The writer’s good friend Peter Cocker ready for a walk.
Text: Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Along with the wheel and combustion engine, the humble showshoe must rank as one of the most important forms of transport of all time. Comprising a tennis racquet-like wooden frame that distributes the weight of a person as they walk to prevent them sinking into snow, it was used for millennia by the nomadic peoples of North America, the Arctic Circle and Central Asia to get from A to B.
The snoeshow’s influence began to wane when it was superseded by a more efficient Norwegian invention called the ‘skio’, or stick of wood. But in the same way that skiing morphed from a form of transportation to a recreational sport, the snowshoe made a huge comeback in the early seventies. Credit is given to American mountaineers Gene and Bill Prater, who revolutionized snowshoe design by replacing wood with lightweight materials like aluminum and neoprene and adding teeth-like cleats to improve traction.
Unlike skiing and snowboarding, snowshoeing is relatively safe, inexpensive and easy to learn; it’s said if you can walk, you can snowshoe. Having never seen snow in my life, I decided to put the theory to test by signing up for a showshoe trip to Mount Kosciusko – Australia’s highest peak.
The day trip begins at the Kosciusko Express, the longest lift at Thredbo village, a ski resort 500km southwest of Sydney. My guide is Peter Cocker of K7 Adventures, an unstoppable 72-year-old who’s climbed some of the world’s highest mountains, lead dozens of high-altitude rescue missions and who was a friend of Tenzig Norgay, who, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, reached the summit of Mount Everest in 1953.
“What you see here is groomed snow – runs created by snow machines packed down by hundreds of skiers every day,” he says. “But behind the lifts, a place we call ‘back country’, that’s where things get really beautiful. There are snow gum forests that are just stunning, and of course the view from the top of Kosciusko is something else. On a clear day you can see all the way into Victoria. After that we reach Rams Head, where there are these giant rock formations 200-300 metres high that look like fortresses or ancient castles.”
Unlike skiing and snowboarding, snowshoeing is relatively safe, inexpensive and easy to learn
The ski lift shoots over Crackenback Valley, crossing the snow line and comes to a stop at Eagle’s Nest, at an altitude of 1,937 metres. It’s the last bastion of civilization before the blinding whiteness of the Kosciusko wilderness. “It’s very easy to get lost out here,” Peter explains. “You get these whiteouts where you can’t see your hands if you hold them right in front of your face. I’ve recorded winds up here up to 204 km/h. There are also a lot of river crossings and if you fall in there’s a good chance you’ll die from exposure. On top of that there are hidden cornices that’ll break if you walk on them and are extremely dangerous. A lot of people have lost their lives up here over the years.”
The trail begins along a windblown plateau pockmarked with boulders and frozen shrubs poking up through the snow. The cold wind bites at the exposed parts of my face, but it’s a small discomfort to bear for being in such a beautiful, desolate place. Using snowshoes, as they say, is as easy as walking only with a more exaggerated stride. The hinged bindings allow my heels to raise up with every step, reducing the calf strain associated with traditional flat-footed snowshoes. “The trick is to go slow and keep a steady pace,” says Peter. “Otherwise you build up a sweat and you get very cold when you come to a stop.”
We stop for a packed lunch at Rawson Pass, which, at 2,100 metres, is home to Australia’s highest toilet. It’s typically out of order, covered to head height in snow. From Rawson Pass it’s another mile to the summit, but the going is heavy and slow. The final ascent is deceivingly steep and I rely on my trekking poles to keep balanced. A blizzard kicks in, sleet fills the air and the temperature plummets. Peter and I take turns slipping on hard-packed snow and falling flat on our faces until, an hour or so later, we reach the very top of Australia, 2,228 metres above sea level.
The wind picks up I have to stand fast to stop myself from being blown over. The glorious view Peter spoke of is completely snowed under and, after snapping a quick pic, we retreat back to Eagles Nest. Rams Head will have to wait another day.
Who, What, Where.
K7 Adventures charge AU$250 for full-day snowshoe trips to Mount Kosciusko with a private guide, $175 per person for a group of two and $150 for three. Snowshoe hire is included but you need to bring your own waterproof clothing, goggles and gloves, sunscreen, chap stick, water and a packed lunch. Return tickets on the Kosciusko Express are $30 per person. Call +61 (0)402 298 821 or visit www.k7adventures.com.