A chilly wind twists around my legs and the cloud draws close, silently reducing our view to the ground immediately below - a few straggly trees, boulders, yellow grass - and the next chair in front of us, swinging from the lift rope. Beyond the hum of the drive at the bottom, the chairlift itself is quiet. For a moment, between one breath and the next, we’re in a small, eerie world of grey, accompanied only by the clunks and whirs of wind and metal on metal.
Then Emily burps, we laugh, the cloud swirls back and the view of the valley unfurls behind us. There are slashes of treelessness under the chairlifts and in long downhill strips which in snow season would be ski runs. The morning sun catches a ridgeline; silver skeletons of snow gums mark the huge bushfires that burnt through here a few years ago.
I’m not a peak bagger. In fact, this will be the first highest-mountain-of-a-country I’ve ever summited - and I’m quite happy to let the lift give me a boost up the steepest bit, leaving only another 300 metres of climbing over the next six or seven kilometres to the top. As we approach the lift terminal, we scramble to collect our backpacks, scarves, cameras, phones, gloves. Feet off the footrest, push the bar back above our heads, jump down and we’re almost ready to stroll to the top of the country. But first we duck into Australia’s highest cafe, the Eagle’s Nest, for a decadent hot chocolate!
Half an hour later, we start walking. Clouds continue to speed across, one minute engulfing us, the next drawing back to offer glimpses beyond. We’re above the treeline, now, where twisty snow gums give way to grasses, flowers and low heathery shrubs wedged between granite boulders and outcrops. The tors along the ridgelines are an artist’s impression of castle ruins, lurking in the fog.
We go slowly. There are a few other people on the path, but they also go slowly, sometimes passing us in ones and twos, sometimes greeting us as we pass them. It’s not that it’s a difficult walk, there’s just so much to see.
There’s also a story that before 1910 Kosciuszko was actually a different peak. I don’t mean this in metaphysical or metaphorical terms: it was a different peak bearing the same name.The story goes like this: Kosciuszko was the name given to the highest mountain in Australia, while its neighbour, the second highest, was called Mount Townsend. But around the turn of the century, from the 1890s onwards, a series of measurements showed that Mount Townsend was in fact the taller of the two - outstripping its neighbour by 19m (63ft). In 1910, to ensure that Mount Kosciuszko remained the name of the tallest mountain in Australia, the government simply swapped the names. I’ve heard a rumour that locals have convinced hikers to take stones up Mount Townsend to see if they can get it reinstated as the taller peak. But I suspect this might just be a tall story, founded on a couple of cartographic ambiguities and buttressed by human delight in a good tale. A mountain out of a molehill, so to speak.
Once down in the valley ourselves, the shape of the land is further revealed: the sweep down from the steep ridge, the flattening out, the tilt towards the sun to our right. The slope channels water into a tiny stream that trickles below a grated footbridge. We stop. A few people pass behind us, sparing a glance at the water, at the valley, then pressing on, up towards the summit. But we aren’t really here for the summit. We’re here for this spot, this water: the source of the Snowy River.
The Snowy here is barely a stride wide and no more than ankle deep. The water is cold and clear, and when I bring a handful to my mouth I can taste cloud-weathered stone and alpine herbs. “And fish wee?” Emily asks, because there are fish here - at the top of a mountain! - mountain galaxias, no longer than a handspan, speckled in the colours of the rocks and grasses. On the mossy banks, yabby holes tunnel down into brown soil. There’s no sign of any corroboree frogs, with their vivid black and yellow marks, but it’s not until we see them a few days later at the visitor centre in Jindabyne that we realise just how tiny and hard to spot these endangered creatures are.
Emily has been struggling with her asthma after a recent cold, so she will head back down to Thredbo and drive around to pick us up at Charlotte Pass. Dan and I weave slowly up to another shoulder of the mountain, looking back to see her light pink hair disappearing behind the grasses and rocks.
We continue up the side of the glacial valley. I’m keeping an eye out for alpine thermocolour grasshoppers. The Latin name, Kosciuscola tristis, shows the link between them and this area - this is one of the rare, endemic species that helped Kosciuszko National Park achieve a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve designation in 1977. But all we spot are a few large locusts that fling themselves into the air and fly off, making a loud clicking sound and flashing bright yellow wings as they go.
Between scanning the ground for insects and gazing at the view to our left, the distance slips by. Soon we’re standing on Rawson Pass. This is the spot where the path from Thredbo and the track from Charlotte Pass meet, before spiralling up the final ascent to the summit. It sees a lot of foot and bicycle traffic. In fact, until 40 years ago, the road from Charlotte Pass was open to vehicle traffic, too. It wasn’t until the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve designation kicked in that the road was closed to public vehicles.
We stop to use Australia’s highest toilet. “I suppose one of them has to be,” says Dan. The block is not just a convenience for day walkers, or a chance to preserve one’s modesty up here above the treeline; it’s an essential way of managing the mountain’s delicate ecology. I can’t really imagine what would happen to the wildflowers and herb fields if a hundred thousand people had a crap on them every year, but I doubt it would be good. Business complete, hand sanitizer applied (there’s no running water up here), we head on.
Glossy black Australian ravens stand sentinel on the rocks above the path. We pass a man who, terrified of heights, makes it to the end of the path but cannot bring himself to take the final few steps up the stones to the summit cairn. I feel for him, having been similarly incapacitated in the past. I take a photo of his partner - she is the highest person in Australia, but he has still made it to the top 10. She returns the favour, snapping a photo of Dan and me, each with a hand on the cairn. We’re laughing because visibility is currently only about 20 metres, the view from the top of Australia is of the inside of a cloud.
But all morning, we’ve noticed that the cloud hasn’t stuck around in one place for very long. We decide to settle in with a snack and wait it out. Sure enough, after a few handfuls of scroggin, a breeze whips the air clear.
Perhaps it’s just the thinner air making me dizzy, but in my exhilaration I think of the Snowy River flowing in reverse: saltwater sucked from the sea, purified as it trickles up over hills and rapids, the roots of the mountain drinking, the mountain growing, a living thing. I think of rain slipping upwards out of the moss and throwing itself off the rocks like grasshoppers, like moths, up into the near-reachable sky.
We pat the cairn again and take another look around before heading off. “That’s the hard bit over,” we joke to each other. “It’s all downhill from here.”