The landscape alongside the Monaro Highway rushes past in a pale silence, all fog and frost and the dark limbs of trees. It is negative 6 degrees beyond the unblemished windows of the new Subaru, and the dawn is in no hurry to disperse the lingering signs of the imminent winter.
The mood has been subdued by the warm car, the early start, and talk of the lost Canadian in the high country. Gone for over a week, there is little hope for him; a terrible loss for his family, and a reminder to the rest of us that the Australian alpine regions are not gentle.
Still, the day for us is all promise. The autumnal snows have been generous this year, and the omniscient BOM has foretold fine weather. A coffee stop at Jindabyne, and then our group of 10 was unloading the day packs and snowshoes at Charlotte Pass. Named after Charlotte Adams, the first European woman to summit Australia’s highest peak (Mount Kosciuszko, at 2,228 metres), these days it is the termination of the road that once provided vehicle access to this mountain. It is also the road closed in winter, and the opportunity to play in the snow a whole fortnight before the closure was one too good to be passed up by our trip leader.
This leader was infamous amongst the Australian National University Mountaineering Club for his thorough preparations, his vast experience (he had led the most bushwalks and snowshoeing expeditions of anyone since the club’s founding in 1967, and had recently taken his 500th trip participant into the snow), and his photographic preference for naked people in the wilderness.
He was also entirely comfortable with talking about this, and gently asking people whether they would be enthusiastic to participate. It was so much a normal part of club culture that of the 10 of us, only the three who had never met this leader had not been photographed yet. This casual topic of conversation had been broached in the car ride, and before we strapped on snowshoes at Charlotte Pass there were already several keen walkers desirous of a private photography session in the snow.
It was actually a very convenient day for such activities, being gloriously clear and warm. The snow was a little old, and had an icy crust, but there was good cover and we didn’t have far to go. We passed the skeleton of an off-season chair lift, part of the Charlotte Pass ski resort – the oldest and highest in Australia. Brightly coloured helicopters flittered back and forth between Perisher Resort (further down the road) and Kosciuszko and Townsend, using the clear weather to continue the search for the missing Canadian.
We summited* Mt Stilwell (2059 metres), and though our ever-hungry bushwalking officer gnawed furiously at a sandwich we decided to press on before lunch. En route, the rest of the group slowly pottered through the snow whilst our leader and the first participant of the photography sessions went to a private, photogenic spot amidst the frozen rocks. Together again, the group tottered across Kangaroo Ridge, sinking somewhat when the snow belied the vegetation underneath, but otherwise moving forward quite effectively.
The landscape was a magnificent rolling carpet of shiny snow (the bright sun was reflected off the top layer of ice, making it look oddly plasticised) and dark rocks, and the view across the snow covered Main Range was splendid. Kosciuszko looked as rounded as ever, but what we could see of Townsend was dramatic, and the shawl of white gave even our highest mound a certain dignity. We were in the land of the top twenty tallest mountains in the country, with Mount Stilwell at number 21, with the others spread out in their best mottled whites before our snowshoed feet.
We gorged ourselves upon lunch in the early afternoon, admiring the view down the snowless Thredbo Valley and sipping hot Finnish blueberry soup. Another photo shoot behind some conveniently discreet rocks, before we began the meander back down to Charlotte Pass. The downhill sections led a few of us to test the force of gravity against the ability of the snowshoes’ crampons, or to go all in and slide down sections with our backs on the ground and our feet in the air. I was ever applying sunscreen across all exposed areas, and garishly pink zinc across my nose and cheekbones, in an effort to fend off the unhindered sun and reflected UV rays from my pale skin (an unfortunate but seemingly necessary partner to my hair).
We had made about 7.5 kilometres and 290 metres elevation gain in good time, considering the extended stops, so it was a comfortable day. The last of these stops was entirely appropriate, being a photography session with a Pole against the backdrop of Mount Kosciuszko; a mountain not only named by the Pole Sir Paul Edmund Strzelecki after the Pole General Tadeusz Kościuszko, but pronounced incorrectly by almost all Australians.†
Once we had donned fresh socks back at the car, and finished faffing‡, we set off down the mountain. Dinner was taken at a pub in Cooma; a place of roaring wood fires, friendly staff and local artwork. The car ride on the return to Canberra was engaging, ranging from tattoos of punctuation marks to the Port Arthur massacre.
We eventually bookended the day too: in fog, on the Monaro Highway, with the temperature below zero.
* Whilst “summited” is not yet a word in the Oxford English Dictionary, I stand by its usage here: it makes sense, cannot be easily replaced with another word, and is informally used amidst hiking circles. Also, it seems a pretty cool word to me!
† Australians almost all pronounce our highest mountain as “Kozzi-osko”, whereas the Polish is closer to something like “Kosh-chewsh-ko”, though gradually more people seem to be attempting a pronunciation closer to the original. For that matter, we call the explorer who named it “Strez-lecki”, whereas in Polish it is more like “Stcher-lets-key”! Apologies to all the linguists who are hissing at my terrible phonetic spelling and blatant avoidance of IPA.
‡ Faff is most definitely a word, and has been since the Victorian era (appropriately for me, as a researcher of neo Victorian literature). It is very commonly bandied about in outdoor adventure circles, meaning to waste time dithering about.