Our Editor Tim joined the Climbing The Seven Summits team in the Snowy Mountains backcountry to experience their Australian Alpine Academy – an immersive four day course run by people who’ve climbed some of the world’s highest peaks.

Winding up the backroads behind Perisher ski resort to Guthega, I start to think about the times I’ve entered the Australian backcountry. I’ve been out on skis, snowshoes, and even in snowboard boots, chasing my board down a hill as it rapidly made its way through the off-piste to the valley floor, but I’m in for something entirely different this time around.

In the boot of my car there’s an assortment of gear unlike anything I’ve had before. There’s the crampons, twelve-pointed claw-like devices that’ll strap to my unwieldy secondhand mountaineering boots, there’s a borrowed ice axe and ice hammer, ski poles and snow shoes, even a rock climbing harness has made the cut…

What the hell, dear reader, have I got myself into?

Mountaineering Course in Australia, australian alpine academy, climbing the seven summits, photo by Tim Ashelford, kosciuszko national park, snow, mountaineering, backcountry, rocks

Up we go!

The Australian Alpine Academy

You might’ve heard stories about the winter terrain in Kosciuszko National Park. Steep lines exist on the Western Faces that’ve impressed even the most chiseled international skiers, but it’s not what you’d call mountaineering. Sure, some ice climbing happens at Blue Lake in a good season, but you’re not exactly about to crack out the oxygen bottles.

Which is precisely why Climbing The Seven Summits (CTSS) decided it’s the perfect training ground for beginner mountaineers. You’ve got snow, freezing temperatures, pockets of steep terrain – all the ingredients for learning the most basic skills (always zip up your tent!) to the more complex ropework and safety techniques needed on big mountains. All without the expense and risk of getting to those locations.

Oh and crucially, one of the Seven Summits just happens to be within striking distance from camp: 2,228m tall Mt Kosciuszko. The Seven Summits is a pretty lofty goal, climbing the highest peaks on each of the seven continents takes years of dedication and training.

While some opt to include 4,884m Puncak Jaya (Carstensz Pyramid) in New Guinea for an Australasian highest peak, as owner of CTSS Mike Hamil told me on the trip, ‘Whichever Seven Summits you believe is correct, you’ve gotta climb Kosciuszko anyway. It was the original 7th summit by Dick Bass’ list and you can do it in the summer with family as a celebration, or climb it in winter as ideal training in what can be very rugged conditions’.

Tough conditions are a hallmark of the Australian alpine. The high, rolling mountains and plains mean that strong winds and brutal storms are the norm, and things quickly feel much more remote than the backcountry wilderness you’ll find overseas. It’s the perfect training ground for aspiring mountaineers.

Mountaineering Course in Australia, australian alpine academy, climbing the seven summits, photo by Tim Ashelford, kosciuszko national park, snow, mountaineering, backcountry, snow, storm

A dark, moisture-filled storm approached as we descended off Mt Kosciuszko

Into The Backcountry

After a quick round of introductions we’re off, crunching through crisp morning snow as the winter sun takes the edge off the day. I notice something pretty quickly, Mike doesn’t like to stop, an intentional approach that he later tells me reflects his method on big mountains.

‘Better to keep moving at a pace you can maintain then burn yourself out in bursts,’ he says.

I take the time to talk to the other people on the trip. There’s an ultramarathon runner, a guy who’s spent time in Antarctica on research stations, an Austrian who’s decided to give the Seven Summits a crack, even a bloke who’s never camped in the snow before. We’re a motley crew, but we’ve all been doing the required training, and we move well through the morning.

Suddenly, Mike stops near a stand of trees. There’s a cache buried beneath us, expedition tents, tins of food, and sleds that the CTSS team buried before the course. We start digging – our heavy packs are about to get a whole lot heavier.

Mountaineering Course in Australia, australian alpine academy, climbing the seven summits, photo by Tim Ashelford, kosciuszko national park, snow, mountaineering, backcountry, snow cache

Tents, sleds and bulk snacks were buried beneath the snow

Sled travel is used on some huge, remote mountains like 6,190m Denali in Alaska, where an expedition-style approach requires large amounts of gear to be hauled in. We quickly get a masterclass.

