Explorer Joel Johnsson shares with us his epic adventure, hiking the 10 highest peaks in Australia with his crew in Kosciuszko National Park.
The Practice of Peakbagging
Pushing out of our comfort zones is good for us – I’m convinced of that.
Whether they be physical or mental boundaries, or simply those of habit, we would be well-served by taking that same inexorable curiosity that drives us around the next bend in the river, or over the next ridgeline, into all aspects of our life.
So when I gave my mates four options for a quick escape between Christmas and New Year, and they both chose the lemon, I pushed.
‘There are a few options gents: we could go four-wheel driving into some remote caves and thermal pools, flyfishing on the backcountry streams, scramble down the deepest gorge in Australia (the subject of another story)… or we could do some peakbagging.’
For those of you not familiar with the term, a peakbagger (n) is A mountain climber whose principal goal is the attainment of a summit, or a specific set of summits.
Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds suspiciously like exercise to me.
Or worse, cardio. Now, I generally head out of my back gate in order to swim under a waterfall, put the only footprint onto a white sand beach, or get swallowed up by a dark, twisting canyon – a discrete endpoint or point of interest.
In short, I go for a particular reason and I’ll get there by the shortest and least strenuous means possible. Therefore I was less than enthused to be climbing a mountain for the sake of getting to the top.
Peakbagging has a long and illustrious history in Europe and the States. Less so in Australia, mainly due to the lack of anything that can legitimately be called a ‘peak’.
Hiking the Main Range
The day after Boxing Day is hard on all of us. But we eventually somnambulated to the car and piled in for Charlotte’s Pass.
From the trailhead, much of our route followed the well-formed Main Range circuit trail, which leads away from the wooded ridges of the rest of the park up onto the vaulted, bare spine of Main Range.
The treelines peel back, leaving nothing higher than thigh-high shrub on the wind-swept range.
When you’re used to the closed, claustrophobic scrub that dominates areas like the Budawangs and the Blue Mountains, this sense of space and freedom is exhilarating and we made good time over ground past Blue Lake up onto Mount Twynam (2195m).
It was here we started questioning the validity of the term ‘peakbagging’. Did the definition clearly state ‘A mountain climber’ rather than ‘A hill stroller’?
However, we did find a drift of snow tucked up under the ridgeline and delighted in a White Christmas in the southern hemisphere.
Arriving at Lake Albina
The track led on across Main Range, quietly padding up over Carruthers Peak (2145m) before winding its way past the glittering jewel of Lake Albina.
From the high pass, you can see clear to the bottom of the glacial lagoon at the bottom of the hanging valley, its islands and channels like an underwater relief map.
Being hydrophilicly drawn to waterbodies and wild swimming, we dropped our packs on the ridgeline, equidistant from the shore of the lake and the peak of Mount Northcote, and tumbled down to the lake.
The amphitheatre-like catchment of Lake Albina is a wonderland of tiny streams that tinkle down the hillside, running over rock and stone, converging and diverging across water meadows and resting quietly in hanging tarns.
We dipped into cold, clear pools and filled water bottles from cascades before finally washing up on the coarse sand shore of the lake – a beach Christmas and a white Christmas all in one day.
Time to Pitch Up
With the light beginning to fail, we hurried back to the packs to get dinner in the pot. It was at this point that Locky, that veteran of the Himalayas, decided to pull out his brand new MSR stove. So confident in the abilities of his new purchase, he had even brought black rice, which boasts one of the longest cooking times known to man.
As Dave and I cooked, ate, cleaned up and rugged up, Locky fiddled, puzzled and generally struggled to raise nary a bubble from his millpond of a cooking pot.
Temperatures dropped and irritation rose in an inversely proportional manner, after an hour I demanded to know why it didn’t sound like a rocket.
‘All MSRs sound like a jet engine taking off. Crank that knob around.’
‘The one on the base.’
That night, temperatures dropped to -5 degrees. Water bottles, tent flies and camera batteries froze.
It was December in Australia, and the whole white Christmas thing was about as appealing as being waterboarded. It was the kind of cold that forced two grown men to swallow their manliness and snuggle for warmth (or so I’m told).
Time to Bag Some Peaks
However, dawn found us… at the top of Mount Northcote (I know, right?!). It was the start of the best day of the hike, which allowed us to drop packs and range off-track, scrambling to the tops of Byatts Camp (2159m), Abbott Peak (2145m), Mount Townsend (2209m) and Alice Rawson Peak (2160m) which top the ridge of stone to the north of Mt Kosciuszko.
As the light turned golden and the sky deepened its gradient from orange to purple we climbed to the roof of Australia and cooked dinner at 2228m – the highest point in the country.
Looking out across the ridges that marched out to all horizons, tinged in blue and gold, I finally understood the appeal of climbing a mountain for the sake of getting to the top.
The last day saw us atop the rock stacks of Rams Head (2190m) and Rams Head North (2177m) before completing our peakbagging challenge with the illustriously-named Unnamed peak on Etheridge Ridge (2180m).
With the afternoon pushing 30 degrees and our bodies straining under the temperature differential, we made it back to the car and to Jindabyne in time for the obligatory return feast (if you’re looking for a feed, we recommend the Mexican place).
Gina Greenlee once wrote ‘Embrace those parts of yourself that you’ve skilfully avoided until now. That’s your true adventure.’
Even in seeking adventure, we too often stick to the adventure we know. Push out of your comfort zone and surround yourself with people who challenge your normal – we’re planning the Himalayas next.
The 10 Highest Peaks In Australia
Mt Twynam (2195m)
Carruthers Peak (2145m)
Byatts Camp (2159m)
Abbott Peak (2145m)
Mt Townsend (2209m)
Alice Rawson Peak (2160m)
Mt Kosciuszko (2228m)
Rams Head (2190m)
Rams Head North (2177m)
Unnamed peak on Etheridge Ridge (2180m)
How To Get There
Charlottes Pass is approx. 6hrs from Sydney or 3hrs from Canberra.
Distance Covered / Time Taken / Vertical Gained
55km / 3 days / 450m
Feature photo by @wanderer_rachel