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After trudging through another stand of snow gums there's finally a break from the seemingly never-ending staircase. Just ahead is a small platform perched on a rock, complete with an out-of-place picnic table. God knows how the table got here; perhaps it was helicoptered in?
Leaning up against the table (I dare not sit for fear of not being able to get back up!) and between sucking in some deep breaths, I slurp some water from my quickly diminishing supply, thankful that I didn't haul a picnic up here as well. Any more weight in my pack may well have broken me.
A couple of hours earlier, my trek up Thredbo's Merritts Nature Track started early morning along the much more gradual slope which skirts the resort's luge-style bobsled track. But then it got steeper, and steeper. And then as I entered the stringybark and alpine ash forest, the stairs started. Within minutes, easily achievable flights of a dozen or so quickly became gruelling flights of several hundred stairs, with inconsistent risers to boot. Heck, I doubt Neil Sedaka nor Led Zeppelin imagined their fabled stairways to heaven to be this long (or uneven).
Before I left Canberra for my solo mountain retreat to attempt to reverse my quickly thickening girth (blame too much festive cheer) Mrs Yowie didn't only dare me to hike to the very top of this track, but also insisted that I provide the exact number of formed stairs as proof of my accomplishment. The thought did cross my mind of googling the answer and then retreating to the Alpine Hotel's bar to watch the cricket. However, despite my best efforts, the internet search turned up blank. Maybe no one has actually counted them before?
One thing Google is very clear about is that although less than four kilometres long, the track gains almost 600 gut-busting metres in height, starting from the valley floor and finishing at the lofty heights of Thredbo Top Station, home of Australia's highest eatery, the Eagles Nest (1937 metres above sea level). You have to really want to walk this track, for the easiest (and most sane) way to get to the top is on the Kosciuszko Express chairlift which transports you direct to the Eagles Nest without raising your heartbeat one iota.
In fact, as I push myself away from the picnic table, just through the trees I catch a glimpse of a family gliding effortlessly on the chairlift towards the top. It looks like one of the teenage kids is pointing to me and laughing. And I don't blame him. Stripped down to just my singlet and shorts and greased-up in a heady mixture of SPF 30+ (very much needed at these altitudes) and hard-earned sweat, I resemble a half-cooked hot-dog freshly dipped in batter (and topped with an akubra, of course).
The final part of the ascent among boulders beneath the top station is thankfully the easiest, and several hours (no, I'm not planning on revealing my exact time) after setting off from the valley floor below, I triumphantly scramble up even one last flight of stairs to the Eagles Nest. Totally knackered, I fumble my hastily ordered ice chocolate all over my singlet, now seemingly inseparable from my skin. Well, at least it might freshen up my body odour for the unfortunate other cafe-goers.
Incredibly, by the time many of you are reading this article, dozens of crazy Canberrans and other mad (but fit) folk will be running, from the valley floor up to Eagles Nest as part of the Crackenback Challenge (on at 3pm, today Saturday, January 10). Yes, running; and they won't even be taking the same route I did –apparently the four kilometre track track isn't extreme enough for these fitness freaks. Instead, they'll be taking the most direct (and even steeper) two kilometre route — directly beneath the chairlift the whole way. The record is 17 minutes and 39 seconds set by Paul Clarke in 2001.
The Crackenback Challenge is the opening event of the annual Thredbo Fun & Fitness Week which was first held 35 years ago and peaked in the early 1990s with more than 400 athletes. Now fewer than half that number make the annual pilgrimage. "The lower numbers makes it more manageable," says Dave Robson who hasn't missed one single year of the running festival. "Some of the families having been coming every year and now their kids are bringing their kids and it's become a real tradition," he says.
Over the years the festival has morphed from a focus on elite distance running to fun activities for the whole family such as golf, canoe races, volleyball and an aquathon. "There's something for everyone now, even the runners' widows now get into mini relays frisbee and mixed tennis," Robson says. Heck, pieces of pizza are the prizes so it can't be too serious.
One regular participant, John Walton apparently turns up to all, yes, all these events in his speedos. "Rain, hail, shine or even snow Speedo Man, as he is affectionately known, competes in just his beloved 'budgie smugglers' and a pair of runners," chuckles organiser Phil Aungles, a veteran of about 30 of the annual weeks.
