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Adventure

Lowest To Highest Expedition: Part 2

Adventures

ON THE HOME STRETCH

From Broken Hill we rode the delightful Silver City Highway from barren desert to the lush Murray Riverina. Walter cried when he laid his eyes on vast groves of oranges, avocados and tree nuts, and of course vineyards. At Wentworth my friend Vonner Keller joined the team as medic.

We would follow the Murray River for 1000km up until Tom Groggin on the Alpine Way. Speeding motorists made this the most hazardous part of our journey. We found ourselves taking long detours just to avoid the exceedingly dangerous Murray Valley Highway. Not wanting to lump all motorists into one basket but the members of the team on trikes (trikes take up more of the road) copped abuse on a daily basis.

People on tandem bikes on Lowest to Highest expedition at Big Cod Swan

The Big Cod at Swan Hill

At Echuca we had a rest day and met up with the Rummin film crew again for interviews. There were wondrous moments along the Murray as we crossed in and out of Victoria and New South Wales several times a day.  At times the team would split up and take different routes according to their modes of transport. The tandem for instance, was up to four times as fast on sealed roads, while the dirt roads along the river bank were more scenic and ideal for the hybrids. Along this leg of the journey the L2H team were riding over 100km a day. Upon reaching Albury we took a rest day at the BIG4 and continued along Lake Hume. Not far along the lake, with it’s skeletal trees poking out of the still water, the landscape changed from flat Riverina to alpine foothills.

Khancoban school

Sharing their journey with students at Khancoban School

Once the lake was behind us we had our first view of the mountain. And what a view! Still dressed in it’s winter coat of snow and seemingly hovering above yellow canola fields, we wondered how the hell we were going to ride up there. Lucky for the skiers, but unlucky for us, it was the best spring snow in Kosciuszko’s recent history. This prompted the team to make several frantic phone calls including one to the National Park office, who told us there was eight metres of snow on the mountain. We then called people asking them to lend us the mountain gear we lacked, such as ski poles and snow shoes. Above Khancoban, on the huge hill past the Snowy Mountain Hydro, Dan started feeling unwell again and was vomiting uncontrollably, so medic Vonner made the wise decision to have Ed evacuate him to Corryong Health. The rest of us went on with an emergency shelter and food. Once we had summited the pass came the best descent of our lives, a narrow winding road carving and dropping through many tunnel-like cuttings.

The team reached Geehi Flats. We had cited Tom Groggin as the day's final destination, knowing that the next day, up the steepest hill in Australia, to Dead Horse Gap, would probably be the toughest of the trip. However, with the delay caused by Dan's evacuation, we would now have to climb another pass to arrive at Tom Groggin, before two more passes to get to Dead Horse and down to Thredbo. Wally and I were fatigued and we voted to camp at Geehi.

DIGGING DEEP WITH DARTH

We prepared everything the night before: lunch, water, checking bikes and trikes, and we departed at 7am the next day. The team soon became scattered with Conrad and Vonner a few kilometres ahead ahead of Duncan and I. Wally, preferring to start later after his morning nebulising session, was fetching up the rear. Ed waited every five kilometres for the group to pass, as after nearly 40 days on the road, we were becoming extremely fatigued. Thredbo was a mere 23km away, though for a man with cystic fibrosis, a hemiplegic and a blind guy often travelling at two kilometres per hour, it might have been a world away.

Men on tandem bikes on Lowest to Highest expedition at Dead Horse

Paul and Duncan at Dead Horse Gap, a month and a half post kick-off

After a pasta lunch and a litre of Hydralyte, we took on the second and toughest of the three passes to be crossed that day, Leatherbarrel. With gradients of up to 17 per cent, all of the team had to dig deep. At points, Duncan found he could increase the speed of the tandem by dismounting and pushing while I pedalled and steered. Walter, having only 38 per cent lung function, was forced to use his oxygen saturator; he looked rather out of place cycling up the steepest hill in Australia with plastic pipes up his nostrils. Walter was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at age eight when it became obvious he wasn’t your average kid; skinny arms, pot bellied and always coughing. We nicknamed him Darth Vader because of the sound of his nebulising every morning and night.

