April 7, 2015

Cycling the Snowy Mountains: climbing Mt. Kosciuszko

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This is the second and final part in a short series of articles about riding in the Snowy Mountains. Click through to read part one, about riding from Khancoban to Jindabyne

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.

Starting the ride to Charlotte Pass with Lake Jindabyne on my right.

Starting the ride to Charlotte Pass with Lake Jindabyne on my right.

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'll cost you to enter the Kosciuszko National Park, unless you're on a bike.

It’ll cost you to enter the Kosciuszko National Park, unless you’re on a bike (or on foot, I suppose).

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.

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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.

Making my way towards Charlotte Pass into a strong cross-headwind.

Making my way towards Charlotte Pass into a strong cross-headwind.

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.

Smooth hotmix and impressive scenery.

Smooth hotmix and impressive scenery.

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.

The tiny ski resort at Charlotte Pass.

The tiny ski resort at Charlotte Pass.

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.

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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.

Climbing the steepest part of the road, with Seaman's Hut on the right.

Climbing the steepest part of the road, with Seaman’s Hut just visible over the crest, on the right.

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.

The roof of Australia!

The roof of Australia!

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.

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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.

Descending back towards Jindabyne.

Descending back towards Jindabyne.

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.

Thanks to my dad, Ron, for joining me on this trip and for his support throughout.

Click through to see my Strava files for the ride from Jindabyne to Charlotte Pass, and the ride from Charlotte Pass back to Jindabyne.

For more photos from the trip, click through to my Flickr page.


11 Comments

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  1. ZdZ / Jul 18 2016

    Welcome.
    Interesting Facts About Mount Kosciuszko
    I invite you also to the English version of this mtkosciuszko.org.au website. You will find there a lot of information about the conquest of Mt Kosciuszko the highest peak of Australia, and about Paul Edmund Strzelecki the explorer who gave the mountain its name.
    Check the text sitemap page to see all the titles
    Thanks

  2. Marty Smith / Apr 21 2015

    Great ride. I did some of this on a charity supported ride a few years ago. Rode from Melbourne sea level to thredbo via the Dead Horse Gap climb. Left the bikes and walked up Kosziuszko (didn’t use the chairlift). Sea to Summit by legs. Highlight was the Khancoban to Thredbo climb though.

    • ronald koopman / Feb 14 2017

      Dear Marthy

      Read that you have cycled from Khancoban to Thredbo. We’re are in our fifties and want to cycle from Melbourne to Sydney. First we want to cycle inland from Melbourne and from Albury we want to cross the Snowy Mountains direction coast and than north to Sydney. We suppose we get more fit cycling on the way and as Dutch people we know how to cycle. We wonder if the pass Khancoban to Thredbo is a killer or doable for not so sportive people as we are. When we were young we also had the spirit of “Just do it” and managed ( physically unprepared ) to get accross from the east to the west of the USA.
      Another problem will be finding accommodation on this route as we travel light (no campinggear). Any clue if one find accommodation on this stretch?

      Hope this comment will reach you and that you have time to answer it.

      Kind regards

      Ronald

  3. Don Noble / Apr 11 2015

    Hi Matt,
    Again enjoyed your account.Have done the journey a few times but that was before really got into cycling.
    The most memorable when we did an overnight walk and camp on the Blue lake circuit.The fact that it was a full moon and New Years Eve made it even more special.Being on top of Australia at midnight( Mt Kosciuszko summit) was marvellous;but nature had the last laugh-Cloud came in,obscuring the Moon and it started to blow a gale!Trying to set up a tent at 2AM in high winds was not easy!
    Keep up the good work,Matt.Really enjoy checking out your adventures.
    Don.

  4. Marty / Apr 7 2015

    Nice to read about the great experience you had with your dad. I just wish that I could of done something similar with my dad before cancer took him away from me.

    I just hope that when my kids are old enough i will be able to share that same kind of experience with them that I didn’t get to do with my dad.

  5. OzSprocketman / Apr 7 2015

    Two years ago (15 March 2013) on my birthday, I rode right up to Rawsons Pass on my Yeti Arc-X cyclocross bike, threw it over my shoulder and walked the remaining 1.5km to the summit. I got one flat tyre on the way up on the gravel road, but otherwise it was a nice ride on a pleasant day. The altitude sure does mess with your breathing, so it does make everything a lot slower, but the view from the top was certainly worth the ride up (even with the CX bike over the shoulder for the last bit). A day I will not soon forget.

  6. Jon Thornton / Apr 7 2015

    Interesting words, photos and videos. I must take my bike there sometime.

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