Surprisingly, Speedo Man isn't the most unusual competitor. "There is one guy who often gets dressed up as a woman for events when he reckons it increases his chances of getting a place," says Aungles who adds, "everyone knows who it is and we all have a good laugh."
The week-long festival is capped off with one of its most serious events, the Kosciuszko Classic. Just like the Crackenback Challenge, this five kilometre run along the old summit road to the mountain pass comes with a warning "event only suitable for healthy, experienced and well-prepared runners, definitely NOT for fun runners". However, nose-bleeding altitudes and slippery slopes aren't the only hazards for competitors. According to Aungles "they have to contend with everything the mountain dishes up, from bushfires to blizzards [if the weather is too extreme the event is cancelled], hidden wombats burrows, snakes and even wild brumbies."
Talking of nature, I don't recall encountering many animals or birds on my walk up Merritts Nature Track, but that's probably due to my Darth Vader-esque breathing which no doubt sent every critter within cooee scurrying for cover. Still in the Eagles Nest and guzzling my second iced chocolate (yes, thankfully most of it found my mouth this time), three very fit-looking and partly puffing young women order coffees. I overhear their chat with the waitress; they are training for a mountain climb in Nepal and "doing the Merritts Nature Track four times in quick succession as training". This is already their second "lap" of the day.
Content with my single solitary summit, after admiring the expansive view from my window seat towards Lake Jindabyne for one last time, I hobble across to the chairlift for my ride back down the mountain.
Mercifully, the chairlift attendant (embarrassingly. the same one who earlier saw me stumble up the stairs into Eagles Nest) double-checks that my safety bar is pulled down, for by the time, some 15 minutes later, that I reach the valley terminal, I'm half-asleep and slumped over it.
Unfortunately, I never did end up getting a final count on the number of stairs on the track. I guess Mrs Yowie will have to accept a rancid singlet and the tightening of a notch on my belt as proof.
The 35th Thredbo Fun & Fitness Week: Runs (literally) from today until January 17. Organised by the YMCA of Canberra Runners Club, this isn't just for Rob De Castella wannabes, but for anyone wanting to enjoy our spectacular snowy mountains in summer. More: canberra.ymca.org.au/runnersclub or firstname.lastname@example.org Can't make it this week? Plan ahead for next year's event, January 9-16.
Merritts Nature Trail: This four kilometre (one-way) walk is officially rated as "difficult" and is not recommended for small children (or overweight newspaper columnists). Depending on fitness levels (at least moderate required), allow 2-4 hours one-way (and carry lots of water) if walking from Thredbo Village up to Thredbo Top Station and two hours one-way if taking the easy option and walking in the reverse direction only (beware, it'll be tough on the knees). Unless you are attempting the return walk (allow 4-6 hours), be sure to time your walk to coincide with operating hours of the Kosciuszko Express chairlift (charges apply, thredbo.com.au ).
Capital stairs: Do you know the number of formedstairs on your favourite walk around Canberra? Mt Ainslie, Mt Tennent and Stockyard Spur from Corin Dam are three of the more popular tracks in the ACT, all with lots of stairs. Arguably, one of the most cursed-about stairs in Canberra are those leading from Kambah Pool back up the hill to the car park. Hardly a visit to the natural swimming hole goes by that I don't hear at least one person (usually the Esky or toddler carrier) blaspheming about needing another swim by the time they get back to their car.
Where on the South Coast?
Clue: South of Batemans Bay, but north or Narooma.
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Anna Pellew of Duffy who correctly identified last week's photo (inset) taken by Phill Sledge of Kaleen as hole No. 7 at the mini golf park on the Princess Highway at Batemans Bay. It was a well-deserved victory for my keen Kaleen correspondent who had submitted correct entries six times in the last 12 months only to have been just beaten to the prize on all occasions.
The photo was instantly recognisable for many readers with fanatical mini golfers in their families, including Judi Pearce of Melba who reports that her son Tom has played there so many times that he "should have shares in it!".
Extra special mention to young Ellen Johnson who according to her parents "camped out in front of the South Durras shop for half-an-hour waiting for them to open in order to get a copy of Panorama". Ellen who normally lives in Cook guessed correctly but unfortunately her entry came in well prior to the strict 10am cut-off. Although Ellen had a very good excuse (her parents were waiting to take her to the beach and understandably wanted to avoid the heat of the day), unfortunately rules are rules.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am January 10 with the correct answer wins a double pass to Dendy cinemas.