Our sleds slide down the gentlest of slopes and flip themselves at the faintest suggestion of overloading. The hubris is real and I’m quickly forced to transfer weight to my backpack. Lesson two is already in the bag and I haven’t even made it to camp.

Who’s Behind Climbing The Seven Summits?

As with most great companies, Climbing The Seven Summits is the brainchild of a pretty inspiring person. In this case, it’s Mike Hamil, a highly-regarded veteran of the mountain guiding industry.

With 6 Everest summits, 6 laps of the Seven Summits, 13 eight thousand metre climbs and even skiing to the South Pole on his resume, his 20 years as a Senior Climbing Guide speaks for itself.

And it kind of has to, because despite being one of the most impressive individuals I’ve ever met, he’s also one of the most humble. While our expedition was relatively tame (in the scheme of things) Mike was patient, yet serious. He treated this trip just as importantly as any other. That being said, day’s end in the shared cooking tent was a chance to relax, share our global tales of adventures thus far, and quiz the heck out of Mike on all things mountaineering.

Mike started CTSS after years as a guide, with a vision to improve the guiding services on offer. The approach focuses on tailoring trips to individuals, not skipping the small comforts that make a trip more enjoyable, and even vetting the personalities who seek to join their trips – they call it their ‘No Dickheads Policy’.

While their expeditions to climb the Seven Summits are world renowned (Mike wrote the bloody guidebook), CTSS guide all kinds of expeditions and trips. Logistics support comes from General Manager (and Mike’s wife) Caroline Pemberton, who in addition to being a mountaineer herself, has experience as a public speaker, MC, TV presenter, and was once Miss Australia.

Settling Into Mountain Life

My pack has barely touched the ground and Mike’s already showing us the best way to build a snow wall. All hands pitch in and within an hour a row of North Face tents are cut into the hillside and protected from the prevailing wind. We’ve even built an enclosed pit for the literal toilet we carried in. Deluxe!

Then, as all camps do, we settle into a rhythm. Mike cooks us dinner in a communal Hilleberg tunnel tent and lives up to the promise of small comforts. My pasta featured feta and olives – a far cry from my normal homemade dehydrated dinner whilst snow camping. Then we’re off to bed early in preparation for a big day.

We spend the next day throwing ourselves down snow slopes and learning to self arrest, practicing ropework and building anchors, even drilling techniques for ascending steep faces. Unfortunately, the conditions aren’t quite right for any ice climbing, but as we mainline another hearty dinner, Mike lets us know that we’re going up Kosci tomorrow.

Mountaineering Course in Australia, australian alpine academy, climbing the seven summits, photo by Tim Ashelford, kosciuszko national park, snow, mountaineering, backcountry, self arrest

There’s nothing quite like hurtling yourself down a steep snow slope while holding a sharp metal ice axe to practice your self arrest. It’s fun as hell

The day dawns bright and we set off at a steady clip from camp – camp stove McMuffins still settling in our bellies.

‘Lunch starts after breakfast and ends at dinnertime in the mountains,’ Mike says, so with pockets full of Clif bars and beef jerky I steadily motor toward Kosciuszko.

Dark clouds are rolling in as I pull onto the summit ridgeline. It’s not my first time up here, but it’s undoubtedly the most special. Shlepping our gear into the backcountry and setting out, expedition-style, to tag the summit significantly increases the drama of climbing Australia’s highest peak. We’ve climbed it without chairlifts or boardwalks, and it’s intensely satisfying.

But the bluebird days are over and stinging snow pelts us the whole walk back to camp.

The final day reinforces one of the key tenets of mountaineering: it’s not over until it’s over. Successful summits needs successful descents and the final day’s sleeting rain seeks to bend and break our morale.

Yet it doesn’t. Physically, we’re tired, but mentally, we’re stronger than the people who walked into the mountains three days ago. We’re better equipped for the challenges ahead; whether that’s six more well-known summits, smaller mountaineering objectives, or simply more days out on the snow, there’s a strong feeling that this is just the beginning.

 

CTSS runs the Australian Alpine Academy each winter in Kosciuszko National Park. The 2022 intake is already sold out, but expressions of interest are open for 2023. Don’t miss out!