Nestled in the rugged south-eastern corner of New South Wales, the Snowy Mountains is Australia’s highest mountain range and home to mainland Australia’s highest peak: Mount Kosciuszko.
It’s 2,228 vertical metres from sea level to the Kosciuskzo summit, and roughly 220km by road from Australia’s east coast. In late October, three cyclists set out to tackle that journey over two days; to ride from sea to summit. Here’s how the trip unfolded.
Words by Wade Budden | Photos by Tim Bardsley-Smith | Video by Mal Bloedel
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Merimbula probably isn’t the first town that comes to mind when you think of starting points for a cycling adventure. But the New South Wales coastal town did provide us with beautiful beaches, stunning scenery and a tasty RSL chicken parma. Importantly, it also meant we started our ride from the sea.
We watched the sun rise over the beach as the locals began their Friday morning rituals — a quick surf for some, a more strenuous beach workout for others — before rolling out and heading south for a few kilometres to Pambula. From there we turned inland and made our way towards the hills.
At this point, just 4km in, we got our first taste of just how cold the ride was going to be. Long sections of road hadn’t yet been hit by warming sunlight and even with warmers on we were still freezing. We quickly decided to pull into a local coffee shop and grab a few warm snacks and coffees to chase away the cold.
With no specific route in mind to get from Merimbula to the alpine town of Jindabyne, our directions throughout the day would be decided on the fly. We were making it up as we went along.
Neither Chloe Leighton (née McConville) — a former Orica-AIS pro — nor Dave Fisher — a self-proclaimed pro — nor I had any idea we’d be riding uphill for almost all of the first 40km.
Flying in the night before it had been clear that Merimbula was flanked by rolling hills, but the reality of that didn’t set in until we were out on the road. We all came to the quick realisation that it was going to be a tough day on the bike with a total of 175km on the menu.
We opted for Mount Darragh Rd to take us inland and while it definitely wasn’t an easy ride, the road proved rewarding, with amazing climbs that snaked their way through the dense forest, opening into incredible views back down towards the ocean. That and the minimal traffic all made for perfect riding.
After finally reaching the top of Mount Darragh and the last of the coastal mountain range, we were eager to start making headway into the ride and to start covering some real ground. Descending the range provided us with this opportunity as we could finally get back up to a comfortable speed and punch out some kilometres.
As much as gravel riding wasn’t really part of the plan, we found ourselves having to take a slight off-road detour to link Mount Darragh Rd with the stunning Snowy River Way towards Jindabyne.
The dirt turned sandy in some stretches and was littered with potholes which slowed us down ever so slightly. But we were having so much fun on the dirt we didn’t even care. Gravel riding really brings a sense of adventure to road riding and reminds you just how good it is to ride bikes.
Cresting one particular climb provided our first glimpse of what we had been riding towards: the Snowy Mountains. Seeing this much earlier than we had expected really gave us some confidence we were on track. This was also the first time we realised that there was probably still a little more snow atop the mountains than we had expected.
Being just after midday we decided a quick lunch break was in order. Our mid-ride refuel came courtesy of a little takeaway shop where bacon and egg rolls headlined the menu. It wasn’t the most nutritious meal but at this point we were all craving something big and maybe just a little bit greasy …
One last navigational check confirmed we were on track to join the Snowy River Way, providing us with clear roads all the way through to Jindabyne. We had heard that this road was going to be memorable — long rolling climbs, great roads, and views to the horizon obscured only by the white of the snow-capped mountains ahead of us.
A defining feature of the Snowy River Way is a climb near Beloka locals call ‘The Wall’, and justifiably so. It’s 3km of solid climbing by anyone’s account, with an average gradient of 10% and sections of around 15-20%. It’s one of those climbs that sets the tone as soon as you begin. The road looks down on you from above as it kicks up steeply from the flat approach and turns sharply to the left after 100m or so.
From there you won’t find too many more sharp corners with the remainder being a long grind to the top. While we’d been able to hide the pain of the first 160-odd kilometres pretty well to that point, this climb brought it out of us all very fast.
