For some bizarre reason, one of my blog posts about kayak surfing has generated a series of comments about the extent of alpinism (aka mountaineering) in Australia. Now this is odd on two fronts, one, my blog has very few readers (Hi Mum) and two, the post in question is about sea kayaking, a sport that every Australian should participate in, but which is, in fact, not that popular. Readers, before you inundate me with comments about how your 98 year old Aunt Gladys goes kayaking every Wednesday, note that I am not talking about paddling a sea kayak on enclosed waters, I am talking about sea kayaking on the open ocean.
Launching into small surf on the south coast of NSW
But, I digress, as do the readers who argue about alpinism in Australia in posts about sea kayaking. So, back to alpinism in Australia. Reading over the comments left regarding alpinism in Australia, the arguments in favor are:
- There are "mountaineering schools" in Australia.
- Many states have mountain ranges.
- Skiing is challenging in Victoria.
- Tasmania has difficult ranges for skiing, ice climbing and hiking.
- The Australian Alpine Track is difficult to ski.
- Australia has produced many alpine skiers who participate in international competitions.
Ski touring in the Purcell Range, BC, Canada
Obviously, if one is going to argue about alpinism, one must first agree on a definition. I define alpinism in its classical sense that is climbing high and difficult mountains that are snow and ice covered most, if not all, of the year. Clearly, I could end this blog post right here as Australia simply does not have the geo-climatic conditions to meet this definition (excluding Australia's Antarctic regions). Even Tasmania, which is close to Antarctica has no permanent snow fields and only sporadic snow cover over the very highest (around 1600 metres) mountains.
Sir Sandford, Columbia Mountains, BC, Canada
However, I do dream one day of being paid by the word, so instead of ending this blog post right here, I'll take each argument in turn.
- There are mountaineering schools in Australia, and, apparently, they teach introductory mountaineering skills such as walking with crampons, use of an ice axe, etc. The Australian School of Mountaineering will even take you for a snowshoe walk to the top of Mount Kociousko. I'm sure it's all great fun and a good learning experience but the existence of courses teaching introductory mountaineering skills does not mean that Australia has any significant alpinism.
- There are mountain ranges all across Australia, from the arid rocky McDonnell Ranges of the Red Centre to the scorparia covered ranges of Tasmania. They are all beautiful and I have enjoyed hiking up mountains in all Australian states. But, for the most part, none of these ranges has significant alpine climbing, see my definition of alpinism.
Now, I can just hear readers beginning to sputter "but, but, but, what about Federation Peak in Tasmania?" Yep, Federation Peak is by Australian standards a big mountain with a long and tedious approach, and, if you waited for the worst day of winter and climbed Blade Ridge you would be a genuine bad-ass and you would experience alpine conditions, but doing so would be somewhat (a lot) contrived and not truly representative of alpinism.
- Apparently, Jake wants me to know that skiing is challenging in Victoria. I expect it is given that the average snowfall at Mount Hotham is under 2 metres in the entire season. This is about half what used to fall in my backyard in the interior of BC in winter, and a mere 1/7 of the 14 metres that my local ski hill gets every winter. This low snowpack undoubtedly makes for challenging skiing as obstacles are barely covered and approaches from the valley must be done by walking not skiing.
Now, as Jake rightly points out, I have not (yet) skied in the Victorian Alps, but, I have walked all over them, just as I have walked and skied over large tracts of mountainous terrain in Canada and the United States. Australian mountains have their own beauty, but, they are not the mountains of alpinist.
- Tasmania does indeed have difficult ranges for skiing, ice climbing and hiking, but, again, that does not make Tasmania an alpinists playground if you define alpinism as climbing high and difficult mountains that are snow and ice covered most of the year. Most notably, the reason Tasmania has difficult ranges for skiing is because there is insufficient snow cover for most of the winter to actually ski. A certain snow depth is required to cover obstacles and permit skiing.
- The Australian Alpine Track is difficult to ski. Given the elevation of the track for most of its length can this really be a surprise to anyone? One of my Australian friends "skied" the Alpine Track and reported that it was bloody hard, mostly because he had to carry his skis almost all the way. Difficult yes, alpinism, no.
- Finally, Australia has produced many fine downhill skiers who participate in international competitions. Honestly, I have no idea what this has to do with alpinism?
Humping big packs across the Badshot Range, BC, Canada
Now, on a general note, readers seem to take umbrage from my statement that ski mountaineering and alpine climbing are difficult to do in Australia. And, it is absolutely true that ski touring is possible, hiking, scrambling and rock climbing up mountains are also possible, but true ski mountaineering and alpinism - as they are classically defined - are just not a geo-climatic realities in Australia. This is not in any way a derogatory statement, merely a statement of fact. Australia has many beautiful wilderness areas and many special places. The geo-climatic conditions between Australia and Canada could not be more different, but the sense of adventure and exploration that is gained by venturing into wild places is strikingly similar.
Brinkley Bluff, West MacDonnells, NT, Australia
I have now spent roughly half my life in Canada and half in Australia. I love the mountains of Canada, the deep snows that bury the evergreen forests and the high mountain peaks. But, I also love the wild unceasing surge and suck of the Australian coast, the blue haze of eucalpyt oil in the summer sun over the Australian bush, the arid red rocky mountains of central Australia, the deep gorge country cut by rivers, and the sculpted beauty of sandstone cliffs. To truly thrive as humans we need wild places and we need adventure wherever those things are found.
Morning over the Southern Ocean, Victoria, Australia