I OFTEN WONDER if I took up cycling at the age of five just to avoid any notion of walking anywhere. Once I'd discovered the joys of covering terrain on two wheels, anything else seemed... well, slow. Walks on the beach, bushwalks, even a post-dinner stroll around the block; none have never really appealed to me, and as a consequence, I've become quite adroit at avoiding them.
My 12-year-old son, Max, has also inherited a love of two wheels and a healthy disdain for bipedal motion. If he can ride, he'll ride. Of course, most young 'uns still need to walk in the course of their daily lives - Max walks about two kilometres a day between school bus stops - but I've managed to exorcise almost every notion of a walk, save for the occasional stroll on a beach.
Lately, though, my wife has taken to two feet, walking up to ten kilometres at a time with the family mutt a couple of times a week - and because I'm the old grump of the family who's always detested walking, more often than not I'm not asked along. And lately I've wondered if it's not such a silly idea to get out from behind my desk a little more and indulge in something that doesn't require a helmet, gloves and lycra shorts.
The invitation to tackle the Kosciuszko Track fell right in the midst of this rumination - though, to confess, my first thought was "great! We can ride bikes there after!" While I haven't visited Thredbo for some years, I've reported on mountain bike races there on and off for about 20 years, even competing occasionally. Max, too, is keen to progress his mountain biking path to the downhill discipline, and Thredbo's Cannonball Run is renowned as being one of the most challenging in the country.
The more I thought about it, though, the more the thought of ascending Australia's highest peak appealed. Honestly, I've never considered the possibility of climbing the tallest anything, and to tick that box may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The thought, though, is tempered by a fear of the unknown; would I be able to make the distance? What will I need to take? Do I need special climbing gear?
After chatting to a few people, my concerns abate somewhat; everyone says that the walk is an easy one, with no need for specialised equipment outside of a set of sensible outdoors apparel. "I have high school groups come up all the time," says our guide, Alexis Carrington. "Getting them to take their headphones off for a few minutes is another question, though!"
Easy preparation for the Kosciuszko Track
The forecast for our December walk looks promising as we pack for the weekend; temperatures in the mid-teens with light winds and mostly clear skies. As anyone who has spent a few days down there can attest, though, the weather cannot - and must not - be trusted. There have been many summer mornings where I've awoken in Thredbo village to low single-digit temps, howling winds and almost zero visibility. We throw in a few layers of clothes, along with beanies, gloves and our cycling Camelbaks, and hope the weather bureau's predictions hold up.
One of the obstacles for the Alpine region is the perceived time it takes to get down to the region. From our base in Wollongong, the trip is surprisingly short, at a nick over 5.5 hours including stops. The roads into the area are in remarkable condition, and rest areas are in plentiful supply, too. We've been put up in the Thredbo Alpine Hotel, the only hotel within Thredbo village. This grand old lady is definitely ready for a makeover, but its facilities are excellent, its staff incredibly friendly and the rooms more than adequate for adventure travellers. The Cascades restaurant breakfast, in particular, pleases Max no end; he makes the awesome staff work overtime to keep him in hash browns and bacon. Oh, to be 12 again...
We're due to meet Alexis at 0930, and we're just about out the door when I realise I'd left my only pair of walking shoes - in truth, nothing more than a good-quality pair of trail-runners - back in Wollongong. I'm intensely annoyed with myself. Our photog Mark, though, reckons my Vans sneakers will suffice. "It's really not that hard a walk," says the guy who hiked eight hours into the Alpine backcountry and overnighted in the Ranges this past winter to take just one incredible shot (you can see Mark's shot in the last issue). I've got no choice but to believe him. We decide on shorts and jackets for the sunny, breezy day, stashing gloves and beanies in our Camelbaks for a little insurance.
To access the start of the walk, it's a 12-minute ride up the Kosciuszko Express quad-chair. With a capacity of up to 800 people, the Express whisks us quickly over the mountain. Mountain bike trails criss-cross the snow-free runs beneath us, with riders whooping and cheering as they negotiate the jumps and turns. "I thought we would be a lot higher up than this," remarks Max, who admitted to a case of the nerves before we hopped on board the chair. "This is actually pretty cool." At the top of the chair sits the famed Eagles Nest restaurant, which is the last place we'll be able to stock up on drinking water before we hit the trail. With pockets stuffed with muesli bars, two litres of water and a stash of lollies, it's time to stride out.
The views at Kosciuszko Track
The track in its current form has been in place for nearly 30 years and, at 14km long there and back, it's a pretty solid day out. I'm still a little worried that cycling fitness won't translate to hiking fitness, and while it's not debilitating, you can definitely feel the altitude. Max, though, is captivated straight away with the amazing vista before us. "Honestly? I expected to be trekking though a jungle!" he exclaims. "This is awesome!" We strike out along the paved path, with Alexis stopping from time to time to explain some of the park's amazing flora. From peppermint bushes to snow daisies, her knowledge is astounding; even Max is captivated.