We reached Leatherbarrel Creek and after a brief rest set off for Dead Horse Gap. This last pass was of a mildly lesser gradient but, still 10km of serious uphill. The first snow was a drift at Siberia, just short of the gap. The tandem team touched it and had a moment to appreciate just how far they had come since the salty surface of Kati Thanda all those weeks ago.

After a day of rest at Thredbo the team headed down Crackenback and into Jindabyne. The next morning we embarked on the last pedalling day of the trip - from Jindabyne to Charlotte Pass. This was another 1200m climb. We cycled up into the snow with Matthew Newton’s drone (of Rummin) a constant companion. The gate at Perisher was opened three hours before we arrived there, thus allowing us to cycle the remaining 12km up to Charlotte Pass. The spring melt was well under way. Nevertheless there were snow banks by the road side several metres deep and cornices overhanging the outer bends of swollen silver streams. The whole scene was one of magic.

Charlotte’s actually felt like the end of the trip as the snow would prevent us cycling the last nine kilometres to the summit of Australia. From here we would have to trek. Lachlan, the resort owner, opened the door to the staff quarters and after a dinner of high protein salmon, we crashed out and got up at 4am. We had decided on an alpine start so that the surface of the snow would be frozen enough to support our weight.

The pools of head torch light revealed a crusty solid surface as we trudged through the darkness. Walking was a struggle after 42 days sitting on a cycle; it was as if we had forgotten how to do it. By the time we had reached the Snowy River we were in a wonderland of alpenglow and the dawn had scattered twinkling diamonds on the snow cover. We had given ourselves the turn-around time of noon but it was barely 8am when we paused at Seaman’s Hut to sip warm sweet tea. We were still walking on top of the crust up until Rawson Pass where we saw the tops of bike racks poking farcically out of the snow. This should have been the high point of our cycle journey, just one and a half kilometres from the summit.

THE REALISATION OF A DREAM

Lowest to Highest expedition team

The team, after the summit, had realised their dream

From here we took a traversing path across a snow field. The time was approximately 10.20am when we trickled onto the top of Australia, the TABs (Temporarily Able Bodied) first, then Conrad and I followed by Duncan and Walter. We all got very emotional. The strain of keeping it together for 42 days, and suddenly being freed, was as though a levee had broken. We all shed tears and then it was time to be interviewed by local and national radio, and Kirsten Seaver of The Monaro Post who came snow shoeing over the summit as we sat drinking whisky that Duncan’s grandmother had given us. We toasted ourselves, but more-so Wally who was the only member of the team to ride uninterrupted for 2152km from start to finish. We joked that he was our Tenzing, and that all our hard work was just to put him on the summit.

When it came time to descend, the snow had turned to slush in the heat and we all had a difficult time wading through what amounted to a metre of soft serve ice cream. Wally’s head turned purple as he kept on chatting to Kirsten and forgetting to breathe. We hit the car park in the late afternoon and a four year dream had become a reality.

Not only had we achieved the first journey from the lowest point to the highest point of the Australian continent under human power but we'd achieved something much more than that. We had proved that people with disabilities are capable of world firsts, not just ‘first disabled challenges’. We have challenged popular notions surrounding disability: we are not victims (as many see us), nor are we heroes succeeding against overwhelming odds. We are just working with what we’ve got, as everybody does. We have proved that anyone, with or without a disability, can achieve their dreams given the right life chances, and by working together.

MORE OUTDOOR ADVENTURES

- First part of the Lowest To Highest Expedition

Mountain bike race: Birkebeinerrittet, Norway

- Enjoy the Northern Territory's Larapinta Trail