotte Pass.
I was certainly in need of a rest by the time we reached the top. After taking in the 360-degree views from 2,228m above sea level, we got out of the freezing wind and huddled among the boulders at the summit, eating lunch as we took in the impressive vista before us.
Having wanted to visit Mt. Kosciuszko for as long as I can remember, it was a real thrill to be there. I mightn’t have been able to ride all the way to the top, but hiking probably made the experience even more memorable. Being able to do so with my dad was something I won’t quickly forget.
After perhaps half an hour at the summit we packed up and, leaving behind a surprisingly large crowd of people at the summit, made our way off the mountain. It certainly felt easier on the way down but without the anticipation of reaching the summit spurring me on, there were moments where I was keen for the walk to be over. Then again, even in those moments of impatient fatigue, the views weren’t any less spectacular.
My initial plan had been to hop in the car with Dad when we got back to Charlotte Pass, but when we got there that didn’t seem to make much sense. I’d ridden as far as I could up the mountain, then walked the rest of the way and back down. The day wouldn’t have felt complete without riding back to Jindabyne.
I was a little apprehensive about the numerous little climbs in the upper section of the ‘descent’ — my legs were well and truly stuffed from the riding and the four hours of walking. But I needn’t have worried. The cross-headwind that slowed me on the way up was kind enough to assist me on the down, taking the sting out of the short, punchy climbs.
Before too long my thought process changed — I was no longer worried about those little climbs; rather, I became focused on trying to getting back to Jindabyne inside an hour. I flew down the smooth and speedy descents and pushed up the inclines, my average speed hovering around 35km/h.
I’d need 38km/h to get back to ‘Jindy’ in an hour but I knew I still had 13km of uninterrupted descending to go. And what a glorious descent it was.
I think I touched the brakes twice in 13km. The bends were long and sweeping, the road surface mostly excellent. It was the perfect reward for a hard few days of riding and hiking.
At the bottom, as I crossed the Thredbo River, I was just on target to reach Jindabyne inside an hour. I recalled a short rise just on the approach to the caravan park but I was confident I could push up that and maintain my average. That short rise turned out to be 1.5km long and despite riding it pretty hard, it had me beat. I battled my way back to camp just 30 seconds outside of an hour.
In the grand scheme of things it hardly mattered. The day and indeed the whole trip had been a great success and an experience I’ll long remember.
When considered alongside the great mountains of Europe, Asia and the Americas, Mt. Kosciuszko is little more than a lump on a largely flat continent. But here in Australia it’s the highest we’ve got, and I reckon that counts for something. It’s always satisfying to reach the top of any mountain on one’s own steam, but to do so on your country’s highest peak has, for me anyway, a greater significance.
But visiting Kosciuszko was only one part of a thoroughly enjoyable weekend in the Snowy Mountains. The previous day’s ride will also stick with me, not least because of the challenging climb up to Dead Horse Gap. And getting to spend some quality time with my dad was a real highlight as well.
I very much hope I can get back up to the Snowies at some point in the near future, not least to check out the lumpy ride from Tumbarumba to Khancoban.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy the video and photos below.
For more photos from the trip, click through to my Flickr page.