Our first break is at the lookout that gives us a breathtaking view of the Rams Head range. The day is made for walking, and there is visibility for days. It's hard to gauge just how vast the rooftop of Australia is until you see it in person, and my iPhone pics don't do it justice.
The paved path gives way to a wide, raised metal walkway that lifts us above the delicate ecosystem below. Stained a dark brown by its exposure to the elements, the track isn't a scar on the beautiful surrounds; rather, it appears to be a part of it, as it meanders to follow the terrain, rather than slash straight through it.
Lake Cootapatamba is the next stop on our path, overhung by a large snow patch that will feed the lake for the next few weeks. We're about six kilometres in, and I'm starting to notice my legs a little. My enforced footwear choice has been more than okay, but trail shoes or running sneakers would have been a lot better. That'll teach me! Max is enjoying himself immensely, and I'm struck by the fact that it's my influence that may have kept him from enjoying something like this. It's a sobering thought.
We push on past the highest toilet block in the country at Rawson Pass. The trail gives over to graded gravel here as it winds its way around to the top of Australia. Alexis points out the still-visible scarring to the terrain where, almost 30 years ago, people could drive to within 400m of the summit and straight-line it up the slope to the summit. "That seems like cheating ," Max observes, and I agree wholeheartedly.
The road is not steep, but the more experienced Alexis and Mark push away from Max and I on the last ascent, leaving us to enjoy the walk together as father and son. Only a few short months away from his teen years, he's on the verge of going his own way in life. We've had a few great adventures over the years, but this one is a little bit more special, and a little bit poignant for me. We chat a little, enjoying each other's company away from the pressures of work, school, family and friends. It's a very good moment.
We round the last bend and, almost from nowhere, we've crested the summit, and are standing on top of Mount Kosciuszko. A few other tourists are already there, but the unfenced, unfettered area is big enough for all to enjoy. A young couple have set up a picnic just a few metres down the front face, while a solo Dutch hiker asks us to take a photo of her atop the monolith that marks the spot. Not only does it turn out that Alexis has friends in the Netherlands, but that I'm of Dutch stock, as well. It's a small world...
A quick lunch break is in order, as our photography has taken a little more time out of the day than we'd planned. With the lifts stopping at 4.30pm, we needed to hustle a little to make it back. As they say in the classics, it's all downhill from here, and the walk back is much easier. Max and I chat all the way back, and I learn with some astonishment just how knowledgeable he is on a number of topics. I let him do most of the talking; my calves were starting to protest mightily, while my citified habit of an 11am caffeine hit had gone unanswered, leaving me with a dull ache behind the eyes. Note to self - take choc-coated coffee beans on the next trip.
We are tired but smiling by the time we hit the Eagles Nest restaurant for a coffee and beer break. Alexis has presented us with certificates commemorating our achievement; sure, it's not like we've crested K2, but we have climbed the highest peak in our beautiful country, and that's a pretty damn good feeling for this new walker.
Bike riding Thredbo Valley Trail
We spend the next day indulging our cycling passions under the experienced eye of Tim Windshuttle, a young but vastly experienced bike guide who helps to run Thredbo's busy bike rental business. We hit the Thredbo Valley Trail on our own machines, wending our way over 14km of wide gravel track that follows the Snowy River down to Lake Crackenback. With plans to extend the trail as far as Jindabyne, it's a fantastic way to immerse yourself in the riverside vista that makes up so much of this part of the park.
After a brief stop for new gear and lunch - having a hotel room 100m from the base of the chairlift pays dividends here - it's time to explore the gravity side of mountain biking. The Flow Trail is designed to offer the thrills of a downhill descent without the heart-stopping drops and insane speeds that would scare off the average rider. Again, I find myself absolutely astounded at just how capable and talented my son is on a bike. Clearing every double jump and negotiating the tougher 'A-line' sections on his very first try, I feel amazingly privileged to see it first-hand.
There's enough time at the end of the day to try our hand at the Cannonball Run aboard Thredbo's downhill-specific Giant Glory hire bikes. With 200mm of suspension travel front and rear, massive, grippy tyres and huge brakes, the bikes are built to take on the white-knuckle, black-diamond Cannonball trail. Rock-strewn drops are punctuated with huge jumps, tight switchback turns and high-speed sections where you'll touch 70km/h - if you dare. It's exhausting and exhilarating, and thoroughly addictive.
Our two-day odyssey ends on the balcony of the Thredbo Pub, sharing beers and lemonade with the guides and staff who, in just 48 hours, have become more than just resort staff to us. I'm also incredibly fortunate to be able to see my son easily mix it with the adults, morphing before my eyes into a young man.
By climbing to the top of Mt Kosciuszko, Max and I have achieved something that we know other families will get the same joy from. For the rewards at the end, the walk to the top of Australia is well worth the effort. We're already talking about when we're going to tackle it again, this time with my wife and youngest daughter in tow.