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Monday, August 19, 2019

Mount Kosciuszko - The Highest Fashion For The Highest Mountain


There is a troubled romance I have had with the Snowy Mountains of Australia that comes from my childhood and has played out over a few decades and has given me an endless amount of material as fodder for story telling. For example, one time I broke my leg on Mount Selwyn as a young boy, broke it at the shin from memory, my leg was twisted in such a manner and I was in agony. They got me up the mountain on the banana and I was in their makeshift room for the injured waiting on an ambulance with my mother holding my hand. Outside I could hear skidding tyres for a couple of hours. Everyone from our skiing party came to commiserate the end of my skiing for the year. I was teary eyed. Later I would learn that the skidding tyres was the ambulance that was bogged outside and could not take me to Cooma until they freed it. By the time I got in the back my mother and I got wacked on the happy gas all the way to hospital though she sternly told me I was to tell nobody she had a hit.

In Cooma they performed surgery but poorly. In Sydney a few weeks later I had to go back into hospital where they broke and reset it again. By the time I came out of my fibre glass cast (which was new back then) I had put on so much weight I looked like a human pudding. When it came time to get it off I was presented with the oldest doctor in the world who used an electric metal rotary blade to get it off and apart from the excruciating pain managed to leave me with a keloid scar down my left leg that took fifteen years to become barely visible.

That's just one boyhood experience. The adult ones are perhaps less gruesome but what wasn't done to my body was perhaps done to my heart. But would I take any of it back? No, not ever, never. A priest once described to me the duality of pleasure and pain, they were the two faces of the same coin. The Snowy Mountains are a little like that coin - if you want the pleasure you must be willing to take the pain. A good example is that when high winds blow fresh powder over the ridge of Crackenback, the time to ski that powder is when the wind is still blowing, not the next blue sky day when everyone's all over the mountain like a cheap suit. So the wind will bite through you and the visibility will be poor and your goggles iced over, but, the skiing will be good. The mountains offer in those moments a very terse set of prose, written in the vein of Hemingway. Something like: "the wind blew hard against the helmet. His moustache was frozen, he could not feel his fingers. Then he pushed off and his skis skid first on the ice but then he hit powder and it was good." Pain. Pleasure. Pleasure, then pain.

The thing that skiers often describe to me, which I agree with, is that it's very difficult to think about anything else in the moment. You can't be running debits and credits in your mental ledger when you have a mound of snow coming up in front, when a snowboarder comes into your field of vision to the left and when you can see a patch of ice two turns away. It forces you to stay present and to stay in the zone. Otherwise, you'll be the next guy going down in a banana.

My skiing has improved. I kind of like the fact that I am not a great skier nor does it come naturally. Like everything I have ever put my hand to, I have had to work for it. I was not naturally gifted with anything except perhaps the ability to tell stories - which I believe was some offshoot of having had an unhappy childhood and having to live in my own head. In having to fight for it I think I am more appreciative of the gains I make. This season I set myself an additional goal, to climb up Mount Kosciuszko wearing one of our kerchiefs with the help of my friend Lewis Foster

I met Lewis in Switzerland. He was in a neck brace having fallen off a cliff. He was young, enthusiastic and one of those positive people who make good use out of any bad situation. He had rented a ski apartment and though he couldn't ski, he didn't give it up, instead he decided to make use of the European ski season by learning French and he did a very good job of it. So much so that often now we talk in French on the chairlift just so we can have a private conversation about the people who are also on the chairlift. :) 

Mount Kosciuszko is 2228 metres above sea level. You can get to the summit by a number of ways and in a number of methods. In the summer you can hike it on the raised metal grates that are bolted into the mountain. But in the winter when its laden with snow, your main options are skis with skins or else snow shoes. Lewis encouraged me to try the snow shoes.

We had been waiting since Thursday for the conditions to be right and on Sunday I got the call that Monday was set to be blue skies and low winds. I cut short a wine tasting that evening, foam rolled my back and legs, dumped two sleeping pills and put myself to bed.

We set out from Eagle's Nest (1937 metres above sea level) as a group of three, the third being a ski instructor by the name of Tim Robertson. He is one of the doyens of the ski instructing community in Thredbo, a true gentleman and a chairlift confidante. I say chairlift because everybody blabs on the mountain but what goes on the chairlift, really, should stay on the chairlift.

As we gathered before the lifts opened at the Avalanche Cafe I noticed that I wanted to puke. I am not the sort of person that ordinarily gets nerves but perhaps owing to the additional hydralite and magnesium and the fact that I hadn't done anything like this in a while I dry reeched into the public urinal trough and walked out ready to rumble.