Rolling into Jindabyne after roughly eight hours on the bike and a few packets of snakes was a dream. Seeing the lake, the mountains, and a community that thrives on adventure was just amazing. For a cyclist, I think the feeling you get when you arrive in a place like Jindabyne — or Bright for the Victorians — is much the same as a snow enthusiast gets on arriving on their first day in the hills.
As we rolled into Jindabyne and looked up towards Mount Kosciuszko, all we could think about what just how much snow was on the mountain, even though the official snow season was long over. What would it mean for the day ahead?
The first indication you are climbing in an alpine region here in Australia is the transition from white to yellow road markings. This small change gave us all the motivation we needed to get going on Saturday morning after a long day prior.
Excitement was in the air as we rolled out of Jindabyne and onto the Kosciuszko Road. We would follow this road until its very end, climbing our way past ski fields such as Perisher Valley and Charlotte Pass.
The weather was more or less perfect – sunny, clear skies and mild temperatures. The only hurdle we faced from mother nature was relentless and sometimes violent winds.
Partway up the mountain the roadside trees disappeared and we had clear vision of the entire valley. “Scenic” is an understatement. It’s incredible the way the road winds its way through the massive valleys, well over 1,000 metres above sea level.
It is distinctly different to riding the Victorian mountains like Falls Creek, Mount Buller and Mount Hotham. While those climbs are generally lined with alpine trees and dense forests, the NSW alpine region is more rugged, littered with huge rock formations, minimal foliage and plenty of small creeks and rivers.
It was around the Smiggin Holes area, just before Perisher Valley, that we started to see full mountainsides covered in what appeared to be deep snow. We knew that, just weeks prior to our trip, there had been some snowfall in the area but we didn’t realise just how much. A few locals in Jindabyne had told us the night before that the road from Perisher Valley to Charlotte Pass had only just been cleared of snow and reopened days before our visit.
We knew at that point that our chances of actually making it to the summit of Mount Kosciuszko were fading.
It was eerie riding past Perisher Valley and seeing the ski village all but dead, not a soul in sight. We did see a handful of locals ‘earning their turns’ nearby though, hiking to the top of ski runs to then carve their way down, the chairlifts closed for the season.
As we continued towards Charlotte Pass and the end of the road, the tarmac continued to kick upwards with little reprieve. The roads here were lined with thick snow, the edges perfectly cut in by the snowplough. It gave us a sense of what it must be like to ride in the European Alps after winter with walls of snow and ice lining the roads.
The further up the climb we got the more cars we saw parked on the edge of the road. This was not a good sign – more cars meant more people visiting the snow. In fact, the entire Charlotte Pass resort area was covered in snow, and so was our only chance at reaching the highest point in mainland Australia.
With the final 9km from Charlotte Pass to the summit being a fire trail unsuitable for road bikes, we had intended to hike our way to the top. But when we reached the start of the trail we quickly discovered it was completely snowed over.
We tried hiking through the snow for a hundred meters or so to see if we could just get around the corner a little further to at least catch a glimpse of Mount Kosciuszko. It was literally right there, the sun reflecting off its peak, covered in snow. Just beyond our reach.
While we didn’t make it to the very top we did feel like we had accomplished something pretty special. To have ridden from the coast all the way to the Snowy Mountains was incredibly satisfying. Very tough, but satisfying.
The ever-changing scenery and terrain alone were enough to make the trip one of the best any of us had ever done. We all agreed that a return visit was in order, perhaps a month or two later in the year to avoid the snow and to have a crack at getting all the way to the top.
Just to get that niggling feeling out of our heads that we didn’t quite make it the whole way ..
Bikes: Specialized S-Works Roubaix & S-Works Ruby
Helmets: Specialized Prevail II Black & Airnet White
Shoes: Specialized S-Works Sub 6
Kit: Specialized SL Pro short sleeve jersey and bib shorts
Sunglasses: Oakley Prizm
CyclingTips would like to thank Specialized, Holden and Oakley for their generous support in bringing Roadtripping The Snowy Mountains to life.
Music featured in the video above: “Ships” by James Kenyon.