Sunday, 30 April 2017

The Snowy Mountains Part 2 - The Alpine Way and Mount Kosciuszko

Into the mountains then, and the meat of the tour.  Almost as soon as I hit the sign for the high country, the climbing began, and when I got to the sign for Mount Kosciuszko National Park, the climbing began to get silly.  This wasn't going to be a simple, relaxing jaunt through gently sloping mountain passes.  The gradients were severe, and almost impossible to cycle at times.

Later on in the trip, I passed a fellow cyclist who told me that the climb up to Thredbo (the town at the base of Mount Kosciuszko) was one of the hardest - if not the hardest - in Australia.  I wasn't aware of this before I started, but I did realise the Alpine Way would be challenge.

The challenge of climbing mountains through the winding roads on bike is always somewhat daunting, but when you add a heavy touring bike loaded with gear, it makes the task quite a bit harder.  You're not looking to break any speed records, it is just about getting to your destination somehow, and this is far from easy.  It is even problematic should you choose to give up trying to cycle and just push the bike because pushing nearly 40kg of bike up a steep mountain road isn't a walk in the park either and it is very slow going.

On the second day of the trip, I had set myself a difficult target of making it to Tom Groggin campground, about 25Km shy of Thredbo.  I knew this would be difficult, not only because it was over 150Km from my campsite overnight, but also because I knew the climbing would be tough. Doing 150Km in one day on the flat is hard enough.  I needed to hit this target, however, because I wanted most of the day in Thredbo so I could hike up Mount Kosciuszko, Australia's highest mountain.

There were several climbs during the day, but two big ones in particular.  The first up to Scammel's Lookout at about 1000 metres and then - just when I thought I'd finished my climbing for the day - there was another seemingly unending stretch of about 600 metres, before the final descent into Tom Groggin.

The real problem I had was the severity of the ascents and descents.  So steep on the way up that it was difficult to stay within my lactate threshold, even in my lowest of gears, and so steep on the way down that I felt like I was receiving almost no rest at all before the next climb.

When climbing on a bike, it is so important to choose a gear that won't sap you of strength too quickly.  Once you have hit your lactate threshold and the lactic acid begins burning your legs, it becomes extremely problematic to get your legs functioning again.  When you have hugely steep roads on a heavy bike, though, the lowest of gears can send your heart rate spiraling and make your legs so fatigued, you don't really know what to do with yourself, you just don't know how you can go any further.

Although things were difficult, the roads were going through some spectacular high country and the hardship sort of made the whole experience that much more worthwhile.  It is as if mountains were put on this earth to test us and reward us for the effort taken to climb them, whether on foot or by bike.

Looking back down what I just cycled up.  The picture doesn't really tell the true tale of how steep this really was.

I'd left my overnight camp at 6.30am and I made it to Tom Groggin, after a grueling day, at 6pm with only a small break for lunch.  One of my toughest days in the saddle, for sure. I had a quick bite to eat in the darkness and slept like a baby from about 7pm until 5am the next morning, despite the freezing temperatures outside.

It was only about 25Km to Thredbo, but it ended-up taking me nearly 4 hours to go this paltry distance.  It was  steepest climbing I had ever done going from Tom Groggin campground to Dead Horse Gap at nearly 1600 metres - the mountain pass just before Thredbo.  Note that this road was about 600 metres higher than the highest sealed road in New Zealand and I can assure you that it felt it.

The highest point of the cycle at Dead Horse Gap at 1580 metres.

I think it seems slightly strange that a mountainous country like New Zealand doesn't come close to Australia when it comes to the height of their highest roads.  In New Zealand, however, you have to take the weather into consideration.  What's the point in building a high road if you can't use it for most of the year due to snow, ice, and other adverse weather?  Really, there are so few roads in New Zealand and they twist themselves around and through the lowest passes possible through the mountains, taking many huge detours in the process.  Not so in Australia, where many roads go right up to the top of mountains, and because the weather there is a lot warmer for most of the year, and the weather conditions more stable, they can build them like this.

After Dead Horse Gap, it was a gentle downhill into Thredbo, a ski resort town in the Winter and a centre for hiking and mountain biking for the rest of the year.  It was a huge relief to get there.  One of my inspirations for cycle touring is a chap called Mark Beaumont, and I remember him talking once about the deepest, darkest places of endurance sport.  He really pushes the boundaries of endurance in what he does on a scale I can only dream of, but I can assure you that cycling up to Thredbo on a loaded bike will come close to breaking almost anyone and I started to know what he meant when describing this dark place of despair.  I was exhausted, truly exhausted.  There was almost nothing left in my legs, partly down to the day before also, and I wasn't sure how I was going to climb Mount Kosciuszko, the centre-piece of this particular trip.

The view of Thredbo from the chairlift.

To me, the suffering is partly why I enjoy cycle touring and similar activities in the past like marathon and ultra-marathon running.  You can certainly be much more leisurely cycle touring; choosing your route carefully and doing less mileage in a day and I have done this in New Zealand and will take more leisurely tours again in the future, but the challenge gives an extra sense of achievement and a connection to your wild surroundings.  Travelling under your own steam, you feel everything; the cold wind, the burning sun, the fatigue, the rain, the smells, the sounds, and the exhilaration of your surroundings.  What better way to travel?

I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to do for a place to stay the night, but my condition encouraged me to take a long-shot and see if there was space in the YHA hostel in Thredbo.  It was Good Friday, so I wasn't that hopeful of a bed, but luckily there was one dorm bed left.  This meant I could get a shower, have some good food and have a proper rest.  But first things first, I had a mountain to climb.

Throughout the trip I was blessed by fantastic weather, but on the first couple of days the highest peaks were still shrouded in cloud.  However, I was in luck again.  I arrived on a perfect sunny day, with the clearest views possible.  A week earlier there had been a huge storm in South-East Australia which had caused problems all over the Victoria and some parts of New South Wales and dropped some early snow on the mountains, some of which stayed on the highest peaks.

I had to take a chairlift to the beginning of the hike to the top of Kosciuszko.  Even after the lift, there was still about 13Km of hiking to be done.  Due to the perfect weather and the Easter holidays, there were more people around than I had expected, but it wasn't that busy.  Most people were taking the chair lift to the start of the downhill mountain bike tracks, which looked good fun.

At the top, with a little snow in early April in Australia!

At 2228 metres high, Mount Kosciuszko is a reasonable height and there is quite a fair sized mountain plateau around it.  Most of the peaks in Australia have been weathered and have rounded tops, so there are few, if any jagged peaks like I saw in New Zealand.

I was back down by 3pm, which meant that I could put my feet up for the rest of the day and let my legs recover a bit.  A warm hostel, a sofa, cups of tea and coffee, and a dorm bed feel like absolute luxury when you are tired.  I also knew that the next day wouldn't be easy either.  I'd have about 40 Km and then I was heading down the Barry Way for two days the last leg of my journey, for more climbing on unsealed roads through the Snowy river valley.

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