You place your snow boot into the shoe and strap in. It's that simple. The snow shoe grips the ice and snow and provides additional displacement of your weight over a larger surface area than your foot. Rarely if ever do you find yourself sinking into the snow. It's extraordinarily simple. You use stocks of course, no different to hiking - and off you go. The first part of the walk was that corduroy patch that leads from from Eagles Nest to the top of the Basin. From that point onwards you are off piste and out of the resort. With packed lunches in the backpacks of Tim and Lewis, we did a quick inventory check and applied sunscreen, made a couple of videos for friends and family and onwards we went into the quiet of the open snow fields which were bright white under the blue skies with faint streaks of high stratosphere cloud.

But it's not just the vista of these expanses of snow above the tree line that are peppered with exposed rocks and boulders that make it so fresh and free for the traveller. It is the camaraderie that develops between the participants. A joke gets made, an observation about the day before, some banter gets passed around about old flames and former conquests. It is in that quiet and gentle wind that passes, broken only by the sound of the snow shoe crunching, that forms a bond between those that make the pilgrimage to the top of Australia's highest mountain. And it is coupled by the fact that you are off the grid and no longer a skier hustling to the front of a chairlift queue. Now you are relaxed, focused in a different way - towards the summit. Looking as you pass around each mountain on the undulating way there, the goal that you will reach in two and a half hours without any knowledge of how hard the journey may be ahead or what you might expect to see when you reach the summit.

At a few points we stopped to spray the snow golden a little way off the track. At times we would walk by the same grated metal track where, as a young boy aged 10, I had trekked that same path in Autumn to the sounds of my Sony Walkman playing Robert Palmer's album 'Heavy Nova' on cassette. How quickly that time had passed. It was like yesterday, but yesterday was so far away now. The teacher that had accompanied me on that excursion, I'd seen him, still smoking, resting at a bench by the fountains of Kings Cross not two years earlier, old now, no longer teaching.

As we approached the summit and the last ridge line that would take us to the top, a skier on skins and those unusual bindings which allowed for that style of skiing was making far better progress in a more languid manner and I stopped him to say hello and ask him how his journey had been. He was rather convivial and stopped to show me how his skins and bindings worked on the incline. As he set off he turned and said "you don't happen to own a bow tie Studio in Vaucluse do you?" - What were the chances? A customer, up here. It seemed serendipitous that he had been in not two weeks earlier to pick up his best mate's bow tie for his wedding. He was a trained mountaineer and so I was glad he had met up with Lewis, also an accomplished mountaineer and rock climber.

That last leg up the final ridge to the summit was tough. I rarely run these days, I am well over one hundred kilos. It was beginning to remind me of reaching Dead Woman's Pass on the second day of my trek to Machu Piccu. I was counting fifty steps and then pausing to breathe. At the top lay a simple plynth made of rocks with a plaque on top. The mission was successful. But like most hill tops and mountain tops you reach, the end result is a windy place that you don't really want to stay on top of too long. To journey is to arrive I thought, and then to leave quickly.

We made a couple of wind blown videos, one of which I'll post below. I soaked in the vista to Victoria one way, back to New South Wales on the other. 

Lewis found a quiet spot next to a rock at the bottom of the last ridge. He pulled out some soggy sandwiches and Tim, who had laid out a spread of crackers and dips, managed to use his new Leatherman multi tool to heap some duck liver pate into our half eaten sandwiches and they came alive and made them so much more edible. These men were very careful to clean up any mess they made in the snow and you didn't need to ask them whether they were environmentalists. They loved the mountains as much as I love Bondi Beach in the mornings.

As we descended I sang as many songs as I could remember and we told more stories to each other until we pulled into Eagle's Nest and I ordered a round of shots and Tim ordered some Kahlua coffees. We shared a schnitzel as well. When the bill came Tim refused my paying it. It was a lovely gesture from a man I have come to think of as friend as much as a ski instructor.

We are here but for a short time on this planet. There are experiences that can be had that are both beautiful and edifying that bring people together (although if they go wrong they can lead to cannibalism .... and I was considered the first meal since, in Lewis' words, I was already stuffed and ready to go), that require so little to be fulfilled. No waiters, no tap dancers, no fireworks, no champagne. The awe of a vista and the expanse of white snow under blue sky, which now, as we returned, was starting to form the snow storm that would come within two days; was just one of those things you stow in your mind - so that when I sing my last song and my death rattle steals me from this world, I will relax and let go knowing that despite all the pain, there was pleasure in this life that I took whilst I had the chance.

Lewis Foster - 0488592300 - on Instagram @lewfosadventures

Left to right: Lewis Foster, moi, Tim Robertson and my customer Alex right.