New South Wales
Let's Get High: overnight on the Main Range
March 27, 2018 • suzanne
7 min read
If the crumbling granite tors and disfigured snow gums that punctuate Australia’s rooftop are anything to go by, the weather in Kosciuszko National Park should not be underestimated. This is the thought that runs through our minds as we stuff our packs in preparation for hiking the Main Range Track over the Easter long weekend. Sub-zero sleeping bags, topographical maps, emergency Snickers, and permanently crossed fingers go some way to putting our minds at ease – the promise of outta-this-world scenery and remote high country camping go the rest.
On a clear day, the Snowy Mountains – which top out at Kosciuszko’s modest 2228m peak – reveal a rugged and otherworldly landscape of tundra-like ground covers, alpine lakes and glacier-clear streams that’ll leave you wondering why the area so easily escapes conversation. But when you’re up amongst it, wandering with the crags and the clouds, it’s easy to forget that the region’s beauty has been shaped by something far less appetising to the overnight hiker: the unrelenting force of wind, snow and rain.
Having been caught in more than our fair share of Kozzi’s mood swings while skiing, we already knew what it was like to be a) stung in the face by freezing, horizontal rain and b) robbed of sight when cloud and fog closes in and erases everything within two feet. (We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto.) And even though hikes in the area aren’t considered overly difficult, the very real threats of sudden weather changes, harsh temperatures (hot as well as cold – we’ve got a spicy sock tan to prove it), and losing your way due to poor visibility demand basic preparation.
But if you’re an experienced overnighter provisioned with warm gear, navigational prowess and the will to explore Australia’s loftiest reaches, the Main Range is a walker’s paradise between spring and autumn. The terrain varies between pavement, gravel and narrow, rocky track which is well-formed and signposted. Overall, and aside from the expected up and downhill slogs, the going isn’t what we’d call tough, and generally lives up to its rating as an intermediate grade four trek – as long as the weather holds up.
The Main Range Track
Day one departs from Charlotte Pass, where the track rock-hops across the famous Snowy River, climbs steadily (read: relentlessly) above the treeline and wastes no time making enemies of our calf muscles. After a pit stop at Blue Lake (beyond which the day trippers start to thin out) we push on towards Australia’s seventh highest point – Carruthers Peak – with the hazy blue waves of the Great Dividing Range now in plain sight. It’s ragged and peak-y and notched with deep valleys of the kind you wouldn’t want to roll down, and we’re more than a little stunned – not just by the scenery, but by the revelation that hiding behind the prickly gold hillocks Australia does, in fact, have ‘real’ mountains. Who knew?!
But with real mountains comes real wind. Walking a straight line is near-impossible as we zig-zag the 50km/hr crosswind’s full brunt between Carruthers and Lake Albina. Eyes water, noses run, windchill disguises the sting of reddening skin, and yet it’s a stunning day by mountain standards. Under bluebird skies (clouds tend not to stick around in a gale), the golds, olives and blues of the lake-speckled boulder fields couldn’t be more vibrant.
Reluctantly we stagger on to where the track finds shelter behind the peaks and arrives at the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turn-off to Townsend, Australia’s second highest peak and hands-down the trek’s highlight.
Long thought the highest peak in Australia, Townsend is second to Kosciuszko only in height (and by a miserable 19 metres at that). In the minds of most walkers who’ve been to both, Townsend’s wilder position, craggy peak, lack of daytrippers and ripper views make it the more impressive of the two.
The footpad out there is a tad more difficult to follow than the Main Range track, but the peak is reachable simply by sight so you can always do as we did and blaze your own line through the heath. The views from the saddle are equally impressive, but it’d be a shame to come this far and not touchdown on the top. Prepare to ditch your pack and use all fours to scramble up the sketchy Mordor-esque rock pile and snap your summit selfie.
High Country Camping
Despite the understanding that you can pretty much camp anywhere, the National Parks and Wildlife Service does have some exclusion zones in place (all alpine lake catchment areas, within 50m of walking tracks and within 30m of any stream), and once you discount all the treacherously steep areas, camping options become somewhat limited.
That’s why many tenters end up in the flat, albeit exposed, saddle between Mount Townsend and Alice Rawson Peak, or south towards Wilkinsons Creek which promises a bit more shelter from tent-warping westerly winds. To help with regeneration efforts and disperse the impact of campers, we obediently avoid patchy, eroded areas and find an area of thick grass between boulders to pitch our tent on. The wind starts to settle, the setting sun turns the creek liquid gold, and it’s surprisingly civilised – until it hits home that there’s no tree coverage for when nature calls.
There’s also no escaping the fact that it’s probably going to get colder than you expect. Once the sun dips, temperatures plummet – often well below zero. Fires aren’t permitted (and there’s nothing to burn anyway), so you’ll want to stuff yourself with comfort food while it’s still light and cocoons yourself for an early night. If you’re going outside the summer months, extra layers are strongly recommended. Take thermal base layers, packable down, and fleece mid layers so you can easily rug up (for watching meteor showers) and strip down (for sweaty uphill trudges).
The Seventh Summit
After trekking back to the Main Range track, day two is characterised by the doddle up to Australia’s highest peak, Mount Kosciuszko, before picking up a fairly monotonous service track that loops back down and across to Charlotte Pass. Since we’ve already taken you up Townsend, we’ll save you the spiel about 360 views and top-of-the-world #feels, and digress to #funfactfriday instead.
Back when it was thought to be the highest peak, Mount Townsend was called Mount Kosciuszko and vice versa. When it was discovered in 1892 that it was actually a shade shorter, the NSW Lands Department concluded that it would be easier to swap the names of the mountains around rather than re-educate the public. A wise move, we think, since ‘Kozzi’ has a much better ring to it.
Despite being more hillocky and less summit-y than Townsend, nothing can really dampen your spirits when you know that to trek up Kozzi is to bag one of the world’s seven summits – our low-slung misfit sits alongside the likes of Asia’s Everest and Africa’s Kilimanjaro on some traditional versions of the list. Even if it only qualifies on a geographical technicality rather than mountaineering merit, we still think the detour is worth that particular bragging right. And if it paves the way for conquering Aconcagua, all the better.
Or why not ten?
Once you’ve got a taste for traversing the high country on two feet and a heartbeat, we’re pretty confident in saying you’ll be back for more. Back for the alpine flowers that blanket the mountainside in summer. Back for an early spring freeze-fest when drifts of snow still linger. Or back not merely to walk to the top of Australia’s two highest peaks, but to walk to the top of all ten in one go – yes, it’s a thing! If you spend three nights up there and know how to locate the mountains from your map, you can reach all ten via the Main Range Track. Can the Himalayas make a similar claim? The Andes? The European Alps? We think not.